The Best of 2016 From The Lifted Brow: Online


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

It’s been an absolutely massive year for us here at The Lifted Brow: we released our first book as publishers (which we swiftly reprinted), we said goodbye to two talented editors of our quarterly journal and said hello to two new and equally talented editors, we ran a massive experimental non-fiction prize (and seminars to go with it), we put on a lecture series, we announced new books, new projects, and new partnerships, we were shortlisted for two Stack awards, we welcomed just so many new staff, and we ran a special week of online content to celebrate the launch of our most recent, ‘Capital’-themed issue … amongst a bunch of other things, and all while delivering the same quarterly journal, digital editions, original online content, and events that you know and (hopefully) love. Phew.

With that in mind, we at the Brow—and this, its website—will be taking a short break over the Christmas period to recover from 2016 and plan even more great things for 2017.

To tide you over until we return on January 16th next year, here’s an unofficial list of eleven really rather excellent original pieces we published online this year (excluding archive pieces, print edition excerpts, and The Lifted Brow Review of Books reviews), in chronological order.

‘Disrupting Songlines: Some Thoughts About the Triple J Hottest 100’, by Hannah Donnelly

As a DJ, I know this experience intimately. Some people love the hype of having a Wiradjuri DJ playing Indigenous music – but when my set starts the audience doesn’t actually want to listen. People walk off the d floor when a song about forced closures by Gamilaraay MC Provocalz comes on. This track about murdered and missing Indigenous women from an Anishinaabe producer really clears the room. When old white people at charity gigs won’t hide their disdain and give me their best filthy Aborigine look. When someone requests “a local Melbourne artist” after I’ve just played Yung Warriors – who are from, you guessed it, Melbourne. Recently I lip-read a mesh-dressed hipster say sideways to her friend, “Like I get it, I know it’s trying to be political, but what is she actually trying to do?” Nothing, bitch, I’m just playing music. You’re the one who is confronted.

‘Courage, Also: Gold Class in Motion’, by Anwen Crawford

What Gold Class evoke is, as Evan puts it, “a gut feeling” of discomfort, and that feeling is self-implicating, too. It’s You dwells upon shame: “Bad from the neck down”. It’s a feeling I recognise, a skin-crawling sense of being wrong. It is perhaps why I trust Adam and Evan when they voice their support for feminist politics, though in general, men who call themselves feminist are guaranteed to provoke my suspicion. They are self-aware enough to realise the conundrum involved in being an all-male, pro-feminist rock band. As Evan notes, “the world has seen enough men with guitars.” Ain’t that the truth. Still, a male guitar band with an openly queer front person is more unusual than not, and the ties of solidarity between queer and feminist politics are substantial, if complicated.

‘Boiling the Pot’, by Ellena Savage

Carman’s essay stakes a claim on his independence—Carman will not pander to the soft egos of his enemies—and for that alone I think it needs to be taken earnestly. But the meanness of it (amusing to some and cutting to others) betrays an injury that draws a visible line around the assumption that this independence can be truly attained. We want to say what we want to say but feel we can’t, and this censure causes injury, then when we find a way to say what we wanted to say the substance is lost to the enormity of the injury – whatever it was we wanted to say is subsumed by the need to acknowledge this wound.

‘Tappahannock’, by Emily O’Grady

In New Orleans, Michael had pre-booked a haunted hotel in the French Quarter and after drinking sugary cocktails on Bourbon Street we went back to our room. As Lor sat on the end of her bed her nose started to bleed, thick and slow as lava. I had forgotten her phobia, and the sight of the spherical drop on her kneecap was alarming and made me laugh for the first time in days. But Lor locked herself in the bathroom for an hour and cried and cried. She told Michael and me that we weren’t nurturing people through the gap in the door.

‘Wisdom from a Life of Boxing and Other Violences, by George Hannibal Washington, Former Heavyweight Champion and Great Magician of Combat’ (parts one, two, and three), by Jack Vening

It’s where I got into the Bible, too, which my father said was too sexy to have in the house. But I didn’t just read the sexy bits about flaming swords and people kissing their sisters. I read about Jonah, who got swallowed by a whale and lived to talk about it. Probably the only time that’s happened; certainly the only time anyone’s ever gotten famous for it. What’s more, it was the best thing that could have happened to him, because it gave him time to think, got his life back on track, put him on the path that he was always meant to be on, spreading the word of the Lord in the desert and convincing donkeys to wear clothes. I realised that we all need to spend some time in the belly of the whale. For me, that was prison, except on Wednesdays we got to watch movies.

‘Bitter Fruit’, by Anonymous

It sucked because I had to learn the bitter truths that so many women are familiar with: once the person you looked up to makes a pass at you, every good thing they’ve ever said to you is reduced to nil. It doesn’t matter how much of his professional encouragement was genuine, and not just an extended exercise in grooming me for sex; the two are indistinguishable, so it all means nothing. Inside my house, after the incident in the car, I leant against the wall and felt a whiplash of retrospective razing: all of it, all the praise, the words in ears, the opportunities and friendly coffees and time, had been leading up to this premeditated pass. I felt bereft. I felt exhausted. I had loved writing, had loved and valued this man’s support; I knew immediately the vivid truth of the phrase “ashes in my mouth”. If I hadn’t already had some stuff published, and wasn’t naturally possessed of a monstrous creative ego, I might have decided to give up my writing career there and then.

‘Handle with Care: on White Australian Invisibility in Non-White Dialogues’, by Stephen Pham

Another parallel is implied, between the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in both adults and children as a result of White Australian colonialism and Western imperialism. Left untreated or otherwise misunderstood, this can result in intergenerational trauma and intensifying cycles of abuse that can manifest in “aggression, adolescent suicide, alcoholism and other substance misuse, sexual promiscuity, physical inactivity, smoking and obesity”, in addition to difficulty maintaining human relationships and susceptibility to lifestyle diseases that may shorten their lifespan. Asylum seekers and Aboriginal peoples both bear the psychological and human cost of settler-colonial Australia’s complicity in imperialist White supremacist capitalism; the Australian government’s refusal to hold itself accountable and commit to long-term strategies feeds into its overall mistreatment of mental illness to hinder these communities’ ability to heal. The weight of this cannot be stressed enough.

‘On Power, Sex, and Telling Our Own Messy Stories’, by Anonymous

Recently, as I felt my own ego returning to its former health, I found myself indulging the thought that maybe the whole situation had been about me after all – maybe he really had been ‘a combination of hurt and smitten’. My rage had dulled enough for me to feel curious, and I went back and re-read his last message.

To send it, he’d had to pull up my name in Messenger. It’s now been over a year since we met. We’ve had sex. He’d sat on my couch and told me at length about his marital problems. He’d said he was ‘smitten’. He’d said he was going to help me publish a book.

He still spelled my name wrong.

‘In Praise of Audiobooks’, by Ben Brooker

My childhood was full of stories I heard rather than read. There’s a photograph of me from not long before I started school, slumped on a beanbag, and wearing only a pair of green and white striped shorts. A chunky pair of headphones on my head lead to the home amplifier and cassette tape player. A picture book is open in my lap. I’m listening to an audio version of Willow (or is it The Dark Crystal? – it’s hard to tell) by the American company Buena Vista, one of many such adaptations in their series of “read-along book & tapes”. My expression is inscrutable, showing an awareness of the photographer’s presence but not whether I’m bothered by it. I don’t look ‘lost in the story’. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m more interested in the progress of Willow Ufgood’s quest to vanquish the evil queen Bavmorda (or Jen’s to restore the Dark Crystal with her magic shard) than in whoever is taking the picture—obviously a family member—but there is still a slight tension there, an in-betweenness: not removed from the world, yet not entirely part of it either.

‘Carbon Sucking Mushrooms Will Save Us but Whisky Will Kill Us Anyway’, by Nicole Walker

My dad, who continued to go out to dinner with me and my sisters, even if he stopped joining friends for dinner, ordered wine for lunch. Sometimes a Bloody Mary, too. At the Oyster Bar, my sisters and I would order another round of oysters as my dad ordered another round of drinks. For him. We didn’t drink yet. We ate the oysters. He drank the drinks. He slid sideways onto the black vinyl bench seat. We ate our oysters. He kept sliding.

“Eat a bite of your shrimp cocktail, Dad.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

And he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been. He sucked all the calories he needed from that glass of Chardonnay. He sat up to take another sip. Never leave anything behind. That would be wasteful. Unless you’re referring to the shrimp.

‘My Bad: How a Book and an Essay About Bad Writing Made Good on My Social Democratic Ideals’, by Sam Twyford-Moore

One reason given for the tendency for literature to be underfunded—something whispered or hinted at, but never stated outright—is that the literary culture tends to lean left of the left, and that those in power understand the dangers inherent in oppositional literatures. The truth is that the attack on the literary arts is ideological, and we need a strong collective of writers to counter it. When Senator George Brandis floated his brutal art sector reforms, he did so under the guise of promoting ‘Excellence’ – as in, his fund would be titled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). This seemed innocuous to the majority of the population, but ‘excellence’ in Brandis’s limited thinking is reserved for specific art forms (symphony orchestras, opera et al), accessed primarily through audiences with large amounts of capital (NPEA’s draft guidelines did not even mention literature). Indeed, many observed at the time that Brandis was making over arts funding in his own image – a great example of Randian rational egoism if ever there was one. But the NPEA was not a policy of deregulation, rather it was the very definition of interventionist. Financial deregulation, perhaps, requires cultural interventionism to truly wreak its havoc. Locally, the deregulation of property development in Sydney—which amounts to financial deregulation within the developer-friendly agenda of Mike Baird and the Liberal government—has been twinned with an over-regulation of culture largely via Baird’s ongoing lock-out laws. This has most visibly affected the music sector—whose profitable working hours are curbed—but rising rents and cost of living having a flow on effect for writers too. Crippling economic policy for an already financial downtrodden breed of artist is a sustained, strategic act of silencing.

If all this doesn’t sate your thirst for original and delicious Brow online writing, please check out our archive for even more good stuff.

Finally, if you’d like to write for the Lifted Brow: Online in 2017, we’d love to hear from you – we’ll still be accepting pitches for Commentary pieces and The Lifted Brow Review of Books pieces over the break.

See you all next year!

An Approximately Accurate Gender Breakdown of TLB Contributors in 2016


A few years ago, we started recording the breakdown of our contributors’ genders for each thing we published. We’re interested in this, so we keep an eye on it. People are interested in this, so now we share an updated version, accurate up to December 2016, which reflects on TLB print and web contributors.

(Note: we’ve never directly asked contributors to identify their gender, nor do we believe that gender is always simply categorised. The below gender breakdown activity, largely achieved by getting to know our contributors as best we can and then dividing them into ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘non-binary’, just gives us a general snapshot of the genders of our contributors, and ensures we are never forgetting to think about gender—and of course other demographic considerations—when commissioning and selecting work for publication.)

Here are the figures, presented in no particular order except rigidly reverse-chronological:


  • TLB32: 17 women, 16 men, 2 non-binary
  • TLB31: 14 women, 27 men, 2 non-binary
  • TLB30: 30 women, 17 men, 3 non-binary
  • TLB29: 23 women, 16 men, 1 non-binary


  • Dec 2016: 9 women, 4 men, 1 non-binary
  • Nov 2016: 10 women, 6 men
  • Oct 2016: 9 women, 4 men
  • Sep 2016: 9 women, 3 men
  • Aug 2016: 9 women, 4 men
  • Jul 2016: 9 women, 5 men
  • Jun 2016: 12 women, 5 men
  • May 2016: 6 women, 10 men
  • Apr 2016: 8 women, 4 men, 1 non-binary
  • Mar 2016: 8 women, 4 men
  • Feb 2016: 7 women, 7 men
  • Jan 2016: 3 women, 2 men

In 2016, we published a total of 183 contributions by female writers, artists and musicians, 134 contributions by male contributors, and 10 works by contributors who identify as non-binary. In percentage terms, that’s 56% women, 41% men, and 3% non-binary.

In the greater scheme of the Brow, we’ve published approximately 1930 contributions since 2007. That’s 930 contributions by female artists, 985 contributions by male artists, and 15 contributions by non-binary artists. In percentage terms, that’s an overall ratio of 48.2% women, 51% men, and 0.8% non-binary.

As a reminder, this time last year our tally sat at 748 contributions by female writers, artists and musicians, 852 contributions by male contributors, and 5 contributions by non-binary artists. In percentage terms, that was an overall ratio of 46.67% women, 53.2% men and 0.03% non-binary.

As always, if you have anything to ask or say, please get in touch.

Announcing New Books from The Lifted Brow in 2017


After the success of our first foray into book publishing this year, with Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink having been reviewed ridiculously favourably by everyone and ultimately selling so well that we were required to order a third printing, we’re thrilled to announce that it wasn’t a one-off. Next year we’ll be publishing more books!

TLB is excited to announce that we have signed the debut fiction books from two exceptional writers, Shaun Prescott and Jamie Marina Lau. We can’t wait to bring them to you.

Community radio host Ciara receives dozens of unmarked cassette recordings every week and broadcasts them to a listenership of none. Ex-musician Tom drives an impractical bus that no one ever boards. Publican Jenny runs a hotel that no one ever visits. Rick wanders the aisles of the Woolworths every day in an attempt to blunt the disappointment of adulthood.

In a town of innumerable petrol stations, labyrinthine cul-de-sac streets, two competing shopping plazas, and ubiquitous drive-thru franchises, where are the townsfolk likely to find the truth about their collective past – and can they do so before the town disappears?

Shaun Prescott’s novel The Town follows an unnamed narrator’s efforts to complete a book about disappeared towns in the Central West of New South Wales. Set in a yet-to-disappear town in the region—a town believed by its inhabitants to have no history at all—the novel traces its characters’ attempts to carve their own identities in a place that is both unyielding and teetering on the edge of oblivion.

For admirers of Gerald Murnane, Wayne Macauley, and Thomas Bernhard, this novel speaks to who we are as people, and as a country, whether we like what it says or not.




Shaun Prescott is a writer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. He has self-released several small books of fiction, including ‘Erica From Sales’ and ‘The End of Trolleys’, and was editor of Crawlspace Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Guardian, Meanjin and more.



In the thronged island of a Chinatown, fourteen-year-old Monk Lang lives with her deadbeat father, peers in on cowboy anime from outside her neighbour’s apartment, goes to internet cafes to score free laptops, watches how-to-bake videos with her unhappily married sister, and eventually meets the Basquiat-themed artist, Santa Coy.

After Monk introduces Santa Coy to her washed-up father, Monk’s life turns into a series of homemade exhibitions, offbeat art installations, dealings in Wu-Tang throbbing warehouses, and road trips between empty dunes and casino resorts with vacant swimming pools.

Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island (working title) is:

a) a subterranean noir of the most electric generation – the pink white bursts of a fourteen-year-old nomad;

b) a fizzing of the New Wave underground art province, with its melting pot of noise bands and Phife, amnesiac and digitalised bossa novas, and art installations about art installations;

c) a 24-hour Westernised yank between pulverised English, elastic Cantonese and the newest, digitalised dialect of transcultural landscapes;

d) a short novel narrated via the lumps of Monk’s daydreams, her violent, claustrophobic encounters, and her staccato movements through a hyperreal pop culture world that could only belong to our 21st century;

e) all of the above.




Jamie Marina Lau (劉劍冰) is a 19-year-old writer and musician from Melbourne. Her work can be found in Cordite, ROOKIE magazine, Voiceworks, The Art Hoe Collective, and in Monash University’s 2016 anthology Futures. She is currently studying film and literature, making Garageband songs, and working on even more fiction.



In addition to the two books announced above, we also have a couple of other book projects slated for 2017. We can’t reveal all right now, but you can expect some excellent things, including maybe possibly perhaps a second volume of The Best of The Lifted Brow series.

And in even better news, TLB will also be working with both Shaun Prescott and Jamie Lau on follow-up books of fiction, which we hope to publish in 2018.


The Lifted Brow Review of Books – All the Books We Reviewed in 2016


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

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles (Harper Collins), reviewed by Emma Marie Jones

Like okay, imagine reality’s a piece of paper folded in half and the gaze pierces it right through the middle then you open it and there are two holes—which hole’s the truth? Writing’s an act of witnessing that folds the piece of paper back in half again. The truth and fiction are two different holes but when you line them up and look through both at once you see exactly the same thing. Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls, I think, is kind of like that.


Quicksand by Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton), reviewed by Sofia Softky

Each character in Quicksand, even minor ones, face uniquely traumatic circumstances, from miscarriage to debt, which only alienate them from each other rather than serving as bonds of commiseration. Everybody suffers, but we all suffer alone.


Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (Text Publishing), reviewed by Madeleine Watts

Dodge Rose doesn’t read like it was written for anybody. This is not to say that books should pander to readers, but at some point in the publishing process the reader needs to enter into the equation. The reader, here, has not been much considered, and so at times I found myself wondering why exactly I was reading what I was reading.


When the Sick Rule the World by Dodie Bellamy (MIT Press), reviewed by Fiona Wright

Dodie Bellamy says the sick are sympathetic, and she names them, Sick Bonnie, Sick Catherine, Sick Rhonda, Sick Nina, Sick Tom. The sick live in vans and trailers and tents and move around the country, trying to avoid pesticides and electromagnetic fields, exhaust fumes and burning wood.


A Murder Without Motive by Martin McKenzie-Murray (Scribe), reviewed by Zoë Barron

Even though the author is predictable in his sympathies and self-professed subjectivities, we’re given more than a murder trial and the grisly description of the night in question. The book gives us access to the otherwise inaccessible culture from which such a crime could spring.


Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down (Text Publishing), reviewed by Dominic Amerena

Formally, Our Magic Hour is not what we might call an ‘ambitious’ book. It’s not tricky or meta or avant. It doesn’t ask ‘big questions’ about what a novel can do. But in the age of autofiction, where novels reads like essays or tell-all memoirs, where the self is the only acceptable subject, Down’s supple social realism has a vitality and energy to it.


Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner (Text Publishing), reviewed by Jennifer Down

Plenty of us are fascinated by human ugliness. It is Garner’s ability to frame it so shrewdly, but without appearing voyeuristic or moralising, that sets her apart.


How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball (Text Publishing), reviewed by Chris Somerville

Much of the pleasure of reading How to Set a Fire and Why is in trying to work out what’s going on. Lucia spends a lot of the book telling us things while also telling us nothing. It’s a trick, but a very good trick.


A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe (University of Queensland Press), reviewed by Chloë Reeson

In A Loving, Faithful Animal avoiding talking about the real issue becomes its own language. Rowe’s book moves with the determined pace and slowing inertia of a pushbike reaching the crest of a hill.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Text Publishing), reviewed by Lou Spence

Nelson writes the body into the text at every turn … Nelson places these experiences next to each other in juxtapositions that would seem obvious if she weren’t so good at extracting nuance every time.


She Woke and Rose by Autumn Royal (Cordite Press), reviewed by a.j. carruthers

ARoyal’s lyrical emoting and sentiment feels contemporary in its ambience and texture. The texture also of a certain kind of grape; the skin of the Autumn Royal.


Fireflies Issue #3 edited by Annabel Brady-Brown and Giovanni Marchini Camia, reviewed by Tara Judah

Though it offers itself up as an object of beauty that one could dip in and out of like a bag of corn chips, its mashable joys can only really be experienced if consumed in one go.


Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks (University of Queensland Press), reviewed by Scott Esposito

If we could pick just one thread to link these remarkably diverse stories penned over a decade and assembled here, Brooks’s fourth story collection, it would be this: the frequent invocation of maps as a metaphor for the writerly and readerly task, fiction as cartography for the reader to explore.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Portobello Books), reviewed by James Butler

Kang’s novel is told in three parts, each tracing the violations done to Yeong-hye’s body by herself and others. Her vegetarianism disgraces her husband and family and her behaviour becomes so erratic that she is institutionalised.


Zero K by Don DeLillo (Pan Macmillan), reviewed by Justin Wolfers

The world is collapsing, monks burning themselves, ravaged cities, guerrilla war, but this Mecca reduces the outside world to a concept: something to be screened, pondered, pitied in a distant way, but not directly experienced – there aren’t even seasons here, or a notable difference between day and night.


Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (Text Publishing), reviewed by Jenny Valentish

In her research-memoir hybrid, Wasted: a Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane, Elspeth Muir sifts through her own tattered consciousness, hunting for what has been lost. Her younger brother Alexander may well have been in a blackout himself when he left his clothes in a pile on Brisbane’s Story Bridge and either jumped or fell.


The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury Circus), reviewed by Carody Culver

Tempest’s plot is skeleton-fragile, and in a way, this doesn’t matter as much as it should – her words are so compelling, so able to conjure imagery that’s both apt and surprising, that you can forgive the narrative walking with a limp.


The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon (Allen and Unwin), reviewed by Khalid Warsame

The realism here isn’t Russian, after all, it’s Australian: the scenes are slow, intimate, and the imperiousness of the Russian landscape is given a slightly alien undertone in Brabon’s rendering that seems more of-the-colony than of-the-steppe.


Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (Text Publishing), reviewed by Katherine Brabon

In many ways Alexievich has enabled generations to see a vanished life and a troubled present.


Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka (Graywolf Press), reviewed by Madelaine Lucas

These are stories that dwell in liminal space and unfold in places of in-between: off-season beach houses, soup kitchens, deserted towns, and borrowed rooms. Places nobody would call home.


Comfort Food by Ellen Van Neerven (University of Queensland Press), reviewed by Omar Sakr

These lines play on a duality of time, so the collection becomes not just a record of the loss that has already occurred but of loss yet to come. We can’t afford to lose the present or the past, the living or the dead, and that means sharing our stories, our food, our love and tradition – or at least that which hasn’t already been swept away.


If We All Spat At Once They’d Drown: Drawings About Class edited by Sam Wallman, reviewed by Jessica Ison

This collection makes sure that it is available to workers, and not in that horrible, patronising way that middle-class people love to do. That whole slow voice, dumbing down thing they do. It is accessible because it is real. And it has to be. Because the working class can sniff out bullshit quicker than anyone.


So Sad Today by Melissa Broder (Scribe), reviewed by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The titles of the essays are complete stories in themselves: ‘One Text Is Too Many and a Thousand Are Never Enough’; ‘The Terror in My Heart Says Hi’; ‘Keep Your Friends Close but Your Anxiety Closer.’ Counting her neuroses like stars, Broder deftly captures the zeitgeist of disaffected bourgeois femininity in the digital age. It’s frequently self-indulgent, but that’s the point: if the personal is political, if anger can be used as a weapon, why can’t sadness be a weapon, too—a middle finger to the idea that women showing emotion makes them weak?


The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett (Scribe), reviewed by Veronica Sullivan

The inherent solipsism of romantic relationships is magnified by the skewed morals of Woollett’s characters (and often, implicitly, their mental illnesses). The narrators’ obsessions with how the men make them feel often eclipses the magnitude and significance of their crimes.


Rebellious Daughters edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Koffman (Simon and Schuster), reviewed by Angela Serrano

Many of the pieces here felt like responses to a thesis statement for a university essay, attempts to demonstrate rebellious daughterhoods rather than enquiring into what is so interesting about female sexual rebelliousness in particular, and why or whether Sex The Parents Don’t Approve Of is the best or only way to become an independent Australian woman.


Grant and I by Robert Forster (Penguin), reviewed by David Nichols

Forster is rightly proud of The Go-Betweens’ legacy, not least because it is the consequence of his and McLennan’s single-minded purposefulness. As artists, they sought to describe their emotional environments honestly. With minor missteps that only highlight their dedication they followed a course which was more meaningful than a mere career, or a means to an end.


The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Text Publishing), reviewed by Ella Cattach

The Lesser Bohemians lays open the logic of two subjectivities, joining together their material in very different ways – though here they are not strangers destined to cross paths, but strange lovers who hurtle towards devastating transparency before each other.


Surveys by Natasha Stagg (MIT Press), reviewed by Emma Marie Jones

Stagg theorises that in the age of social media, nobody can be interested in the internet for the internet’s sake. Interest in the internet can only be self-interest, even subconsciously … Colleen’s like, “Even in a moment of distilled pleasure … I thought about how I could distill it further, with a photo or a text, and felt guilty for that.”


After the Carnage by Tara June Winch (University of Queensland Press), reviewed by Jennifer Down

These stories seem to finish on an inhale. When Winch pauses at the moment of clarity, or doom, or hesitation, her characters are suspended there. It is like a sharp suck of breath. The collection opens with ‘Wager’, and this cracking sentence: “By morning someone would die, but at that moment I couldn’t have known.”


The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette), reviewed by Stephen Pham

The Hate Race stresses the urgency of recognition, validation, and vocalisation when it comes to the ephemeral shadows cast by whiteness and racism. Clarke’s vision of blacknesses existing in Australia is neither defined by hierarchy nor of competing authenticities, but of unconditional solidarity and rapport.


Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford (Allen and Unwin), reviewed by Sonia Nair

Even when Ford isn’t speaking from a personal place, she is resoundingly effective … Ford impels us to re-examine each and every facet of our lives, where we’re more likely than not to find a trace of the ingrained patriarchal attitudes that continue to subjugate women.


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Penguin), reviewed by Madeleine Laing

The heat of Hot Milk’s setting first appears stifling and oppressive – the characters are right next to the cool of the ocean but it is full of monsters. However, through unapologetic melodrama, heavy symbolism, and delightful unsubtlety, this heat becomes cleansing, the sweat releasing the character’s desire, opening the mind through the body.


The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City by Laura Tillman (Scribner), reviewed by Erin Stewart

We bear witness to the foulest murders and don’t want to see the criminal in ourselves … It’s easier to live with ourselves if we conclude that we have nothing to do with atrocity. The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts dwells in this uncomfortable space; of trying to understand an appalling crime.


Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin), reviewed by Alice Robinson

The mood of the novel is exactly like a lengthening autumn afternoon, low lit, darkening, veined with nostalgia, painful in its heartrending beauty. Reading the novel is like looking back at family photographs of times no one fully appreciated when they were unfolding.


The Promise of Things by Ruth Quibell (Melbourne University Publishing), reviewed by Alex Gerrans

It’s not Quibell’s aim to end, or lessen, our acquisition of things. She’s exploring our relationship to material goods, beyond vague hand-wringing or quick-fix solutions. She wants us to think harder about them, and to value things that can’t be replicated … You extrapolate her ideas and apply them to your own stuff, and this is where the work that goes with reading The Promise of Things occurs.


Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante (Text Publishing), reviewed by Ellena Savage

While she has a priestess-like connection to the other side of reason, Ferrante does not write from a prenatal morass. To the contrary, she is ferociously meticulous, exacting, and direct … a volume like Frantumaglia insists that there is much, much more to books than their flesh and blood.


Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Liveright Publishing), reviewed by Andrew Harper

Jerusalem is many things: a supernatural sit-com, a magic realist narrative, a shaggy dog story, and something that might be a religious text if found it in jar halfway up a cliff in four hundred years.


Iraq +100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion edited by Hassan Blasim (CommaPress), reviewed by Evan Fleischer

A collection of science fiction imagining a gasp of fresh air in the form of an Iraq one hundred years into the future is potential light flooding into our vision after history bursts through its escape hatch.


I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman (Text Publishing), reviewed by Shu-Ling Chua

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This asks readers to consider whether multiple ‘truths’ can co-exist, not just as differences of opinion between family members, but within individuals.

‘Honey I’m Home to Make America Great Again!’, by Stephanie Van Schilt


“Nostalgia is to memory as kitsch is to art.”

— Charles Maier

“Wish we could turn back time to the good ol’ days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.”

— twenty one pilots

“President Donald Trump knows how
To make America great…”

— USA Freedom Kids

I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake when Netflix’s revival sitcom Fuller House was released. Ever the bleak soothsayer, Atwood’s thirteen-year-old novel takes place in a bio-engineered post-apocalyptic future, an imagined land not too far from our own time. Protagonist Snowman narrates the story, detailing how he became the sole human survivor in a wasteland littered with the remnants of civilisation. Through a series of flashbacks Snowman catches the reader up to speed, recounting a time when he was known as Jimmy, conducting life in a neoliberal nightmare born of extreme corporate privatisation, technological exploitation and blatant class division. The arts are maligned; scientists are the ruling class, living in compounds of various luxury while everyday schmucks are kept in the Pleeblands ghetto.

“Students of song and dance continued to sing and dance, though the energy had gone out of these activities,” Atwood writes. “And though various older forms had dragged on—the TV sitcom, the rock video—their audience was ancient and their appeal mostly nostalgic.”

If comedy is tragedy plus time, does that mean tragedy is the comedy throwback? With the rise of the renewable franchise—an age of cheap pre-packaged content in the form of the revival TV series—somebody better cue the canned laughter.

Within its very narrative construct—status quo, conflict, resolution, rinse and repeat, week after week—repetition is the mainstay of the sitcom. Returning to the same setting at the start of every episode—be it a café, study room table or family home—is as comforting and familiar as the old couch in your living room. In his detailed study Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes, Saul Austerlitz notes how sitcoms were never meant to be studied or, beyond network-dictated syndication, rewatched. Obviously, in the age of DVD box sets, streaming services and torrents, technology has changed all of that. So here we are, frequently revisiting our old favourite shows in the same way we used to visit old friends IRL.

Just last month, New York Magazine ran a cover story questioning whether Friends (1994–2004) is still “the Most Popular Show on TV?” In an article laced with his own nostalgic longing for the show, writer Adam Sternbergh explains how old fans are coming back to Central Perk while new fans, like Paulina McGowan, who was born the year Friends debuted, watch it for its depiction of glory days passed: “It would be awesome to be alive back then, when everything didn’t seem so intense. It just seemed really fun.” However, for some Friends fans—and, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, this pertains to Gilmore Girls as well—the fact that, as Sternbergh states, Friends mined a “very different geist, in a very different Zeit,” the political implications of rewatching an old favourite is fraught with complications. Only last year, Margaret Lyons responded to a question from such a Friends fan concerned with its homophobic and fatphobic storylines. Writing for Vulture, the magazine’s entertainment news vertical, Lyons admits to loving the show but hating its queer, gender and body politics. Friends “reflected the mainstream values of its time—values that have changed, thanks to the hard work of many people.”

So why are reunion shows so popular? Recycling isn’t new to television; like film, music, literature and theatre, from Greek myths to Marvel comics (or Greek Myths in Marvel Comics), rehashing existing stories is a standard artistic trope. But why do we rewatch these sitcoms for comfort when their shortcomings make us so uncomfortable? Are viewers so scared by increased social awareness, progress and cultural diversity that, as John Doyle argued for The Globe and Mail, they’re clinging to Friends for its obvious celebration of middle-class white privilege? The current spike in revival shows like Fuller House and The X-Files and Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks (to name but a few) would indicate, troublingly, yes.

Following on from its origins as a medical condition defined by Johannes Hofer in the seventeenth century as physical homesickness, scholar Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia is “an incurable modern condition … a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” In The Future of Nostalgia, Boym notes that while the beginning of the twentieth century was buoyed by utopian optimism, it ended bogged down with nostalgia, which only directs utopian ideas sideways because while we move forward we can only ever look back, we can’t ever return to the past. She posits a dual prong to her theory of nostalgia: there’s restorative nostalgia that, stressing the nostos, is an attempt to reconstruct what is lost, and reflective nostalgia that “thrives in the algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming – wistfully, ironically, desperately.” Our fascination with television reboots is a disconcerting combination of both: a collective defence mechanism toward the current climate as much as an attempt to secure our idealized private mythology.

The central premise of Netflix revival series Fuller House is the gender inversion of the original. Academics have championed the original Full House, that ran from 1987 to 1994, for paving the way for queer sitcom families by having three father figures—Danny (Bob Saget), Jesse (John Stamos) and Joey (Dave Coulier)—raising three daughters—D.J. (Candace Cameron Bure), Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and Michelle (Mary-Kate and/or Ashley Olsen)—after the death of their mother. According to Bridget Kies from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, this alternative family unit was supported by other sitcoms of its era, like Who’s the Boss or My Two Dads, so by repackaging the family with three mothers—bringing back D.J., Stephanie and D.J.’s best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber)—to raise three boys (and Kimmy’s daughter), Fuller House is essentially regressive. This is particularly pertinent given both the original series and its follow up are set in San Francisco—the iconography of the city being ingrained in the very essence of the show—while overlooking the Bay Area’s longstanding affiliations with progressive human rights.

A commenter on Kies’s short piece ‘My Two (and Three) Dads: Full House, Fuller House, and the 1980s Sitcom Families’ published on In Media Res, noted that during the late-night TV promotional rounds, the cast of Fuller House performed a sketch where the character of Michelle is replaced by a caricature of Donald Trump (played by Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon). Each of the actors, in character, take turns to soothe sooky Fallon-Trump’s fears about losing the upcoming presidential race while tucking him into Michelle’s iconic pencil-frame bed. This could be taken as disapproval of the Republican front-runner—also evoked in the pilot episode of Fuller House itself with two strangely incongruous (perhaps overdubbed?) jokes about Trump being a “bad word”—but the promotional association with politics is as stunted as the show’s aesthetic and narrative construct.

As Brendan Gallagher noted for VH1 in a subtly titled review ‘Fuller House Nostalgia is Terrible’, “the oddest moments of Fuller House come when the show attempts to approach current events through a nostalgic lens … It seems that the writers believe that the mere mention of current pop culture phenomena by these throwback characters will bring laughs.” Gallagher is right: there’s no actual commentary here. The explicit relationship between current politics and Fuller House is no more than a gimmick than the show itself. Merely signing up to the streaming behemoth to test the waters of Fuller House will bring them coin – it’s not about bums on seats or Nielsen boxes on sets anymore. It’s well publicised that Netflix doesn’t release individual program ratings, only subscriber numbers – in the first quarter of 2016 they had upwards of 81.5 million. Fuller House has already been renewed for a second season, so in the future we’ll continue to look back – even though, resoundingly negative critical coverage aside, we don’t know how many people actually watched it.

I did.

The first ten minutes of Fuller House’s pilot drove home the fact I was watching this for business, not pleasure. Let me make it clear: I love sitcoms. I am not preaching a ‘comedy sucks drama rules’ agenda here, or some kind of ‘quality TV versus the sitcom’ false binary. I’m a literal tote-carrying Community fangirl. I still go back to the timeless older seasons of The Simpsons and enjoy rewatching How I Met Your Mother, laugh track and all (not that the politics of that show are flawless, but the multiple season in-jokes are priceless). As Austerlitz argued, the reason sitcoms are a staple is in their contradictory reliance on traditional set-ups kept fresh; the joy of watching new sitcoms is how they revel in their ‘newness’, be it in narrative or formal construction (HIMYM, The Office), character representation (Blackish, Modern Family) or self-awareness (30 Rock, Community).

The iconic Full House theme song asks “Whatever happened to predictability? The milkman, the paperboy, evening TV?” Well, with Fuller House we got it all back: the theme song rejigged by Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen (love you CRJ) and catch-phrases from Steph and Kimmy, Elvis-obsessed Uncle Jesse, saccharine-supportive dad Danny, and Bugs Bunny pyjama–clad Uncle Joey. Everyone has aged (except the ever-perfect John Stamos), but no one’s moved on. At the end of the episode Danny even lets D.J., Stephanie and Kimmy live in the familiar family home. Everybody hugs. (Notably, the Olsen twins didn’t return to the series reboot.)

Much was made about this in the first episode—a four-beat too-long breaking of the fourth wall stating Michelle couldn’t join the fun because she was too busy in New York with her fashion empire, in yet another demonstrable dismissal of progress from Fuller House. While all the other Tanners are ‘good sports’, taking time out of their lives to return to the Fuller House universe, Mary-Kate and Ashley—arguably the most successful members of the cast—have moved on. How dare they. Such self-awareness is played for said predictability, cued with canned laughter, not for any kind of advancement in the form. This is a celebration of what is old, not a risk on anything new. We have the home we were longing to return to – a pristine time capsule cracked open, plots and jokes left untouched.

The personal levels of comfort instilled by coming back to our TV favourites’ lives is indicative of the very definition of contemporary nostalgia. Cari Romm discusses this very condition in relation to the soon-to-be-released Gilmore Girls renewal. In her piece for Science of Us (another vertical of NY Mag), Romm notes how that show is something she shares with her mother and how they’re both madly anticipating its return. “That’s the striking thing,” Romm writes. “It feels personal, even though it’s the least personal thing in the world.” The intimate sense of ownership with characters from television is deemed a ‘parasocial relationship’ in the world of psychology. Meanwhile theorist Boym contends a parallel thread in our nostalgic inclinations: “nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory.”

All I wanted growing up was a red landline phone just like D.J. had in Full House. In predictable fashion, over split screens that place the original credit sequence next to the current-day actors mirroring their exact mannerisms with all the warmth of being interrupted from a deep cryogenic slumber, the coveted red phone appears before my eyes. I remember the feeling, but I don’t have the same compulsion to run out and get my own telecommunications device that I longed for all those years ago. That moment has passed: a landline phone is now the bastion of workplaces, call centres and grandparents. Watching Fuller House’s opening credits triggered another memory, a Freudian mondegreen I’ve trotted out for years on end: the lyrics aren’t “Daddy’s waiting to carry you home,” like I originally thought – it’s “a light is waiting,” which makes very little sense. This sentimental attachment to Full House demonstrates my personal longing for a less absent father presented in wish-fulfilment fiction three times over in the form of Danny, Jesse and Joey. To paraphrase Community’s Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), for me TV was the best dad and it gave me a lot to aspire to (see: Press Gang), but now I understand that, like parents, like false memories, like me and you, television isn’t infallible – inasmuch as Fuller House, with its idealistic, assuaging, nostalgic family values, attempts to argue otherwise. Part of the appeal of nostalgia is to delay our acceptance of our reality. Our mortal reality is, like our unreliable memories, fundamentally flawed and fatalistic.

Nostalgia is insidious. It’s everywhere you look, from BuzzFeed lists to themed parties. We can’t get enough of rehashing our not-so-distant youth. The rhetoric around nostalgic pop culture trends, particularly revisionist TV, is jarring, particularly in relation to Fuller House. Writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson argues it was “our own noxious nostalgia that dragged the ABC family sitcom out of its grave, where it had been resting somewhat peacefully for 20 years.” Hank Stuever ups the snark for The Washington Post: “There’s a point where nostalgia becomes more like necrophilia.” Hyperbolic, yes, but these comments have a point: the appeal of Fuller House is the pinnacle of audience arrested development (and the antithesis of show Arrested Development, a sitcom that pushed the boundaries of self-reflexivity in its original and fan-petitioned comeback incarnation—a very different kind of Netflix reboot, it must be said).

Fuller House doesn’t aim to be a work of art. It is very much a kitsch production: sheer sentimentalism packaged as entertainment. Is it meant to be ironic? To quote The Simpsons, I don’t even know anymore.

The original Full House was built on a solid serving of treacle and cheese, the family values and morals that sitcoms were forever made of until the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H saw a turn toward more enlightened storylines that questioned gender politics and the morality of war. While some academics have praised Full House for offering an alternative family unit, it was still of its time. As Austerlitz writes,

After a lengthy detour away from family life, toward workplaces passels of friends, and childless couples, the sitcom returned home, aping the format and reassuring feel of the classic 1950s series while updating their content for the go-go 1980s … products, in one fashion or another, of Ronald Reagan’s conservative resurgence.

Fans of Fuller House, like Emily Zauzmer of the Harvard Political Review, celebrate Netflix’s reboot for its return to these anachronistic ideals in contrast to the present moment. “In the midst of so much strife, we could all use a reminder of the values that Full House strove to teach us decades ago,” Zauzmer writes. “Full House stood for family … Full House stood for morality. Nice guys did not finish last in Full House; nice guys finished first.”

So with Fuller House Netflix is appealing to audiences with nostalgia on nostalgia. The progressive associations with an anti-conservative agenda—stunted lines and a promotional dalliance—does not a commentary make. Fuller House presents a fountain of youth for viewers to bathe in, offering Benjamin Button–like results: remember when our families could be wholesome? Whatever happened to predictability? You miss home? Well honey, you’ve got the Tanners. Cameron Bure—who returns to the Fuller House cast as D.J., the lead – a thirty-something mother rather than eldest Tanner sibling—is an outspoken conservative who argues against marriage equality and for religious freedom. She also has some really public, really messed up ideas (read: traditionalist) about gender roles. If audiences are smart enough to choose what they want to watch in the media-saturated, technologically enabled twenty-first century, the unavoidability of tabloid fodder and a star’s real life actions inevitably impacts how we view a text. Here we have the dangers of Boym’s restorative and reflective nostalgia made manifest through true televisual sentimentalism, catch-phrases and slogans—a strategy not only employed by Netflix or Fuller House but the Trump campaign as well.

Donald Trump is a former reality TV star. The intrinsic link between Trump’s political vision and television is explicit, not merely by his affiliation with the popular medium but in his execution of a dangerous, conservative agenda. Chauncey Devega argues in Salon that the GOP frontrunner’s political narrative built on heroes and villains, the rise of the self-made man and general aggressive bravado was learnt from what was previously known as the WWF (the World Wrestling Federation, not the conservationist organisation). Trump even had a Hitler Youth style theme song crooned by three pre-pubescent, flag-wearing (and waving) ‘America!’-chanting girls (known as the USA Freedom Kids) to the tune of World War I song ‘Over There’ at a recent rally in Florida. At times it feels like Salvador Dalí and Warner Brothers have joined forces to run Trump’s presidential primary campaign, minus any artistry or self-awareness but with bonus misogyny.

Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again!” is written into the subtext of every Fuller House episode, right down to episode eleven’s instance of cultural appropriation where the Tanners throw an ‘Indian-themed’ party. The Tanners and co. dress in turbans and bust a Bollywood-style move in truly ignorant form. As Miranda Deebrah wrote for Brown Girl Magazine, it’s yet another example of how “thousands of years of rich history and heritage are reduced to a party theme for white people’s amusement and consumption.” But, like Trump, Fuller House is clearly fighting against being overrun by ‘political correctness’.

In an excellent piece for LitHub, Kristen Martin charts parallels between Trump’s political rhetoric and Joan Didion’s classic 1991 essay ‘Sentimental Journeys’ about how easily public debate and political myths can be boiled down to ‘good versus evil’ symbolism. Martin states:

In a country built on sentimental narratives—the American dream, Manifest Destiny—Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” with its nostalgia for a non-existent past, is clearly alluring to many Americans who feel fear and anger about the current state of our country’s economic recovery and deadlocked political system. Where in ‘Sentimental Journeys’ New Yorkers bought into the narrative that “crime” was what was wrong with the city, in 2016, Trump voters are buying into a narrative that immigrants, Muslims, political correctness, and the political establishment are what is wrong with the United States.

To quote another worrying dose of pop culture nostalgia in the form of twenty one pilots’ rap-rock ditty ‘Stressed Out’, the desire to “turn back time, to the good ol’ days, when our momma sung us to sleep,” is a fallacy perpetuated by Fuller House that’s catching hold of the collective imagination, in the same vein as Trump’s appeal to traditional white-middle-class ‘wholesome’ moral family values and traditions. But like any nostalgic ideal, this idea of ‘home’, of an America that’s oh-so-great (exclamation point) no longer exists or, more realistically, never existed in the first place.

This may seem gloomy and reductionist, especially when we’re talking about TV—come on, it’s just a bit of fun—but by looking to the past and denying our fear of the future, the chance that sentimental narratives will indeed prove victorious is the stuff of propaganda. As “ancient” (and not so ancient) folk turn to stagnant sitcoms reboots, it feels like we’re inching ever closer to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake vision of the future. Actually, keep your eyes peeled to the screen: Atwood’s trilogy is in the process of being adapted for HBO with bleak directorial master Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) at the helm. The last I read, the Oryx and Crake adaptation is ‘forthcoming’. How foreboding.

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #30. Get your copy here, or read it digitally here.

Stephanie Van Schilt is The Lifted Brow’s TV columnist.

‘Mother Knows Best: a Review of Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This’, by Shu-Ling Chua


Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This shimmers with elegance, mystery, and danger. It is a memoir of mothers and daughters, traced through four generations, as well as a study of memory and the stories we tell to create (and preserve) our sense of self. The narrative revolves around the author’s relationship with her mother Françoise Mouly (art editor at The New Yorker), and is a response to her father’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, about his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust.

As a child, Spiegelman puzzles over the tension between Françoise and her parents who live across the Atlantic in Paris. As a teen, her beloved maman’s version of reality threatens to overwhelm her own. The mother who could make her feel invincible accuses her of throwing away all the spoons, of moving her papers, then says the fights never happened. As Spiegelman writes: “I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done … I knew that to cede even this much ground was to lose all sense of myself.” She takes to marking her diary with a big circled R, a reminder to herself that their fights were “REAL”.

Seeking a road map to her mother, Spiegelman asks permission to write about her coming of age. Françoise hesitates, then holds nothing back. Jealousy. Suicide attempts. Unwanted abortion. Loneliness. Hysteria. Underlying this, her own mother Josée’s dismissive cruelty. “We talked for years … the stories gave me the distance I needed to see her whole,” Spiegelman writes, recognising, at last, the darkness that had shaped her mother.

When she moves to Paris to interview Josée about her relationship with Françoise, Josée’s version of events contradicts her daughter’s. Françoise was sent for an encephalogram, not because she was crazy but because she was gifted. Josée remembers neither the crises de nerfs, nor Françoise scratching her face until it bled. She says they never fought. “I was the unwanted child, not her,” said Josée, recalling her own distant mother Mina.

Cutting between Françoise and Spiegelman’s adolescence brings certain parallels to the forefront. Others, like Françoise’s childhood dream of becoming Joan of Arc and Josée’s casting as the martyr in the school play, I picked up only on the third reading. Memories and conversations, painstakingly selected, trickle like streams into a river, but never too neatly. I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This is calculated in its content and timing but it is constructed rather than contrived. By laying bare her subjectivity, motives, and insecurities, Spiegelman builds trust and intimacy. While Françoise and Josée’s lives are laid out as they tell them, these are the author’s words and the reader shares her gaze: “I was the narrator, giving shape to memories that weren’t my own. And that, I was learning, was a much more violent act.”

We all make decisions about which stories to tell and why. Françoise, for example, sets aside a diary that contradicts the chronology of one story, and tells it as she remembered it. Indeed, she argues that there is no objective reality, no true nonfiction. Even when mother and daughter listen to a decades-old recording, the truth remains opaque:

I had expected it to contain a miraculous and impartial Truth. Yet while it corrected certain facts … the narrative that strung these facts together remained as complex as ever.

Memories also betray us. Young Françoise serenades Josée, “Maman, Maman, c’est toi la plus belle du monde,” only to be pushed away. Decades later, Josée sings while clearing the table. Spiegelman remarks that her mother used to sing the same song, only to be rebuked, “It wasn’t of your mother’s time.” A fact-check later vindicates Spiegelman, illustrating how memories and, by extension, the ‘truth’, shift and warp unconsciously:

Somehow, in her memories, the song her daughter had sung to her had become the song she used to sing to her own mother. And through the haze of overlapping generations, the unrequited love was real.

I liken Spiegelman to an optometrist, slipping discs of carefully cut glass before one’s eyes, bringing the past into focus. “The past [however] was not a fixed place one could visit. It was not static. It was a voyage, constant motion.” In an interview with Signature, she reflects that writing is a recorded past but this does not make it “more true … it’s still a subjective perception of reality”. All memoir is subjective; few admit this so explicitly.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This asks readers to consider whether multiple ‘truths’ can co-exist, not just as differences of opinion between family members, but within individuals. It examines how we twist our memories to fit the narrative of who we are, so that we may make sense of our lives and thus continue to live with ourselves. Its epigraph is from Paul Valéry: “La mémoire ne nous servirait à rien si elle fût rigoureusement fidèle.” [“Memory would be of no use to us if it were rigorously faithful.”]

Unlike the ‘typical Asian mother’, mine encouraged me to go on exchange, and to move to Canberra. I thought she had all the answers; that she could fix anything. Then I grew up.

Telling Mum that I had slept with my then boyfriend was one thing. (My friends think it is incredible that I’ve told her. “Only because I’m writing about it,” I say. “Not because I want to.”) Now, I was telling the world: “I’ve slept with a few more guys since and it’s been okay.” Six months ago, while visiting Melbourne, I showed her the piece, without thinking.

“I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “Why do people write about something so personal, so private?”

“You’re criticising me. You’re always criticising me,” I snapped, though I knew this wasn’t true. “You think I’m immoral.” I cried violently in the shower, then crawled into her bed.

“You moved out too early,” she wept. “I worry what you’re eating, if you’re eating well. I can’t cook for you in Canberra.”

Emboldened by how I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This brought Spiegelman closer to her mother, I asked Mum what she thinks about my writing. She likes the art reviews but not the writing about sex: “Don’t you feel shame? Don’t you feel guilty?” I don’t.

There is, however, one story I want to protect my mother from; that I wish she had never read. I knew that she had read it—“I wanted to give you a hug,” she said, after I blogged the link—but we didn’t talk about the incident until almost a year later. (I started blogging five years ago, while on exchange, for family and friends. Mum continues to read everything; I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop, especially now that it’s public.)

“Maybe Mum didn’t teach you to fight back.”

“It’s not your fault, Mum.”

“Maybe Mum didn’t teach you to be rude.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Mothers always try to protect their children. How could he do this to my child?”

Our conversation echoes the scene in which Françoise recounts her experience of rape. Françoise apologises, to Spiegelman’s disbelief:

“Why?” I said miserably. “Why should you be sorry?”

“Because,” she said, “I’m your mother. I’m supposed to protect you from all this.”

Mothers were daughters too, once. Mine dreamt of studying hotel management in Switzerland. I used to envy her for marrying her first love. I thought she had it ‘easy’—she never had to navigate dating—but this discounts the fact she defied her own mother by marrying overseas and moving to a country in which she knew no one.

Françoise remarks, “It’s your book. I have to think about it as being about someone else, some other girl who shares my name.” How real is the ‘I’ on the page as opposed to the living ‘I’? Perhaps this is why I mind less when strangers comment on my writing. They are responding purely to the self on the page. Unlike my mother, they don’t need to reconcile this self with the daughter they once knew everything about. On top of this, I fear painting her as old-fashioned, draconian, or small-minded: she is none of these things.

Breaking free from our mothers’ influence, seeing them whole, flaws and all, is a prerequisite to growing up and stepping out from their shadow. Violence—whether fighting with our parents or having one’s illusions quietly shattered—is a given.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, The Writers Bloc, Peril Magazine, Seizure and others. She was previously producer of Noted writers’ festival and Voiceworks nonfiction editor. She tweets @hellopollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Poems by Natalie Eilbert


Photo by Carbonair Environmental Services Inc. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.


Well I’m in my thirtieth year and I have plunged the scroll inside me
and let it honey my walls with golden import. I’ve bloated under the weight
of my feckless comrades, yanked the rods of my torture into communion,
forked hair into my studious mouth, and spread apart my country to show you
my survival. Because of all your detestable idols, I am a certified daughter
of man, I dryhump the mounds of my nations until I can taste the charcoal
of my rations. The sun has baked the bones of men and Lord how can I repay
you for sparing my kind except I will not spare you. Well I am that desolate waste
you bat your lashes against, I am the sword by which you’ve checked your lips
for smudges, I am the vinegar of your latest cleanse, the vile images of technology
announcing the kombucha seige. Wouldn’t you know it, my gold flickers
with a level of decadence that only a cock could spoil, and a cock does spoil me,
I go limp in its arms, I hold myself upright and unclean as the bones of men
bake outside. You’ve never seen what hunger does to eagerness, the excellence
scraping refusal into an empire. In a cloud of cigarettes I told you the false
direction of dystopia—that is, what we describe is part of the machinations
of a utopia, and there is nothing but priestly landscapes in the nothing planes
of what we’ve done. Did you see the sexy way I kissed the chain, did you see
my northern entrance and how I dug a hole in the wall to eat my forgiveness,
the hard twang of your weapon hot on my throat. That day I flared with inner court,
I was all portico in the gloaming, I wiped my brow with an oilcloth and vowed
to not look on the baking bones of men with pity or anger. There is something so
bronze about my outlook these days, the way I bunch up the linen to fuck
its distinguished corners. What else can I defile, I say as I wipe my chin against my elders.
I have done as you’ve commanded, I’ve forsaken the men who made us to be
worshipped on altars, I’ve unclenched the word of my Lord and let their bantams
trickle down my leg, I’ve rented the brownstone to hoard the unclean oxygen
and I’ve brushed the baking bones of men with schmaltz and issued a warning
declaring us better. What I know of tenderness is what I know of violation,
the restless insect of touch and our end. That is what you’re saying, I must
map a border so we can be the meat in it but I have instead become the editorial
director of prophecy, pulled out the Lord’s curls and tied their tufts to the highest
fencepost. I’ve produced a popular reality show called How Weak Is Your Moral
Constitution and I’ve folded a net over my pursuers to force out apology each episode.
There will be no delay. The days go by and every vision comes to nothing.
Down the street I am the favored daughter because my fulfillment requires
no power and no snares. I am the stuff of my idols, they cannot know what it meant
to lean me over the chair and be so desolate they named the township after my shape.


What you propose to do is good. All day I picked satire from my teeth
and with my mind I witnessed the banks of my body pushing us up.
I let the Camel butts float in the river, plucked the white hairs from
my scalp, and ignored my father’s calls. I fluffed my second death.
So I took the leading men, wise and respected men, and appointed
them to have authority over you. Long Island is trending today. There
is a town called Dix Hills and at night I was brought there on the banks
of my body pushing us up. You shall not enter it either. May the sons
enter the land. There was no traffic. The sons entered the land for they
did not know good from bad. When I looked to the moon, he gripped
inside my mouth and pulled out a silver globe. My skin spilled into yolk
in the time it took me to lose my lord. My anxiety was a swarm of bees
that could only lift the banks of my body, pushing us up. At that time we
took all his towns and completely destroyed them. Bro I was bawling
in the brewskie foam seas. I said stop the way I hold my back up, the way
I know it will hold me even as I buckle. Bones formed around words
and I whittled the hills into many selfies. I ducklipped like fuck
to display the purity of my saliva. I have taught you decrees as the lord
my god commanded me but my wet socks disgust me. I bend over
Dix Hills, I call it my nation, I crush black tablets under my heel
as they light. You will perish from the land you are crossing the river
to possess, I whisper green-eyed into the ears of my dudes. They toss
me over their shoulders because they were afraid of fire and did not go
up to the mountain. I did. I chewed its bark and sexted under the stars
but my dudes are innocent they practice throwing me into sedans and
shutting the door before I can bark. They remark on my lightness before
driving us away. These are the other commandments, I proclaimed them
under my thinness away from the noise, my thighs rang out in the quake
of the engine, the lord slipped through the tartar and plaque of my mouth.
I spit them out on the doorframes of houses, shiny, calm, in love after all.

These poems appear in The Lifted Brow #30. Get your print copy here, or get the digital edition here.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of the debut poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). She is also the author of two chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books, 2014) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous (Big Lucks Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Poem-a-Day, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.

Excerpt: ‘A Content Life’, by Sam West


Image by Kenneth Snyder. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

I once sat in a symphony hall while a group of famed avant-garde musicians recreated Discreet Music pretty much note-for-note. To the right of stage a middle-aged man sat at one of those old analogue projectors you might remember from science class. He dutifully projected each of Eno’s oblique strategies onto a slide screen while the music filled the hall. We sat in rapture. If you closed your eyes, the performance sounded almost exactly like hearing the album through very expensive headphones. You might ask: what’s the point? Collective bliss on a sweaty dance floor is one thing, but surely ambient music is best enjoyed in your own private headspace.

Technically, I was there because I was getting paid to convert my experience into content. My job was to recommend the performance as a premium leisure experience: kind of like the sonic equivalent of hiking to a waterfall and feeling the mist kiss your face.

You know how famous waterfalls have information plaques or laminated signs confirming you’ve reached them? (Even though the actual waterfall is roaring through all your senses, giving you a very clear indication that you’ve arrived). About seven years ago I got obsessed with these plaques. Or rather, I got obsessed with how lit theorist Stephen Greenblatt interpreted them. In 1986 he gave a lecture called ‘Towards a Poetics of Culture’. This is what he had to say about experiencing a famous waterfall:

The pleasure of this moment—beyond the pleasure of the mountain air and the waterfall and the great boulders and the deep forests of Lodgepole and Jeffery Pine—arises from the unusually candid glimpse into the process of circulation that shapes the whole experience of the park. The wilderness is at once secured and obliterated by the official gestures that establish its boundaries; the natural is set over against the artificial through means that render such an opposition meaningless. The eye passes from the ‘natural’ image of the waterfall to the aluminum image, as if to secure a difference (for why else bother go to the park at all? Why not simply look at a book with pictures?), even as that difference is effaced. The effacement is by no means complete—on the contrary, parks like Yosemite are one of the ways in which the distinction between nature and artifice is constituted in our society—and yet the Parks Service’s plaque on the Nevada Falls Bridge conveniently calls to attention the interpretation of nature and artifice that makes the distinction possible.

I read these words on a photocopied university handout long before making adventure content about waterfalls and swimming holes became a big part of my job, but I still can’t stop turning the ideas around and around in my head.

I get the part about experiencing meaninglessness. As in, it’s not like we’ve gone to the park specifically to think about capitalism (what a buzzkill move). But we’ve probably driven past enough McDonald’s on the way to internalise the fact that capitalism exists—that it’s helped create the park as well as the conditions that make visiting the park necessary. And once we’ve seen the picture of the waterfall (yep, just like the one on the screen) and looked up to see the actual waterfall, then, for a glorious second, none of it even matters. We’re not seeking or finding meaning, we’re just experiencing the bloody waterfall already. So maybe that helps explain why people paid $129 to hear skilled musicians recreate Discreet Music almost note-for-note—to have the difference between the artificial and real versions “rendered meaningless”—just gorgeous, wordless, sensory experience.

But of course hardly anything stays wordless for long. Hikes and concerts aren’t just about some kind of pure liminal submersion. Maybe in some cultures they are. But a lot of us crave that “candid glimpse.” A performance of Discreet Music stops being a premium leisure experience once you remove the handsomely designed program informing you that the real Brian Eno (while he sadly can’t be there) approves of what’s happening on stage. And rendering “official gestures meaningless” just isn’t that much fun without the official gestures. It seems we need the guidebook as much as we need the real performance.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.

Sam West is writer of fiction, non-fiction and content. He has contributed to Vice, i-D, Smith Journal and others. He edits Three Thousand out of Melbourne.

Capital Week: ‘Instituting Change: the MCA Zine Fair and DIY Zine Culture’, by Bastian Fox Phelan


Image by Mcld. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Our last piece: Bastian Fox Phelan on institutions and change from below.

The MCA Zine Fair is one of the most prominent zine fairs in Australia, but many people don’t know the story of its origin. This is a personal story, like the zines I have made for over ten years.

Zines teach us something special: a few sheets of photocopied paper can be powerful. When I wrote ‘Ladybeard’ in 2010, I never thought that it would have such an impact. All I had done was tell the story of how—as a female-assigned person—I let my beard hairs grow. Countless people have told me how much this story meant to them.

Publishing a zine is a courageous action. Zines show us how to believe in the validity of our voices, and how to take interest in the voices of the people around us. They teach us about not waiting to be lifted up into the canon of rarefied culture in order to say something; they let us share our message now. The ability to care about each other, to do something now, is what we need to access, urgently.

I first came across zines in 2003 at Belladonna DIY Festival in my hometown of Wollongong. I was still in high school, and had no idea that you could get together with your friends and start a festival, or put on a workshop about bike maintenance or DIY reproductive health, or print your own publications. When someone at the zine fair gave me my first zine, I took it home, pulled it apart, and started making my own.

Since that day, I’ve been embedded in zine culture: I’ve organised zine fairs, tabled at zine fairs, travelled to the other side of the world for zine fairs. ‘Ladybeard’ is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, and zine libraries around the world: Halifax, Wellington, Toronto, New York. It’s been quoted in theses. Something I wrote one afternoon and put together with scissors and glue.

Zines are a creative outlet for personal expression, a manifestation of the idea that anyone can make art. That is what’s radical about zines. They carry seeds of independent, unmoderated thought.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to meet with Wendy Were, the then-Director of the Sydney Writers Festival. I thought that SWF was badly in need of some alternative culture, so I suggested organising a zine fair. The director agreed to cover table hire costs if I would organise and promote it, as a volunteer. I accepted this, and started contacting people in the zine community. The Zine Fair was held on a sunny day in June on the piers at Dawes Point. Tables were free of charge. It was a small but auspicious start for a new zine fair. I was keen to see how it would grow.

Wendy contacted me in early 2008 to tell me that the Museum of Contemporary Art were interested in the zine fair. They wanted to partner with them on the next event. She asked if I wanted to be involved. I thought it was a great idea to move it to the MCA: a bigger venue with a roof, in case it rained. Wendy passed on my details.

I never heard from the MCA. I found out several months later that the SWF Zine Fair would be rebranded as the MCA Zine Fair and organised by employees of the MCA. I emailed the MCA to book a table. In my email I criticised their decision to charge people for tables, when my zine fair had been free. I also questioned why I hadn’t been involved in the organising process. This was my idea, the zine fair I had started. I still offered to share my contacts and distribute flyers.

The Senior Manager of Education & Access wrote back to me, saying I’d raised some valid points. She didn’t acknowledge what had happened. She said someone would be in touch to discuss how I could be involved. Nobody followed up.

On the day of the first MCA Zine Fair, I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment. I’d been cut out. It was worse than someone photocopying your zine without permission. Worse than seeing your friends throw out a zine you’d made. These guys were breaking the rules of zine culture – rules that protected people who poured their hearts into their work, that allowed us to keep on sharing ourselves. People who aren’t involved in the zine community might not understand the level of respect that zine makers have for zines. To others, they are throwaway bits of paper, something ephemeral. To zinesters, they are like love letters. You keep them forever: in a desk drawer, in old suitcases. Zine fairs are the only time that zinemakers get together, so for us, these gatherings are holy.

The MCA Zine Fair was massive. It has continued to expand every year. It now stretches over two days – those days bring in more members of the public at one time than any other event at the MCA. The Zine Fair continues to provide opportunities for hundreds of zinesters to show and distribute their work, as well as introducing tens of thousands of people to the direct, personal and free-spirited medium of the zine.

I’m amazed that the little seed I nurtured grew into something much bigger than I anticipated. But it’s different from the feeling I have about how ‘Ladybeard’ has gone on to have a life of its own. When you make a zine, you have some say in where it goes, or how big its circulation will be. I’ve personally folded and stapled most of the zines in those libraries around the world. Zines can’t go viral; they must be shared directly, from the creator to the reader.

Among zinesters there’s an unspoken agreement that you won’t make copies of people’s zines without permission. That would be appropriation. I wasn’t given a choice about where the Zine Fair went, or how it changed. An event created by a community member was co-opted by an institution, and that goes against the DIY ethos that is so integral to the authenticity of zines.

The sense of disconnection intensified for me when the MCA’s link to Transfield was exposed during the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014. It was an obvious choice for me to boycott the MCA Zine Fair and table at Other Worlds, the zine fair that emerged following the example set by the Biennale artists who pulled out. At this new zine fair I found like-minded zine makers. I felt that sense of connection that initially attracted me to making zines: the familiar faces returning year after year, crafting beautiful, intimate, funny, provocative art and writing, shared at a low cost, traded or given away – the zines that made you cry and the zines that changed your life.

Every year when the MCA Zine Fair rolls around, people ask if I’m going. I tell them I’ll be at Other Worlds. Even though the MCA has cut their Transfield connections, I have a lingering sense of discomfort about the ethics of the institution. There’s Transfield, and there’s my personal experiences.

This year I had an idea: I wrote to the MCA and asked them if I could write a story about the history of the Zine Fair. I met with Yael Filipovic, Public Engagement Manager, and Vivian Cooper, Public Engagement Assistant. I introduced myself as the person who had originated the zine fair that became their beloved MCA Zine Fair, and they congratulated me. The interview was almost over before I had the courage to tell them my real reason for coming: that I didn’t have a say in the MCA’s takeover. Neither of them knew about that history, but they acknowledged that it wasn’t right. I left feeling happy that we could connect on what we had in common: the love of zines.

It used to be easy for me to label the MCA as an evil, faceless institution. Now I see that things are a little more complex. The MCA is made up of incredibly passionate, dedicated, art-loving people. They don’t profit financially from the Zine Fair, they do it as a service to the community, and they benefit by attracting people to the exhibitions: places where we can learn, expand, and imagine possible futures. It’s wonderful for zine-makers to be able to show their work in a contemporary art gallery. It means something that the MCA values art made by people who aren’t professional, established career artists.

But the MCA is still an institution. Can any institution do service to a community, and a medium, that evolved outside of institutions, often in opposition to institutions? Zine fairs, like zines themselves, are a form of counter-culture. Independently and collectively organised, many zine fairs are explicitly anarchist, queer, or otherwise anti-establishment. The organisers are zine-makers. We understand the values behind zine making. It’s not just about self-publishing. It’s about self-publishing together.

When control of the organising process goes into the hands of people who must represent their employer’s interests as well as doing service to the zine community, accountability is compromised. I can understand the enthusiasm of the MCA, wanting to support zine-making with their resources, space, the exposure that their Circular Quay location brings. Sometimes you need to balance enthusiasm with patience: take the time to do something right. Zines come from a specific culture with strong values. If you remove them from that, their meaning and power begins to be erased.

When people use their sphere of influence within institutions to hold space for independent creators, it’s encouraging. Public platforms allow individuals to share their vision for a different kind of world – one that truly values every member. The question is how to create dialogue between cultural institutions and independent creators. Meeting the needs of different communities means involving community members in every step of the process, transferring the power back to their hands, for their benefit.

If we want institutional change, if we want to encourage powerful institutions to be accountable, to change their community engagement practices, their ways of receiving funding, we need to keep trying to start conversations. An effective way to get institutions to listen is to boycott. The Biennale artists didn’t shut down Manus Island or Nauru. Other Worlds hasn’t replaced the MCA Zine Fair. But they opened up public debate about the ethics of the institution, and the institution was given an opportunity to respond.

Boycotting is one tool among many. For me, going to meet the current organisers of the MCA Zine Fair helped to resolve my ongoing sense of alienation from the Zine Fair. Someone in the sandstone tower finally heard me. Our conversation didn’t change what happened, or my critical position, but it helped me connect with them. From there, you can share ideas and work on shifting things together.

Zines touched my life deeply because of their ability to connect me to others. Something that had always set me apart—my beard—was calling people in, through the stories I told. That zine was a container for my personal thoughts and experiences, tentatively shared with the world, and as it opened it created a ripple of transformative change.

Bastian Fox Phelan is a genderfluid writer and zinemaker living in Sydney. They are working on a memoir about facial hair, gender and relationships. They also sing in the dream pop duo Moonsign.

TLB32: The Ledger


Photo by 401 (K) 2012. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

As part of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we have attempted to enumerate the labour and costs that have gone into the production of this issue, in order to examine the conditions of its existence and to provoke greater reflection upon its worth.

Below you will find a breakdown of the number of hours of labour by contributors and staff that have gone into the issue; the outgoing costs, income, projected revenue, and further analysis including the average hourly wage of contributors. This data was published in a ledger at the centre of the print edition, and has been slightly expanded for a web audience.


For this issue, we asked all contributors and volunteer members of staff to record the number of hours of labour that went into its production. We have attempted to quantify this, although we recognise that negotiating where “work” begins and ends is a slippery, often impossible task.

Each clock in the graph below represents twelve of the 1729 hours of labour spent creating the issue, which can also be understood as seventy-two round-the-clock days or 10.3 straight weeks. Colours signify the twenty-four Brow members in various departments involved in the production of the issue, from editing, design to social-media and publicity.


Click to enlarge

TLB’s publisher reported eighty hours directly spent working on the issue, which breaks down to seventy hours devoted to grant applications, managing interns, overseeing promotional activities and events, and an additional ten hours soliciting print advertisements.

TLB’s two editors reported a combined 336 hours labour over a three-month period, i.e. two hours a day. This time is split equally between evaluating, editing and soliciting submissions and later proofreading work (168 hours) as well as internal communication with other editors and staff members, including office hours, Skype meetings and emails (168 hours).

TLB’s two fiction editors noted a total forty-four hours work: editing and evaluating submissions; negotiating contracts; and internal communication. The three art editors recorded a collective seventy-two hours, and the poetry editor twenty hours labour, split fifty-fifty betwen soliciting and editing work and internal communication. The two designers reported a total 120 hours labour, divided between the actual designing of the issue (sixty-five hours) and internal communication (fifty-five hours).

TLB’s two copy editors noted thirty-eight hours spent copyediting and proofreading TLB32. The digital editor recorded twenty-five hours spent coding up TLB32 for three instalments of the digital edition. The two online editors spent 15 hours each editing and coding up print excerpts and news posts for The Lifted Brow website. The social media manager recorded ninety hours posting about TLB32. The events manager spent sixty hours planning and running the TLB32 launch party event. The publicist reported twelve hours corresponding with media, mailing promotional copies and maintaining databases.

The five interns each spent ten hours directly working on the issue, on tasks such as fact-checking and proofreading pieces, posting magazines and communicating with other Brow staff.


The outgoing costs for all aspects of the production, distribution and promotion of TLB32 were compiled for this report, with a total of $33,375. This figure is broken down in the graph and data below.


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For this issue of the Brow, a total of $5,600 was paid in contributor fees to twenty writers and fourteen visual artists, who each received an average of $165 in payment for their work. Artist fees made up 16.7 per cent of outgoing costs.

The greatest costs were for printing and binding the 6,500 copies of TLB32—$17,005—which are printed by Printgraphics in Mount Waverley, Australia. Printing costs account for 50.9 per cent of outgoing costs, before an additional $350 in freight fees. The Lifted Brow is printed using alcohol-free vegetable-based inks on paper which is FSC Chain of Custody certified and monitored from the paper mill to the end user.

Totalling $7,440, distributing the issue to both Australian readers (via Trident Magazine Services) and to overseas readers (via Eight Point Media) makes up 22.3 per cent of the issue’s outgoing costs, a number which includes $2,240 spent on posting issues to 700 print subscribers.

Promoting the issue accounts for $1,100 or 3.3 per cent of outgoing costs. This includes posting promotional copies of the magazine, printing 500 A3 posters to display in Australian outlets, and a professional photo shoot of the issue by Alan Weedon.

While each issue launch is unique, parties accompany each issue and are generally free for subscribers and ticketed for non-subscribers. TLB32 launches tonight at Donkey Wheel House Events in Melbourne, a Kinfolk business that donates all profits to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Urban Seed. Costs for venue hire, bar staff, catering (food only) and payment for the two performers on the night total $1,500, or 4.5 per cent of outgoing costs.

The Lifted Brow website currently uses a free Tumblr-based platform which is maintained by volunteer staff, though incurs costs of $300 (0.9 per cent) for the Shopify plug-in to directly sell copies of the magazine from our website.


The Lifted Brow is supported by various funding bodies, some of whose assistance directly funds the print publication. TLB32 recieved a total of $17,181 in direct funding: a quarter of an annual grant from Creative Victoria to assist print magazine production costs ($8,602) and a quarter of an annual Australia Council grant to help fund contributor costs in 2016 ($8,579).


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This income is bolstered by projected revenue from TLB32, which is estimated to be $26,700. The anticipated $23,300 in sales includes $600 from 100 digital subscribers (via The Lifted Brow 29th St app), $6,000 from direct sales via our website (individual issues and subscriptions), $15,000 in retail sales, and $600 in direct sales of magazines and merchandise at events. Sales are complimented by $3,500 revenue from six full-page colour advertisements in the issue.


Each of the 6,500 printed issues of TLB32 collectively required 0.266 hours or sixteen minutes of labour from staff and contributors.

If the outgoing costs and projected revenue prove correct, there is a unit cost is $5.13 and income of $6.75 for each issue, with a profit margin of $1.62 and $10,530 in total (if all 6,500 copies are sold at their full value).


The thirty-four contributors to TLB32 were each paid between $100-$400, depending on the nature of their work.

Collectively, the twenty text contributors reported 509.5 hours of labour, which was understood to be the research, composition and editing of pieces, as well as email communication with editors. On average, they were paid $6.87 per hour.


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The fourteen visual art contributors reported a total 242.5 hours of labour, made up of generating artwork and communicating with art editors. On average, they were paid $8.66 per hour.


Every effort has been made to ensure this information is accurate and informative, in order to provide an insight into the print publication of The Lifted Brow, and thus this post includes updated data from that published in the ledger in TLB32. We welcome comment from publications, contributors and readers. Please note, expenditure and revenue fluctuates issue to issue.

This report reflects on the labour and costs that go directly ito the production of the print magazine, and as such does not include the labour and costs that go into the running of the not-for-profit organisation behind and around the print magazine, including those TLB people who do such important work for the organisation’s operations, for our website, and other areas. It would be remiss of us not to properly acknowledge them here.

TLB32 launches tonight at Donkey Wheel House, 673 Bourke St, Melbourne, from 6pm with capital-themed performances from Emilie Zoey Baker and Bronwyn Batten – book your ticket now!

Capital Week: ‘My Bad: How a Book and an Essay About Bad Writing Made Good on My Social Democratic Ideals’, by Sam Twyford-Moore


To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Today: Sam Twyford-Moore on bad writing and neoliberalism.

In late 2013, bloated billionaire playboy James Packer, surely feeling genuinely sui generis about his particular brand of philanthropic generosity, and directly following acknowledgement from the NSW government of his successful application for the exclusive $1.5 billion casino license for Barangaroo, announced that he would be gifting $60 million to the arts in Sydney. That funding would be divided in two, with half being sent out to Western Sydney, in a special pool to be administered by Packer’s own Crown Resorts Foundation. In The Conversation, James Potts, Professor of Economics at RMIT University, stood up for Packer’s donation—while also declaring that he owned common stock in Crown Resorts—as opinion swelled online that the gift had been coerced by the state government. The implication was that the benefaction was blood money, spilled during the negotiations for the eventuating Barangaroo casino license. Packer, for his part, gave the pledged paper over with something of a shrug – in announcing the funding, he made a point of stressing that he was not “the most committed art and theatre goer” and that the decision largely belonged to his sister, Gretel Packer, “and I do what my sister tells me.” Many words here could be spent on the reasoning behind this investment in the arts, and its half-hearted nature, but of more interest is the economic and cultural impact of sending the money westward.

Why Western Sydney? It wasn’t just a cultural cry of “West is best!” that won over the Packers. Somewhat surprisingly, it was in order to address economic inequality in cultural investment. The designation of funding to Parramatta and its surrounds—so very far from Barangaroo’s city-hugging shoreline—came after reporting from conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph, that only one per cent of the arts budget in NSW went to the populous sprawl. The disparity was clear; Western Sydney, after all, holds about a quarter of the state’s population. But why should Packer, as part of Australia’s one per cent of richest wealth holders, even care? His answer was convincing, if scripted: “I am most excited about the Western Sydney Art Fund, for too long the vast majority of Sydney’s population has missed out on this sort of endeavour and many of these organisations have had to exist on the tightest of budgets.” Tight budgets are the day-to-day reality of arts organisations, and Packer’s nod to their existence—coming only a matter of months before George Brandis went on his infamous funding raids of the Australia Council for the Arts the following year—at least shows a knowledge of the inner workings of a fragile sector.

It remains difficult, however, to parse exactly why the funding had been designated to a location so unrelated to Barangaroo. Unless, of course, there was some recognition deep within Packer’s brain that Barangaroo, as a site, was historically significant for the working class of Sydney, containing as it does the strip known as The Hungry Mile – the name harbourside workers gave to the docklands in the area. There is an echo here. While Western Sydney has boomed in terms of its population, it has shown slower growth economically than any other area in Sydney, with higher total and youth unemployment. Perhaps Packer, hungry to transform historic sites of inequality, is marking it out for potential development down the track – dreaming of a fourth casino for Sydney (parked, perhaps, next to Panthers World of Entertainment) in a world that barely needs the nightmare of one to begin with.

One of the organisations who would certainly qualify for Packer’s funding—and could well be named a recipient—is SWEATSHOP, the provocatively titled and capitalised, self-proclaimed ‘literary collective’, which is currently based out of the Western Sydney University, and has roots based in programs based at the Bankstown Youth Development Service. In a recent essay titled ‘Bad Writer’, published on the Sydney Review of Books, the group’s leader, novelist and critic Michael Mohammed Ahmad explained that SWEATSHOP

is devoted to empowering people from socio-economically challenged and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through reading, writing, critical thinking, creative expression and creative outcomes. The principles of SWEATSHOP are built on the ideas of African-American feminist, scholar and activist, bell hooks, who … [argues] that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture depend on mass-based literacy movements because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see.

The essay served as something of a ten-year marker of Ahmad’s work in the communities of Western Sydney and across Australia, working, as he does, towards mass-based literacy and enabling a new generation of literary writers. As early as 2012, Ahmad had been recognised by the Kirk Robson Award, acknowledging as it does “outstanding leadership from young artists and arts professionals working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in reconciliation and social justice.” I have worked with Ahmad in a number of professional contexts—engaging him as a speaker and a performer at a number of literary festivals—and have always thrilled at his ability to challenge preconceived notions that literary audiences may have at any event. Some in the audience would protest his confronting presentation style—surely a sign of any ‘Good Writer’ is the ability to challenge the status quo—but Ahmad would plead with them, “This is just how my family talk to each other around the dinner table.” (This will become important later.)

Days after ecstatically reading Ahmad’s essay, browsing a local bookstore, I stumbled upon Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed The World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016). Published practically within days of each other, how do these two understandings of ‘bad writing’ converge? (This essay truly is the product of coincidence.) Weiner’s short book traces the trajectory of the long-forgotten Russian novel, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Cornell University Press, 1863) and its radical rational egoist ethics, which influenced many in socialist Russia of the time, inciting them to act. Decades later, Chernyshevsky inspired Russian born Ayn Rand and her capitalist novels-as-manifestos, which mutated into the economic reality of contemporary neoliberal America, and its eventuating financial crises. The book’s bad ideas seemed able to sway opposite ends of the ideological divide. Chernyshevsky’s novel awoke a new political class in Russia, one given to extremism and terrorism. Rand, in turn, with her awful novels The Fountainhead (1942) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), awoke a class of economic extremists, led largely by her devoted mentee and deregulation enthusiast Alan Greenspan, in his role as Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States. This is what bad writing can do when it hits the mainstream.

Weiner is not overly interested in the categorical distinctions of bad writing in any straight literary, or aesthetic, sense. Chernyshevsky’s novel sounds laughable, but much of what Weiner deems bad about it is done so through its subsequent political import (in the same way the rotten philosophical core of Rand’s novels mutate into the rotten core of contemporary fiscal policy, for example). Weiner does not spend a great deal of time looking into what badness wreaks, only briefly looking into the realities of Greenspan’s reforms, and so, perhaps, shows little interest in documenting exactly how the world was destroyed. Instead, he is interested in instances of resistance to historic efforts of destruction. The majority of the book, in fact, documents Dostoevsky’s allergic reaction to Chernyshevsky’s bad writing (Weiner is an Associate Professor in Russian and Comparative Literature at Wellesley College, alma mater of Hillary Clinton). Weiner suggests that Dostoevsky reinvented himself as a writer in order to combat Chernyshevsky and the apocalyptic potential of his text.

The criticisms, to date, of Ahmad’s usefully provocative essay were largely contained within the relative private structures of social media. These oppositional opinions were voiced by middle-class educators—teachers within private colleges and public schools—who questioned his teaching practices and took offence at the way that Ahmad wrote about his students. A couple of prominent teacher-authors protested that Ahmad did not have the requisite grasp on ‘creative pedagogy’ and that there was a class war raging somewhere beneath the surface – that Ahmad was, in fact, sneering at his working class students. Such swipes assumed much—far too much—about Ahmad’s own background and the make-up of SWEATSHOP as a whole to be taken seriously. And Ahmad, in fact, pre-empted any such readings early in the essay, in which he explained his enthusiasm for the approach of bell hooks:

I have always found this to be a significant alternative to the usual way that Australian parents, carers, teachers and politicians discuss the importance of literacy to you people – in the romantic sense that it is important simply because it is a good in itself or the capitalist sense that it is important because it will give you access to a good job. For hooks, degrees of literacy define our ability to be critical of social systems (which my be racist, sexist, homophobic and or classist) and to create alternative to these systems, specifically through critical consciousness, critical discuss and artistic self-representation.

Education, particularly equal access of education, has been the key circuit-breaker in inequality. Weiner spends a critical stretch of his book outlining Dostoevsky’s demands to educate the peasantry in order to promote the ‘Russian Idea’. Perhaps it is here that we find a direct connection between Ahmad’s attempts to enlighten his students and readers about the dangers of ‘bad writing’ and Dostoevsky’s pleas, written in the copy for a subscriber drive benefiting his failed literary journal Time, for an intellectual revolution – a convergence of all classes, and the “spread of intensive education, as quickly as possible and at any cost.” Weiner points to Dostoevsky’s use of the word ‘intensive’ as telling, in the same way we may apply it to Ahmad’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. Describing the ‘Russian Idea’, Weiner goes on to suggest that:

Dostoevsky seems to have had in mind something similar to the version of sobornost that his contemporary, the Slavophile philosopher Aleksey Komyakov, described as Russia’s ancient past and future salvation: sobornost was Komyakov’s word for religious ‘togetherness’ or, literally, ‘collective’ of the Russian people, a commune based upon the historical obshchina or mir. This was an Orthodox village that had the power to decide disputes and distribute land amongst peasants.

If Ahmad’s ideas, as expressed through the SWEATSHOP Collective, were put into practice more widely, perhaps we would see something not too dissimilar from the sobornost, with Ahmad becoming a writer and teacher of expert resistance. It is also easy, however, to make a completely opposite reading of Ahmad’s essay, especially as it has since been revealed that the stories of Ahmad’s students within the essay exist largely as composites, with some partly obscured and others complete fictions. On face value alone, Ahmad’s hectoring of his students certainly risks coming off as an Ayn Rand-style ‘tough love’ school of self-improvement—self-improvement over the welfare of all others—but such a reading would be to miss the point entirely. The care for the success of the individual in Ahmad’s view stands in line with the care for the community as a whole, bringing everyone up together at the same time. And while he may spar individually with players, he doesn’t push for the kind of violent melee that Rand’s free market principles ultimately represent. Nor should his approach be surprising; Ahmad’s excellent debut novel, is, of course, titled The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014) and his love of boxing aligns with the fact that boxing gyms are often sites of community for the working class. He is not a writer who is in it for himself, nor one who exists without a sense of family, community, collective and place

Ahmad isn’t writing against a Nikolai Chernyshevsky – a singularly bad writer who has published a novel expressing ideological points that demand a counter reply or outright rejection. (One could imagine it being Helen Dale, pumping out a so-called novel of ideas between sessions advising libertarian David Leyonhjelm, had she not blown up her literary career as Helen Demidenko decades prior). Indeed, mediocre Australian fiction tends to be bad because it does not engage in politics and ideology in any meaningful way. Instead, I would suggest that Ahmad is writing against the grain of an entire arts culture, one that finds it easy to ignore the writer and the reality of their livelihood and class backgrounds. Again, there’s a potential to misread his intentions: that Ahmad is denouncing the aspirations and writing ability of his students for his own gain. His colleagues’ work certainly does not help. Within the wider SWEATSHOP Collective there can be found an antagonism towards mainstream literary culture in Australia, as in Luke Carman’s confused jeremiad published in Meanjin, which demonstrated a mistrust of literary centres of power, namely Melbourne. Others, writing for the Sydney Review of Books, have shown cynicism towards the make up of literary prize culture (‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’, Ivor Indyk) or writers’ festivals (‘Diabolus in Festum’, Carman once again with feeling). Within such pieces festers a hatred for the workers of arts culture and lurking, somewhere lower, a Randian purchase on the virtues of selfishness; the literary writer (typically white and male), prizing singular credit, must always put himself first. Ahmad averts explicit antagonism, and its accompanying individualism, with his wider focus on the cultural system, evoking literacy—the founding of any system—as his starting goal. The way to take on an oppressive system isn’t through sideline criticisms, but through mass participation: to occupy. Take a seat at the table, and, from there, change the topic of conversation, or, indeed, refuse service, turn the table over and start again.

Literature, as a whole, could learn to fight on this level. In the most recent annual report from the Australia Council for the Arts, it was revealed that literature, as an art form, was given only 2.7% of overall funding (critic and publisher Geordie Williamson quipped that literature was in danger of being out-funded by ‘miscellaneous’, which received 1.6% of total funds). This inequality of arts funding increasingly needs addressing. Certainly questions as to why symphony orchestras, opera and large theatre companies receive the top levels of funding, and what connections lead to these decisions, are worth investigating. Just as The Daily Telegraph found a disparity in arts funding within the Western suburbs of Sydney, so to do these reports expose the status of writers within the wider culture – essentially consigning them as the working class of the arts.

One reason given for the tendency for literature to be underfunded—something whispered or hinted at, but never stated outright—is that the literary culture tends to lean left of the left, and that those in power understand the dangers inherent in oppositional literatures. The truth is that the attack on the literary arts is ideological, and we need a strong collective of writers to counter it. When Senator George Brandis floated his brutal art sector reforms, he did so under the guise of promoting ‘Excellence’ – as in, his fund would be titled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). This seemed innocuous to the majority of the population, but ‘excellence’ in Brandis’s limited thinking is reserved for specific art forms (symphony orchestras, opera et al), accessed primarily through audiences with large amounts of capital (NPEA’s draft guidelines did not even mention literature). Indeed, many observed at the time that Brandis was making over arts funding in his own image – a great example of Randian rational egoism if ever there was one. But the NPEA was not a policy of deregulation, rather it was the very definition of interventionist. Financial deregulation, perhaps, requires cultural interventionism to truly wreak its havoc. Locally, the deregulation of property development in Sydney—which amounts to financial deregulation within the developer-friendly agenda of Mike Baird and the Liberal government—has been twinned with an over-regulation of culture largely via Baird’s ongoing lock-out laws. This has most visibly affected the music sector—whose profitable working hours are curbed—but rising rents and cost of living having a flow on effect for writers too. Crippling economic policy for an already financial downtrodden breed of artist is a sustained, strategic act of silencing.

Packer’s private philanthropy, even if delivered with a shrug, should be encouraged to combat such policies. We should not suggest, however, that artists ‘take the money and run’, particularly when the funds amassed originate largely from personal gambling losses. Packer, after all, lives in a world of ulterior motives, and while there is no evidence that he has ever read Ayn Rand—or, indeed, read any novel—he trades on a massive inherited wealth built on her principles. Weiner’s book on Rand exists as a short history of literature building a resistance to such philosophical inheritances, which gives it guidebook-like qualities for a reader with social democratic ideals in mind. Ahmad, meanwhile, has provided us with the active contemporary model.

If there is a divergence between Ahmad and Weiner, it is surely that Weiner sees bad writing as deriving its badness from the political poison of its own bad ideas. Ahmad’s definition remains a categorical and qualitative form of badness – a literary lack of quality. But Ahmad is surely not unaware of the economic and political implications of SWEATSHOP, and his fight for community-strong literacy and against bad ideologies born of individualism and rational egoism. He is working hard at lifting a whole class—in both the economic and educational sense of the word—out of a position of disadvantage. Read alongside Weiner’s useful book, Ahmad’s essay can only hint at a sense of growing economic disparity in Australia—which wasn’t his explicit topic—but it inherently suggests that literature, with literacy at its base note, might be one of the more imaginative solutions to inequality. Ahmad, quite distinctly from the toxic historical line from Chernyshevsky to Rand to Greenspan, is inviting an entire class to punch, defiantly, up.


After writing and filing this essay, I flew to Sydney on November 9, 2016 to meet with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and while I was in the air, my phone on flight mode, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States of America. Taking the train westward to meet with Ahmad, I was dejected. Earlier in the day, while the polls were predicting a win for Hillary Clinton, Ahmad had texted me: “If Hillary wins, we’ll have Lebanese food. If Trump wins, we’ll have rat poison.” As the stations of the Bankstown line blurred by I replied: “Hope you’re preparing the rat poison!” We ended up having the Lebanese food regardless, a generous spread from Ahmad’s local spot. As we sat and ate, we talked about his work with SWEATSHOP, his Bad Writer essay, and my response to it, and all I could think was: “Resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance, resistance…” Later, after a couple of beers and a Valium borrowed from my new wife, I thought something like In the post-Trump age, good writing and great writing that counters bad ideology will be the first act of survival. That’s all there is for me to say about this bad writing business. I just hope we’ll all be good writers, or at least interrogative readers of bad writing (Trump’s disruptive tweets included), in the face of what History is about to hurl at us all.

Sam Twyford-Moore is the host of The Rereaders podcast and a writer.

Capital Week: ‘#ThisIsLiving’, by Paul Dalla Rosa


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

To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Today: Paul Dalla Rosa on literature and precarity.

Literature and the attempt to create it seems intimately connected with capital, that is, who has it and who doesn’t. Who has money, who has no money, who to sleep with to get money, the indignities suffered in the pursuit of money, and the laws of relativity meaning there is always someone with more than you but always someone with a lot less. I think about this constantly. I have just moved into a house that’s over a century old. The rent is perhaps more than I can afford but is cheap for the area. When I change postcodes the Internet tells me rent should be budgeted at 28 per cent of my monthly income. Whose rent is 28 per cent of their actual income? The answer is no one I know. As I read at night, the floodlights of the tenements across the road lighting up my room like a second sun, I pause, hold the book against my chest and imagine myself doing the jobs I might be capable of and often ones that I am not. Governess, I think. Steve Martin impersonator. Kept woman. Internet celebrity. Long lost heiress. Acquirer of dead souls.

I have been given a fellowship. For ten weeks I have a desk, an all-hours pass to the building that holds that desk, and a small stipend, which, if I don’t spend stupidly, will collectively pay for a month’s rent. There are welcoming drinks. There is free imported beer and two trays filled with sushi. A large group of people move around the room, cycling through the fellows. At this point in time, depending on the week, I am either underemployed or overemployed. There are speeches from benefactors and a former fellow whose book is being published by a major publisher. As they talk I inch my way to the drinks table. Afterwards someone whose role in this whole affair seems somewhat vague tells me that the biscuits in the kitchen are not communal biscuits. I nod and then they say “It’s exciting! You must feel so grateful,” and I, who has had too much beer but not much else, slur, “Sure, I’m being paid.”

When I ask myself what exactly I want from life right now, you know, big picture stuff, I think of Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? I want the fictional Sheila’s salon job. Sheila goes to the salon, massages and washes people’s hair, sweeps, and looks beautiful amongst beautiful things. In many ways Sheila and I are similar because we both tell people we are working on a book, or in her case a play, that we are not working on and we no longer give excuses as to why we are drinking alone. The fact this depiction of her is itself in a finished book and mine is in my life that lacks any finished book, doesn’t phase me. Really, all I would like is a job that is stable and requires little of me, where people confess their secrets, preferably not to me exactly, but within my earshot. Greatness may come at a later date.

I teach a series of creative writing workshops. The series are free and open to drop-ins from the public. Though the age requirement is clearly stated to be above thirteen there is almost always a child of eight or nine who has been left there by a parent. Today there is an eight-year-old Indian boy who is possibly mute. When I ask him his name he opens his mouth to speak and then slowly closes it, like a goldfish. There is also a man who is my age or possibly older. This can make dynamics difficult. Who the fuck am I? I’m sympathetic to the question. For the entire session I feel him seethe with rage. When I look at him I see his jaw is clenched. I put on a Youtube video called ‘Editing Your Story,’ because the workshop is on editing short stories and so for seven minutes we watch, waiting for anything about editing but there is nothing. The video is either not the one I intended to show, one I thought I had seen but not, or perhaps just isn’t what I remembered it to be. For its entirety the man glares at me. He grips his pen as if he means to snap it.

To eat up the last ten minutes I ask everyone to name their favourite short stories and why it is they like them. I am trying to get someone to say concision. By the time it is the man’s turn to speak he seems furious, too far gone. I prepare myself. “I don’t read,” his voice seems to crack, “short stories.” Before he can say more, the boy speaks. He says, “Harry Potter.”

My friend Craig comes over to visit. We sit on my floor and eat lentils I have undercooked. He tells me he once lived only two hundred metres up the road and that his place was broken into three times. Once, he and one of his housemates saw what they believed to be the attempt of a fourth. It was the afternoon. They were watching Survivor. He looked out into the yard and saw a hand, flapping, just above the back wall. It was trying to grasp onto it, failing, then moved side to side. “It looked like it was waving,” he says. He told his housemate to look out at the yard and she saw it too, and then a second hand and the beginning of a head. They went outside. His housemate, who is now a cop, called out, “We’re right here motherfucker.” The hand disappeared and they heard the sound of footsteps running away.

“This was like a decade ago,” he says. When he leaves it is late and I lie in bed and feel my room shudder as the tram thunders by. I hear voices outside my window. I think someone could rob my house or do things to the people inside of it. It is conceivable a man might crawl in through the kitty door. I have done so when I’ve forgotten my keys. I do not know what this man will then do. I get up and use the chain lock on my room’s door. I lie back in bed but realise the chain is very loose and easy for a hand, grasping side-to-side, to undo.

Friends of mine, artists, though I rarely see much art, tour Europe. They have just finished art school and take photos of each other floating in the Mediterranean, on craggy shores, drinking in the cabin of a white speedboat. In each post their skin is more golden than in the last. I can’t help but notice each country they travel through is in austerity. Financial papers publish articles on them day after day. The articles sometimes betray a sense of glee. There are references to unpaid debts, poor decisions, elaborate ways in which public servants are paid for nothing, and that this is well deserved, like an ancient tragedy that was foreshadowed and so, to some extent, may be enjoyed. There are riots in the streets but there seems to be riots everywhere. My friends hashtag their photographs #thisisliving.

At a call centre I am told to be a passive voice on a telephone, nothing more, or at least not while I’m on shift. I do not resent this. My supervisor wears slacks and a pink business shirt. He can order people around but at the same time his job is a lot like my job, except he no longer cold calls randomized numbers but trains other people to do so. He can do this because he has been doing it for six years. He is an artist, not in a didactic sense but a literal one with canvases and paint. I know this because while I am a passive voice on the telephone I also eavesdrop. Late at night, near the end of a shift, I hear him speaking to a friend on the phone. This friend sells apartments to rich people, well, people who can buy apartments. My supervisor speaks about how it makes sense for his friend to let him hang his art in the apartments while prospective buyers tour. If they’re buying expensive and overpriced apartments they will be able to put down ten grand for some expensive, overpriced art. I can tell his friend isn’t convinced. I can tell this because my supervisor’s voice is not passive and soft. It wavers. “I only need one person to buy one painting.”

Some people I went to school with are getting married, others having babies, one has even been born again. I scroll through Facebook photos of people’s weddings, their weight gain, weight loss, honeymoons, the photos of the units they have bought, the apartments they have placed down payments on. Other people live like me but not really like me because they live in London and Berlin. I go to an engagement party. A function room’s been hired and there are silver balloons that bobble against the ceiling. In the bathroom, a man stands next to me at the urinal. He starts a conversation as I go to wash my hands. He asks what I’m doing nowadays and I say what I am doing this weekend which is waiting tables. He replies, And you used to think you were so fucking smart.

“What did you say?” I say. I see his shoulders tense.

“I didn’t say anything at all.”

I am lying in bed. It is 4 am and all of a sudden my room is lit up for one moment in dazzling blue light. I sit up to watch electricity spark and crackle from a power outlet across the room. Then it is gone. Everything is dark. I act. I leap up and turn the power off. I slowly unplug plugs, dismantle extension cords. I look for the fusebox, can’t find the fusebox and then lie back in bed, on my side, staring at the outlet in the wall. In almost every horror movie economic insecurity leads to people living where they should probably not be living, until they are either dead or their lodgings, like the house of Usher, are swallowed by the earth itself. I think of this and take stock of all the things that will burn.

I take the day off work to wait for the electrician. I stream the US presidential debate. Every now and then I stop, walk to the library, plug my laptop into power, my phone. After ten minutes I quickly walk home. It has been seven hours. The electrician is not here. I call him. He says he might be round tomorrow. I will have to cancel another shift. This will make living in a precarious situation more precarious. If it was in a story I would refer to this as rising action. Somehow, I apologise into the phone as I put it down. I eat the second half of a bag of potato chips I opened a week ago. “I have a winning temperament,” Trump says. “I know how to win.”

A friend moves back from Sydney and we go out to eat. She lived in an apartment and went out with the women from her office because there was no one else she could go out with and the alternative was to sit in her apartment, alone, looking out at the city lights. Drunk one night, she ordered a hamburger from McDonald’s and sat eating it on the curb. Three women surrounded her. What are you doing, they said, what are you doing. Now she’s transferred to Melbourne where she will write social media updates and so here we are slurping ramen. I am temping in an office where everyone is a creative and because they are creative they are allowed to bring their pets to work. There is a poster in the kitchen urging people to take up meditation and one of the reasons is that it will make creative people more creative. My duties are vague but I don’t dislike them. My friend mentions a mutual friend who has stopped writing and is now studying law. We are silent for a time. Neither of us are doing much writing or making much money but I say, “There’s still time for us. There’s time for us all.”

Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer living in Melbourne. He was a 2016 Next Wave Writer-in-Residence and Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

Capital Week: ‘Soulja Boy Uses an App to Get Fake Likes on Instagram (and Other Thoughts on Fame and Money)’, by Sian Campbell and Emma Marie Jones


Photo by Wreck and Salvage. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Today: Sian Campbell and Emma Marie Jones on fame and money.

People go to fan conventions and stand in line and wait for hours to get a photo with their favourite celebrity. There is a convention for everything, a celebrity of everything. One big convention is Supanova, which is for Sci Fi fans. At Supanova it costs $110 to get a photo with Supa-Star Nathan Fillion, who was once in Firefly. If you just want an autograph, it’s $100. If you want to get a photo with Supa-Star Jason Mewes, aka Jay from Jay and Silent Bob, instead of Nathan Fillion, it’s $50. You can probably get a photo of Nathan Fillion with Jason Mewes, but it will cost you extra. The celebrities set their own prices; trying to figure out the value of Nathan Fillion in relation to the value of Jason Mewes will get you nowhere. Value is arbitrary.

Here is what happens when you want to get a photo with one of these Supa-Stars: You find the right line. (Sometimes you can tell which line is the right line for your favourite celebrity by seeing who else is in the line. If your favourite celebrity is Christopher Lloyd aka Doc from Back to the Future, for instance, you might see a lot of people wearing Back to the Future T-shirts. This is so when someone wearing the Back to the Future T-shirt meets their favourite celebrity, Christoper Lloyd, Christopher Lloyd will see it, and know that this person is a True Fan.) Eventually you get to the front of the line, where you’re ushered into a makeshift photo studio space. Your favourite celebrity is waiting. They’ve been standing there for a long time. Their job is to smile and put their arm around you for the photo, and hug you if you want them to. Sometimes if you ask to kiss them on the cheek, they will let you kiss them. You can ask them to pose like the character they play from that show or movie you like and they will. The photographer takes a photo, and you get a receipt. Hours later, you go and wait in another line, filled with people who have also had their photo taken with their favourite celebrity. They are talking about how their favourite celebrity let them kiss them on the cheek! It’s very exciting and intimate to be allowed to kiss your favourite celebrity on the cheek, or for your favourite celebrity to kiss you on the cheek, even though they will kiss anyone on the cheek if asked. Eventually you get to the front of the line and go up to a special booth and collect the photo of you and your favourite celebrity. It is in a plastic sleeve. You can do whatever you want with the photo. It is up to you.

I stood in line for hours with my boyfriend and got a photo with Lucy Lawless, who is my favourite celebrity. I was too scared to say anything because she is my favourite celebrity, and she smiled and put her arm around me and said I was giving off an amber aura. I didn’t know if it she meant that she could really read auras and mine was amber coloured, or if she just meant that I was wearing a lot of brown that day, which I was. I don’t know if the photo was worth it but it’s on my mantelpiece now, still in the plastic sleeve. My housemate is from New Zealand, and I hope this makes her feel at home.

A Facebook friend of mine goes to a lot of fan conventions. They travel around the world going to all the fan conventions that their favourite celebrities will be at. They have a Facebook photo album with all of the celebrities they have collected so far and a list of all the ones they still need. In some of their photos, they comment about how exciting it was, because their favourite celebrity posed as though their favourite celebrity was in love with them. Even though my Facebook friend knows that their favourite celebrities get paid up to $110 per person, or a cut of that at least, to stand in line and act like they want to be friends or lovers with whoever comes to get their photo taken, they are still really happy about this and derive a lot of meaning from it. For one photo they asked their favourite celebrity to kiss the cheek of another one of their favourite celebrities, from the same TV show, because my Facebook friend ‘ships’ their characters. ‘Shipping’ is very personal and powerful and transcends the limitations of celebrity selfhood. ‘Shipping’ is like witchcraft, but instead of spells, people write fan fiction.

Soulja Boy uses an app to get fake likes on Instagram. I know this cos I use the same app and I saw him on there. You have to like the photos of strangers in exchange for coins which you can use to buy likes and followers in-app. You have to use the app’s coins instead of real money because it’s against Instagram’s terms of service to buy followers with real money,* but you can use real money to buy in-app coins, which is probably what Soulja Boy does, or maybe one of his people does. Probably one of his people does. I can’t imagine Soulja Boy, who is very cool and successful, doing what I did, which was sit home alone with my legs wrapped around a pizza watching episodes of a reality show called Big Rich Texas and liking batches of pictures. Pictures of legs I’d never seen tanning on beaches I’d never visit. Abs I’d never touched on gym junkie men I’d never swipe right on. Inspirational quotes I’d never understand in languages I honestly could not identify. I earned enough coins to buy 1,000 likes. I began to distribute the likes among my existing photos. One photo was embedded in a thing published online so I dumped a ton of likes on it so I’d look more legit to its readers. Strangers whose pictures were mostly quotes about living, laughing and loving or dancing like nobody was watching or whatever liked my dumb selfie. The numbers looked great but I felt like kind of an asshole. Not like I had predicted someone with heaps of likes and followers should feel, i.e. popular and carefree. I posted weirder photos, photos of my feet and a nose-picking selfie, and I made the strangers like those too. The little Instagram notification that had once made me feel like: weeee! now made me feel like: cool? Like the whole purpose for posting and sharing and liking other people’s photos could be, and had been, disrupted. The social contract of the medium had been broken. I was cheating. I could still use Instagram to look at my friends’ photos and like them. I could still use Instagram to broadcast and curate my life, and make it look cute and weird and fun. But now thatI knew I could fake the whole numbers thing, I knew anyone could fake the whole numbers thing. Everyone could be faking the whole numbers thing. I started clicking on my friends’ photos to see who liked the photos. If it was heaps of bots, I wondered if my friends were using the like app too, or if they just had a public profile that attracted heaps of bots. I wondered if it mattered. I couldn’t decide whether it mattered. I think the numbers only matter to people like me, who don’t have all that many numbers and really want more. People like me, who think the numbers are what quantify us in spaces like Instagram, are what make us appear “cool” and “desirable” enough to be followed and liked. People like me who delete a photo if it doesn’t break the eleven-like barrier, and find this app liberating because I can buy eleven likes and falsely validate my own taste, so my curated little life can look, to everyone else, as though it looks good to someone else.

One day a week, I go to work in an office building in South Yarra, where it is my job to run the Instagram page for a famous artist. He is not the kind of famous artist that anyone I know would have heard of, but he is considerably famous, and probably very rich. He sells his art for a lot of money in galleries. My job is to make him marketable to the youth, who cannot afford his art. Since I know nothing about social media strategy this mostly consists of me scrolling through the hundreds and hundreds of photos this famous artist is hashtagged in, and liking them. I have tried to come up with discernable ways to quantify my success, and so far this has just meant writing down the amount of followers this famous artist has, and then trying to get that number to grow bigger. At first the number was six, and now it is eight, so technically if asked I could say that I am improving the social media presence of this famous artist—that I have in fact improved his social media presence by twenty-five per cent—and I would not be lying.

If there was one thing my mum kind of instilled in me it was to seize every opportunity. I totally do not do this because I am very depressed. I often have dreams about sharp pain. I’m rolling in cut glass. I’m rolling in ants and spiders. They’re biting me and I’m rolling in thick, goopy clay to neutralise the sting. I think these pains represent either intrusions into my fake bubble of zen, or my fear of needles. My fear of needles is why I would never be able to try hard drugs, like really hard drugs, and is the true reason why I am a very softcore person.

I think my Instagram crush probably uses hard drugs, or at least could if she wanted to. Maybe not the hardest kind of drugs, but at least she could like snort a line of coke without having a panic attack. Which I do not know if I could do, because I haven’t tried, and because every time I think about trying it I panic and also because I don’t have $300.

My Instagram crush takes inventive selfies and they don’t seem vain or shallow, just necessary. My Instagram crush sees really interesting things in her everyday life all the time and chooses some of them to share with us, her followers, who are lucky that we can have these 1x1 windows into the sights that she sees in the streets and malls. I look for things that are interesting enough to share. A watched pot never boils.

My Instagram crush has a really nice butt and a really comfortable relationship with someone in front of whom she is not afraid to say “take it again” over and over again because her face was in shadow or her shoulder looked weird or the composition was kind of off. This person takes photos of her butt that she posts so that her Instagram feed shows, when you look at it as a whole, that she doesn’t take all of her photos herself and therefore isn’t lonely.

I’m not lonely but I worry that sometimes my feed makes it seem like I am, or like I’m trying not to seem like I am, or like the lighting is really bad in my house but also in my life and mind. That I can’t see my own potential clearly. This isn’t true. If only my Instagram crush would follow me. If only her followers would follow me! We’re so alike. We have such similar bodies, we both love the same cultural zeitgeists and favour the same emojis. When I’m tumbling through the cut glass she is walking behind me, her bare feet safe since I’ve cleared the path.

I don’t like to meet celebrities. I find the idea of meeting my favourite celebrities deeply upsetting. I’m afraid of meeting them because they are real human beings, and not the characters they play, which is obviously disappointing, but more importantly I’m afraid that they won’t know that I know that they’re real human beings. I’m afraid they’ll say nice things and won’t mean them, which I think is a pretty realistic fear to have. I don’t know what the point would be anyway. Everything I need to get out of them, I have already gotten out of them through their art. In 2013, some guy made a documentary about how annoying it is that J.D. Salinger still won’t leave his house, which was a weird thing to make a movie about considering how J.D. Salinger died in 2010. The documentary opens with this guy whining about how he stalked J.D. Salinger and when he finally tracked him down, J.D. Salinger had the audacity to just be some guy who wrote a book. J.D Salinger was all, I’m a fiction writer! Go see a therapist if you need someone to tell you what life’s about! Please get off my property! That’s all the movie should have been: the first ten minutes, and then everyone realises they need to leave J.D. Salinger (who is dead, anyway? And also kind of the worst?) alone. But instead the movie goes for two hours, and is terrible, which of course it is, because it is a movie made by a bunch of men who don’t care that J.D Salinger was horrible to women and who think that commodification in the form of a tell-all documentary is a perfectly natural fan response to reading Catcher in the Rye of all fucking books, a book about phonies written by a hermit.

(Mostly I think I don’t have any real desire to be famous, and this is why meeting famous people is uninteresting to me.)

Khloé Kardashian is standing in a closet in front of at least thirty pairs of sneakers. Her hair just got done and she has a full face of makeup. She looks really hot. Looking at this photo my mind is cataloguing hairspo, browspo, poutspo. Her head is tilted so that light lands on her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose, so that her jaw is minimised, so that her lips are placed at the exact centre point of the photo. Close to her lips she is holding a sachet of Flat Tummy Tea. Your eyes land on it immediately cos it’s right next to her big baby lips. Her facial expression is neutral. The tea probably tastes like shit.

Every time one of those Neutrogena ads comes on I think about how famous actors Hayden Panettiere and Jennifer Garner and Kristen Bell and that actor from Smallville (who played the love interest who wasn’t Lois Lane) have all been Neutrogena girls. This really confuses me because Neutrogena is a product for people who have bad skin, and all of these actresses have so much money. Like: why do they want to be associated with acne, when they could very much afford to not do that? It’s so weird to me. Maybe it’s because I had bad skin as a teenager and I’m sensitive about it. But, I mean: Jennifer Garner. She’s got that sweet Batman divorce money. Not to mention she’s forty-four and nobody’s believing she’s still getting blackheads. If you’re that desperate for cash, just do another series of Alias and retire. Do a sequel to Suddenly 30: the world will thank you! One time, one of the Neutrogena ads comes on and I’m like: doesn’t Jennifer Garner have enough money? What’s the deal? And my boyfriend tells me it’s a status thing. Like: getting to be the Neutrogena girl means you’ve made it. And rich people always need more money. There is no such thing as an amount of money that is just enough. Who knows how my boyfriend knows this shit. But more importantly, if Jennifer Garner doesn’t already know she’s made it, then the whole concept of making it and A lists and everything else just goes straight out the window. You’ve been to the Oscars, Jen. (I mean, I assume.) You’re good! You’re there! Stop fucking around with microbeads! They’re bad for the environment and you’ve got a film career to worry about!

3 am smoking blunts on a sofa coming down and I’m on Twitter cos the scrolling soothes me. I don’t want to interact with anyone who isn’t in this room. There are messages in my Facebook inbox still in bold font and I won’t read them until tomorrow cos the seen tick is kind of like a responsibility. You can’t just read “you out tonight?” and leave it at a seen tick and then keep posting cute grams of your party of three.

So I’m scrolling from inside the nucleus of my night. We’re all scrolling from inside the nuclei of our nights, but my nucleus is in a Vodafone black hole or that’s what I’ll say tomorrow anyway, it can put out but it can’t take in.

Not a lot of people are online at 3 am. They’re all either asleep or partying. This room is like a weird, smoky rest stop between those two places. Actually it feels like those places are both departure lounges and I am at the arrival destination. Music’s on. Body’s sprawling. Conversation’s intimate, flowing, self-indulgent. The light’s on, a red light. Smoky particles that are half our breath, half used-up bud have absorbed that redness and fill up the room in a way that would be invisible without it.

I blink at my messages from eyes that feel haptic. Like they could swipe the impositions away and out of being by themselves. The delayed gratification of a friend’s attention, the urge to know what they have said. I am way too high to listen and way too comfortably situated to respond, to bring an outside element in.

Dear Dolly Doctor: live-tweeting big TV events like the Survivor premiere is really good for getting likes but really bad for losing followers. Which one should I concentrate on to maximise my personal brand? Sincerely, Torn Tweeter (VIC)

Recently I watched the entire first season of Married at First Sight—the US version. I was hooked on seeing if these couples would Go All the Way. I kept saying to my boyfriend, but how did they find couples that are so attractive and charismatic? Like every single person on the show was made for TV. And it was so hard to figure out, because they have to get legally married to a stranger. On the Australian version of the show, the couples don’t get legally married, but on the US show they do. What could be more “reality” than watching two people legally sign themselves to each other for life? One girl, a nurse who has pulled herself up from a lower class trailer park childhood with hard work and education and perseverance, has a breakdown when she is forced to do this. She immediately becomes my favourite character, because when I have to make real life decisions I too sit on the floor and cry and refuse to play pretend for the cameras. She was clearly paralysed by fear and I thought, this is the appropriate reaction to have when someone puts you in a white dress in front of a stranger in public with all your family and camera crews watching and says DO YOU TAKE THIS MAN.

So I’m watching this show thinking how are these people so attractive, and my boyfriend’s like, well, duh. It’s television. They’d cast the hot ones who want to get famous. They get a lot of money to do this. And again I’m like: You have to get legally married to a stranger. Why are hot twenty-somethings choosing to get married to a stranger on television? This is not a productive pathway to fame. Nothing about it makes sense. And I look it up, and one of the producers in an interview says that the couples get paid “barely anything” to be on the show. Because they’re looking for true love, duh.

Anyway my favourite girl, breakdown girl, and her husband (who is the least attractive which is unfair because breakdown girl looks exactly like Blake Lively) go All the Way. Two of the three couples go All the Way. (This means that they don’t get a divorce at the end, although it doesn’t mean they couldn’t still get a divorce in the future.) So I look up the couples on Instagram. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I think I’m looking for photos of Christmas mornings and walking the dog before and/or after work and vacation photos. And those things are there. There are sad photos with captions about Jamie’s miscarriage, and basic wifey photos where Courtney is like GOD IS GREAT and everyone’s on the page like I’m not here for this but okay. But when I look up my favourite girl, breakdown girl, I find out she was on The Bachelor. If she used to be a nurse, her job now seems to be shilling copies of her bestseller marriage tell-all, probably ghostwritten. So now I don’t know what I think anymore except: the hot ones want to get famous. They get a lot of money to do this.

My therapist told me lurking is toxic and when I start to want to focus my energies on how other people are doing things I should mindfully begin to focus my energies on how I am doing things and try my very best not to compare the two like, ever.

A girl I used to know is getting married and her fiancé is buying her a birthday present for each day of her birthday month. She posts a daily update with an image of the gift and its accompanying card and bouquet on some attractive kitchen surface. She posts cross-platform to the Holy Trinity. She uses the word “fiancé” so much on social media I can’t imagine how many times she must say it to people irl. This fiancé is definitely graduating to “hubby” status.

One old acquaintance had a kid and makes it stand in front of the back fence which is like, super textural, for a fashion shoot each day. It wears very small versions of the kind of outfits parents who want to look like they’re definitely too young to be parents wear. And there’s this ex-emo I hung out with when I was a teen who still uses the word “w00t” in her Facebook status updates even though it’s 2016 and nobody uses Facebook for anything except sharing links and shitposting anymore.

Most of the girls I went to high school with are grown-ups now, with families and careers. If I went to my high-school reunion I think I would win a wooden spoon. I look at their lives and tell myself: they all think they’ve made it. But I’m the one who’s made it. They don’t even have online presences. Their entire aesthetic is Freedom furniture.

My therapist told me everyone has their own trajectory and those girls from my high school are probably totally happy. Focus on what’s in front of you. I train my inner monologue onto this like a mantra. Focus. It’s 4 am and this guy I dated when I was seventeen has Instagram and he lost the mutton chops somewhere between 2007 and now and I’m trying to figure out when.

Sian Campbell is a freelance writer and the Editor in Chief of Scum Mag. Her work has been published in Spook, Going Down Swinging, The Lifted Brow, and Junkee.

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet, writer and editor. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in SPOOK, Seizure, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin and Scum Mag, and in 2015 she was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers.

* Before I knew this I read somewhere that you could buy Instagram followers on eBay, so I went on eBay and looked this up, and you can. I bought five hundred followers for US $2. I entered my Instagram handle at checkout and the next day five hundred followers were dumped on me all at once which I thought was totally not the most realistic way to deliver fake followers to the kind of person who was anxious and self-obsessed enough to buy followers, because obviously anyone that anxious and self-obsessed (i.e. me) would expect everyone in their life to be constantly assessing their profile page for new and exciting updates, and would notice the sudden increase in their follower count and suspect fraud. The five hundred followers haunted me. They were all bots. Each bot had a really obviously fake, botlike handle like @get_more_followers_free45925, lived in Brazil or Romania, had zero followers and zero posts and followed 12,790 people. All of my followers who constantly checked my profile page for updates would obviously also be checking on their fellow followers to see what they had in common, and would know about my fraud. If I deleted my fake followers I would have to return to triple digits, which was not a zone I was prepared to re-enter. Instagram’s terms of service caused a neat little deus ex machina: I got an email a couple days later notifying me that US $2 had been refunded to my PayPal. When I checked my Instagram account, the fake followers had all disappeared. 

Capital Week: ‘Pressing Class’, by CMG


Photo by Pranav. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. First up: CMG on class and queerness.

this little boy ON MIKE WILLESEE whose father was an

unemployed glass-blower from Newcastle

“i think it’s terrible

that my dad’s not working

because nobody’s making glass swans

and there are a lot of people who

will never get a glass swan now”

— Mary Fallon, Working Hot

In the 1980s on Smith Street, Fitzroy, inside what is now a clothing shop that goes by the affirming and/or cringe-worthy name of Somebuddy Loves You, women who were part of a worker co-op pressed ink into paper. This small feminist publishing collective was Sybylla Press, and for over two decades these workers circulated words that rose from the bodies of women, words that were being defaced or simply refused by mainhouse Australian publishers. The Press was named after Sybylla Melvyn, the protagonist of Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career (spoiler: Sybylla doesn’t have a brilliant writing career). Recently I clicked up an old Sybylla Press poster from the interwebs. In that classic, chunky 1980s lettering that seems that little bit hardier and friendlier than the typefaces we use today, the brown and yellow poster reads, “The freedom of the press belongs to those who control the press.” By making space for women who otherwise did not have a place in print—including Aboriginal women and women who were not straight—these small homes for defiant text also produced a vision of what is possible by owning the means of production. Nowadays, small publishers still exist and publish along the same lines, but distribution is another story. Take, for instance, how a Miles Franklin award–winning novel, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (published by Giramondo), couldn’t be found in major bookstores because of the retail chain monopoly that crushes small presses.

In 1986, a package was left at the door of Sybylla Press on Smith Street. Inside was a rough draft of what became Working Hot (1989) by Kathleen Mary Fallon (who at the time was also “working on Establishing a Credit Rating and A More Convincing Curriculum Vitae”). Working Hot is a novel about love and pain. It’s about emotional work and sex work and their freedoms and constraints. About desires that are direct and intense but never straightforward. It’s about people who are poor and about people who are well-off, and the friction in-between. It’s a playful and powerful account of lesbian love and sex, that tells of women who love women in a world that declares their love can only be a fiction. It manages to sit the languages of high theory and TV together on a bus, that takes the beautiful mess of life and relationships as its window view, and brakes hard just when you think you’re starting to read into a rhythm.

“you have a perfect whip hand said Gizmo the Pimp to Toto in the

café taking her hand and squeezing it slightly as if it were a

precious rotten thing and he wanted to make something

seep out ‘are you a mistress of discipline’

‘no I am the mistress of the marvellous mixed-metaphor want me

to flog you with one’”

— Mary Fallon, Working Hot.

Earlier this year, I went to a Cherchez la Femme “talk on class”, actually around the corner from Somebuddy Loves You (or the ghost of Sybylla). The concluding line of the night was something like “in the Australian context, you can tell class from accent.” Bogans have bogan accents, and snobs have snobby accents. While this was said in slight jest it was also said with a buzz of certainty that made the room shake with head nodding. Suddenly everyone had their own accounts of how they had been class-shamed. My mate turned to me and said how great the talk was. “I remember being so ashamed,” she told me, “on the days my Dad would pick me up from school in a panel van.” The school was a private school. Her Dad was developing a property.

I found this idea about accent and being working class difficult and unfamiliar. It made me remember something I have no memory of: my Dad as a young kid. A small table, overflowing with his brothers and sisters. Sheep brains on floral patterned plates. Dad’s “old man” walking through the door. A day’s work behind him. Hours of bending over to weld chunks of metal together. Hot sparks flicking onto his skinny body. Coming home and hearing his children utter words in that grisly, outer northern suburban Melbourne accent. And hitting each child over the head until they picked up their vowels and held them as round as their dinner plates and as sharp as their knives (not “playyyts”, and not “nyffes”). They were told to speak properly, and eat their offal properly too. These were the stories me and my brothers ran into whenever we dropped a vowel in front of our Dad, or used yeah for yes or nah for no. The heaviness of those stories was enough to tell me that I should “speak properly” or not speak at all. Accent doesn’t speak for class. But it does speak for the caricatures that get in the way when we try to talk about what being working class might mean.

“Don’t worry, the middle class like being offended. It helps them feel better about themselves.”

— A friend telling me to write this article.

Sometimes class is a label, and sometimes it’s printed somewhere beyond your control. The label of class is shifty, sticking itself on you when you want to forget about it, and unread or misread when you stick it on yourself. It’s ungraspable, fluctuating but somehow definitive, maybe more than any other identity category or collective experience. What actually is class? Is it how much land you or your parents ‘own’? Or how much you have in the bank (or under the bed)? Is it your job? Your former job? Your education? Your upbringing? What if you grew up poor, but have an elitist education or job? (What does elitist mean?) If your family are rolling in it but you’re unemployed, what do you call yourself, and what are you called by? What are the right questions to ask about the day to day realities of class and what it means to people?

Among all the talk of neoliberalism and capital, where do we turn to hear about social capital, which says so much about how people move through space, and is so much about the pressures and dispositions people carry within them, and then let out into the world? Being variable in such immeasurable ways, social capital often impossible to pin down – sometimes transacted in silences, glares or other untraceable subtleties that don’t accumulate visibly in the way cash does.

“C., don’t you know, the red wine doesn’t go in the fridge.”

— A rich friend after I put red wine in the fridge.

I am consciously ashamed, and ashamed that I am ashamed, of where I grew up, and what it was like to grow up poor and then realise it (beetroots don’t just come in tins?). One of the places where I grew up—in my teenage years as I was becoming class conscious—was on the industrial outskirts of a small regional city. In the few years I lived there, a baby was murdered across the road from my bedroom window, and there were bushfires that took homes and a life. As the generic country-queer-kid story goes, I didn’t know anyone queer and I wanted desperately to move to a big city and find ‘people like myself’. When I did, I found myself relieved to share in a sense of queer community. But something still felt different. It was being among middle-class city dwellers while being working class and queer, and not having a story to fall back on that spoke for both.

“Do you think my family are bourgie?”

— A lover to me after a budget dinner at my Mum’s commission flat.

Once my Dad showed me one of his scars from working. The scar stretches the width of one of his gentle hands, on his palm. The tissue is white and ropy. He cut it from an accident with a box cutter, after he left school at fourteen to work. When he showed it to me was one of first times I felt there was something not right about being poor.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever pinpoint what exactly feels not right about growing up poor and being queer, but I’m not sure I want to, either. Because identity is not static. Class is not static – everyone’s realities differ. I’ll spare you the “now, more than ever” drivel, but maybe holding the power of literature and life narratives close to our own bodies is one way to put pressure on class, as a coherent category and as an incoherent reality. Not necessarily as a way to find the answers, but to ask the questions.

Places change over time, as does the way we move through space and where we look to locate identity. We can try to map the coordinates of class to pinpoint ourselves and each other, but I think there is something vital to be learned from the workers of the old co-op presses and the works they pressed out to contest oppression, like Working Hot. They worked (out) class off-grid, on their own terms, and on their own paper, and they came together like letters and words can to turn questions into readable visions.

CMG is an intern at Writing from Below, a gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal. She is a cricket enthusiast (it’s only boring sometimes), and is currently completing her Honours in English at La Trobe University, Melbourne.

TLB32: The Capital Issue – Editorial by Annabel Brady-Brown and Zoe Dzunko


We write this editorial on the morning after Donald Trump took the stage as president-elect, promising to “bind the wounds of division.” That division, borne from disparity and dissenting opinion, is the fire his populism has at once inflamed and utterly dissuaded. Difference, informed opinion and discussion, the vast and complex spectra of human experience, these are the tools of progress.

Ours is a moment lived between the poles of nativism and radical tolerance; we awoke this morning to find ourselves hurtled catastrophically towards the former, while the majority of the world faces a daily fight for freedom, safety and equality. Confronted by this situation, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that what we’re doing here, making a magazine, is a frivolous if not feeble act.

In these moments, we return to what we know. That the tyranny of solipsism and self-interest can only be toppled by an empathy which liberates the mind of its prejudices. We return to our visionaries, our incisive and expansive thinkers, like the great Carl Sagan who reminds us, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Diversity, debate, critique of ourselves and the systems which put us here: these are our tools.

The Brow stakes its claim for existence upon a collective form of resistance via nurturing. In the face of the nihilism diagnosed by the likes of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, “the pure destruction of useful things for the aim of increasing financial capital,” we create and we pour invisible money into a beautiful hole.

This Capital-themed issue advocates for kindness, for language, for art that rages, while it acknowledges its complicity in what feels like an increasingly awful world. Everything will not be fine. But from grief, from shame, tender visions can sprout and their “wealth” may trickle out.

Through its muralist approach, the contents of this issue locate the anxieties produced by the logic of capital on external bodies, structures and the through lines of our lives. Not only do we hope to interrogate ideas of value, economic and immaterial both, but by enumerating those expenses in the ledger at the centre of this issue, we seek to make transparent the social relations that produced this object in your hands; “the majestic and murderous stupidity of that organisation of time and space and fuel and labor” (Ben Lerner).

In negotiating this magazine’s legitimacy, we acknowledge the many hours that disappear into its production; the often below-minimum-wage-all-the-way-down-to-zilch payment that accompanies a life in the creative industries; the blood on our hands. Consider it an internal memo made public, an exploration of the potential autonomy of labour from capital. Hold these pages close, but be sure to ask how they got there.

Announcing Stranger in the Dark – an Intimate Affair Between Krissy Kneen and You


I don’t fuck like your lover fucks—tired from a day of work, pausing to ask if you turned the heater off in the loungeroom, stopping to switch their phone to silent or to kick the cat off the bed. You know how I fuck now. You know it in the split of your hips. Deep in the bone of you. I don’t need to tell you, but I will.

The Lifted Brow are excited to announce a new project for 2017: Stranger in the Dark, a serialised erotic fiction written by well-known Australian author and longtime Brow contributor Krissy Kneen. Here’s how Krissy describes it:

Stranger in the Dark is an affair. It is an affair that you will have with me. You will need to relax, to let me take control. You will need to breathe steady and deep, and try to stop your heart from beating too fast.

Twelve months, twelve emails, twelve parts of a complicated puzzle. You will assemble it, month by month. The story will take shape, through dream, through nightmare, through sex. What takes place is between me and you. What takes place is definitely not safe for work.

Write back to me if you dare, you never know where our tryst will take us. You won’t know where this will end.

All I know is I need to fuck you. I need to do it in words. I need to do it at a distance. Are you ready? You look ready. Feel me now. I’m ready.

I am waiting for you.


To start receiving emails from Krissy, sign up here. She’ll be in touch once a month, starting in January.

‘The Science Fiction of Iraq: a Review of Iraq +100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion’, by Evan Fleischer


If much of the modern geopolitical landscape is defined in its earliest inflections by Iraq—Bush’s decision to invade, Obama’s decision to oppose, and all the ramifications that followed (Syria, Russia’s myriad interventions there and elsewhere – with China providing humanitarian support to Assad’s regime, too)—then a collection of science fiction imagining a gasp of fresh air in the form of an Iraq one hundred years into the future is potential light flooding into our vision after history bursts through its escape hatch. (If history can do such a thing.) It’s why the anthology Iraq +100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion published by Comma Press caught my attention.

And what is offered here by way of an escape hatch? In ‘The Gardens of Babylon’, a tiger-droid is hacked and circles “pointlessly in the air, above everyone’s heads.” In ‘The Day By Day Mosque’, the Tigris River has disappeared, which “some theologians”—per Mortada Gzar, the author—“have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers.” In ‘Baghdad Syndrome’, “Old names and surnames became dangerous things to hold onto.”

At the level of line, there are numerous instances that attract the attention: “Faint moustache,” reads one, “like a sparrow’s tail feathers.” “The Americans would give me back the ear that fell into my pocket,” reads another. “They’d fix my ribs and intestines, they’d remove the shrapnel still lodged in my body, and they’d tell me, ‘You’re just great, Mister Sobhan.’”

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While these stories are well written—often pleasantly written, even—and I’m glad that the book exists and that the authors took the time to contribute to the anthology, something struck me while reading it: it wasn’t the fact that the stories were blunt warnings hovering over outright precision, editorials clamouring for human space in the middle of a growing digital landscape where the reading habits don’t seem as well tuned to the idea of human space as they otherwise could be (where is the ‘Mr. Rogers of the Internet’ for instance?). It wasn’t the fact that fear of loss of memory rang out through story after story (let alone the love of memory) or the fear of the past being unable to carry its own into the future (whether it took the form of someone being crushed into a diamond for singing a song, the memory of the past itself being reclassified as a ‘syndrome’, or a student showing up for class dressed up as Gilgamesh.) It was the fact that each author looking into the future left me with the impulse to urge them further, in the hopes that they could wrest a jangle of ideas out of the future and drag them back to the present.

And I’m feeling that for obvious reasons.

On November 8th, I went off to vote in a small snow-globe of a town singing Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’ with ironic playfulness. The sun was out, and—finally sensing the end of the worst Presidential campaign I could ever recall, not only for what was being implicitly proposed, but for its complete lack of substance, too—I was starting to enjoy myself. We were so close to being rid of the nonsense. I voted and called my mother on point of principle: the day was just as much hers as it was anyone else’s.

Hours later, I was walking down a dark, nearly deserted road. A woman in her pyjamas with a cigarette in her mouth swung an American flag she was carrying, letting it hit the top of the Clinton-Kaine yard sign. “Damn it!” she said, quietly. A few minutes down the road, a car sped by and someone shouted, “Make America Great Again!” I would later joke to friends that it felt like the entire country had entered The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, and we could still see the door hanging open, the outside still visible.

As an American who cares about his country, the world order, and the future of the planet; as someone who had a friend in high school head off to the war in Iraq and tell my grandfather who was a POW in World War II with great enthusiasm about the prospect of it; as someone who watched his grandfather tilt his head and face down a bit with a fraction of “Oh, I see” disappointment; as someone who has been mistaken for being Jewish and Arabic more than once in the aftermath of September 11; as someone who’s friend was in Tahrir Square during the throes of Egypt’s first hopeful flush, and who once knew a stateless poet who came to this country from Kuwait; and finally, as someone who has heard time and time again of the effects multiple tours of duty have had on soldiers, even at the level of those tellingly dark, small, sarcastic comments, I wonder about their future and whether or not they’ll be okay. I wonder how Iraqis will feel in thirty or forty years, and whether or not they’ll still be okay, as well as what feelings art like this must by dint of necessity hide. I wonder how many Americans thought like this in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, and I wonder how well a country tilting itself towards the idea of ‘good’ can account for itself to a future iteration of Iraq given what could happen with the incoming administration.

It’s yet to be seen whether or not this moment and this election will be a geopolitical inflection point the size of Iraq, or whether or not it will be able to be contained or transformed for the better. It’s yet to be seen whether or not we follow the path outlined in ‘The Corporal’, the third story in the anthology, where a dead Iraq soldier returns to earth 100 years into the future only to ask, “What has this man said, about Iraq saving the American people from dictatorship, and bringing them back their freedom … and then the whole thing about American refugees in Iraq, could that be right?” It’s yet to be seen who will march, who will sing, and who will Rainbow Coalition themselves over the hills up ahead like a pack of Hannibal elephants coming to the rescue.

Evan Fleischer is a writer-at-large. In addition to The Lifted Brow, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications.

TLB #32: The Capital Issue – On Sale Today!


Photos by Alan Weedon.

Issue number thirty-two of The Lifted Brow—the Capital Issue—goes on sale today.

TLB32 features writing and visual art that reflects on commerce, economics, and cultural capital: a diverse variety of words and visual art dissects the relationship between capital and the current state of the world. TLB32 directly attacks Simon Birmingham’s statement about creative fields as a “lifestyle choice”. There will be additional surprises with how it will be published, distributed, and sold.

Contributors include César Aira, Fiona Wright, Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, Sam Wallman, Ellena Savage, Matthew Hickey, Scott Esposito, Benjamin Law, and Alí Calderón.

Issue 32 also features detailed information from each and every contributor, editor, and person involved in the making of this issue. Information disclosed includes the hours of labour spent on the piece by various people, the fees paid, and much more.

Issue 32 of The Lifted Brow features:

  • cover art by Sam Wallman, with bonus fore-edge art also by Wallman;
  • nonfiction from Fiona Wright, Scott Esposito, Ellena Savage, Daniel Schoonebeek, Briohny Doyle, Matthew Hickey, Sam West, Carolyn D'Cruz, Daniel Levin Becker, Angela Serrano, Lech Blaine, and Rhea Bhagat;
  • fiction by César Aira and Allee Richards;
  • poetry by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, Alí Calderón, and Safia Elhillo;
  • comics and artwork from Merv Heers, Rudy Loewe, Amanda Baeza, Sasha Velour, Emma Davidson, Michelle Baginski, Eloise Grills, Michael Fikaris, Melissa Mendes, Keith McDougall, Roxane Lumeret, Tommi PG, and Leonie Brialey;
  • and, as always, Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny’s sex and relationships advice column.

As ever, subscribers—no matter where they live in the world—are the first to receive their copies of the magazine. If you don’t subscribe (why don’t you?), you can find out more about how to get your copy here.

To celebrate this issue, we will run a special week of ‘Capital’-themed content on this, our website, from December 5th onwards – featuring excellent words that didn’t quite suit the print issue, as well as content especially commissioned for the website.

Finally – if you’re in or around Melbourne, Australia, on the night of December 9th, we’d love to see you at our launch event for this issue.






‘Lynette Wallworth’s ‘Collisions’, and how Terra Nullius lives today’, by Lauren Carroll Harris


Photo by Piers Mussared, courtesy of Collisions.

“The spirit of my gods rising up to speak with me. And the water holes boiled.”

— Nyarri Nyarri Morgan.

In the 1950s in the Pilbara desert, ash rained down along with the bodies of kangaroos. Only twenty years later did he hear the words ‘atomic bomb’. It was not the gods, rather a British weapon tested as part of the extremely secret operations called Buffalo and Antler, which detonated seven nuclear bombs in Australia’s centre between 1956 and 1963, leaving lasting radioactivity.

In Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s 17-minute virtual reality documentary Collisions, a mushroom cloud rises, angled high above us. “I saw the spirit had made all the kangaroos lie down on the ground,” continues Nyarri. “As a gift to us of easy hunting. So we took those kangaroos and we ate them. And people were sick.“ Everything was poisoned: the air, the water, the blood of the people themselves.

I swivel around in my chair as a flake of black ash flutters toward me. I follow the arc of a roo’s corpse, black as hell, as it comes towards me and falls behind, and I feel like I’m seeing the bomb through Nyarri’s eyes.

Wallworth first heard about Nyarri, an elder of the Martu nation, four years ago, having just visited the bomb site of Maralinga in South Australia, 2000 kilometres north-east of Perth.

“Nyarri was walking around in the desert when Britain was testing nuclear bombs, before he had any contact with any other culture but his own,” says Wallworth in a short film about Collisions. “This complete collision with Western technology and one of the oldest cultures in the world. What he saw and how that impacted him, I think he’d been waiting his whole life to tell the story.”

“We took the [virtual reality] camera there [to Nyarri], he looked at it and said, ‘It’s got sixteen eyes.’ And it’s got four ears,” adds Wallworth. This means that the audio cues sync with the visual cues: my ears heard what my eyes saw, regardless of where I turned in my swivel chair.

“Fundamentally, we’ve used the newest technology to talk about something ancient in this country,” Wallworth continues. “The Martu’s sense of stewardship, how you look after something for a hundred generations. That’s what Nyarri wants to share.”

Spherical shots encircle both the starry sky and the orange ground. Collisions’ visual imagination enlivens that stewardship and the notion of an entire ecosystem. I had the sense that every blade of desert grass, every leaf, every drop of ash: all of these things were alive and moving and enlivened further by the spaces of air between them. All is active within the film. To speak of Aboriginal land after seeing this film is limiting and false: Collisions makes you realise that even the stars form an essential part of Nyarri’s worldview. In terms of aesthetics and mindset, virtual reality is the perfect form for expressing this holistic Indigenous worldview. Wallworth’s sixteen-eyed camera is 360 degrees, all-encompassing in a way that cinematic experience—limited to one-point perspective in a single visual frame—could never be. When Nyarri restores the nuked lands to sustainability by control-burning spinifex, we can arch our necks and trace the arc of the smoke from his fires, rising from earth to sky.

From training cadets in the US armed forces to providing ramped-up gaming experiences, VR has been enthusiastically adopted for commercial and military applications, But Collisions offers proof of VR’s capacity for art in the form of narrative non-fiction film-making. Wallworth has also brought out the technology’s capacity for building empathy through immersion: “To place the viewer in relation to this community, to this man who wants to tell the story, and give a sense of place, not just what it looks like in the desert but what it feels like under that huge sky. The camera allows you to feel like you’re in his home.”

The opening scenes are exemplary of this: by sending the VR camera up with a drone and taking us over Nyarri’s country, I was immediately reminded of the paintings of Paddy Bedford and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who both seem to bring a birds-eye view of the land: abstract shapes recall rivers and geographical contours and outlines of harbours – Gods-eye without God, with a sense of aerial spirituality instead. The overhead visuals of drone-enabled VR seem compatible with the abstractions of much Indigenous art.

The name ‘collisions’ brings up something deeper, too: what Wallworth has called an “extreme cultural interruption” is a collision that is still unfurling, not a lapsed aspect of past history. The film made me think of the eminent American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ question of whether you can reform a political system of governance based on plunder – in Australia’s case, a colonial settler society and the lie of Terra Nullius, a found myth that has never been fully retracted in the mainstream Australian imagination. The myth is so huge, so uncorrected and so downreaching, but Wallworth is striking back against colonial narrativisation and the still-dominant idea that Indigenous stories and systems are quaint native traditions that belong in the past.

Collisions’ portrayal of nuclear testing in Aboriginal spaces made me realise the great contradiction of this myth and its lingering colonialist view of Australia as a dead-hearted, empty land: that the wealth of Aboriginal ecology is what makes that land so desirable and exploitable to colonisers and capitalists. Collisions shows how the resources of the Indigenous nations—the iron, the ore, the gold, the copper, the opals, the trees to fell, the spring water to bottle, the barramundi to farm, the space in which to grow wheat and corn and rice and slaughter cattle and cut into real estate and build houses and test weapons—are integrated and essential parts of an Aboriginal worldview that extends from beneath the ground into the air and up to the stars, with unquantifiable spiritual value. But to free-marketeers, and those who permitted the nuclear testing, this abundance has a dollar value that is both tangible and constantly renegotiated. Maralinga’s expansiveness was what made it so attractive for testing.

If a land is truly empty, then why is it worth occupying? You cannot say a continent is worth nothing and worth taking from. The wealth of contemporary Australia, and the mad unsharedness of that wealth, is the evidence of that central lie. Through personalising the story of nuclear testing in the Pilbara desert via Nyarri’s recollections and survival, through uniting and mediating his memories with the right approach to story, sound and vision, Collisions is a vital exposure of this cross-eyed view of Australia’s centre as both valuable and expendable.

Collisions is also significant for its departure from much of Australian cinema’s Anglo-centric representations of blackness. It is not about white people’s encounters with blackness, rather, it is about one Indigenous man’s experience of colliding with a society that is essentially hostile to him and his people, country and spirit. Collisions does not use natural elements, like water, as a metaphorical critique of disturbed Aboriginal-white relations, for instance, the drowning of an Indigenous woman in Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006). It is not about an enlightening white encounter with blackness, for instance, Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1970). It is not a white portrayal of Aboriginal mysticism as in Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996). More akin to Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013), Collisions is a film in which a non-Aboriginal artist has collaboratively given over their resources and skills to give an Indigenous person a chance to author their own story, to discuss in their own voice the conservation of the memories and spirit of a place and, in this case, of Martu knowledge. In other words, it is not about the descendants of settlers and convicts moving towards Indigenous people, but enabling Indigenous worldviews and stories to reach beyond Aboriginal people to a wider public. It enables an ecological dialogue about the relationship between a place and the restoration of a peoples’ spirit, as it makes visible yet another absence in Australia’s history books.

Nyarri experienced something profound in the fifties: a violent clash between old nature and new weaponry— the weaponry of an imposed society—and he and his people will always carry that story with them. Although the film is upbeat about Nyarri’s peoples’ commitment to conserving their spirit and their place, the central collision the film speaks to remains active. Cameco and Mitsubishi are now planning a uranium mine called Kintyre in the ranges between two branches of a creek called Yantikutji, in the heart of Martu country. Preservation and home, care and place, are at the heart of Wallworth’s beautiful film, and those values are at odds with the political and financial system of today, which is itself the poison. By exploring new cinematic expressions for Indigeneity, Collisions suggests another way we can live in this country, which is stewarded so carefully by Indigenous nations, and always has been.

Collisions can be seen for free at Melbourne’s ACMI until January 2017, or by downloading the Jaunt TV virtual reality app. More information about the Martu people’s efforts to protect their home are available at

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist, published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, The Guardian Australia and others. She researches cinema at UNSW as part of her PhD, is a contributing editor to Metro, and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).