We are very excited to announce that our cover for Intan Paramaditha’s Apple and Knife has been shortlisted in the 2019 Australian Book Design Awards!
The awards celebrate the bravest and brightest, the most original and beautiful books published in Australia, so we’re stoked they shortlisted Apple and Knife in the Alamy Best Designed Literary Fiction Cover category. It stands alongside a stunning a range of cover art, which you can check out on the full list.
Creating covers for our Brow Books titles has been a really fun business, and making one for the short story collection Apple and Knife was no exception. We even shared a bit about the gooey process behind the final cover here last year.
Credit goes to the cover’s creative directors and designers Brett Weekes and Rosetta Lake Mills, photographer Percy Caceres and hand model Annur Yusuf.
And, of course, Apple and Knife would not exist at all without Intan Paramaditha and the hard work of editor Elizabeth Bryer and translator Stephen J Epstein. Congratulations everyone.
This is the first time a Brow Books title has been shortlisted for a cover art award. What a year we’ve had so far!
Thank you all for reading (or for at least staring at our covers). We can’t wait to make many more jazzy, goopy, bright, slimy covers for you all.
Winners for the Australian Book Design Awards will be announced on 31st May. In the meantime, you can read more about Apple and Knifehere.
INSPIRED BY HORROR FICTION, MYTHS AND FAIRY TALES, APPLE AND KNIFE IS AN UNSETTLING RIDE THAT SWERVES INTO THE SUPERNATURAL TO EXPLORE THE DANGERS AND POWER OF OCCUPYING A FEMALE BODY IN TODAY’S WORLD.
These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.
Mara finds herself brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads, with a little help from the menstruation-eating hag of her childhood. Jamal falls in love with the rich and powerful Bambang, but it is the era of the smiling general and, if he’s not careful, he may find himself recruited to Bambang’s brutal cause. Solihin would give anything to make dangdut singer Salimah his wife – anything at all.
In the globally-connected and fast-developing Indonesia of Apple and Knife, taboos, inversions, sex and death all come together in a heady, intoxicating mix full of pointed critiques and bloody mutilations. Women carve a place for themselves in this world, finding ways to subvert norms or enacting brutalities on themselves and each other.
Here a scalpel makes an opening, a splint frames a gesture.
Here bodies arrange into patterns that reveal a natural order and a law.
Here you think ‘poetry is a thing preserved’, an agreement between form and possibility.
Here all information coheres as knowledge.
Here an articulation of limbs, assuming the shape of a grammar.
Here a closed system, in perfect correspondence with the world.
Here a structure more satisfying.
Here be monsters, named and numbered, filed away.
dawn, too early for questions like
‘does the jar exist when no one’s looking?’
what upside down means to a bat—
drained of its knowledge
skin peeled like a glove.
Only in stillness can you pin it to the corners of understanding.
Wing parted to sell you a watch
it ushers you to a place where fallen trees
stand back up. Look long enough
and you’ll see yourself reflected there
in the glass, among the rows and shelves
amid the vases and vitrines. There
where it’s always spring, before dawn.
Fadi, Leila, Michael, Georgette, Paul, Helen, Elie, Rosa, Antoine, Josepha, Peter and I have arrived at an abandoned warehouse rooftop nightclub called White Beirut. Everything is a stark, blinding white, except for the people. You’re only allowed in if you adhere to the strict dress code: you must be dressed head-to-toe in white.
Hot pink and aqua coloured strobe lights beam across bright glossy white tables, booths and stools, illuminating those wearing neon coloured fedoras. It smells like someone has thrown buckets of ice and vodka over everything. The glasses and the floor fog up with mist, so if you put your hands to the glasses or to the floor like a game of Twister, it leaves a precise, crisp handprint. There’s no space to move without touching another person. Random strangers, both male and female, grab us by the shoulders and kiss us on each cheek three times, like a threat. I squirm at first but put up with it because I have trained for this day back in Australia, growing up in Redfern where the only social gathering we’d attend were church hall barbeques in which everyone in the Lebanese-Maronite community kissed you even if they didn’t know you. By the thirteenth kiss, my head moves from cheek to cheek with rhythm and dexterity. We’ve only just arrived but already my carefully swirled makeup starts running like calligraphy in the summer heat.
The twelve of us walk in like we’re the disciples of Christ—a motley mix of Lebanese youth from the northern village of Kfarsghab, nestled in the mountains three hours away, and their Lebanese-Australian descendants. We inch our way in, strutting like the brothers in A Night at the Roxbury. Georgette and Leila walk hand-in-hand with their fake Louis Vuitton bags in tow. I lose my balance because the floor is slippery like lube. Michael, a loud, confident Lebanese-Australian guy from Meadowbank, who is always in the front row church pew at Our Lady of Lebanon and who is from the same village as my father but not related to me and who comes to Lebanon every year to see his relatives, lifts his hand up. He’s holding his phone out in front of him like a staff, trying to part the crowd because his last name is Moses and he takes it literally. But nobody budges, they stand still and rooted to the ground, like sculpted golden wax statues, auditioning to be extras in Kanye’s ‘Famous’ video.
The Beirutis glance casually at us and they all seem to dry retch. They can smell the sunscreen on us, so they know we are from Australia, as though our Lebanese-ness is a prop. They look down at us with their air-brushed faces. One woman turns, and her fake breasts almost knock out her friends. All of the women’s noses are suspiciously small and straight, their fake eyelashes rimmed with actual coal, because in Beirut they do not fuck around. One woman’s lips are so freshly plumped with injections, it looks like she did it at the bar. She stares straight at me and pouts. I stumble back on my stiletto heel from the sheer force of her.
Another woman I recognise amidst the clubbers is Miss Lebanon Australia. I know who she is because I used to stalk her on MySpace, followed by Facebook after she won, and regularly Google her to find out which hair products she uses. Then she dated my cousin Rob for two months and I had to stop myself from saying, “Good to see you again.” She wears a small silk Versace dress, her boobs perking under a slab of Swarovski crystals, her long legs towering in clear plastic platform shoes—you can see right through them. On her arm is a shiny olive-skinned man, a perfectly trimmed beard dressed in a white robe with gold trim and a Rolex watch—he must be a millionaire Saudi. The local men hover around Miss Lebanon Australia like clumps of congealed glue, wearing billowing linen shirts unbuttoned all the way down. Every few minutes you get hit in the face as one of the women, and some of the men in the club, flick their long, black hair extensions in your face, whiplash.
The girls in our group—Leila, Georgette, Helen, Rosa, Josepha and I—look at our outfits and then each other. Helen’s “Made in China” label is hanging out of her synthetic white dress, flapping gently. We make a run for it to the two booths we have booked two weeks in advance. The girls are embarrassed because they can’t afford expensive designer clothes and I am embarrassed because I am wearing their clothes thanks to an unfortunate miscommunication around the dress code (usually I wear ethically sourced fabrics made locally in Melbourne or Sydney). We squeeze and pour ourselves into the booths, hoping to take up less space, elbows and knees digging into soft flesh. The boys—Michael; Paul, who is Michael’s brother; Elie, the son of the village Sheik; Fadi, the village clown; Antoine, our driver (who is my third cousin); and Peter, my friend from Sydney—follow us reluctantly. They spread themselves out, draping and flopping in all the spare holes left by the women. Michael, Paul and Peter begin scanning the room for their future wives. Elie, Antoine and Fadi are, on the other hand, judging the women like they’re Peter at the gates of heaven. My Arabic is not good enough to understand everything they’re saying, but I hear the word sharmouta—slut—at least seven times.
To my right sits Josepha, a nineteen-year-old from Ehden. Her name is Josepha because her dad really wanted a boy and was too sad to think of a new name so he just added an A to the end of Joseph. She has the same light green eyes of her older brother Antoine, but that’s all she inherited, luckily for her, since Antoine looks like a bloated pig. I’m mesmerised by how “not Lebanese” she looks with her fair skin, freckles and green-grape eyes, and because of her high pointy cheekbones, big breasts and slim frame. She is a poor man’s Adriana Lima. She seems bored and disinterested, her head on her hand as she flicks through photos on her iPhone 5. I smile at her desperately. She doesn’t smile back. She is the only one the Beirutis approve of thanks to her nonchalance and white-passing natural beauty—the men and women grab at her, lift her from her seat and suck her into the vortex. In her wake, she leaves her pudgy, moody brother, who stares at me and looks away when I catch him.
Three large chandeliers shaped in a circle hover from the sky. Tall thin palm trees sprout from the ground and tower over us. Four young women clad in white angel wings, bikinis and little else dance on the bars, stepping over drinks and waving white pom poms. The lights start to flicker so fast, people look like they’re moving in slow motion. A giant screen that hangs from one end of the club says in capitalised English: ‘THIS IS BEIRUT’—in case we had forgotten. Electronica house music drones on and on in a repetitive trance with three competing DJs elevated high on floating stages. The bass is shaking the ground and the walls, pummelling through. It rises in crescendo until it climaxes.
The music here is even louder than at Lebanese weddings back home, the ones where the speakers were turned up so high that mouths would move but no one could hear anything, so you’d wildly gesticulate instead, knocking over the seafood sticks and labne mezze plates.
Suddenly the music changes. A woman sings out, like an Arab Christina Aguilera, deep and throaty. The DJs play a mix of house music with French and Arabic thrown in like an unwanted guest, but the crowd loves it anyway, singing in the same breath, “We’re up all night to get lucky... boos el wa wa!”
Next, an Arabic–French hybrid song comes on that I keep hearing everywhere in bars and clubs through-out Beirut. Most of the song is a group of voices singing together. “C’est la vie,” it sings. “La la la la la. That’s life. We’re going to love and we’re going to dance. La la la la la la.” There is no translation for the five “la’s.” The song always makes me stop and remember I’m not alone, that there might still be someone out there who will lift me up and give my life purpose, even if that purpose is just to wave my arms around like I’m drowning. And yet it also reminds me that I am alone because I was dumped three times in the space of a year by Khalil, a Leba-nese-Syrian refugee from Sweden. Each time I was more surprised than the last, believing that it was just a matter of time before Khalil and I would end up married with kids, following the same path set out for everyone in my community. When it didn’t happen over and over again, I was left without goalposts, the map ripped out from under me, starting over and on my own without protection. My hands fall limp to my side. I snap out of it and notice that everyone is adding their voices to the chorus, all hands raised, no longer conscious of how they appear, particularly Paul, who has climbed over the bar and fallen into an ice bucket but is still, somehow, dancing.
Some people around me stand up and climb onto the seats and tables and start gyrating on top of each other, spilling drinks, their bodies, their sweat, blending together in a blur. I stand up too, so as to not feel left out, but I get knocked over immediately by a stray heel and grab at the marble table for balance. It feels hard under my palms.
Antoine leans over and whispers in my ear. “Good to show skin!”
I ignore him although I know he’s referring to how I arrived at the club wearing a modest black baggy dress and stocky Mary Jane flats. I didn’t know there was an all-white dress code. They had me take Leila’s spare dress in the parking lot (she always keeps a wardrobe of clothes in her car in case of emergencies). Leila, who was the daughter of the sheik and could normally be seen in the village wearing jeans and a hoodie, had now seized the opportunity to squeeze into a lace bodysuit and tight mini shorts. This prompted Michael to say, “She was hiding that body under those baggy jeans!” She pulled out a handkerchief from her purse, waved it around like a flag and then dangled her white stilettos at me like keys. I squeezed into the thin, crepe-like material which fell across my arse and was so small, my breasts were spilling out.
I keep flicking my brown hair over my chest to cover myself but it’s not long enough to conceal my breasts and I can hear my mother and my sita screaming at me from Sydney to cover myself before someone puts something in my drink, or worse, I catch a cold. I fold my arms over my chest and hobble around the booths, like I’m holding something between my legs.
“Wow, you look Lebanese now!” Antoine says, making me wonder if looking Lebanese means looking constipated.
“Why you don’t talk to me?” he adds, English broken. He has already drunk half a bottle of whiskey in the fifteen minutes we’ve been here. I’m pretty sure he brought the bottle in with him because he can’t afford table service. He gets mad if anyone tries to pay for him, even though he works in the fields picking fruit and his weekly salary wouldn’t cover a meal at Icebergs in Bondi. On top of this, he has to help pay for his family of six siblings, who all still live at home in the village. With each sip the buttons on his shirt stretch, making hourglass-shaped gaping holes over his protruding hairy belly. “When I see you first day from rooftop, I swear hat Allah, my heart stop, I fall in love at first look,” he shouts over the music, his round, droop-ing face completely red, choking and spitting out each English word. He’s talking about the time I was exiting my cousin’s beat-up Mitsubishi, swimming in sweat from the tight-dark-faux-denim-skinny-stretch jeans I wore on the plane because I thought the stretch waist would make them more comfortable. Spoiler alert: they did not. I had patches of sweat under my arms and I smelt like a damp cloth dipped in urine after pissing myself a bit during the death-defying car trip.
“I looked like shit,” I reply.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s why I know... this true love.”
I mime throwing up. He swats my hand away from my lips with too much force and I hit the inside of my mouth, scraping my inner cheek.
“Don’t touch me,” I say.
“Don’t be rude,” he replies.
“You’re not my type,” I say to him.
“What this mean?’ he says.
“I’m too good for you,” I say, because saying he is simple and basic, dropped out of school, works in the field picking fruit, believes in antiquated gender roles, isn’t very attractive, and keeps trying to pay for every-thing with money his dad gave him but is secretly relieved when I offer to pay, even though he pretends to get mad at me for paying, is too hard to translate into Arabic.
“And anyway, I’m pretty sure we’re like distantly related or something,” I reply. All around me the club-goers are singing, “Turn the lights out now!”
“Killoun cousin,” he says, which means, everyone is a cousin. He’s not wrong. If I’m being really honest with myself, it’s not that we might be distantly related; it’s that I have already cast judgement on the type of guy he is—the hyper-masculine wog type that pretends to joke about you going back to the kitchen while your mothers and aunts are literally in the kitchen, so you know it’s not really a joke at all. The type of guys who remind me of my distant cousins back home who laugh when you say you need to study. I have convinced myself that I am not like anyone else in my family or my community, and so I have always found reasons to reject anyone who brings me back into that world.
Michael orders table service at the booth and a waiter in a white vest and white leather pants screams out, “Yalla, vodka here!” and single-handedly brings a giant tray of oversized frosty bottles of Grey Goose vodka in crystal ice buckets, and jugs of orange juice. A disembodied hand gives me a delicate glass of what I think is vodka, and I take a big gulp and drink it in one go before they have time to add orange juice. Detached hands appear to pull me up and I am hoisted onto disembodied, floating shoulders. I am only sure of one thing: that there are lights bouncing off my exposed arse cheeks like a disco ball. I can’t seem to move my arms and legs. My head dangles around like a broken doll. Everything goes from white to black.
I wake up in a single bed, the tube dress so tight and drenched in sweat, it feels like it has melded to my skin. I reach around for my phone. I’m surprised when my hand touches the cool, cracked glass screen of the iPhone 5—it feels like it's something that would have disappeared. I squint and see that I have no wifi because, priorities. I then notice the time. It’s 12pm the next day. My eyes are darting everywhere and my hands are shaking. I try to lift my head, but it’s full of metal. I roll over but the bed is so small, I fall toward the yellow lino floor which looks like vomit, still holding my phone like a weapon. I fall into actual vomit which was camouflaged by the colour of the floor and smells like rancid butter. I look at my hand, wipe it on my sleeve.
Up from the ground I spot another single bed on the other side of the room. That’s weird, I think. Who would ask for two single beds? I squint and see a naked man lying there, his back covered in red dots where the hair used to be... I gasp and let out a nervous, childish giggle when I notice two hairy butt cheeks protruding in the air—it seems rude to me and betrays my shy and prudish sensibilities.
I look away and commando roll out of the room. I am in some kind of garden oasis with draping ferns hanging over concrete, pot plants lining the path in front of me. I crawl to the front desk. “I need to report a kidnapping,” I say from the ground, looking up at the man at reception, who spreads out his arms on the counter like he owns the hostel.
“Shu?” he says, leaning forward, his voice lined with smoke, hand tapping an ashtray.
“I have been kidnapped,” I say.
The owner laughs like a bloated walrus. A man who is carrying a bucket and mop asks him in Arabic, “Who is this drunk American girl on the ground and why does she smell like vomit?"
The owner replies in Arabic, “It’s the Lebanese-American girl who was brought in last night by her cousin, be careful, she might understand Arabic.”
“I have no cousin!” I scream in English. It’s a lie. I have hundreds of cousins. “And I’m not American!”
“She speaks, walla!” the cleaner says and sniggers at me.
The hostel owner looks down at me again and frowns, his mouth turned up in one corner like he pities me.
“See here girl,” he says in Arabic, “I don’t care what you are. If you village people want to come and have sex with your cousin, that’s fine, just be quiet about it.” •
The last time I was supposed to write something like this, I had to postpone indefinitely because of my sleepless baby. That was more than a year ago. I still haven’t written it.
The mother is to remain still most of the time, ever worried, poised to wake up if the child falls asleep, poised to stop mid-step, if she is running, ever ready to remove and to arrange and to groom and to wash.
I met the editor of The Lifted Brow Review of Books at ‘Sleep School’ in Footscray. I was wishing that a big hole in the ground would swallow me up. We bonded over literary interests while eating institutional sandwiches and smuggled-in Ethiopian food.
It’s time to go back downstairs, like I said I would. To go and see the baby, to touch the baby. I should just start rolling, like a marble, and like a marble tumble all the way back down the stairs, unstoppably.
The summer before I became pregnant, I crashed my bike on a wet hill in Coogee, NSW. I don't remember it. In hospital, the nurses asked whether I might be pregnant, whether it was safe to go into x-ray. I didn't know – was I still seeing Ryan? My friend leaned over and reminded me that we had broken up months ago. I was devastated.
After the birth and the massive blood loss there was an operation, then several transfusions. A series of disasters. Then the septicaemia arrived to crown them all. I only heard about this afterwards…I would think, Something bad must have happened, and then I would go straight back to sleep.
A piecing together of fragments. Zombie blowflies dancing around the room. The occupational therapist would only let me out of hospital if I scored 100 per cent on the memory test, three days in a row. It took me a week.
The blowfly of that other night needs shooing. Last time we ended up with a dead cat, and nobody should die today.
But, what is this? There is no blowfly here, I think, and I hit my head against the wall. I run upstairs.
I met Patrick through Tinder. I took the morning after pill. Four weeks later, I was pregnant.
I give up: I can’t remember the first time I disappeared inside the parenthesis.
I told some friends; that it might be ectopic. One sent me a study about how abortion is not traumatic.
Only a few among them had chosen to have children, and these outliers took great care not to betray a shred of maternal sentimentality in front of the others…
Those women, chewing on the tips of their spoons and biros in agony, were stuck between the right to have a child and the duty to have a child. They formed long queues at the clinics of psychoanalysts and pedicurists.
When I was twenty, I spent a year studying Latin American literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Classes would go until 11pm; we would stumble out of the old cigarette factory on Calle Puan to eat greasy chorizos in white bread rolls and drink litre-cups of Fernet with Coke. I wandered the city, unencumbered, hunting for the books we were supposed to be reading. I went for a weekend trip to Tigre with some of my fellow exchange students. I didn't really want to be there, in that
mundane, man-made place of pilgrimage, that barely exotic version of a jungle known as the Paraná Delta, a place he admired as if it were a painting or a prehistoric bone.
It was muggy and dark. I feared loneliness. My legs were bitten, aggravated.
That night when I went swimming in the Paraná river, turning back seemed difficult.
I drank too much red wine, ate too much grilled thymus. I woke up at five AM and vomited across the walls of the fibro toilet shack.
I should have left, but I’d decided a few days earlier that I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to stay, at any cost, as long as I could afford to. I was even prepared to practice the strange gymnastics of self-sacrifice, if necessary—to flux my voluptuous female imagination, to believe in tragedies, like believing in a storm before the afternoon has yet turned black.
In the weeks before Sleep School, we walked the streets, with the baby strapped to our chests, hoping that she’d fall asleep, stay asleep. The baby started crying whenever I passed her to Patrick. My back ached, my head reeled. “She just wants her mum,” he said. I’m not that kind of mum.
“Ladies first,” he said as he opened one of the bevelled glass doors.
“I’m not a lady,” I explained.
“A woman, at least?”
“I’m not a woman either.”
… “This wasn’t meant for me, I’m not one of those women.”
Patrick shakes me awake – “she’s crying, you need to feed her”. But I’m snuggling in, “she’s right here”. He grabs the baby by the scruff of her neck, pulls her out of my arms, holds her in front of me: “this is not the baby. This is Pooh Bear.”
“Where’s Isaac?” Ivan asks me now. Finally, he turns around. He thinks he’s overcome the feeling of mistrust he felt towards me; he doesn’t realise he’s about to discover an even greater motive for it.
Breastfeeding made me pimply again. I pick at my face: at real pimples, at imaginary pimples. I hide in the bathroom. I do it after Patrick’s asleep, or while he’s too busy to notice that I’m spending too long in the bathroom, that I’m too quiet.
My breasts had seemed like two errors, a millennium-old misunderstanding. I would have liked to walk out naked and say: This is nothing, you know, it’s just a mammary gland with a slightly more sensitive bit on the end, surrounded by hair, and the skin covering it is coarse; Look! Look at this! Look at these little pimples, bring microscopes!
My face is red and raw. I try to cover it up with a face-mask. It dries beige, with darker oily patches around my nose, lips, and chin.
“You’ve gone back to your sums—I see your little pieces of paper, I find pieces of paper and I think: it’s happening, just like before, it’s all over.”
Maternity equals contingency: one must surrender to it, embrace it.
After giving birth, I only wanted to read books about early motherhood. With desperation. When I read Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, on recommendations from baby-less friends, I couldn’t get over how puerile their concerns seemed. I’m sure I would have loved those books before. Instead, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labours jolted me with biting observations and metaphors (baby as puma). Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped made me feel less alone. Sarah Menkedick’s Homing Instincts annoyed me, but reminded me to try to enjoy breastfeeding while it lasted. Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready spoke to my un-readiness, provided a literary path for unplanned motherhood.
Beside my bed: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.
None of my pre-baby friends wanted to talk about these books with me.
Should a mother review Imminence? Does my experience matter to anyone but myself? Should the recognition I felt upon reading the book count for anything? Does it give me some kind of authority?
The unexpected pregnancy. The spectres of men. The resentment of a woman’s body, of maternal-biological entrapment. The uneasiness with one’s own child. The female friends who talk about maternity as failure. The fear of being abandoned. The apartment in Buenos Aires. The long drives into regional Argentina. The dreamlike domestic disasters: the baby’s cot falling apart, the flooded junk room on the rooftop terrace.
The ‘I’ is unnamed. The voice is calm, almost sinister. The action takes place over a single night and yet it includes a history of multiple interwoven and turbulent relationships, as if time were suspended (sleepless nights, delirium) and people merged into each other.
Reading Imminence was an experience of over-identification. Every page was a blowfly that triggered some recollection of my own. I felt like a selfish reader; now I’m a selfish reviewer. Contingent upon the text, unable to step back from it.
No: the first time I put myself in a parenthesis, nestled safely between an x and a y, must have been with Ludmila.
Instead of inside a parenthesis, I put myself in the main clause. I was often lost, reading Imminence. The tangents sometimes went so far off course that I scrambled to find my way back. It’s as if the story itself is inside a kind of meta parenthesis. It was easy, too easy, to detour via my own life events.
One way of attempting critical distance, in the process of writing this ‘review’, has been to remember that Imminence is a translated text. The translator is Alice Whitmore, a lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at Monash University, and Translations Editor at Cordite Poetry Review. Dimópulos is a translator, too, from German and English into Spanish (Castellano). She has written a critical study on Walter Benjamin’s work. Benjamin also wrote about translation.
That year in Argentina, I attended a course called Las Problemas de la Traducción en la Literatura Latinoamericana del Siglo Veinte (The Problems of Translation in Twentieth Century Latin American literature), run by Professor Patricia Willson. I learned about the history of Argentineans translating from other languages into English, of the magazine Sur (1931–1970), which brought writers such as Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, Carl Gustav Jung, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jean-Paul Sartre into Spanish (or, more accurately, into Castellano, the de-nationalised language they speak in Buenos Aires) for the first time.
We read German translation philosophy: Friedrich Schleiermacher; Walter Benjamin. Schleiermacher (translated by Susan Bernofsky) identified two possibilities for the literary translator:
Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.
In the first mode, the translator foreignises the translating language, bringing it closer to the language of the ‘original’. Schleiermacher writes:
…in the first case the translator is endeavouring, in his work, to compensate for the reader’s inability to understand the original language. He seeks to impart to the reader the same image, the same impression that he himself received thanks to his knowledge of the original language of the work as it was written, thus moving the reader to his own position, one in fact foreign to him. …[T]he more precisely the translation adheres to the turns and figures of the original, the more foreign it will seem to its reader.
In the second, the translator aims to write a version of the ‘original’ as if the ‘original’ author had herself written in the translating language. To move the foreign writer towards the reader is an act of assimilation, imitation, or even ventriloquism. The ‘original’ text is made foreign to itself through its apparently seamless transference into another language. This approach presents a number of challenges: how to convey the significance of the ‘original’ writer’s linguistic innovation in the translating language; how to estimate the way in which the ‘original’ writer would have written in the translating language; how to distinguish thought from language. Schleiermacher concludes that this goal is “not only unattainable, but is also in itself null and void” because thought and language are inextricably linked:
No one has his language mechanically attached to him from the outside as if by straps, so that one might, as easily as one would unharness a team of horses and replace it with another, harness up a new language as it happened to suit one’s frame of mind; but rather that each person produces originally only in his mother tongue, and that the question of how he would have written his works in another language ought not even to be raised.
Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (translated by Harry Zohn) provides a metaphorical framework for reading translations. He writes: “like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.” A translation might convey the translatable aspect of the original, but is only able to do so by shrouding it in an excess of language.
…just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point…a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.
There is no perfect translation except for an exact transcription of the text, but we should embrace translation (indeed, multiple translations) as a way of continually renewing the ‘original’, allowing it to reach its “most abundant flowering”.
I haven’t read Dimópulos’s Castellano version of Imminence. When asked to write this review, I wrote to my friend Malena, who I studied with in Argentina, asking whether she had read the ‘original’.
No tengo nada del seminario, en mis mudanzas fui tirando todo. No conozco a Dimópulos. (I don’t have anything from the seminar, I threw out everything during my moves. I don’t know Dimópulos).
Malena did tell me, however, that she was about to give birth, that she was having contractions. I imagine her now, in labour, unfolding her new life.
It’s too late to try to source a copy of the Castellano now. I’m writing this review while my toddler sleeps, my university assignments press upon me.
While reading, I look for those clunks of Schleiermacher’s first method – is Australian English being foreignised here, is Whitmore bringing the reader towards Dimópulos’s Castellano?
I only notice one thing that might suggest it: Whitmore’s repeated use of an italicised oncemore, without a space between the ‘once’ and the ‘more’: “Oncemore it’s a Bagley biscuits box. Oncemore it’s night”; “when I came in oncemore to deliver a bottle of wine”; “It was oncemore a rented venue with a cheap castle façade...I walked in and oncemore I chose a table at the back”.)
My Spanish (Castellano) is rusty. I can’t figure out why the two words should be elided:
Una vez más = once more
Otra vez = once again
De nuevo = again, anew, afresh
Perhaps it's a translation of además: also, besides, further, additionally.
It doesn't really matter what the original word was. The point is: reading oncemore made me remember that book was not originally written in English, that it’s set in a world away from here. That it doesn’t describe my life.
In a piece about Australia’s broadening taste for translated literature in The Conversation in 2018, Whitmore writes:
In the face of mounting political isolationism, translated fiction might just be the thing to save us. Translation provides a kind of window (if a temporary and sometimes foggy one) onto the experiences and imaginations of people we would never normally have the chance to observe.
For the most part, though, Whitmore’s translation employs Schleiermacher’s second method. Dimópulos’ text is brought almost seamlessly into the English language. The prose feels fluid, studded with surprising metaphors and similes: “With her simple face like a crayon drawing.” Captivating and yet altogether familiar. So, the window sensation was mostly unapparent to me.
I can’t blame my over-identification with the text on Dimópulos, or Whitmore. On fragmentary writing or on modes of translation. On the fact that I lived in Argentina once. I blame it on the passionate loneliness and the sleepless fever of my encounter with motherhood. I hope you will forgive me.
I must have faith. The angel of contingency must be suspended from some building, somewhere in the city.
Stephanie Guest writes and studies in Naarm/Melbourne. She is one half of Guest, Riggs, a literature x architecture practice. Their piece ‘An Architecture of Early Motherhood (and Independence)’ won the 2017 The Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for experimental non-fiction.
Travelling around the northern hemisphere, a good chunk of time ago, I’d arranged to stay in [name of large city] with the relative of a close friend for a night or so. He lived in a share arrangement with two women artists. When he spoke of them, it was with a kind of dreamy reverence, something a more prudent guest might have clocked. Who knows, too, how he felt about a visitor, about the effort of hosting someone two steps removed? Guests are an interruption, a kind of work, after all. It was confirmed over email and, following a train-bus combo from the main airport to his suburb, he met me somewhere I can’t recall and seemed pleased enough, even excited, that I’d arrived. We were about the same age, were known to sleep (at least sometimes) in hetero configurations and were both officially single. That day we traipsed around the city, stopping in at drinking establishments, meandering through galleries, careening around parks. I still have a photo of him clinging to a playground merry-go-round, giddy in the sunshine.
I had the brittle exuberance of someone who, three days earlier, had left a small city and with it the cherished body of a serious, life-altering love. The latter didn’t have a future. It was a classic case of Being Rejected—by a person and by circumstance. Three days and a plane, train and bus ride later, I was ‘getting on’ in the aftermath—gadding about in various metropoles, meeting creative and clever people. Living my emptied-out life to the fullest.
Consent and rejection. In what follows, you’ll witness my attempt to navigate their cahootedness, or more precisely the glue in their cahootedness, which, I’m going to argue, turns out to be anger: anger and its relation to rejection; consent’s absence and its relation to anger. Angers plural, in fact. I’m proposing that there are two types in the hope that the ruse of this division can help me think through a volatile topic.
In drafting this essay, I’ve been aware of walking a line between privileged glibness and constructive provocation. To lean on that classic (third-wave) feminist move, let me disclose my position: I have an income, my own bank account, am not heavily constrained by religious or family expectations, and I don’t have kids with my sexual partner. These factors weigh in considerably to some of the things I’ll say below. (I am not my grandmother, in Australia, in the Catholic Church, in the fifties, who still left my abusive grandfather, with her four children, and raised them on a hospitality worker’s income. My position is light-years from hers). Some of the things I write below may not work in your current situation. With your own money (or not), with secure housing (or not), with dependents (or not), and so on. Some of the things in this essay, we could call utopian. A utopian vision that speaks as if our NOW aligned with our society’s preferred self-image—in the media, among some of the hopeful youth, in our tiny, lucky enclaves—but which, as we all know (even if we can hardly bear this knowledge), really isn’t here yet. I know this and so my querying proceeds off the outrageous and aspirational base notion that we partner with people we choose, that we are in position to leave them if we so choose, and—finally—that the people we partner with are not dangerous, are not loose cannons. These assumptions are very pretty, and also not what many live.
A friend, whom I consider wise in a rare way, once told me something about desire. She’d worked for a decade as a counsellor for couples of every ilk and persuasion—gay, straight, older, younger, newly besotted, long-term—hence she had a pretty good sample size to ground her speculations. She’d observed that when anger is operating somewhere in a relationship between two people, then there can be affection and affectionate gestures but, in most cases, there won’t be desire, or not for long. Through the haze of anger, the other seems simply undesirable. Enduring anger, then, will tend to mean either that sex slowly gets replaced with lots of ‘loving’, sweet but not very ‘sexy’, behaviours, or (my extension of her theory) that there might be regular instances of compulsory congress—since contemporary folk can be committed to diligent, frequent sex as a to-do list item—but things won’t tend towards elated tumbling, scintillating eroto-brilliance or throat-catching swoons. The sex, if there’s any at all, basically won’t be very hot or very happy. So goes my paraphrasing of her concept. It’s stayed with me for years. I’ve called on its logic when sex in my own relationships has dropped off and I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) work out why.
In this essay, sex operates as a metonym for probably a few things (if you’re not interested in sex per se). It’s a name for a context where, theoretically, we encounter a person (or persons) from whom we want something. Sex can name our coming up against what and how we want. If sex—as activity, not as category—then, involves desire, it works as a reliable laboratory for what it feels like to want and to wrestle with our atypical and ordinary tendencies in relation to that. Sex can reveal us to ourselves because we never quite behave or want in the ways we expect; even if we seem to repeat, nothing—technically, ontologically, really truly—does. It’s different every time; we are different every time.
We might, via sex (should we allow this to include quite a wide range of behaviours) come to dignify our quirks and vulnerabilities, our inventions, styles and vectors of wanting, as well as wants dropping out. We may get better—over time and as we develop discernment, and if life offers this scope—at finding people who are compatible with how we want. People who are, by definition, somewhat different from us. Different, not necessarily due to their obvious bits(this conventional logic clearly no longer stands), but due—I’d suggest—to the ways in which they want to give and receive, to how they express and play out the wantings they have.
Jacques Lacan, the famous reader of Freud and psychoanalytic clinician, has a diagram with some arrows and quantifiers and functions. It attempts to capture one depiction of how we can be different and how this difference is not gross or fleshy, not blatant in the ways we’d assume. We need someone with whom we don’t quite match, in order to match. Missing each other is an inevitable part of wanting something from the other. Thus, the sex at issue involves at least one other person; it involves our wants happening alongside another’swants. Part of the deal, then, is everybody’s favourite pastime: negotiation.
(It’s really not everybody’s favourite pastime, you say. I know that, I reply.)
After this nice-enough, even mildly zingy, day with my overseas-city host, we inevitably headed home to his flat. My luggage (dumped in the hall initially) had ended up in his room; I learned that there were no spare ones. When I tentatively inquired about where I’d be sleeping, he motioned to an extremely ad hoc bedding situation involving some blankets and a length of foam, barely- adult length, which was wedged between the wall and his queen-sized bed, jammed up against the dresser. Now, as a guest, one is well accustomed to showing gratitude for all things the hosts provides. You shouldn’t, in other words, quibble. In [name of large city] such hosts are probably saving you somewhere between 70 and 250 AUD a night—and that’s for modest accommodation. So, you’re grateful and polite; you take what you’re given. On the other hand, there are ways of showing hospitality, not to mention chivalry, and his approach in regards to both of these left something to be desired.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Antonia Pont lives in Melbourne and works at Deakin University as Senior Lecturer in Writing & Literature. A long-term practitioner, she also runs a yoga school in Melbourne’s CBD, where she and others collectively research non-violence, intentionality and the mechanisms of change.
Ali Chalmers is a designer / illustrator from Sydney.
We at Brow Books are absolutely thrilled to announce that we have signed up two more novels by Jamie Marina Lau, author of Pink Mountain on Locust Island. Brow Books has secured world rights to both books, with the first, Gunk Baby, to be published in 2020, and the second, Fuji, to be published after that.
This news is particularly exciting as it happens just ahead of next week’s announcement of the 2019 Stella Prize winner – Jamie’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island is shortlisted. Don’t forget: from now until the announcement on Tuesday night, you can get Jamie’s novel (as well as Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, also shortlisted) at a 20% discount at our online shop.
We can’t wait to publish Jamie’s next two novels so that you can get them into your hands. We promise you that they’ll be quite unlike anything else you’ve read.
In Gunk Baby, we join Leen just as she opens an ear-cleaning and massage salon at the Topic Heights Shopping Complex. Soon she starts to notice increasingly odd behaviour around her, and also it seems that managers of other stores are being killed off. In nonstop prose, Gunk Baby takes aim at orientalism and the Zen movement, violence, fashion, and middle-class boredom.
Fuji is a novel of five interlinked parts, revolving around ‘The Centre’, an organisation responsible for recreational and therapeutic virtual reality, and also for holographic memory-keeping. Mothers, daughters, simulations, motorcycle gangs, : all are caught up in this story of paranoia, obsession, addiction, possession, and love.
Jamie Marina Lau (劉劍冰) is a 22-year-old writer and musician from Melbourne. Her debut novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Readings Residency Award, was shortlisted for the2019 Stella Prize, the 2019 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and was longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. Her writing can also be found in various publications. She is currently studying film and literature, producing music, and working on more fiction.
empty chip packet blows past / gimmicky flavour something like sauce
inbox full of sweeties
u roll over easy / spend tomorrow sunning urself
in their proximate light
gate spills out into bottleshop
maybe you’ll be the one to make brisbane cool again
u do it from footscray / do it from anywhere
no longer required to stay home
& ur bad housemates are more anthropological
now the lease is up in a month tell me
if there’s attraction in the unknown
why isn’t the stock market sexy?
a new walk home seems meaningful but often isn’t
an empty bathroom feels ominous & often is
postie’s got a new route so is preoccupied with birds
antenna knocked the balcony down & brought
spring with it
someone’s talking shit now i guess you’ve made it
someone’s taking the express train to see u
“ur still a baby now” or maybe a bottle opener
lifting a lid on ur own satisfaction
one foot in the harbour & lacing up the other
ambition like a fist / u release it
waiting on the footpath as the morning opens
When my brother hocked my violin for the third or fourth time, along with mum’s gold necklace, she asked me: “Are you actually going to practise if we get it back?”
I was eight years old and had taken up the instrument with the singular aim of joining Irish pop sensation The Corrs. While I reasoned I would eventually replace Jim, the redundant Corr brother, I wasn’t sure how I’d negotiate an international touring schedule from Sydney’s inner-west while I finished school. I rarely practised.
“No,” I answered honestly. So we bought her necklace back and left the violin at the pawn shop.
It was usually the same shop on King Street with a yellow MONEY LENT sign out front. It was quiet inside, dimly lit.
Mum would rummage around in her handbag among whiteboard markers and crumpled unmarked exams, past lidless lipsticks often breaded with tobacco that had escaped from broken cigarettes and, eventually, pull out the pink docket and smooth it on the counter triumphantly before the store owner.
“The pawn shop people would react differently depending on how they were feeling,” she remembers. “I didn’t always buy them back. I never got the gold watch back or that beautiful necklace your dad gave me.”
I’d always believed the store’s owner was a malevolent merchant, feeding himself and his entire family with the profits he reaped from my pinched Gameboy. A visit to the store inevitably heralded a sleepless week worrying about whether my brother was in a gutter somewhere—a situation that I felt this man had wilfully initiated, magicking my grandmother’s nicked ring into drugs or grog.
I was a tiny, tired sleuth who had memorised the clues in our house that would ultimately steer us towards the shop—an open drawer, a longneck clumsily hidden behind a curtain, the sour scent of pot smoke, an intangible sense of shame. Once we ended up there, I’d quietly browse the glass cabinets, trailing the furious lead detective as she argued with the shopkeeper, who I quite frankly found to be an unreliable witness. Years later, when I saw class actions had been filed against Cash Converters for their exploitative interest rates, I felt vindicated.
“[Your brother] was known to them in Newtown because he was always flogging stuff and he went to the same one,” Mum says. “He was nicer than the average drug addict.”
In July last year, someone posted a picture of the shop in the Facebook group Newtown 2042, announcing it was closing for good the following Tuesday: “It has been a family business for over 100 years and looks exactly like it does in the pic.”
“I got my first guitar in that [shop] in 1977,” one person commented.
“I went in labour there!” one woman wrote.
“Such lovely people! What a shame to see it go,” another said.
“Soon to be another fucking frozen yoghurt shop.”
“Beautiful people! Time to retire and enjoy retirement! Go travel the world guys! Best of luck!”
My mate Millie’s family has run a constellation of hock shops dotted around Blacktown for the past twenty-five years.
She opens the roller door and flicks on the fluorescent lights in the windows for a day of Sunday trading. In the front window sit electric keyboards, amps, Star Wars collectables, a May Gibbs 1995 coin set replete with commemorative gumnut baby medallion, a $99 Versace handbag labelled FAKE and some hefty chainsaws.
A woman comes into the shop with a sixties Black Bakelite Rotary Dial Telephone, a pair of Oakley sunglasses in a case with the tag, and a retro wooden train set. She is en route to pick up her friend who just got kicked out of rehab and has nowhere to go.
“I’m so counting on this money for a packet of cigarettes and some petrol,” she says gratefully.
We all talk about the rising price of cigarettes.
“Whenever I get all of my stuff out of hock my mates are like ‘oh my god congratulations’.”
I’m sitting behind the counter when a toddler wearing pink pyjamas waddles in confidently towards a cabinet of figurines.
“Every time she gets pocket money, she wants to spend it here,” her mother tells me.
The girl decides on a purple kazoo. Her mother hoists her up to the counter where she proudly unfurls her chubby fist and lets a $2 coin drop into the manager’s hand. She looks at each of us one by one to make sure we’ve all witnessed the magical transaction.
“Pocket money works,” the mum says. “How many three-year-olds do you know who make their bed and put their clothes in the wash?”
A man comes in with an Xbox. Millie tests it out on a screen next to the cash register. He says he’s been waking up at 2am in the morning to play the multi- player shooter game Fortnite with competitors overseas.
“It’s so addictive,” he says rolling his eyes. “And then I’ve gotta get up and go to work.” He leaves with $80.
A young man walks in holding a ratchet. His hood is up and he is staring at the floor so I also turn my gaze downward towards his boots which are caked in mud. Dirt is smudged across his left cheek like warpaint but he looks defeated.
He puts the ratchet on the counter and mumbles that he would like $40 or $50 for it. Millie is warm but firm.
“I don’t think you’ll get anything close to that mate,” she says.
He insists it was $90 new.
Millie Googles the model and politely shows him the screen. It is $38 new at Bunnings. I busy myself with some receipts.
“Do you have any other tools?” she offers. He returns from his car with tin snippers. He leaves with $20 all up. iPhones, jewellery and power tools are the most common items people sell or loan against.
“We tell people not to loan for more than they need because they’re paying interest so you can put in a $10,000 ring and just get fifty bucks if that is all you need,” Millie says.
There’s a stainless-steel baseball bat behind the counter just in case. I watch the CCTV footage of a fight that had spilled into the shop a few weeks earlier. There’s punching and shoving, and eventually one of the men picks up a chainsaw from the shelf and threatens the other man with it. Millie says one of the men came in sheepishly afterwards to sell something and she had to say: “Mate, you know I can’t serve you.”
I wondered where he went with his stuff and whether someone eventually said yes.
I thought about what my brother would have done if the shopkeeper had turned him away. He would always find a way to get fucked up. In anything-anonymous meetings when someone describes how creative they were in finding a way to relapse, there is knowing laughter, a collective grimace.
“Why are there so many?” I ask, pointing to a stack of brand-new boxed violins.
“Some of the stuff we buy new in bulk to sell, like those, and phone charger cords and guitar strings,” Millie’s brother, the store manager, tells me.
I wonder if my violin would even be worth selling these days.
In the back of the store are all the goods currently loaned against in hold or bought items that haven’t made it onto the shelves. There are a dozen air conditioner units—“because it’s winter,” Millie explains—as well as a signed Cheech and Chong poster and a wheelchair.
On one of the shelves sit stolen items in plastic bags with police event numbers attached.
Millie says it isn’t in her best interests to take stolen goods because the store loses money once the police return them to their rightful owner.
“Sometimes you can ask all the questions in the world and if people have a good story and can lie it won’t matter.”
This happened a few weeks ago when Millie loaned against some antique trumpets which had been stolen.
“I should have just asked her to play a few notes,” she says bitterly.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and find many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Gina Rushton is a journalist at BuzzFeed News where she writes about issues that affect Australian women. She was previously a reporter for The Australian.
Rosemary Vasquez-Brown is a Sydney-based illustrator/animator/anything that lets her draw everyday.
To celebrate these two incredible books by two wonderful authors in Maria Tumarkin and Jamie Marina Lau, we’re offering 20% off from now until the announcement, when you buy both or either books from here at our online shop.
Before the book starts, on a page between an extract from James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street and an Ingeborg Bachmann quote, both dealing with the concept of time, there is a list of characters, their various names, and their relationship to Ali. It is something of a relief when I know a book is about to fail. Or, more graciously, when a book admits it is about to fail, and instead of covering it up, the author moves the story headlong into this admission. The admission forges something communal that goes beyond the novel as object. This book will not be clear, tight, perfect, but I have persevered with as much as I can offer. By accepting the admission, that the author will not achieve everything they want to, I agree that I will do my best to meet them somewhere in the middle. The weight of the flaws is shared, lightened.
When I meet this admission it feels like I have the book to myself. It feels like someone has trusted me and by doing so I have been gifted additional time to understand. Sasha Marianna Salzmann is a celebrated playwright in Germany, and rather than a novel, I think of this book as a performance of failure. An extended demonstration of the limits of language. The futility of trying to explain yourself, fully, with a story. Salzmann, and her translator from the original German, Imogen Taylor, admit this from the outset. The book opens, “I don’t know where we’re going. All the others know, but I don’t.”
Beside Myself follows Ali as she travels from Berlin to Istanbul in search of her brother, Anton, who has disappeared. Their only clue is a tourist postcard sent from Istanbul with nothing written on it. While in Istanbul they meet people who want to help find Anton—a relative of a friend back home, Uncle Cemas, and the transmasculine Kato—Ali does not seem to search for their brother in as much as she is constantly finding him, most often in their own reflection and in other people’s reactions to her. The search, then, is a pretext upon which Salzmann and Ali play out deeper considerations of inherited family trauma, migration, gender, language, and the elusive certainty of identity.
Beside Myself is difficult to follow; intentionally so. While searching for Anton, Ali discovers black market testosterone and begins to transition without an endpoint in mind. Despite being the book’s protagonist, Ali is frequently absent from the book’s many generational narratives. In Moscow, Chernivtsi, and Odessa, her grandparents meet, fall in love, study, drink, divorce, emigrate to Berlin. In Berlin, Anton and Ali grow up together with a closeness that fuses their identities. Also in Berlin, her father falls from a balcony. In Istanbul, Ali is caught up in the occupation of Gezi Park. Across all these narratives and places, Ali tries to piece together a history that makes sense of themselves and their causeless trauma.
There is, very often, too much going on in this book. And yet, the more you read the harder it is to look away; the harder it is to say enough, the weight is too much. It’s messy and spans generations and continents and in everything it’s failing to articulate it feels like everything I am failing to articulate. Nothing is explained by a sentence and rarely even by a scene, things only make any semblance of sense when a chapter closes and even then, the sense is illusory, lost as you turn the page. So what is it that Salzmann has done? She has attempted something doomed, knowing it will fail, and offered the failure to me as a reader.
When I read books I think about myself and sometimes when I speak to other writers about these reactions they can feel selfish and silly. Silly, because I am not noticing the intricacies of craft, or I am noticing them but I am not teasing them out, I am not working to understand them. I have to admit, what I work to understand most is a book’s emotional effect on me. This might be a very millennial queer response. It is, I think, what we are most successfully accused of being – a bit self-absorbed. It is still relatively new to be queer and allowed spaces and time and colleagues in queerness to develop a language for our experience. To work out what it is like to be queer, and how it differs from heteronormative expectations of a life. And the language we are developing is rarely perfect and does not fit for everyone in the same way that not every heteronormative narrative fits every heterosexual. Not everyone can or wants to get married, have two children, and own a house. But while these expectations are still oppressive for the heterosexual people who do not adhere to them, the mere presence of an aspirational expectation, as opposed to a denigrating expectation, simultaneously releases an amount of pressure. They know what they’re ‘supposed’ to be and they will work out something that deviates from that. Sometimes as a queer person, I struggle even to know what I am supposed to be. It felt good to come out as trans, I had worked out I wasn’t straight (didn’t want the husband, kids, house) but once that had been established I found myself without touchstones. I could try to compare myself to heteronormativity and work out where I was different, but such a comparison, even as something to differentiate myself from, was so irrelevant the comparison had become obsolete. I could not push off against it anymore. I could only look at it and think ‘that is certainly a hard stone’.
There is a scene in the book where Ali is at a party in Berlin and she sees a boy, Elyas, across the room. Ali and Elyas are both wearing “well-fitting shirts. The other guests [are] a mass of fluorescent polyester tops, pink singlets, black leather open-toed shoes, faded trucker caps over unkempt hair, yellow faces with red lips, orange lips, black lips, glittery lips.” Over the course of the party they edge incrementally across the walls they are both standing against. “They headed towards one another, slowly, not purposefully – they had no purpose; they didn’t know what they wanted of each other, not the usual, that was for sure.” They wordlessly close the distance between them, but as their shoulders are about to touch a girl throws herself between them and the moment is lost.
They find each other again later, hiding under a bed in someone’s room. The moment is charged between them and they want to kiss or touch but they understand the connection between them is not sexual or romantic, it is something else; it is simply enormous. They don’t know what to do with it if not turn it physical. It is the failure of what is already known to inform the present. The consummation of the truth that not every queer connection is a sexualised one. It is the realisation that there is much left to discover about what it means to be humans together. Ali and Elyas are two complementary types of queer amid many other types of queer, all thrown together, corralled into a party in Berlin, regardless of what they have in common. “They lay there breathing, uncertain whether or not to kiss; their needs were so different, but they didn’t really know what else to do. Kissing would definitely have been easier than not.”
Beside Myself is attempting so many narratives at once that, inevitably, things are left out. Nothing is fully explained. Every narrative is obscured. Late in the book, Ali talks to her mother Valya in their mother’s kitchen. Valya begins to explain, at last, her version of the family history. But, in the middle of her narrative, Ali gets a migraine and floats out of her body, watching the conversation from above, straining for presence. They catch snippets of information but even here, when the history is being told chronologically by one of the characters involved, the narrative breaks down, becomes unclear.
I tried to imagine the picture those eighties women must have had of Moscow, but saw only swings buries deep in snow, their rusty frame sticking up into a sky criss-crossed with white streaks. What a shame, I thought, that I can’t imagine more. I was having trouble thinking straight.
What this book tells us about the loss of heteronormative expectations is that even if we’re following a different path, we need something resembling a guide. The guide can be useful even if it is something we’re moving away from, even if the guide is behind us rather than in front. When Kato asks Ali why she wants to start testosterone therapy, they tell us:
I hadn’t prepared an explanation. I didn’t have a speech ready, or a confession – not even a vaguely worded wish. Something in me had spoken and I followed the words that flew out of me like birds, assuming they knew where they were going. Migratory birds have compasses in their beaks that take their bearings from the earth’s magnetic field; they know things with their eyes shut; they know everything as long as nobody breaks their beaks. So I trusted them. I let them fly and followed them and decided it must be right, more right than anything I could have come up with if I’d sat down and racked my brain for words.
The magnetic field provides something to move through; invisible but instructive all the same. To me, what identity writing does, what queer writing does (even when imperfect!), is attempt to raise the field. To summon something tangible, physical, and crucially, something reliable.
Hearing people talk of the world as if they could rely on it always makes me feel lonely and helpless. They speak of being sure about things; they tell you how something was or even how it’s going to be, and it always makes me acutely aware of how little I know about what might happen next. I don’t even know what I’ll be addressed as when I go to buy cigarettes.
The book refers constantly to the limits of expressing ourselves in words. Instead, the book’s central family only ever approach understanding through closeness, and presence. By demonstrating, not saying, Beside Myself instructs us to close distances, to be as close as possible, to sit next to someone while they explain themselves, even if you can’t comprehend what they are telling you with exactness. Anton’s disappearance sets off the push and pull of closeness and understanding between Ali’s singular identity and their family identity:
I watched my grandparents moving slowly around the room, twiddling the knob on the radiator, opening and shutting the curtains, putting their hands on each other’s shoulders. Now that they’d opened up to me, arguing in front of me about the possible interpretations of their lives, muddling their way through the various phases and stages, I felt that I owed it to them to say something about myself – not sidetrack them again by talking about books. I wanted to tell them a bit about what I’d done in Istanbul, how I’d tried to find Anton. And about the stubble on my face….These polite, reserved people I’d grown up with had revealed something of themselves; these people I’d seen cry over politics and social security payments had forged a path for me, and now, with their broad, open faces and piercing anxious eyes, they sat naked before om, making me feel I was hiding behind their beliefs about who I was.
At the end of last year, me, the person writing this review, visited my grandma in Sydney. It was the first time I had seen her since starting testosterone therapy. I have changed, only in small ways, but in ways I felt certain someone who had held me as a baby would notice. I have never told my Grandma that I identify as trans non-binary and to be honest I don’t think I ever will. It does not seem necessary and I feel no compulsion to explain why, only to say that it is not out of fear. I was nervous when I stood at the dining hall door of her nursing home and waited for her to come over to me. This was a few weeks before Christmas and there was a stall where she was buying something. When she had handed money over and took her purchase she made her way towards me, then she touched my face and said, “Hello darlin’ gosh you’re beautiful, here’s a gift for you, pet”, and she handed me her purchase, which was a tea towel with a lot of dogs printed on it. Later, on Boxing Day, she flicked through a photo album and asked me, “is this you?” It was a photo from Christmas Day 2002 of my older brother, shirtless, wearing a silver chain, short hair, black-and-white satin boxer shorts. It looked like me now, as I write this.
Ali recognises something similar in her own grandparents:
I’d returned from the Bosporous as a version of myself they didn’t know and didn’t question – or if they had, they hadn’t ever let it show. They treated me like something familiar in a different disguise…Or maybe I really was still the granddaughter they knew; maybe I looked no different to them. Close relatives always store a younger version of you in their memories, superimposing it on the aging, changing body that visits them once a month, once every six months.
The book is not an impressive novel, the language is not always successfully poetic and the structure is not tight or quick. But as a work operating within the burgeoning mode of ‘identity’ it is exciting and enriching. Identity writing can often be messy, unrefined, does not achieve or exceed the expectations of conventional modes, but it is not without value. It fails often, in order to fill a void. To lay ground, or raise a field. As a work that uses narrative to demonstrate the limits of narrative, it is fascinating. Beside Myself is a book that requires work but it is work worth being lost in.
Oliver Reeson is an essayist and screenwriter. They co-created and wrote Homecoming Queens, a web series commissioned by SBS about chronic illness in your 20s.
every single one of us knows that work sucks
we secrete moments between it to
POEM BITE FUCK it’s 7.42pm friday I’m standstill in a sushi house
redfern street, deli lights, veggie roll—
this is not enough
off to the Metro to see the Whitlams
this is not Gough this is not dough
this is not cinnamon avoid
sugar words, avoid processes,
arid bark, arms and David Marr
this plastic bag swings around my wrist and scratches
this fledgling in a mushroom ATTEMPT
a brown paper bag is still a thing
the sign at redfern station tells me to KEEP LEFT
to finish a poem feels like a game of stacks on
at the Metro there’s a Ural on the ground
and finally midnight comes—I sneak into your bed
should be at home but I’ll squeeze out an hour
a lemon, a lime, a mangosteen,
a mandarin without skin, no white artery
a sliver you feed me
I bite it / juice sinks
AM I A DOOR / SIX POEMS SAY (YES)(?)
after John Forbes, for G.D
is regret a type of antiHOPE?
pockets empty till monday but who carries cash these days.
it’s always King Street are there no other streets
donation-based mediation on Enmore emotes
we use coconut oil as lube, yeah, ok,
it does stain the sheets but skin absorbs the rest
eventually. we’re soft. like an 18-year-old’s
first night out at The Townie
& you walk me around the curve like the swing that I am.
last night was vindaloo. or butter chicken.
or karma. or lassi.
mangoes bob through my poems like thought bubbles down a stormwater drain—
I struggle to round them up to make GELATO
my favourite quotations—
‘I like your flesh don’t you?’ &
‘I’m throwing the toffee apple into a rubbish bin that’s stuck with butts, dream ends
& the knack of disappearing early.
Inside a dextrose aureole
the view is limpid. I’m sticky.’
I’ve never written a love poem before:
there’s dog shit on the pavement as I saunter
down King; too many blokes gurning
in the warehouse to warrant a comment about
how, when we’re walking home from the party,
you stop at the banksias
hit tippy toes of flat feet to reach not the first banksia, but the prettiest,
the one right at the top and over the fence...
maybe, instead, you swing open
and I walk through.
We at Brow Books are absolutely thrilled to announce that we have signed Stephen Pham’s debut book Vietnamatta – an extraordinarily shrewd, erudite, wide-ranging, and audacious collection of writing. Brow Books has secured world rights, with the book to be published in 2020.
We've been working with Stephen on this book project for a while now; last week pen was officially put to paper, and we are delighted.
Vietnamatta is a collection of autobiographical fiction and criticism that explores life in and around post-gangland Cabramatta, a suburb in Western Sydney. It includes pieces on Flannery O'Connor, hardstyle, The Fast and the Furious, Carly Rae Jepsen, and bitter melon, each and all of which interrogate how aesthetic taste, trauma, love, desire, and culture are shaped by broader questions of class, race, masculinities, and geography.
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers' Collective. His essays and fiction have appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sydney Review of Books, Griffith Review, Overland, and Meanjin. In 2018 Stephen received the NSW Writer's Fellowship from Create NSW to work on his debut manuscript Vietnamatta.
In January, Mona Foma came to Launceston. The town was equally suspicious and excited by the possibilities it might bring. The centrepiece was a huge sculpture floating in the town’s Cataract Gorge. Amanda Parer’s ‘Man’ is an homage to Auguste Rodin's ‘The Thinker’, but bloated, huge and white, propped up on a pontoon with guy ropes, twelve-metres high and doubled over in either thought or gut-pain. It is a kind of cruel look at an unfit man attempting deep thought but instead just managing to float on the surface of it. Then some local teenagers got to swinging on the ropes and a strong wind came along, and the whole thing came down. ‘Man’ was deflated.
The community Facebook group Chit Chat Launceston was furious. “The bogans wrecked it,” they said. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” etc.
I looked out over the flailing, deflating gut of Contemporary Art and felt a powerful sense of what César Aira would call whatever. If anything I was more interested now. When an artwork exists in the real world it accepts the consequences, and those consequences become part of the life of the work. “From the moment the work doesn’t close itself up as a product, it can incorporate everything around it,” Aira says in this slim book, On Contemporary Art. Can and should.
On Contemporary Art by the Argentine novelist and essayist is a single essay in book form, the kind bookstores sell from a display on the counter. Inside is a tight little maze of ideas and mental drawings around the amorphous idea of contemporary art. It’s called On Contemporary Art but really it’s about writing about contemporary art. Capturing it. Reproducing it.
Aira is an avid reader of art magazines like Artforum, and is concerned that the increasingly experiential nature of contemporary art makes for some drab pictures. Contemporary art isn’t like the old art, which you could comfortably photograph, put in a book, and pack away in a box called something like Cubism or Impressionism. Try to photograph it and you get “screens that show blurry images, empty galleries, a woman sitting at a table…a cocktail, an office”.
Aira casts around for a glib definition of whatever ‘contemporary art’ might be, and finds a few: “The not-done”, that is to say, art in which the essence remains conceptual rather than physical; the aforementioned‘whatever’, by which anything goes; and my favourite“A smooth and flat realisation of the present”.
The ‘Man’ incident happened before I read this book, so the sense of whatever I felt remained unnamed at the time. I was in Launceston to review it for Broadsheet. My job as an arts journalist is to look at art, talk about it and then share my thoughts, alongside some photos, in a magazine mostly known for coffee reviews. I've got no formal training in art. I was brought up to be sceptical of it, if anything. So it’s a personal experience for me, between me and the art and the reader and, often, in a roundabout way, the artist. My phone is full of the reproductions Aira mentions: blurry photographs of rooms, framed paintings, a sculpture; videos of videos; and notes describing in simple terms what I’m looking at. “A fine polythene sheet, light refracting through it. Gently rippling,” says one. “A mirror-ball motor spins a kind of mobile with LEDs on it. Through a one-way mirror the brain mixes green and magenta into off-white.”
This is my experience of contemporary art. What does it look like, feel like? “You can not photograph a concept,” Aira writes, “but the text that explains it would also lack something, and something fundamental: it would lack that constellation of possible stories that glides over the naked photo. And the combination of photo and text, in a paradoxical downshifting, would be even more lacking.”
In this understanding, the text beside a work, or the text describing it, is intrinsic. Literature, Aira thinks aloud a few times, might be the answer. Critics and curators are the “seasoned ventriloquists” capable of drawing something tangible out of the works. I’m hardly a seasoned ventriloquist. Like a lot of art writers I want to be an artist myself—the words kind—and I’m occasionally slightly resentful that so much of what I write exists just on the periphery of other people’s art, barely jottings in the margins.
This hand-wringing, this inability to cut myself out of where I sit with the work, is part of ‘contemporary art’. Aira talks about being in the room with contemporary art, and how intrinsic that is. Once you’re out of the room; and the work is out of the room, it may as well not have existed. The art books (catalogues are never to be reprinted, as he mentions a few times) and the art magazines are now inadequate at capturing the now of contemporary art, and it worries him.
For a writer concerned with keeping up with the present, Aira certainly talks about the past a lot. His points of reference are consistently conservative ones. Aira consistently uses the pronoun ‘she’ for the hypothetical artist, yet he never once refers to an actual woman. Though “historical perspective has vanished and values are in permanent gestation” and “the installation of the contemporary implies a negation of History, at least history as a provider of biographical myths,” the only specific artists he discusses are long-dead – whether he’s recalling a great witty thing Magritte once did, or the mutual admiration between Dali and Duchamp, or the practice of nineteenth-century Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, the past is everywhere. In Aira’s smooth flat present, yesterday’s art is ploughing through, with a dead European man at the wheel.
A few weeks ago I covered Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, a twenty-four-hour looping film assembled from clips of hundreds of existing films. It’s contemporary art, and it’s intrinsically about ‘now’, but also about ‘then’, and several other abstract spots in time. Each clip directly references the time, and is synced to the actual time. It’s Aira’s “document, written in code, of a story of experience, nostalgia, hallucination”. Marclay offers us cinema as a vast, mad machine, and posits that it’s all happening NOW. Back to the Future, The Bride Wore Black, Office Space, are all are happening now, and we’re invited to peer in at this long, flat present, built from scraps of the past. It makes the present feel like a place. Photographing that is futile, and impossible.
After describing the detailed working process of Poussin, Aira adds: “The painted picture at the end is merely the visible testament to the mad solitary machine that moves around inside artistic activity.” But an obsession with reproduction is inherently contradictory.
Last year, the NGV restaged the 1968 colour field painting and abstract sculpture show The Field for its fiftieth anniversary. The promotion focused on how controversial it had been at the time, and how faithful this replica would be. Battered artworks were pulled from storage and restored. Destroyed artworks were recreated, or represented by black and white prints. Similar silver foil adorned the walls. The catalogue was reprinted, complete with inadequate, black-and-white reproductions of the work. A famous photo of the empty gallery space with a pair of feet poking out from behind a wall was recreated, with my feet, because I was there at the time. It was an oddly futile gesture, a strange step backwards to a time when a show consisting of almost exclusively male artists wasn’t a deeply weird and uncomfortable fit in the Melbourne art landscape. This was a replica, as perfect a replica as possible, all but for the now. The now had passed, and the work had lived on, or hadn’t, in the case of one destroyed in an incinerator and another couple lost to house fires, and this was an attempt to roll back the whatever.
I ask simple questions when I talk to artists. Hopefully it means I get simple answers. One contemporary artist I interviewed, a popular one who’s exhibited all over the world and whose work has a kind of whatever energy to it, refused to be drawn on any discussion of their work. Why, I asked, does your own face appear repeatedly? “Because I have easy access to the model,” they told me. Why this shoddy construction, this scrappy rejection of technique? “I’m not very good at it, and I don’t care all that much,” they said. “The physical quality of the work is irrelevant to what I’m doing.” But, I said, it won’t last. “That doesn’t bother me at all. Once it’s out of the studio, it’s out.”
(Ping Aira: “It’s not necessary to do art well – and making an effort to do so is a lamentable waste of time.”)
Months later, I saw the artist again. I told I’d just seen one of their mannequin-like sculptures in the home of an eccentric private collector in Auckland. It was in the basement, by the wine cellar, propped up in a deck chair, one arm detached and discarded on the dirt floor. “This is the infirmary,” the collector’s assistant joked. The artist looked crestfallen. I thought that this was the total realisation of whatever. The artwork was continuing to exist in the ongoing present, living on outside of the white-walled gallery. That the artist was upset revealed a sentimental relationship with the work, one in which the artist wanted it preserved as a still monument to the moment of creation.
Aira never makes it particularly clear why reproduction is a concern to him. Today, art which actively invites photography and reproduction draws suspicion – how often are visually striking shows at major galleries criticised as Instagram-fodder? It’s the act of reproduction itself that ties an artwork to the past, to the sentimental.
I got a pretty severe sunburn that afternoon in the Launceston Gorge, looking out over Amanda Parer’s ‘Man’, watching it exist now, as technicians slowly reinflated it. Later, I swam out to the pontoon where ‘Man’ sat. There was a sign: “please don’t climb on the pontoon or the man.”
As Aira says, “everything should be allowed so that what arises out of that everything has the liberating value we should demand of art”. Early in the book, Aira presents an image, or a daydream, of burning down the Prado and MoMA, being “finally released from the burden of that grab bag full of trinkets”. But the burden is one of attempting to hold the contemporary in place long enough to shake a truth from it. If we take away that insistence on recording the present faithfully, we can merely look at it. We can be in the contemporary, and be complicit in constructing the next now, or the next.
But at the same time, if MoMA burns, I’ll be taking notes, and I’ll probably take a few blurry photos too.
Will Cox writes about art and film in Broadsheet every week, and various other places occasionally, including Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and Vault. His first novel is on the way. He tweets: @dazzleships.
It is one of victory and dejection, of horror and abandonment. People blanket their mouths with their palms when they hear about Fil’s past. Once I am done, they look toward him, at him: a joyous rescue hound who canters freely and decorously through local parklands. A four-legged vision of redemption.
I tell mine, too. Of a dewy-eyed teenager who writhed in pain for years during sex before undergoing treatment. Who engaged in invasive physiotherapy with the help of a babushka-like family of dilators and a generous therapist. Who underwent outlandish sexual healing with an eccentric counselor. I am better now. Better, as in unencumbered by pain. As in cured.
I have been better. Better as in unfurled, as in fuckable, as in sprinting and salivating and free. The first time I felt better was some years ago, when an oily-haired literature major queried my insides with his fingers before wiping dried bud from the surface of his pillow. I didn’t flail about in pain. For three weeks after that, we exchanged songs from our favourite film scores, pretended to study, and pilfered tobacco from each other’s pouches until we didn’t anymore. I’d go to class that semester dizzy, wooed, hopeful. For whatever reason, sex with him didn’t feel like fishhooks, and with every ungainly touch, I felt closer to better. Able to tinker and meddle with betterness in ways I hadn’t known before.
It feels tedious—boring, almost—to bring up ‘betterness’ in the context of gender, of womanhood, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that women know betterness better than others. Betterness, as in the idea that the self is an improvable thing, a wheezing product with legs and lips.
I was on the pursuit of betterness long before I discovered I had a chronic sexual pain disorder. My body ached when I starved it, swelled when I waxed it, reddened when I plucked it, glowed cherry under a hot sun when I baked it, bled when I sliced it. At fourteen, I lined my basin with a family of cheap face creams in plastic tubs, the same ones I had eagerly purchased with my $8.00-an-hour wage. There was a cream for wrinkles, for discolouration, for evenness, for softness, a wipe to start over, to replenish, and a friend to my left, who excitedly smeared lotion all over her budding cheeks before rubbing cocoa butter onto her arms. Razored, raw. We daubed our small bodies with betterness, stood still as if dressed in a new kind of amniotic fluid, and waited.
So often our bodies betray us, just look at our feet, how they point to what we desire, Paige Lewis writes, and I am reminded of the time I was first doubted by a medical professional: a young orthopaedic doctor, handsome and tired, who asked me to walk straight down a line he had made out of tape, which travelled from one side of his carpeted clinic to the other. I did. I walked forward, my tiny feet splayed outwards. They unapologetically pointed to either side of his office and it was then that he asked me if I were putting it on, if I had come to perform a kind of duck-inspired sashay to impress him and my mother. The discomfort I had felt lodged in my knees was fake, he insisted.
I mention this only because I feel I should, because no woman’s tale of recovery is ever simple. There are no catalogues of neglected, brandished women on dedicated rescue sites, pinned with warnings like, 'not-great-around-children' or 'shies-from-men'. Medical professionals roar and holler from the sidelines, insisting that what she has come to know as pain, ache and distress, what she has come to hate and how she has come to hurt is not that. Is not pain, is not here, is not real. Joe Fassler writes intensely about witnessing this: the obvious disregard reserved for women when they writhe about in pain, the elephant in the room, a large, foul-smelling disbelief. As her ovary died in a crowded Brooklyn emergency department, calling out in the starkest language the body has, Rachel—Joe’s wife—was hushed and ignored.
Gliding over sand-filled holes, cigarette butts and the occasional Jack Russell, Fil leaps about ecstatically at the park, boasting—by way of long limbs and pinned ears—his speed, his aptitude. It’s especially fun to watch for those who know his history. How he pissed himself anxiously (and almost endlessly) the first day we met, how he was unable to tip-toe through narrow halls and how, the first time he collided with a playful German Shepherd in a quiet field, he sat timorously on the grass and cried and shivered and cried some more until I came running, assuring him that everything is fine. That he is alive and well, that he is better now. When he gallops freely, his tongue a stride and a half behind, he performs his betterness the only way he knows how.
For those of us who live with a chronic ailment or illness, ‘betterness’ isn’t a straightforward recital. When it arrives, it always intends to leave. This I know now.
Once, in the peak of my betterness, I made eyes with a man who sipped ale quickly and keenly on a rooftop bar. He was neither here nor there, with a kind of sweet face I’d forget in an instant if surrounded by a rabble of other sweet faces, but he was the perfect canvas: somebody to decorate with my recovery, somebody to perform sensual tales of healing and revival on. In much the same way that Fil tears grass out from underneath him as he runs freely, I was intent on doing so myself, on lapping his body with a sort of rallying pleasure. Good, not just because. But good because I was owed that goodness now. And yet later, in the warmth of his bedroom, my betterness upped and left and I lay there, wanting to wail loudly, angrily. Not only because sex was a spasming badness once again. But because no tale of recovery ever accounted for this, for how non-linear betterness is, for how it taunts us.
When I first wrote publicly about ‘overcoming’ vaginismus, women from around the world reached out earnestly, projecting ideas of betterness onto me. I was a two-legged, convalescent woman who had done the hard yards and was now reaping the rewards. At first, I found it liberating. Every ‘thank you’ I received I kept stored in some kind of betterness archive, only to taunt myself with it later. I’d wrap each angry tampon that refused to enter my body in said ‘thank you’s’, hoping that—in some kind of cocooning fashion—they’d come out eventually, ready to glide in, ready to settle into my tolerant body. It didn’t add up, though. I had assumed that—a little like a tertiary degree—despite how many times tests are flunked, if ‘betterness’ is acquired, it is the only thing that remains. It is the thickset piece of costly paper you are gifted at the end. There is no leaving, no room for concession, no scape for contradictions, compromises, slippages and disgust, as Phillips writes. We graduate from hurt with an inflexible mark. There is no room in the vocabulary of betterness to feel positive, or at least content, about what it means to take two steps backwards. We are bound by a kind of progress that does not forgive us when we stagger. I no longer attempt to use tampons. Blood is more forgiving than betterness, it seems.
Sometimes in the night as Fil sleeps, he whimpers. His legs jerk about and it appears he is running, but from what I am not sure. I wonder what it is I find myself running from in the dead of night. If there are moments of renewal, of recovery, I just don’t see.
Madison Griffiths is a writer, artist and poet whose work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland and more. She is also an online editor at literary youth journal, Voiceworks and producer of the Tender podcast, an audio-documentary that explores what happens when women leave abusive relationships. Her work revolves predominantly around issues concerning women, digital medias and resistance.
Four teen girls behind me on the bus are discussing how they’d like to die. Usually, on my commute, I’d be partaking of a true crime podcast, in which hosts tell stories of women whose agency has been stolen for all time. These chicks, though, speak with total conviction when agreeing that, if they absolutely had to die, crashing a red Lamborghini would be the primo way to go. Millennial Thelma and Louise, you make my heart soar. I keep listening—it’s hard to not to—and reliving that adolescent capacity to be aspirational, cynical and palpably earnest, all at once. When you’re dying to be heard, and no one’s listening. Of all the conversations I’ve overheard in my life, this is fast becoming a favourite.
The woman next to me is less enthused. She huffs and puffs, shooting glares over her shoulder à la Hyacinth Bucket (perhaps forgetting that women of her vintage used to wet their knickers over teen tragedy songs in the sixties). I listen to her tongue cluck, trying to pinpoint her main complaint. Hold the phone—I don’t actually care. I’m way more intrigued by the teenagers’ intentions. What, if anything, do they want us to hear? How do they want us to feel? Do they know that my thirty specific years on Earth will conclusively shape our brief auditory affair? Ding! Someone down the front requests the next stop. A seat frees up, the Boomer woman moves away. I’m tempted to turn and see whether the young women are wearing public or private school uniforms; it feels important to the story, but they’ll know I’m eavesdropping... Is that such a bad thing?
There are sundry forms of seeing and being seen. Are there as many ways to hear and be heard?
Gazing is a visible act. It’s a verb that has sired a noun, a Thing word, from itself. Listening is less self-evident. In some cases, like the Boomer on my bus, it’s blatant. But for the most part—fifty-five per cent, or so it’s said—human communication hinges on body language. When we consider concepts like active listening, we picture its visual cues like eye-contact, nodding, open posture, a tilted head lending a literal ear. The aural exchange itself is invisible. It hasn’t earned a noun.
In 1973, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote her missive ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, detailing how “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Since then, critics ranging from Judith Butler to Jill Soloway have mulled over the feminine and female gazes. The concept of a gendered gaze intersects with other critical lenses; E. Ann Kaplan’s ‘imperial gaze’ shows how the media centres white westerners as subjects, while bell hooks’ ‘oppositional gaze’ is a space where women of colour respond to the “white supremacist capitalist imperialist dominating ‘gaze’” of pop culture.
There’s no equivalent theory for auditory texts, as far as I can find. This seems like a critical chasm, particularly given the current podcast renaissance. I’d like to craft a formal response, but I don’t know what to call it. ‘The Female Hear’? ‘The Female Ear’? The English language has plenty of words to describe watching (looking, observing, peeping, spying, gazing) and speaking (saying, talking, uttering, whispering, shouting). But for listening (hearing... eavesdropping?)—not so much.
Without the visual element native to film, what is the scope of poddo critique? Particularly the conversational ‘talking-head’ type—think: the interviewer/guest style of The Longform Podcast, or the DIY banter sessions of My Favorite Murder. How do the biases of patriarchal, heteronormative, white-dominant society shape the ways in which we (passively) hear and (actively) listen to such stories? Where do these prejudices manifest in real life?
Mulvey’s ‘gaze’ unpacks cinema’s inherent voyeurism. It is shaped by Freudian notions of ‘scopophilia’—erotic pleasure derived from looking—which doesn’t directly apply to podcasting. She notes that the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.” That was in 1973, when physically schlepping to a cinema was more or less the only way to watch a mainstream movie. Even now, I’m disconcerted by the communal experience of cinema-going. In a reasonably packed Nymphomaniac screening in 2013, I felt preoccupied by the inescapable fact that we were all there to watch made-up people fuck for four hours. The male gaze was alive and well and going to town on a choc-top next to my ear.
Listening to podcasts is comparatively intimate. Tune in when and wherever your smartphone (or, decreasingly, computer) will go. According to the 2018 Edison Research report Podcast Consumer, most listeners hit play at home and/or in the car—closed environments that foster seclusion from the outer world. Similarly, many talking-head podcasts are recorded in the host’s home, increasing their comfort, creating a more genial experience. Whether you’re on the bus or lying in bed, earbuds can send Ira Glass, Phoebe Judge, Marc Maron direct to your cochleae. The podcast listening experience is rarely voyeuristic. Unlike cinema’s “hermetically sealed world... indifferent to the presence of the audience,” as Mulvey sees it, a podcast host speaks directly to, for you. You’re no eavesdropper; your presence is integral. And you’re such a good listener.
In his book Listening Effectively, author and motivational speaker Dr John A. Kline outlines five listening styles. Together, they create the perfect aural storm for podcast critique:
Informative: listening to understand, like during lectures or when receiving instructions.
Relationship: to help or support someone, to nurture an interpersonal bond.▪Appreciative: listening for enjoyment, i.e. to music, storytelling and other aural forms.
Discriminative: attuning to changes in speed, volume, pitch, tone and emphasis.
Critical: leverages careful judgement of a speaker’s expertise and integrity.
The pillars of critical listening, outlined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and adopted here by Kline, are ethos (meaning speaker credibility), logos (logical arguments), and pathos (psychological appeal—in a word, ‘taste’). The intimacy of podcasts opens the floodgates for appreciative listening: an approach wherein your personal palate takes over. While all arts criticism is born on a spectrum of subjective enjoyment, when it comes to podcasts, taste seems to play an unusually prominent role.
Too much liberal splaining ★★
All these credits are not really nec —user rogblack0466 on Serial, 20 May 2018.
Short first episode ★
The first episode is really short and he talks about fixing clocks. —user Soothius on S-Town, 15 March 2017.
misleading title ★
i thought this was a podcast about the web series lucky country :( —user Serah’s Apple on The Lucky Country, 12 September 2017
Without the aesthetic elements of film—cinematography, production design, the actors’ corporeal form—podcasts have an edge in a culture of screen-fatigue. This is especially true of shows with layered soundscapes, like Death in Ice Valley or The Kitchen Sisters Present..., which combine narration, dialogue, music and sound effects with meticulous reportage. Looking at the short history of formal podcast discourse, journalistic series are also more likely to receive thoughtful critique than their conversational counterparts. The New Yorker publishes a regular online column, ‘Podcast Dept.’, by staff writer Sarah Larson. Across her first year critiquing the form, Larson covered thirty podcasts, with a definite inclination toward journalistic niches: reportage (S-Town), personal (Heavyweight), biographical (Mogul), investigative (In the Dark) and essayistic (Nocturne). Only three of Larson’s picks—Today, Explained, In Our Time and The Nod—vaguely follow a talking-head format. Larson calls these ‘chat-ideas’ shows. Like TV talk shows, these podcasts are often considered vain, vapid, disposable—more filler than killer. Certainly, thousands of examples are. The form still serves a purpose. It magnetises its audience with insight, information, vicarious dialogue, and lolz; its popularity alone warrants informed critical response.
In the absence of journalistic craft, ‘two girls, one mic’ shows rely largely on perceptions of the hosts’ speaker credibility (ethos). As such, a listener’s unconscious biases around gender, ethnicity, age and so on will unavoidably influence their critical opinion. I often catch myself critiquing hosts’ personality traits (or my projections thereof), especially when I feel like their values aren’t aligned with mine.
There’s a show I listen to every week, even though I hate the hosts with the fire of a thousand suns. I shouldn’t say I ‘hate’ the hosts. I’ve never met these two chicks, who drink wine and milkshakes, then attempt to read aloud some true crime and paranormal stories they’ve printed off the internet. They’re frustratingly unaware of events, customs, language and history beyond the limits of their own experience—for context, they’re white twenty-somethings raised in the Midwest, now living in LA. What’s more, they revel in their witlessness, flaunting the worst stereotypes of young, white, privileged, oblivious women. Their nonsense triggers the self-loathing teen inside me whose hackles raise at the timbre of certain voices. When they shout over each other—or commit the cardinal comedic sin of saying ‘no’ during improv—I wince. Do they want their listeners to think they’re dumb? Insensitive? Totally unmotivated to improve their craft?
Regardless, I keep streaming this show every Sunday, such is the peculiar glee of (private) hate-listening. One thing that unites me and the Boomer on my bus, I suspect, is a desire to indulge the perverse idea that we’re smarter, funnier and generally ‘better’—a viciously subjective concept—than folks essentially just having some fun. Difference is: I listen for a living. So naturally, the moments I hate-love the most are when the alpha host gets petulant about ~critics~ giving them negative reviews on iTunes. Every time she mentions this, I fight the urge to leave one myself. The grown-up in me knows I have nothing constructive to offer beyond a review of their value as humans. Lost for words, I log off.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and find many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Aimee Knight is a writer and critic living on Kaurna yerta. She’s the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue and the incoming pop culture columnist for The Lifted Brow. Her work appears in Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin and more.
Pete Warden is an artist living and working in Victoria, Australia.