Tag Archives: motherhood

The semantics of slaughter

We know that language matters. As people of colour, especially, we know language matters. Pauline Hanson’s debut speech in Parliament in 1996 sent a shiver up my spine. Words like swamp, ghetto and assimilate spun in my mind as I hugged my daughter. She was still at primary school, old enough to walk by herself, young enough to make me want to always keep her in my sight. In those tender high school years that followed I watched her Chinese friends dye their hair blonde and follow gangs of lanky white boys. I watched her nod to the common mispronouncing of her name – ‘yes, it’s Sarah, you can call me that.’ I watched her turn away every morning from the signs on the bus stop – Asians out or racial war. I watched the blonde girls she deliberately chose over the black-haired ones; the punk music she listened to, the food she disdained at home, the clothes that became briefer and clung to her developing body. I watched my daughter disguise her brownness in a white country.

Then, a deli was firebombed in our neighbourhood. Two Indian families, recent immigrants from Kenya, moved to be closer to their relatives in Melbourne. A South African tradie informed me that he could see what was coming. In a bookshop an old man sidled up to me, looked at the book I was smiling at, (The Lonely Planet Guide to India) and said I was lucky I didn’t live in that hell-hole. At a job interview, a blue-suited man looked at my CV and told me it would be better if I added a prefix to my name so people could tell if I was man or woman because my name meant nothing to him. A group of uni students said they knew Pauline was racist, but she had a point there, didn’t she. You had only to look at shop signs in Queensland. We were being over-run by Asians. She was right about that. And all these mosques. This isn’t bloody Arabia. This is Straya.

In Perth, then, I was still homesick enough to look covertly at brown people in supermarkets or public places and think of ways to start up a conversation. We lived in blindingly white communities and brown people were rare. Once I heard Gujrati being spoken in a supermarket aisle and I stalked the speaker until she turned around and smiled. ‘I heard you speak Gujrati,’ I said, and the woman grinned.

‘Yes, I’m a Parsi from Mumbai. Dadar. You?’

‘Bohri from Mumbai, Marine Lines, opposite Liberty,’ I replied, also grinning.

We exchanged telephone numbers, promises to share dhansak and biryani recipes and keep in touch. Twisting to face me in the car afterwards, my daughter asked, ‘what did you tell the lady you were, back there?’ And just like that, language became inadequate. The dozen words I had exchanged with the woman from Bombay grounded me in a way I could not explain to my child. I could not explain the layers, the context, the familiarity of sharing a language but not a religion with the woman. I could not tell her how some things only made sense in one language/country/ religion and not another. How your friends were as invested in the quest to save your soul from damnation as your elders. You could eat dhansak but not sorpotel, chutney sandwiches but not salami. When you said Isa Masih, your Catholic friends instinctively crossed themselves, but you weren’t meant to. Jesus was your Prophet too and the Catholic girls knew that. The Sikh girls knew why your Quran was elevated and covered with a cloth because theirs was too. Except theirs was called the Guru Granth Sahib. Your Hindu aunties made sure you removed your footwear before entering their kitchen and told you to sit outside while they finished their puja. Some uncles never ate anything your mum cooked and their tea was made by the Brahmin next door. But when Diwali came around you could go to their houses and eat their sweets and touch the feet of their grandmothers. Our mothers encouraged that – ma ke kadmon ke neeche jannat hai – heaven lies beneath a mother’s feet. This was a phrase that went across religious divide and heaven changed from jannat to swarg, and God was also Khuda and Ishwar and Allah and Bhagwan. Just like that, my own words, ‘Bohri from Bombay,’ unravelled me.

How was I to explain, without India? Without context? Without aunties and uncles and cousins? How could I tell her about that community, a minority within a minority, where I was raised? The austerity, the fun, the subversion, the sin of faking a menstrual cycle to avoid going to the mosque on holy days? The bearded uncles and the veiled aunties who prayed every day, not just Friday, and allowed us to play our games near them. They gave us sweets that appeared miraculously from under their robes and dupattas. They folded their prayer rugs, blessed us, cupped our faces in their hands, kissed our foreheads, shooed us away. Every day. In every childhood like mine.

I didn’t talk about religion with my daughter. She did not speak any of the languages I had grown up with and I hadn’t figured out how to be a Muslim in a country that would harm us both. Especially after 9/11. I was briefly alarmed when names like mine became familiar, gained currency in the aftermath of the Twin Towers. But it was far better to be Asian. There was safety in numbers, however small. White Australians were more interested in the India I had come from without recognising the significance of my name. And for my daughter’s sake, I decided to keep it that way. Nod and smile. Yes, of course I speak Hindoo. So glad you’ve been to Kerala. Yes, it’s very pretty. No, I’m from Central India. Yes, it’s a nice name, very common. Yes, that’s how you pronounce it. Not a Muslim. No.

When I read a book about the Bahai Faith in the mid-nineties I thought I had found my spiritual home and attempted to unravel those threads for my daughter. A Faith that spoke the language of my heart. A Faith that celebrated difference and proclaimed the earth was one country and mankind its citizens. I became evangelical in my desire to offer up my newly discovered faith to my daughter, thinking she would ‘get’ it. I started a blitz of religious education and sent her to Sunday school, summer camps, youth groups, firesides, music evenings. After two years of patient and occasionally panicked acceptance she came home one day to say – ‘so let me try to understand this. You used to be a Muslim who believed in Krishna and went to a Catholic school and loved Jesus and got married in a mosque? And now you want me to be a Bahai? Think about it mum.’

The Christchurch massacre brought my carefully constructed secret identity crashing down. I looked at the pictures of Haji al-Nabi and little Mucad, young Sayyad and sweet Husna, and brave Naeem and helpful Mohsen. I read about the Afghan grandfather who welcomed the killer before he was shot. I read about Pakistani engineers and Indian newlyweds and the doctors, social workers, restaurant owners, farmers, students and children killed because they were Muslim. There was no other reason. They could have been the uncles and aunties and sisters and brothers and grannies and grandfathers of my childhood. Those who disciplined, loved, cautioned, blessed and gave me this life I have carried and tried to live without being noticed. The ones who gave me their version of Islam – the religion of peace. The ones who wiped my tears when my tongue refused to twist around anything harder than bismillah ur rehman ur raheem and whispered, ‘Arabic is difficult, don’t worry, we all struggled.’ The ones who showed me how to tuck my odhni around my head so it didn’t slip off when I went into sujood – the same position many in Al-Noor mosque were when they died. I remembered my grandmother’s blue masallah and cried.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, the language that led to slaughter, continues unabated. From white supremacist politicians who get egged to comment threads on friends’ timelines which indicate that ‘ghettos’ are real, ‘assimilation’ is desirable, and ‘Muslim immigration’ must be curtailed. While a grieving Prime Minister across the Tasman shows compassion and resolve, ours talks of tribalism and promises to crank up security around places of worship, while cutting back immigration to ease the congestion on our freeways. There is no acceptance of responsibility – white Australia sanctioned the genocide of its indigenous population, then built this country on that violent narrative of dispossession. Every generation of migrants and Aboriginal people have been vilified in this country. Talk to any deman, nonna, yaya, yadah, ba ngoai, zu mu, mader bozorg, dadima, nanima – and she’ll tell you. The semantics of this slaughter have their origins in our nation’s inability to accept its bloodshed and prevent it from staining the white sands of our modern cities. We can continue to quibble about freedom of speech or we can call people murderous fascists. But we cannot turn the other cheek. We cannot label one a terrorist and another a lone gunman. We cannot ask one to condemn and another to forgive the same crime. It has always been possible in this country to kill people who are inconvenient. If there’s a way forward, we should begin by accepting that.

https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-historians-daughter

 

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Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

Books I loved in 2017

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I started the year as I always do, with a selection of books by Australian writers, this time because I was fortunate enough to be on a writing panel with Carmel Bird, Josephine Wilson and Nicole Sinclair at the Perth Writers Festival. Also on one of my panels was Rajith Savandasa whose debut novel Ruins situated me into the heart of family I felt I already knew, so rich and immediate are the details of intimacy that appear effortless in this novel. Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair, another debut novel, follows the Australian Beth, running away from something she cannot come to terms with, to Papua New Guinea, where she encounters the ‘ugly Australian’ expat community but also immerses herself in a country whose culture will always remain a mystery to her. Carmel Bird’s Family Skeletons made me laugh out loud while feeling like I knew these people in their rich mansions, their extraordinary secrets, their humanity and their cruelty and their inability to let go of a way of life they consider their birth right. And Josephine’s Wilson’s luminous Extinctions which has since won The Miles Franklin and The Colin Roderick Awards, reminded me of the writerly skill it takes to care about a mostly unlikable main character. Frederick Lothian frustrated me while simultaneously allowing me to care deeply about his bumbling and failing relationships. I know brief musings do not do justice to the depth, richness and literary truth of these exceptional novels. Therefore I recommend them with all my heart. Collectively they made me a better reader and human being.

It did seem to be the year of reading debut novels – the next on my list is Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is hard to describe in a sentence, so I invite you to read my review here. Persian myth intersects with political reality and a poetic sensibility that filled my heart with music. And as this is a translation, one of my resolutions over the coming year is to teach myself Farsi, so I can read this in its author’s original language.

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl reminded me of all the things I had either forgotten or learned to live with. And misogyny in all its forms, even when practiced by other women (Ford calls this internalised misogyny), must always be called out. And Ford does this with wit, clarity and anger. I have bought copies for most young women I know, especially the ones that tell me, ‘there’s no need for feminism anymore you know; we ARE equal.’

For different reasons completely, I loved Toni Jordan’s, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. A farce about couples and marriage and fidelity and integrity, Janice’s sanity is at risk because she is surrounded by the most selfish collection of individuals that would send any vestige of normalcy right out the window.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book, that I, along with millions, waited 20 years for, plunged me into the iconoclastic philosophy of a writer who will always be hard to define. Both lament and howl, both narrative and politics, this is a tough book, a sprawling and messy book – utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me whisper to myself – my India, what have you done? What have you become?

 I came late to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I learned so much reading this fierce, sumptuous, honest novel. Every time there was a reference to a piece of American history I was unsure about, I asked Professor Google and came back to the novel with a deeper sense of recognition about its concerns.

I ended the year with Aboriginal Australian writers, as seems fitting.  Kim Scott’s Taboo is written with lyrical precision and invites us to witness years of dispossession and the excesses of colonial abuse. You can read my review here. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby sings – that really is the only way to describe it. It sings to country, motherhood, loss and love in a way that only a writer like Lucashenko can do. Language and landscape are inseparable and we are such a small part of an ancient connection that predates us, that I’m freshly grieved these stories are not more mainstream. They ought to be required reading in every school. Maybe the power of story can make us better. Maybe we can start treating the men in Manus with the same respect we accord to our trees and wetlands.

The books that disappointed me thoroughly were ones I had long looked forward to reading. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite its intriguing setting in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was tedious in execution and lost its way several times in bylanes that went nowhere. And Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, again, despite the fascinating Marina Abramovic as subject, introduced me to Arky Levin, who will go down in my reading memory as the most irritating and irredeemable character it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. His sudden transformation at the end into a caring husband inspired me to fling it across the room.

And finally, 3 slim volumes of poetry made me grateful for the gift of being able to read. Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpeh with its precipice of loneliness and women who unfold, sin by sin, is a deeply evocative and sensual commentary on the things we didn’t know could break our hearts. Charlotte Guest’s Soap reminded me of those lodgings at the end of girlhood and how when things become bearable; it is actually the most unbearable part. Lovely, musical and highly recommended. Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms made me care about snakes and algae and insects and told me that black water fish shudder once to light/then darken into gone. The woman is a magician and everyone should read her.

Writers who trusted me to read their finished first drafts were a special treat. While I cannot reveal the names of these wonderful and hopefully-soon-to-be-published writers, I can say that one of them has been shortlisted for a major award, another two have found literary agents, while yet another has won a writing residency. I anticipate being able to add them to my next year’s reading list.

And before the year is done I look forward to reading Kohinoor by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

 

Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson- book review

‘Why did no one help?’ This was the question Kristina Olsson reflexively asked at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival, at a panel discussing her memoir, Boy, Lost. It was also the question that haunted me as I read this book, winner of the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards and on the shortlist for the 2014 Stella Prize. In a sense, this is more than the story of Olsson’s beautiful mother Yvonne and her stoic half-brother Peter – this is the story of Australia in the 1950s; the same period romanticised by John Howard and the current Prime Minister as a time of mateship and heroism and optimism. It was also a time of cruelty and neglect and looking the other way. It was a time when children were institutionalised and abused, when neighbours pitied but dared not intervene in marital ‘disputes,’ when the real heroes were the women and children who survived despite attempts to annihilate them.
This story of Olsson’s mother and her brutal first marriage, and the boy who was lost to her for forty years is beautifully written. The stark sentences gutted me with their power. On page 2 – ‘ This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch.’ And a short while later, on page 6, describing the first time 17 year old Yvonne sees 34 year old Michael and foreshadowing the doomed relationship, there’s this: ‘She doesn’t stand a chance.
Olsson says her mother was a woman of ‘infinite tenderness and quiet fury.’ As children they learned not to provoke that fury, although when Kristin and her sister Sharon were teenagers, their mother talked quietly, furiously, about self-control and risk-taking. ‘This is what she tells us when we are in our teens: that we will be fought for, will be physically restrained if need be, if the situation demands it.’ It’s not so different from the lectures I remember giving my own daughter when she became a teenager, more than twenty years after Yvonne lectured her own daughters. Mothering through the ages and between cultures remains essentially the same, I think.
This is a story of love and grief and abuse and the wisdom that comes with surviving and forgiving. Yvonne’s yearning for her lost son seeps into her life with her other sons and daughters and the husband whose devotion sustained her. And that son whose life on the streets and within institutions still did not weaken his belief that a loving mother waited for him, somewhere. Their reunion was just one of a dozen times I had to put the book down and absorb the intimacy and sorrow of what I was reading. This is a powerful, lyrical exploration of how families love and hate and break and heal. Unflinching, ethical and unsentimental, I recommend it highly.

My second book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge