Brown girls who shout

Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at its disposal. Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.

Since Edward Said wrote these words in 1993, I can’t say much has changed. Recent events in Australia, as well as globally, in the past few weeks, have sent me scurrying to my boxes of books and tearing them open with the distress of one who usually retreats to literature when confronted, challenged, heartbroken.

Last week, the ABC program, Q&A made headlines as viewers were subjected to the spectre of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie shouting the oft repeated refrains – ban the burka; deport Muslims; halt immigration. Lambie’s website explains that she puts Tasmania first, advocates the banning of the burka and thinks that Sharia law is an anti democratic cancer. When fellow panellist and Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied attempted to explain Sharia to the Senator, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and insults were hurled. The so-called moderator of the program interrupted Abdul-Magied when she raised her voice and she backed down. Later, those journals of opinion erupted in a frenzy against Abdel-Magied; the mildest, accusing her of being an apologist for Islam, going on tax payers funded holidays to extremist societies, and the vilest, calling her names that brought to mind the campaign against former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Abdel-Magied’s sin, in part, appears to have been that she raised her voice in an attempt to be heard. Senator Lambie’s finger pointing and yelling appeared to gain her more support (Go Jacquie) in those bastions of public opinion whereas Abdel-Magied’s defence of her way of life inspired vitriol and a recommendation she be deported. Brown girls must not shout.

Not long ago a similar incident involving Jamila Rizvi and Steve Price on The Project also divided viewers. Rizvi, another brown girl, asked Steve Price to keep quiet because she was talking and refused to let him interrupt her. Well. A Change.org petition demanded an instant apology from Rizvi on behalf of the scowling, misogynistic Price who pronounced himself ‘humbled’ by the support. He also appeared to think that Rizvi’s shouting was unacceptable, but did not see any contradiction in attempting to interrupt her or speak over her to get his point across. A point worth noting here is that The Project’s co-host is Waleed Aly, also a Muslim, whose behaviour is scrutinised closely and whose every utterance is pounced upon. But Ali, because of his gender, star power and intelligence, is allowed to get away with occasional ‘misdemeanours’ as perceived by his white audience. Brown girls, however, cannot. We need to keep our heads down and our voices low. We must be nice. The sub-text appears to be – we understand that your origins, race and religion condemn you and make you inadequate but we are willing to help you if you’re nice. If you’re not nice, we’ll get upset and point out all the things that are wrong with having people like you in our country.

This is the message I hear when I emerge from my self-imposed burial in the books I turn to when I’m upset. As a brown Australian it’s hard to stay apolitical when the country slides publicly into bigotry, as this report indicates. It’s hard to stay positive when the people in my city greet Pauline Hanson enthusiastically. It’s hard to stay buoyant when men in suits order the destruction of Aboriginal and environmental sacred sites and ignore their humanitarian obligations.

But brown girls mustn’t shout. That’s important. And here’s the thing. Brown girls know they mustn’t shout. We were raised to keep our voices and eyes lowered. We were raised by patriarchs in societies emasculated by colonialism. When we left our brown shores for these white sands we already knew how to behave. Despite centuries of conditioning, we raise our voices. Think of the cost. The shame of our mothers. Why do we do it?

In the words of the magnificent Sarah Kay;

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer

I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,

I just don’t always recognise my own weaponry.

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The Historian’s Daughter, by Rashida Murphy

A beautiful review of The Historian’s Daughter by the lovely Lisa Hill from ANZ lit lovers blog.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

the-historians-daughterRashida Murphy is another writer to add to my recent Authors from Western Australia post, and her debut novel, The Historian’s Daughter, comes recommended to me by one of my favourite authors, Amanda Curtin.

It’s an impressive debut.  More than a quest for identity, it is a vivid portrait of extended family life in India, and an homage to the freedom of life in Australia which allows for different kinds of family to emerge.

The story begins high in the Sahyadari hills in India, the decay of traditional ways signalled by damage to the environment:

The hills towered, range upon range, behind the house with too many windows and women.  These hills, with their memory of forest, of deodar, oak and pine, of rivers and waterfalls. The forests were long gone, along with deer and elephants and the men who hunted and were hunted.  Now, derelict trees shivered in the wind…

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The next wave updated (part 2): Rashida Murphy and Karen Overman

Honoured to be featured in Amanda Curtin’s blog alongside Karen Overman.

looking up/looking down

In this post, Rashida Murphy and Karen Overman, part of the wonderful group of Western Australian women writers I featured here two years ago in the series ‘The Next Wave’, talk about what has happened in their creative lives since then.

Rashida Murphy

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In 2014, when I was featured in the ‘Next Wave’ series, I had a manuscript entitled ‘The Historian’s Daughter’. I also had a year to go before I submitted that manuscript as part of a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University. In August 2016, The Historian’s Daughter was published by UWA Publishing. Since then, my life has traversed uncharted waters. As a novelist I have appeared at two regional writers festivals and been invited to the Perth Writers Festival in 2017. I have judged writing competitions and just finished a stint as a guest editor of the journal Westerly (‘New Creative’ issue)…

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For The Love of Fidel

It all started when the doorbell rang and my grandmother allowed Fidel Castro to sweep past her to where my mother lay on a low divan piled high with hand embroidered Nepalese quilts.

The room itself had been chosen for its southerly aspect and a bay window against which a couple of giant fuchsias drooped in bells of pink, white and purple. There were incense stick holders and plastic spray bottles on the carved rosewood table beside the divan. Sandalwood was known for its calming properties but it had not worked, so Nan resorted to orange blossom and lavender water on white towels pressed against my mother’s damp forehead. Whenever Mum passed out (which happened regularly over those three days) Nan attempted to take her to a hospital, but Mum remained adamant. She was going to do this at home. Hadn’t Nan had home births for all eight children? Nan pointed out mildly that she did lose three but nothing would influence my mother to embrace the idea of modern childbirth.

The moment Fidel stepped inside that fragranced room however, Mum stopped screaming. Even though her body continued on its avalanche of pain, she tells me now that it became bearable from that time forward. After all, Fidel was her hero, along with Che and Umberto and Gerry. She forsook all others that day. She dreamed in Cuban and my life was spared. She relaxed and I slipped into the world as Fidel held her hand and filled the room with the smell of Havana. It was 1975 and she was a little delirious. She mixed her metaphors and her music and her countries. When she held me to her breast she could hear the drums and she would do the same again for Fernando. Then she whispered, ‘que no te amare jamas.’

 These days, by way of explanation, she says the combination of a long and protracted childbirth as well as the end of the generation of flower children influenced what happened next. My mother’s ability to blend the sublime with the ridiculous is divine.

She also offers the theory that at eighteen one desires to change the world and make an impact. Everyone has a defining moment. Along with Charlotte Bronte, she believes that ‘every joy that life gives must be earned before it is secured; and how hardly earned; those only know who have wrestled for great prizes.’ I tell her that I’ve never had the urge to define the moment or change the world. When your entire life is a statement made by an idealistic parent, you learn to become invisible. To make minimal impact. To not rock the universe. You see the virtue in non-involvement and you make that the guiding principle in your life.

I know lots of people who have never felt the perilous passion of my parents, never picketed outside Parliament House, never touched the wall in Jerusalem or had their hand held by the most famous revolutionary on earth. These people are my friends. They have names like Andre Brink and Alice Munro. I know I shouldn’t be having this conversation with my mother. She does not subscribe to apathy; she wants to stand up and be counted. She wants me to do the same.

So I shrug my shoulders and emit a small, hollow laugh when she asks me if I would rather have been named after a fruit or a plant or a state in America. I must admit Arizona and Indiana have a special appeal but that would break her Cuban heart. She asks me to consider the future fates of Apple Paltrow and Tiger Lily and all the Rivers, Leaves, Dakotas and Montanas who will grow up hating their names. And what about the Chinas and the Indias? Not to mention the androgynous naming of children – Cameron, Vivian, Madison – by their unimaginative parents. Yes, I have to hand it to her; a lack of imagination is not a sin my mother could ever be accused of.

I stop protesting and give in. No point squirming over a passport application.

I was never given to flourishes, either in life or in writing, but I can’t help myself, this time. After all, Fiddian Umberto Castro Kennedy is going to Cuba to meet his father. Finally. And that calls for a little revolutionary flourish.

‘Can you hear the drums Fernando?’

 

First published in the anthology, Culture is … Australian Stories Across Cultures (2008) edited by Anne-Marie Smith and published by Wakefield Press

 

Her Story

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I first met Shokoofeh Azar in Fremantle about 3 years ago after reading a story she had published in the Westerly. Within 5 minutes we were chatting as if we had shared a childhood and memories we both knew we hadn’t. At one stage we cried. She said she loved India and I said I was writing a novel in which Iran featured. Connections like this are rare and when they happen I need to ask why. Which is why, when I met Shokoofeh again in Fremantle, 3 years after that first meeting, I asked for permission to tell her story.

Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian born writer and artist. She arrived in Australia 6 years ago on a boat – and says that is the thing Australians find most interesting about her. As if surviving a boat journey defines a person for life. It is a loaded existence, charged with a larger-than-life meaning that she does not own. How I got here is not what I’m about, she says. I have stories I want to tell. I paint. I’m a mother. None of what she’s about has anything to do with how she came to be living in Perth.

She is a writer of fabulous magic realist tales and a talented artist. I know the power of her stories because that is what led me to her. In my humble stalker fashion, I tracked her down, sent her an email and asked to meet her. At the time I was writing my own novel of intersecting histories and wanted (desperately) to connect with an Iranian writer who could be a sounding board.

And in that first meeting, I tell her what I’m trying to do. She nods and tells me about travelling the Silk Road on the back of a truck. I speak of the lost boy from Abadan I knew when I was a girl. She likes Delhi, she says, with a look in her eyes that situates her there in an instant. I tell her of my desire to visit Tehran. She provides a cautionary tale about trees and blind men and women standing by street corners, but it is not a description – it is a fable. And the conversation continues in this fashion with neither of us questioning its intent. I leave with a sense of purpose and work on my novel with joy. She, meanwhile, discovers another way to tell her stories – she paints and sculpts and potters. The mythical birds and beasts she writes about are translated into paintings and bas-reliefs and visions of beauty.

When I next speak to Shokoofeh in the shadow of the asylum in Fremantle, a weak sun slants over the rooftops, and I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me. Shokoofeh’s language is steeped in the lore and myth of ‘other’ places.  Her first language is Farsi; it sounds magical and lyrical to my untrained ears. When she speaks English she is translating ideas, thoughts and words that come to her from the language of Rumi and Firdaus, but also Marquez and Kundera. She reads copiously, in Farsi, and writes like a woman possessed, also in Farsi. Her first novel (The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree) is complete and waits for a publisher. She thinks it will be hard to find a publisher because it is not a story about surviving as a refugee; rather it is about surviving as a person, a political, magical, fabulous person. Her current project is about love, she says. She mentions Gilgamesh and Romeo, Shireen and Shakuntala and I remember again that this is how conversations used to happen in India, before I became Australian. Our myths breathe again, our stories resurface and our belongings straddle the cultural divide in the most unexpected conversations.

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Shokoofeh’s literary page is here and this is her artist page.

Hansonisation

While I hesitate to give more air time to a woman known best for saying things I find hard not to take personally, the fact that Pauline Hanson is back on our TV screens for another stint, compels me to write this post. I am so tired of hearing – “we are better than this.” Are we? Really? Where were we (the better ones) when I had to explain to my then 10 year old that we were indeed considered “Asian” by most Australians? We were “assimilated” I assured her. We would not “swamp” anyone, I promised. And I was absolutely positive that Aboriginal people did not eat their own babies. The average conversation most people were having with their kids in the 90s, I’m sure.

And now she’s “back.” This woman who presumes to spill her filth at a new group of Australians. I watch my TV screen again as an Aboriginal senator shakes her hand, as Derryn Hinch kisses her cheek, as the Greens walk out. So they must be the better ones. The ones who think it’s wrong to listen to someone spewing ignorant hate. I used to think my country was run by the “better ones.” By and large. Despite overwhelming cruelty towards those who dared to “jump queues” and enter “illegally.” Despite detention, despite death at sea, despite silences around abuse, I believed we were “better than this.”

Not any more.

We don’t seem to make progress towards better-ness. We roll our eyes at people like Hanson while looking furtively around to see if we can whisper, “but she does have a point.” How many people expressed concern that a Muslim woman was set alight for walking down a street wearing traditional attire and how many thought she was asking for it? We become enraged when women are blamed for wearing short skirts but reserve the right to shake our heads at those who cover themselves? And we elect, democratically, without coercion, a woman whose empathy towards the vulnerable can be measured in a thimbleful of sand.

Sure, we are better than this.

2, 2 and 2: Rashida Murphy talks about The Historian’s Daughter

Here’s a guest post on Amanda Curtin’s blog, ahead of the launch of The Historian’s Daughter on 31st August.

looking up/looking down

Version 2It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)

I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies…

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