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

 

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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.

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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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A short story – When the sky breaks

This story was first published by Sonic Boom in 2015 and the fact that we are still ‘debating’ the incarceration of human beings in detention centres, saddens me deeply. Here’s a story I wish I didn’t feel the need to write.                                        

Names and numbers, she thinks. Names and numbers have such powerful resonance, especially when synonymous with catastrophe. September 11, 2001. November 11, 1918. Osama. Hitler. What happened to the German children called Adolf in the decades following the war? She wonders this as she thinks of her own sweet Sam, her beautiful, round cheeked baby boy, her Osama. It is a family name, passed down from generation to generation, one of the few connections to the old country that endures in this one, this new country whose sky is broken into little squares.

There are other numbers too.

One hundred and fifty six. The number of people who drowned when the stinking boat flung itself against the swell of foam that obliterated the world when she thought she would die. She would die and her boy would never hear stories about brown hillsides and olive trees and the way the sky looked where he was born. And how the rain was scarce and temperamental, but enough to grow grapefruit and orange and basil and spinach and a renegade almond or two. Those trembling attempts at growing food; despite trucks rumbling through their villages, flattening, blasting, scattering layers of concrete and dust. Despite boys who never came back and fathers who never spoke again.

These jailers are not unkind. She takes Sam every day to the makeshift schoolroom at the end of the long grey corridor. There, with 15 children of varying ages, she has moments of restfulness, moments when she can close her eyes and not feel the prick of a thousand knives behind her eyelids or hear the screams of the drowned ones. The older children scrawl misery on cardboard boxes and the younger ones draw neverending circles on a square blackboard.

Osama, she whispers, Osama, and the boy looks at her. She clutches him hard against her chest and he squirms. The Afghani girl with green eyes keeps moving the red yellow green beads of an old abacus back and forth and the thin dark boy hugs his knees and rocks. She wishes she could show them some kindness, some affection, some understanding. She wishes she could speak but her sibilant whispering would scare them, so she says nothing.

She tries to imagine a future for all of them. A future that includes olives and flat bread and the smell of sea and tobacco and kind men. Outside this cage, there are real people waiting to take the thin boy and the skittish girl to their homes, to love them as their parents would have, had they survived. She will walk out of here with Sam. Look up that glaring sky and thank whoever it was who allowed her to live. Get her voice back. Find a school and wait for Sam to teach her how to read this wrong-side-of-the-page language. Never call him by the name of his father and grandfather. Osama.

 

 

Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles

 

Book Review: Charles Ades Fishman & Smita Sahay’s ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles’

The Historian’s Daughter

My publishers have just told me that The Historian’s Daughter is now featured on their website as a forthcoming title. This is tremendously exciting and is now starting to feel real. I will post updates and other book related news as it happens 🙂

I’ll be speaking about my novel at the New Norcia Writers Festival in August. Meanwhile my face is beginning to crack with the smile I haven’t been able to wipe off since this afternoon 🙂