Tag Archives: Australia

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.

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.

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.