Tag Archives: writing

Talking Beasts

‘It’s free,’ she said. ‘A free service. Meaning you don’t have to pay anything.’ Sylvie sounded as tired as he felt. He knew he must smell bad too; her nose had twitched when she reached out to draw him into a hug. As usual, he hung back, stiff-armed while she tried to embrace him. There was way too much inter-sex hugging and cheek kissing in this country. She was tall and his eyes were always at breast height with her.

‘The people are kind. I used to volunteer there when I was a student. Everyone works gratis, you know. Everyone. Lawyers, social workers, interpreters, everyone. And you could really use an interpreter. I know you understand English perfectly well but if they think …’ Sylvie didn’t finish her sentence. She used lots of hand gestures when she spoke to him. She also repeated herself a lot.

Aslam clicked his tongue at the word lawyer. It was like saying policeman and had the same nasty connotation.  A lawyer had caused the current mess he was in, anyway. Shirin had gone to a lawyer, suggested to her by that woman, Janet, who hated him.

Shirin said it was about convenience, and how it was no longer convenient for her to be with him. She didn’t tell Aslam that her dad had paid her college fees for two years and told her to get rid of that useless bastard; he found that out from Janet. No, instead she told him she loved him and waved a ringed hand around the shabby room they shared with two other couples.

‘If Abba sees we are still together, in this place’ she said, ‘he’ll get really upset and make me go back. There are so many wagging tongues here, among our people. I’ll move out temporarily, and Abba will see how well I’m doing, and he won’t care if I see you again. He thinks you’re holding me back. I’m sorry. But for the next few months at least, we shouldn’t see each other.’

He told her he’d take on a couple of extra night shifts to pay for her new course, that fancy Associate Degree in Criminology and Justice, because the Certificate in Hospitality was not good enough, even though they had both signed up for it as the easiest option. He begged and cried.

Shirin looked at him as if he had gone mad. ‘You think your 50 bucks extra a week are going to pay for my course? Really Aslam. Why do you have to make everything so difficult?’

She touched the loose knot at the nape of her neck and he thought he would die if he didn’t see her every day. She was making it sound like it wasn’t such a big deal, but he couldn’t let her out of his sight. He saw how they gathered around her, the Pakistanis, Afghanis, Indians. The white boys loved her too. She wasn’t shy, like other Asian girls. She gravitated into the centre of the crowd and they made room for her. He hung back and scowled and she pulled him in. When they were children, Aslam was the gregarious, popular child and Shirin the awkward gangly one. And Aslam’s mother, so loving to the only child of her dead friend, reminding Aslam of his duty to look after the girl. What would Ammi say now, if she could see him, impotent, angry and unable to hold on to the girl he was supposed to protect?

They’d met Janet at one of those compulsory lectures all overseas students had to attend, and the woman had become a permanent fixture in their lives since. Shirin started dressing differently, ditching her bangles and anklets and long hair and loose kurtas for tight jeans and sleeveless tops. It made the boys look at her even more. Aslam wished Janet would have an accident one day and he’d cheer her demise, but Shirin laughed at them both and said they’d better get along, her two most favourite people. Then Janet introduced Shirin to that lawyer. Words like 457 visas, sponsorships and in-demand courses drifted around the house when the three of them talked, barely looking at Aslam as he clattered around. They talked about him as if he wasn’t there. Janet once said – ‘you don’t want to end up like Aslam, do you?’ when he walked in, dusty and hot after collecting trolleys all afternoon. Shirin turned to stare at him and he wanted to hit her then.

When he came home one Saturday evening, a week after that look, he knew something had shifted. Janet was in the kitchen, holding a mug of tea that she raised in the air when he walked in and he could hear Shirin in the lounge. He stared at Janet and followed her into the other room. Shirin turned as he entered, talking to a man in a blue suit while indicating the packed bags at her feet.

‘I’ve found somewhere nice,’ she said cheerfully.  ‘Jake found it for me. You remember Jake? He’s just finished the course I’m doing, so he’s almost a real lawyer.’

‘You’re leaving?’ Aslam smelled the sweat under the three-day-old shirt and folded his arms across his belly where the imprint of greasy trolleys was stamped. He licked his lips before he spoke, muscles screaming with dehydration and hunger. Janet brushed past him again and returned with a cup of tea. He took it and downed it in one gulp, thankful that Australians usually made their tea warm and excessively milky.

‘Just moving out temporarily, honey.’ Shirin’s voice was someone else’s. She’d never called him honey before.

The almost-lawyer had already taken her bags to the waiting car and Janet stood between them, determined to prevent any scenes. Aslam sat down on the rocking chair still covered with one of Shirin’s old dupattas and took his shoes off.

‘Go,’ he said. ‘You’ll never see me again. Be sure to tell my Ammi this is your decision.’

‘Are you threatening me? Don’t be such an ass.’ Shirin flicked his cheek with a finger and walked out.

The car pulled away and when Aslam looked up again, he was alone. He licked the last of the tea from the mug he still held, stomach growling. There was a strict rule in the share house that you did not eat what you hadn’t cooked. They worked odd hours and cooked when they could. To eat the food that someone was looking forward to after a long shift was wrong. Aslam did it anyway and threw the container in the council bin at the park.  That night the Gujarati boy, whose dal and rice he had stolen, looked inside the fridge several times before he went out to buy a burger and chips.

When Aslam didn’t turn up for work the next day, they fired him. His housemates were sympathetic but impatient. They all struggled with the courses they’d enrolled in to get their student visas and the long hours they worked at supermarkets and petrol stations took the shine off their compassion.

‘Talk to Sylvie, yaar,’ the Punjabi boy said to him, a week after Shirin’s departure. ‘She works with refugees and all.’

‘I’m not a refugee.’ Aslam shouted, and the boy laughed.

‘That’s the spirit. So, talk to her. She knows people and she can help. Nice woman. Dresses nicely too.’ The boy laughed again and cupped his man boobs while sliding his tee shirt off one shoulder.

‘You have no shame,’ Aslam said and the boy shrugged and left him alone. But he brought Sylvie back with him. Tall, long legged, compassionate Sylvie, who had once trekked through the Swat Valley and loved Kabul and Peshawar and imagined that’s where his people came from. And after weeks of trying to persuade him to go with her and ask for help – free help – she kept emphasising that; she looked ready to give up.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll go. What should I say?’

‘Tell them the truth. Ask for help. Mention what would happen if you went back. They know about the situation with the Hazaras. Tell them you are seeking asylum. And ask for an interpreter. Someone who speaks Pashto.’

‘I don’t speak Pashto. A little bit of Dari, but mostly Urdu.’

‘Of course, my mistake. Sorry. I always get the languages mixed up. Urdu interpreters will be easier to find, so make sure you request one. I’ll go with you the first time, but they will want to speak to you alone.’

The interpreter was a middle-aged Indian woman who reminded him of a kindly aunt. When the lawyer went out to get some tea, they chatted briefly about how nice it would be to get real chai with elaichi and adrak instead of the watery concoction that would soon be placed before them. When the tea arrived, they smiled at each other.

They filled out forms electronically, the lawyer stopping after each line to check if ‘Aslan’ understood what she was saying. The interpreter, whose name he never found out, kept calling him Aslam with an M, but it made no difference to the lawyer, who clattered energetically on her keyboard and twisted the monitor around to show them what she was writing. Aslam’s discomfort escalated with each keystroke and the interpreter touched him once on his arm as if she knew. When the lawyer finished her form filling and went away again to make photocopies, he turned to the interpreter and told her in Urdu that he wasn’t really Hazara.

‘I know,’ she replied.

‘Why didn’t you say something then?’

‘I am a volunteer interpreter. Not an ethnicity expert.’

‘But what if they find out?’

‘Aslam,’ she said, ‘you cannot worry about what you can’t control. You need to eat and sleep and find some work. Maybe you get to stay here. Maybe not. But you deserve respect and peace. Sometimes you have to stretch the truth a little to get what you want. That’s not a crime.’

‘Why are they so eager for me to say I am Hazara? Where I come from, people don’t say it out loud. It could get them killed.’

‘Exactly. That’s why it may help you stay here. If you want to stay at any cost. Consider yourself fortunate you’re not on Manus Island. The real crime is locking people up in a country where they are not wanted because they are the wrong colour,’ said the woman as if they were discussing the price of goat’s meat at the halal butcher’s. ‘These nice white people who want to help you have never seen where our people live, when they first come here. We live four to a room, sleep on mattresses on the floor and pretend we haven’t felt the landlord’s hands on our breasts when we pay the rent. All you have done is to grieve for that rich girl who left you in this state. And claimed the status of your ancestors.’

‘Aslan?’ The lawyer stood in front of him with a stack of papers.

‘For heaven’s sake,’ the interpreter pushed her chair back and addressed the lawyer directly for the first time. ‘His name is Aslam, not Aslan. How can you help him if you can’t even get his name right?’ And she patted Aslam on his arm before striding out, leaving the lawyer staring after her.

‘Right, Azlum, sorry about that. It is important to get the details right of course. So, it looks as if we’re on our own. Your interpreter has vanished. You do read English, don’t you? Let’s go through all this one last time and I’ll make another appointment for you.’ The lawyer fiddled with the front of her low-necked shirt and Aslam looked away.

A month later Aslam was back at the centre with the same interpreter but a different lawyer. This one was a skinny young fellow with an ear stud and shiny black hair. He was confident they would have approval for Aslam to stay in the country. Aslam signed more forms, answered more questions about the ordeals of a Hazara-by-birth in Pakistan, admitted to being smuggled across the border as a child and prayed his mother would never find out how he lied. If he’d remained a believer he would have acknowledged the Prophet’s mercy all around him, because why else would complete strangers spend so much time making sure he had food, shelter, work and maybe a permanent home in this country?

The interpreter was waiting for him outside when he emerged, blinking in the December sun. She offered him a lift and he accepted, thankful not to have to walk to the bus station in his flimsy rubber thongs.

‘I can drive you home, if you like,’ she said.

‘Oh no, bus stop is fine. It’s a long walk in this heat so …’

‘It’s no trouble. Really. Let me drive you home. I have a son about your age. He’s also breaking his heart over a girl who doesn’t care. A white girl.’

They drove silently the rest of the way. She dropped him outside the ugly red brick house in that neighbourhood he had recently begun to notice was ‘dodgy’ and waved him away as he stammered his thanks. He invited her in for chai and she smiled and asked if he had elaichi, then laughed at his frown as he tried to think.

‘I’m only joking. I hope you do well Aslam-Aslan. I hope you roar. Do good things. And ring your mother.’

The woman wound down the window and waved again. He remained standing on crisp brown grass until her car disappeared around the corner, watching the old drunk from the park lurch across the street towards him. The kids from the corner house readied themselves with water pistols in case the derelict walked past their place. The oldest kid yelled that there were effing wogs everywhere and Aslam thought being sent back in disgrace to that colourful Peshawari market where his father sold embroidered topis, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He turned to go inside, showing his middle finger to the kid with the pistol.

A smell of frying garlic and chilli greeted him and Suman, their latest housemate, called out from the kitchen. He walked in to find all the housemates gathered around the girl, holding bottles of beer and clapping each other on the back. Aslam’s blank look made her laugh and she said her application was through and she could stay on as a resident Australian. She was cooking for everyone tonight. Tomorrow she was moving out.

‘Don’t look so sad, yaar.’ Suman put down her spatula and hugged Aslam. ‘It’ll happen for you. For all of you. This is the lucky country, so why shouldn’t we be lucky, hey? And Aslam, you better call your mum. She rang and left a message.’

Shortlisted for the KSP Short Story Award judged by Michelle Michau Crawford

 

Advertisements

Peddling my wares

IMG_0822These days I write the word ‘writer’ on forms that ask me what I do. I know I’ve earned it. I am that person – a published novelist. Publication has changed the way I view my profession. The secret is out. I can own it. Even when I’m questioned and occasionally challenged. ‘What do you write?’ is the inevitable question and these days I have an answer. Sometimes that answer – fiction, is followed by another question – what sort?  This leads to conversations, which in most part are educational, entertaining or informative. I may hear the idea of a story I really ought to write or I may be asked to read 500 pages of this story they wrote when their dad was a lad during the war. Of course, everyone knows someone who writes and surely, as a writer I must know them too. Occasionally the conversation turns to my ability to speak English so well, the colour of my skin and my good fortune that Australia allows me to do whatever I want to. Because in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Fiji or wherever I come from, opportunities for women are so limited, you know, because they don’t even let women drive there.

Once, at a regional writers’ festival I participated in two well-attended, thoughtful panels on writing, loss and culture. Discussions ranged over the conditions of loss and the ability to make sense of that loss as an immigrant writer. At the end, there were questions and after that, book signings. A tall, lovely looking woman with a colonial accent chatted to me while I signed her book. I handed over the book and looked up at her and smiled. She frowned down at me and asked, ‘why is it that you people never talk about the advantages this country offers you? Why aren’t you grateful you are living here? I’ve been to your country – women don’t have toilets and go in the fields.  That’s where you come from – and now look at you. I get it – you’ve lost that, but have you gained nothing?’

Racism can be insistent (like a sty in your eye) or unseen (like a tumour).  Mostly I ignore daily micro aggressions. Everything from having conversations directed to my white husband, and the assumption that I must need him as an interpreter, to having my name mispronounced to the point of hilarity. A consistent micro aggression is the old white guy who comes really close and touches whichever part of my anatomy is accessible; arm, face or hair, followed by a stumbling pat or hug because he once went to Nepal or Pakistan and ‘knows’ women like me. Except they couldn’t speak English and wasn’t I lucky to find a man here? Apparently, I am the generic South Asian/Middle Eastern woman, and I should be able to answer for everything from a lack of toilets in India to Saudi women being unable to drive cars until recently.

Then there was that time I was at a library. Another well-attended, sold out event, with several books sold, to the delight of the local bookseller who also attended. I read from my novel, spoke about the length of time required to write and re-write, the path to publication and the thrill of seeing my story in people’s homes. An elderly woman sat in the front row and stared at me all through my talk. Now, as people stood up and moved, lining up for signed copies of my novel, this woman continued to sit, a sturdy foot out firmly, obliging me to go around the back of her chair to get to the signing table, delicious with multiple copies of my novel. She tapped my arm as I tried to slide past and I looked at her. ‘Don’t you get tired of peddling your wares?’ she asked. ‘If this is what I had to do to sell a few copies of a book, I know I wouldn’t bother. I suppose you don’t have an Australian publicist who can manage these things for you.’

My usual reaction to racism, (and I have had over 34 years to get used to it), is always the same. I shut down. I lower my eyes. I smile weakly. I walk away. I was raised to show respect to people even when they were entirely undeserving of it. But I was never taught how to respond to racism. That I had to learn on my own.

Why do white people assume that asking rude questions is okay if addressed to a person of colour? Do they think brown people are incapable of understanding nuanced racism? Why does a statement that includes my good fortune in being allowed to live here follow every compliment? Would the tall white woman at the writers’ festival ask a Jewish person why the Holocaust continues to haunt entire generations? Would the woman at the library ask Jodie Picoult why she was peddling her wares after an author talk? I am by no means suggesting that my stories are as gravely important as those of the Jewish diaspora or as popular as Ms Picoult’s. And I’d be really interested to know how many of my white female friends are randomly touched by strange men during conversations.

I am a writer. I am an introvert. I am entirely comfortable in my own skin and company. I have consciously shrunk my world to keep out a steady barrage of ‘harmless’ comments. But I still want to be able to interact in my own city and country without needing several days to recover from each encounter. Perth is a modern city with over 2 million people, of whom about 41% come from non-English speaking countries. How long must I wait to feel like this is my home and not a colonial outpost, used to ‘women like me’ being subservient and voiceless?

First published, Southern Crossings

 

 

Strands of Jupiter

Our resident astrologer was a strict vegetarian Hindu who wore his caste marks on his forehead. With stained fingers he spread out charts and filled the room with the smell of ink and cigarette smoke. His hands were papery; his breath a sigh, and his stooped hunch suggested a lifetime of poring over the lifelines of the rich and entitled.

Why and how he appeared on our doorstep, I have no idea. We weren’t his usual clients. For a start we had no money, or that’s what our father told us anyhow. And Dad wasn’t about to part with the little he had to find out if his sons were going to America or if his daughters were marrying rich men next year, which appeared to be what the astrologer promised. I knew this because Sujata’s parents, unlike ours, had money. They had been told that Sujata would marry a rich boy with an MBA from Harvard and have several boy children before she was thirty. Sujata’s parents placed a large sum of money into the astrologer’s open hands and praised his talents to all who cared to listen.

Maybe that’s why he was at our place. From the outside, we looked entitled. We had a large home, a couple of servants, a garden where we grew sugarcane and we went to private schools. But Dad said we were living on borrowed money. Borrowed from uncles and grandfathers and cousins who lived in Africa. The sugarcane was supposed to make us enough money to pay back the rich cousins in Africa. Mum said it was another of Dad’s grandiose schemes. It would come to nothing and we would all be tossed on the street when the cousins returned.

The astrologer disagreed. He knew he could change our fortunes. He sat cross-legged on the floor, resting his head briefly against the wall behind him. He drew lines across constellations and explained the power of the stars over our puny lives. His fingers were blue and yellow and his palms wrinkled and brown. Occasionally he looked hunted and we felt sorry for him, squinting at dusty books and charts and reading the futures of an ever-increasing number of people.

We stared, us kids, our mouths open at first then giggling behind our hands. Mum warned us with her eyes as he told us about Aquarius and Saturn and the moons in Venus and how we could, if we were clever, channel the power of those heavenly bodies before they harmed us. Because harm us, they would. Unless we diverted the wrath of the planetary gods away from us by choosing the right gemstones. Sapphire, diamond, cats-eye, topaz, ruby. He knew a gemstone dealer who could help. We must allow him to help us. Mum asked where the money for diamonds would come from. He ignored her and focussed his fierce eyes on Dad. He could see fortune, he told Dad; a home filled with happy, singing children, more money than we needed and certainly more than enough to place on his upturned palm after what he’d just told us. Mum said all that would be placed on his palm was a cup of tea. Dad laughed and said he could come back when everything he’d predicted came true.

The astrologer looked unhappy but bowed his head. When he coughed the air filled with rustling and thunder, and as he walked out we thought we saw planets revolving in the space above his head.

He came back, day after day, sitting stooped and cross-legged in the same position for hours, drawing, writing, sketching, and occasionally asking us questions. He seemed not to like us much. Occasionally I saw him frown terribly and mutter to himself. Intricate charts, however, emerged – Dad and the boys first of course. Dad’s fortunes were especially luminous; all the planets had kindly aligned at the hour of his birth to ensure an extremely long and prosperous life. He didn’t need the enhancement of jewels. Sustained, regular donations of money to charity were recommended instead. Mum said homeless astrologers were considered charity cases, and wasn’t that a nice coincidence.

Our brothers and cousins were next. Saturn and Pluto and Jupiter were explained over several cups of tea and samosas. Jewels were discussed. Topaz, amber, cats-eye, perhaps a yellow diamond for one of my brothers. To be worn on the index finger of the left hand. The oldest cousin could wear a diamond but sapphires were not recommended. Apart from Dad, it appeared all of us were in need of shiny interventions.  Jewels that would augment the pathetic lives we were destined to lead because Saturn was in the ninth house and Mercury was rising and Jupiter ascending.

When he started doing my chart, it was on Mum’s insistence. ‘Why can’t the girls also have their fortune told,’ she said crossly. ‘It’s not like they aren’t people too.’ The astrologer resisted, trying to explain how my chart, like my stick-legged body, was still developing. Mum looked at him and he huffed and shuffled and said he would do his best.

He frowned as he wrote down the exact time of my birth, muttered and coughed as he calculated, shook his head to clear a blockage and finally stood up and walked out of the house. I had been watching him all day and ran to Mum and told her I was going to die.

‘Don’t be so silly’ she said.

‘What else does it mean?’ I wept. ‘He was doing my chart. I will die.’

‘Oh yes, you’re going to die,’ my sister said. ‘Because if you don’t stop blubbering, I’ll kill you.’

‘Stop this nonsense, both of you.’

He came back a week later and summoned the family to his side. My sister put her arm around me and looked worried.

‘I have bad news,’ the astrologer said. ‘But it could be worse. It could have been one of the boys. However, it is the girl.’

‘How dare you,’ Mum said, pulling me away from my sister and putting her own arm around my shoulders. ‘I’ve had enough of your rubbish. You are no longer welcome in this house.’

The astrologer looked at Dad. ‘The girl is a mangli. Tuesday born. Under the influence of Saturn. No one can outrun a planetary influence like that. But here’s the curious thing. I see a long life-line. So she will live. However, she must never marry. She will, umm, bring bad luck to the husband. Possibly death. I’m sorry. She’s your responsibility for life, because if you give her to another family, you will be cursed. However, a sapphire will help ease that burden. Yes. You must get a sapphire ring at once.’

‘Is that all?’ I grinned and hugged Mum. ‘I wasn’t ever going to marry anyway. Boys are so silly. Sister Mary Ascension says they are full of sin.’

‘You’re such a freak,’ my sister pulled my hair and tapped my head before linking arms with me and dragging me out of the quiet room.

Our parents and brothers became more remote and less willing to mediate the fights I had with my sister when we were finally teenagers together. She fell in love with a sinful boy and married him and Mum watched me carefully for signs I might want to do the same one day.

‘It’s fine, Mum, don’t worry,’ I said to her at least once a day until she died. ‘I have no desire to be a husband killer.’

And in my thirtieth year, as we watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean from the balcony of my house in Perth, my sister said casually, ‘he killed himself, you know.’

‘Who?’

‘The astrologer who told you you’d be a spinster all your life, that’s who.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, shot himself. Very messy. One of the cousins found out about it and told mum.’ My sister spoke slowly, her eyes distant, cup of tea forgotten.

‘Why?’

‘Nowadays we would recognise it as depression. Remember the signs? Didn’t want to be around people, for a man whose profession put him in direct contact with people …’

‘How long have you known? And why have you waited till now to tell me this?’

‘Mum told me before she died. Besides, none of the other stuff he said came true anyway. Except for you.’ She reached out and tapped the sapphire ring on my left hand as we thought about moons in Jupiter and suns in Saturn and the unfortunately short lives of both my husbands.

First published in the Newcastle Short Story Award Anthology 2018

 

 

 

 

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 on Shelves

When a friend sent me a photo of my novel on her shelf, my preoccupation with books and how they appear on shelves, inspired me to find pictures of The Historian’s Daughter on various shelves, in bookshops, libraries and homes. Those who know me understand my idiosyncratic shelving of my books – I sort by gender and country in the first instance and may occasionally swap around to accommodate writers who no longer live in the country of their origin. I situate myself on the Australian Women Writers shelf, although I could equally live alongside Indian Women Writers. This system confuses any reader who looks at my shelves, but it works for me. Clearly my friend has a system that works for her – there are men and women, mostly Australian, in this mix. I just know that to be sharing a shelf with Amanda Curtin, Hannah Kent, Josephine Wilson and Khaled Hosseini among others, works for me 🙂

20180103_163342

When I was invited last year to launch my novel in Melbourne at the Eltham Book Shop, I was gobsmacked to be sharing a shelf with Arundhati Roy, whose second novel was surely the most anticipated book in recent times. The bookshop itself is amazing and I could have lived there, happily and secretly, because there are so many shelves to hide behind and enough books to last me this lifetime and more.

IMG_1514

And here’s this picture. I was at the Perth City Library and found myself under Modern Fiction. In my travels as a sneaky author hoping to take pictures of her novel in the wilderness, I have found a reciprocal idiosyncrasy in the way librarians and bookstore owners categorise my novel.

IMG_1582

And this final picture is from the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where, for the first time I saw multiple copies of my novel snuggling up against others. I look forward to this year’s festival, where I’ll be speaking with writers Fiona Harari, Leigh Straw and Fiona Palmer about their new books.

IMG_0822

Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

Books I loved in 2017

IMG_1632  

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.