Volume 36 `Pop Goes the Region`

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Volume 36 `Pop Goes the Region`
2009
LiNQ
P O P
T H E
G O E S
R E G I O N
LiNQ
2009
L
Q
LiN
NQ
VOLUME 36
LiNQ is published from the Department of Humanities,
School of Arts and Social Sciences
James Cook University.
E D I T O R S
Lindsay Simpson and Victoria Kuttainen
A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S
The editors gratefully acknowledge funding and production support for
L iNQ Volume 36 from the Foundation for Australian Literary
Studies Ltd and from the School of Arts and Social Sciences at James
Cook University as well as The Regional Arts Development Fund
(Queensland/Townsville).
The Regional Arts Development Fund is a Queensland Government and
Townsville City Council partnership to support local arts and culture
LiNQ
A D V I S O R Y
B O A R D
Alan Lawson,University of Queensland; Robert Clarke, University of
Tasmania; Tony Simoes da Silva, University of Wollongong; Kylie Cardell,
Flinders University; Stephen Torre, James Cook University; Peta Mitchell,
University of Queensland.
C O N T R I B U T I O N S
Maximum length for creative and academic contributions is 6000 words.
Please send submnissions as email attachments to [email protected] with
a brief abstract of the article or creative submission (no more than 75 words)
and a 50-word bio. Contributions should be submitted as a Microsoft Word
file, double-spaced, in a 12 point font. Each page should bear the title,
page number, but with no identifying information to facilitate blind peer
review. Follow MLA citation style and format for articles and reviews. Please
accompany submissions with a biographical note, maximum length fifty
words. More information, including the contents of past issues can be found
at www.linq.org.au. No responsibility is assumed for the loss of or damage
to unsolicited manuscripts or for the views expressed in material published.
Australian and overseas contributors to LiNQ receive a complimentary
copy of the edition.
Please note hard copy subnissions are no longer received.
ISSN 0817–458X
S U B S C R I P T I O N S
Individuals:
$30.00 annual subscription (Australia), $40.00 annual subscription (overseas)
Institutions:
$40.00 annual subscription (Australia), $60.00 annual subscription (overseas)
Direct subscription inquiries and payments to LiNQ [email protected]
P R O D U C T I O N
Volume 36 was set up in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, James Cook
University, on an Intel iMac using Microsoft Word 98 and InDesign software.
The style and size used were 11 pt Adobe Garamond Pro.
LiNQ is indexed in Australian Literary Studies, AUSTLITGateway, and the
Journal of Commonwealth Literature.
Cover Image: With kind permission of the artist, Yu Xiao.
LiNQ
2009
LiNQ
C O N T E N T S
9
Editors’ Foreword
C R E A T I V E
N O N - F I C T I O N :
Kristen Weiss
The Wind as my Compass
David J. Delaney
Tony the Wog’s Mango Tree
Kate Osborne
Seeds, Corals, Shells and Driftwood:
Erykah Kyle, former Mayor of
Palm Island remembers
P R O S E F I C T I O N :
Rebecca Babcock
Flag Man
Paulo da Costa
Figs and Wings
Sam Hall
Shotgun Not
Laura Solomon
The Faker
P O E T R Y :
Nathanael O’Reilly
Anna Karenina in Canberra
Suburban Fantasy
Hazel Menehira
Beguiled
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29
35
45
56
59
66
28
44
78
2009
C O N T E N T S
Brian Edwards
Wintering
The Town
In Love with the City
79
81
83
Nadine Brown
At Fourteen
84
Will Fraser
Speaking up for Little Nippers
85
A.A. Norton
Pow Wow in Taos
Buying Back My Soul
86
87
Vaughan Rapatahana
not really missing you — Ki a Ereti
88
Nikesh Murali
Tweets From the Camp
90
A R T I C L E S :
Allison Craven
The Bother with Books
91
D.C. Elliott
Anonymous Rising
96
Christopher Kelen
Lamenting the Loss of the Local:
The Treatment of “Anywhere” Space in
Contemporary Macao Poetry
Cheryl Taylor
Tropical Flowers: Romancing
North Queensland in Early Female
Fiction and Poetry
Victoria Kuttainen
A Lost Australian Story:
Man in the 1930s
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135
161
2009
C O N T E N T S
R E V I E W S :
Russell McGregor
“Devotees of Empire”
Graham Freudenberg,
Churchill and Australia
181
Jean-François Vernay
“The Secret Lives of Them”
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
183
Marie Ramsland
“A Panoramic Survey of the
Australian Novel”
Jean-François Vernay, Panorama
du roman australien des origins
à nos jours 1831–2007
Tony Simoes da Silva
“Border Crossing”
Kim Cheng Boey, Between Stations
Eileen Spencer
“Emerging Writing from
Under the Rainshadow”
The Tropical Writers of Far North
Queensland, Raining on the Sun:
An Anthology of Writing
Malcolm Tattersall
“Masks”
John Hughes, Someone Else:
Fictional Essays
Joanna McIntyre
“Not a Thing of the Past”
Zillah Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys:
Gender, Race and War in
Imperial Democracy
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190
192
196
198
2009
C O N T E N T S
C O N T R I B U T O R S
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Volume 36, 2009
EDITOR'S FOREWORD
Last year was our fortieth anniversary issue of LiNQ and a timely reason to
revisit the past, take stock, and look to the future, to our changing world where
new media has morphed into our lives. It seemed to us time to supplement
our paper-based issues, on the world wide web. “Pop Goes the Region” is the
theme that best suited this stocktaking moment. As one of Australia’s longest
running regional literary journals, we felt it was important to establish an
online presence that remained local in focus but global in scope; regional in
our commitments but not parochial in perspective; broad-based in our appeal
but not pedestrian in approach; literary but not rarified; and expert but not
specialised. Pop Goes the Region emerged in consideration of these priorities.
Regional writing sometimes gets stamped with the stereotype of “parochial” just
as other times it comes into vogue, and is taken up in a sort of precious way by
expert critic-curators. Sometimes the fact that the local has a long history of
engaging with the popular imagination is forgotten. Certainly with the advent
of the internet, the confluence of the regional and the popular must no longer
be overlooked. The ways in which popular and metropolitan ideas dominate
internet communication can also challenge, and indeed sometimes threaten,
ideas about the local and local production. In this global village where we live,
technology unites and exposes our regional differences. Yu Xiao’s image “Never
Grow Up” on the cover of this year's edition of LiNQ transcends the local and
global, connecting us with an emerging regional artist in China, whose image
speaks of the synchronicities between pop and the region.
In our call for papers, we asked how the region connects with the popular. The
answers we received delighted and surprised us. Cheryl Taylor’s article reminds
us that North Queensland has a long history of popular literature, and takes us
on a nature trail retracing the romance writers of the what she calls the “flower”
tradition in regional writing. D.C. Elliott’s article discusses how one of the first
global culture jamming movements came into being, and considers the various
ways it nuances and challenges issues of the global and the local. Christopher
Kelen considers the unique region of Macao — between the old Portugese
empire — once a major player in the part of the world — and the rising Tiger
empire that is present day China. What is the place of the poet in such a society,
particularly in a culture in which history is quickly being eviscerated by the
overnight construction of a casino megalopolis? Victoria Kuttainen’s article takes
us back to the 1930s, an era that is a mirror image of our own: beset by a global
financial crisis, perched between popular culture and high-brow aspiration,
teetering between another set of empires — American and British — to read
the popular short fiction published in Australia’s first and highly successful
gentleman’s magazine, Man. Allison Craven considers the future of the book in
the age of Google.
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Editors’ Foreword
While cyberspace more broadly allows us to make strange, sometimes funny,
hybrid-mixes of the local, the global, and the popular, the kind of research
we now conduct through online archives and repositories is not confined to
the “stacks of great literature” as the London Library uses as its byline. At
our fingertips, we have access to other cultural archives, and other registers of
writing and reading such as the popular domain, once kept distinctly separate
from academic concerns about preserving and cataloguing fine literature.
Some of the creative work in this issue muses upon concerns of how this
globalised world takes up and alters our experience and understanding of
the local. In embracing the decision to profile creative nonfiction, we offer a
regional voice which blends veracity with literary techniques to explore issues
often taboo in our mainstream nonfiction diet. Kristen Weiss’s “Wind in My
Compass” visits the nexus between the foreign visitor and the Indigenous as she
seeks spiritual meaning in her encounters with the people and the land. Kate
Osborne documents conversations with the former Mayor of Palm Island, an
exclave from white settlement, about the torment of the island’s past. David
J. Delaney remembers the iconic mango from his childhood and the terror of
stealing from a Greek migrant and a friend to his family. Sam Hall’s moving
account of loss in “Shotgun Not” skillfully uses dialogue to build the endearing
friendship between two mates as they flirt with death; Brian Edwards’ poetic
“Wintering” speaks of a mad poet who “writes to keep a few ideas warm” while
Nikesh Murali ponders a tweet from the Northern Territory about Federal
government intervention.
For an exclusive feature of our online edition, and with a grant generously
provided by the RADF scheme at Townsville Council, we sought our own
regional voices, journeying around Far North Queensland and regional
Queensland to find local storytellers willing to share their stories online with the
world. We were accompanied by Victoria’s newborn baby as we ventured into
territory far from the office and engaged in personal and intimate encounters
with the tellers of stories we so often keep at a distance in academia. We found
some delightful stories that might ordinarily escape the pages of a literary journal
— from coral trout fisherman gazing out to sea watchful of the weather; to layphilosophers yarning under the mangos of the Tree of Knowledge in Cooktown
and an Indigenous German who painted portraits from her own grief into
personal stories of white occupation. In Mt Isa, we heard from a volunteer at the
underground hospital who brought us stories of courage and audacity during
World War II. These stories will appear in online LiNQ.
We hope you enjoy what you read here.
Victoria Kuttainen & Lindsay Simpson
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Volume 36, 2009
Kristen Weiss
THE WIND AS MY COMPASS
On a warm and breezy tropical May afternoon, I am riding in an eight-seater
twin engine plane on my way to Iama Island in the heart of Torres Strait. Below
me, the shallow sea is an opaque turquoise dotted with white caps. Every so
often, the torpedo shape of a dugong breaks the surface. Then the round dome
of a turtle’s shell with thin flippers jutting out, paddling along with the current.
I received the call two weeks ago from Sam, the Iama Land and Sea Ranger.
“I remember you saying back at that university workshop that you liked making
‘dem doco films,’” he said over the phone. It was more than a year since we last
met in Townsville. “I kept telling ‘dem boys’ — (the other Islander Rangers) —
“I kept telling ’dem that here’s this girl offering to make films for our dugong
and turtle management program, and we always talking bout raising awareness
in our communities and educating people. Why don’t we get ’dis girl to help?”
“Where do I sign?” I responded, my heart racing at the unexpected opportunity.
Fifteen days later I am on my way to Iama. As the little plane rattles along over
pockets of foamy white clouds and long, winding reef flats, the reality of the project
weighs upon me. How will people in a remote Indigenous community react to a
young white female visiting their island to film them and their land? And what about
Sam, my “island chaperone”? What would it be like working with a Traditional
Owner of the community, a young male at that? I had no supervisor to hide behind
on this trip. No-one else to speak for me or make my decisions.
The pilot steers the plane in a semi-circle as we begin our descent. I can see the
entire island, small enough that you could walk across it in the leisurely span
of an hour. On one side of the runway, a single dirt road leads to a cluster of
square tin-roofed buildings nestled between a hill and the shoreline. On the
other side of the runway is another road leading to a large playing field and an
oversized mobile phone tower, dead-ending at a cluster of rocks on the opposite
shore. The rest of the island is covered in mangroves, tidal mudflats, and pockets
of hibiscus and coconut palms. One last dip and we touch down on the runway.
There’s no going back now.
***
We are all, for better or worse, an artifact of our ancestry, a product of the
culture into which we are born. My life emerged out of a deep history of
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imperialism, and colonialism, and is partly defined by the political and social
connotations alluded to by these ominous terms. Trickling through my veins are
fragments of various northern European lineages — Danish, Russian, German,
Irish — though no single heritage is particularly discernible among my features.
So although on the exterior I am undeniably fair skinned and light eyed, my
internal compass, the one that should guide me “home,” connect me to my
familial roots, has been obscured. At times the powerful pulse for adventure and
conquering the unknown surges within my blood; other times, I shrink from
the world unsure of my place.
My dad comes from a Jewish background. My mom Christian. Yet religion
was all but absent in our home. My only understanding of religion growing
up was the expectation of gifts on Christmas, playing dreidel on Chanukah, or
the scavenger hunts, dyed eggs, and chocolate bunnies of Easter. My dad never
expressed a hint of spirituality, while my mom, though I know she believes in
God and has strong moral principles influenced by her church-going Lutheran
childhood, always kept them entirely to herself. Her spirituality thus remained
an enigma to me, except the few bits and pieces I grasped.
“I don’t understand Baptists,” she said to me once. “They make God out to be
so mean and vengeful. Why would God want to be mean?” When she moved
to California and met my dad, with his bright red hair and pale freckled skin,
she assumed he was Irish, like her. She never would have guessed he was a Jew,
because in fact she had never met a Jewish person before in her life. For my
mom who was raised in a sheltered Cleveland USA suburb, Judaism was as dead
as Latin, existing only as stories in the First Testament.
Growing up without a religion can be both a blessing and a burden. I grew up
agnostic, enjoying the few times I accompanied friends to church or temple
services. Judiasm especially drew me in with its rich symbolism and organic
connections between past and present. Even food, from the intricately braided
Challah bread to the humble unleavened matzoh cracker, symbolized an
important event in Jewish history. Christian services always seemed a bit more
awkward with their stifling hymns and tangled preaching, followed by storebought cake and circles of gossip. I was never drawn in fully by any religious
doctrine, but became engrossed in the sense of community each faith inspired,
intrigued by the internal politics inherent to each, awed by the mythical
and historical origins of our consciousness. But I always felt the outsider,
looking in on content groups of people, so apparently sure of their place and
understanding of this world. Such willing acceptance was foreign to me as a
child. It still is now.
***
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Mr Louis radiated the self-importance I would expect in an Indigenous elder.
He is one of the first I had ever met. His true age was hard to place; indeed his
large, rotund body hid his real age. He could add or erase 10 years from his
face at will, just by changing his expression. He seemed to do this consciously,
to perpetuate a sense of timelessness about himself. Whenever he spoke, he
articulated each word as if formulating it for the first time. Pauses were used
for emphasis, like he was pronouncing a sermon. His accent was more proper
than any English-speaking person I knew, with no hint of the pidgin I was
accustomed to hearing Indigenous people speak.
When I met Mr Louis, I introduced myself out of courtesy. I was delighted
when he took the time to sit down with me to discuss my research on marine
conservation, and provide his perspectives on Indigenous relationships with
sea country.
On the last day, he motioned for me to approach him.
“I really look forward to speaking with you again.”
He looked off into the trees.
“There is so much to teach you about our culture, our connection to our land.
I’m glad you want to learn about such things.”
He motioned with his hand. “When I look at these trees, I see the story behind
their origin. When I see that bird up there on that branch, I know that bird.
You see?”
I didn’t quite, but I wanted to. I was impressed with his spiritual connection to
the land, and his willingness to share it. He spoke in a formal, resonating tone
absent in most modern conversation, like he was a spirit from the past. It was at
once daunting and intriguing. I started to feel lightheaded, almost swooning as
we stood beneath that tree. He handed me a slip of paper with his email written
on it.
“I’ll hear from you soon then.”
The tone suggested a subtle command rather than a request. I was flattered that
he would take the time to speak to me and listen to me, and I eagerly accepted
the paper.
***
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Kristen Weiss, The Wind as my Compass
My dad had always been distant, emotionally awkward. I’ve never known what
it feels like to have his arms wrap me in a hug, or to hear the words: “I love you’
pass through his lips. He often surprised me with gifts, like expensive mobile
phones, or a new car for my 16th birthday, as if to prove the love he could
never speak. As his daughter, I forgave him his weakness, but I could never
understand how my mom, who had such an affectionate soul, could live with
such an impassive man. I can’t remember a single time that that I’d seen them
hold hands or share a kiss. I sensed that my parents had been unhappy for years.
Yet they clung to their life together, perhaps out of convenience, or familiarity.
It was my dad who finally asked for a divorce after 25 years of marriage. I found
out that he had been seeing another woman for sometime. The divorce tore my
mom apart. While my dad gallivanted around the world with his new fling, she
was left behind to clean up the pieces of their shattered life — selling the house,
packing away belongings, settling bills. I observed it all from a regrettable
distance, as my childhood sense of home and family was, in a few short months,
washed away for good in a tide of disenchantment.
***
“And what do we call this connection I speak of?” Mr Louis was asking in an
authoritative tone. We were driving through town to the family barbeque he
had invited me to.
I was silent for a moment. Self-conscious to speak the Aboriginal word he had
taught me the day before.
“Mullah?” I answered tentatively.
“Ah, say it again,” he demanded, shifting back in his seat.
“Mullah.” I said with faked confidence.
“One more time.” He licked his lips as if in anticipation of the word.
I said it again, trying to sound sure of my pronunciation. I felt like a child being
coaxed to speak in front of their class.
“You are starting to get the hang of it,” he responded, seemingly satisfied. He
put the car in drive and we headed toward a suburb where some of his family
members were hosting a barbeque.
Mullah, he had explained yesterday, meant “honey” in his language. He used
the term metaphorically to mean “the sweetness of life,” which he described as
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the experiences, feelings, and spiritual connections that make life worth living.
“Mullah could be taking a road trip up the coast of California, or sitting on a
beach meditating on the surf, or anything that fulfils your sense of meaning,” he
had said, and it made sense at the time.
When we hit a red light along the main road, Mr Louis pointed to a plot of
land on the corner. “That’s Aboriginal owned land,” he pronounced. “They
should have sold it years ago, when they were offered millions of dollars for it.
There is nothing sacred there, no reason to keep it.”
Indeed, the plot was simply a field, scattered with dry brush and a few
eucalyptus trees dotted across the several acre property. It was surrounded by
suburban neighbourhoods and strip malls. The only building I could make out
on the property itself was an abandoned lodge, covered in graffiti.
I wondered if maybe the land was a symbol of pride for those who owned it,
giving them a sense of original ownership which translated into power against
the whitefellah city that had sprung up around it. I nodded and remained
quiet. I was still looking out of the window when I felt a quick tap on my arm
followed by the tracing of a circle — it was Mr Louis’s finger. The suddenness of
it made me flinch.
“Aboriginal magic,” Mr Louis answered in reply to my puzzled look. For an
instant I thought he was joking. It reminded me of the ‘cootie shots’ we used to
give each other playfully as children. One look at his serious expression made
me suppress my tentative smile. I asked meekly what the magic was for.
“It is to protect you,” he answered, matter-of-factly, as if performing magic
spells was a daily routine for him. Even though my Western science trained
brain officially refused to believe in sorcery, another, deeper corner of my mind
couldn’t help but feel apprehension at being the subject of magical manipulation.
***
I read a book during my undergraduate years called Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
Supposedly based on the real life experiences of the author, the book focuses on
an unusual teacher-student relationship between a wise old man (nick-named
Socrates) and a young college student who has yet to find meaning in his life.
The old man, an eccentric gas station attendant, challenges the student to
complete rigorous mental and physical exercises, tests him with philosophical
questions and riddles, and basically dictates his life for a period of years. He
ends up teaching the student crucial lessons about peace, about spirituality, and
about sense of self. I suppose the book is meant to show the reader that in order
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to find peace and meaning in your own life, you must let go of your culturallyingrained inhibitions in order to find true wisdom. Anyone who reads the story
inevitably wishes that they, too, had been adopted by some unimposing sage
who opens their eyes to the meaning of life. I was no exception.
***
“Do you know why I chose you?” Mr Louis continued as we turned off the
main road into a neighbourhood of old Queenslander houses. He eased the
car to a stop at the end of a cul-de-sac, pulling it up over the curb onto a dirt
and grass covered bank overlooking Ross River. Apparently, we weren’t going
straight to the barbeque; I started to feel uneasy. I realized he was asking me
another question.
“No. Why?”
He repeated emphatically, stressing each word.
“I am asking you, do you know why I chose to approach you that day?”
I started to feel that he expected me to behave like a student eager to soak
up the knowledge of life, as if he was a true-life Socrates. I was a shadow
desperately trying to crawl out of the darkness and into the light.
“Because . . . you felt a connection with me?” I repeated his earlier words.
“Yes, that’s right.” By this time, he eased the car to a stop at the end of a cul-de-sac,
pulling it up over the curb onto a grass covered bank overlooking Ross River.
“And what do we call that connection?” he coaxed.
“Mullah,” I uttered.
Despite myself, I was already wary of Mr Louis’s attempts to tease out these
answers. By now the sun had nearly set. The sky continued to darken as our
lesson continued within the car. Mr Louis had the air conditioner turned on
full blast. I huddled in my seat, shivering. I was only slightly reassured by the
fact that now and then people passed us by to access a bridge crossing the
river; people walking their dogs, jogging, pushing baby carriages. Although we
were only separated by thin panes of glass, I felt as if I had been transported to
another realm. That these figures passing by were not real, just one-dimensional
images moving along a backlit tapestry. Or perhaps it was I that was not real. I
looked down at my hands, and felt almost translucent. What was I doing here?
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“See all these people?” Mr Louis nodded toward the passersby. “Their lights are
dim.” He tapped his head. “They are going nowhere, have no clue what they are
doing, what their life is about. They do not understand. You can be intelligent,
but still not have the ‘light’.” A wallaby appeared from behind a nearby willow
tree and hopped across the grass in front of our car, and then vanished. “You
have this light,” he continued mystically. “I recognised it in you, and you in me.
Do you see? Do you understand what I mean?”
I tried to choose my words carefully, but knew that I would have trouble
expressing myself clearly. I didn’t know how to respond to this man any longer,
whether I should respond any longer. But I did.
“I’d like to think, well, that I am capable of understanding the complexities
of life, but also the, you know, the simple things that give us meaning and
satisfaction.” I stammered.
He sat silently, so I continued: “I know there is more to life than work and
school, than getting my degree and making money. I need more than that.”
It was the first time I had spoken in awhile. I thought my voice sounded small
and hollow as it bounced against the walls of the car. Fewer and fewer people
walked past us, but those that did shot us incredulous sidelong glances. The
daylight was nearly gone by this point; I could barely make out the silhouette of
treetops and the faint reflections of street lamps from the river below.
Mr Louis said, “Give me your hand.”
Every vein in my body wanted to resist this man’s power, though I couldn’t tell
whether this was pure stubbornness, or glimmers of my own prudent intuition.
As if compelled by some force, I lifted my hand toward him. He clasped both
his around it.
“You’re hands are so cold,” he sighed. “You must learn to warm up to me.”
***
Recently, I visited my hometown in California for the first time in two years.
My parents’ divorce had been finalised, and my mom now lived in a small
apartment filled with remnants of our past life, fragments of memories that
seemed out of place now. I was sorting through old photos one day when I
came across a picture of myself as a baby, held by my mom who was wearing a
fancy dress and with her hair all done up. “What’s this from?” I asked.
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Kristen Weiss, The Wind as my Compass
My mom picked up the photo and her brow wrinkled in an attempt to recall
the day. “Ah,” she finally concluded, “This is after the ceremony.”
My eyes narrowed. “Ceremony?”
“Yes. . .” She hesitated, casting her eyes down. “That’s when I had you baptized.”
“What?” My throat tightened. “You never told me I was baptized!”
My mom sheepishly explained that she had done it secretly, without telling my
father or anyone else save her own parents. The idea shook me to the core — I
started to wonder what else I don’t know about myself, how I had been shaped
before my memory could hold fast to such experiences. Despite the purely
symbolic nature of the ceremony, the act of being baptized fundamentally labels
a person. I had always assumed that I was in the ‘not baptized category’, thus
giving me a pass to spiritual self-exploration that couldn’t be restrained by the
antiquated rituals of a bureaucratized congregation. Was I now to believe that
I, a heretic by all conventional standards, have a spot reserved for me in some
eternal paradise by virtue of some priest 25 years ago dousing me with rose
scented tap water?
Only then did I notice the watery pools in the corner of my mom’s eyes. It
signalled to me for the first time in my life that beneath her assured, calm
exterior lay a much more fragile spirit, who secretly clung to her faith as the
only steadfast in her life. Instead of making my typical wisecrack (“thanks mom,
it’s nice to finally know I can get into heaven”), I didn’t say a word. Instead, I
wrapped my arms around her and gave a squeeze that said I understood why she
baptized me, why she didn’t tell my father, perhaps even why she never told me
until that day. It was one thing that could not be undone, one thing she could
keep sacred no matter what else changed around her.
***
Sam is waiting for me at the airstrip when I land.
“Yawol Kristen, how you been?”
He grasps my hand to shake it, and gives me a formal hug.
He looks the same as he did when I first met him the previous year. He wears
his hair in thick tawny brown dreadlocks that bounce around his shoulders even
when his body is still. His dark golden skin reflects a mixed ethnic background,
and although he appears fit, the slight bulge under his t-shirt hints at his weak
spot for beer. Like Mr Louis, his exact age is hard to place. But unlike Mr Louis,
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he is unimposing, carefree even. Yet he has a vast knowledge of his land, of
the fisheries business, and of the government policies affecting both, which I’d
seen him express at the workshop. He must be in his mid-thirties, although his
jittery energy and obstinacy against authority (which I’d also witnessed) reminds
me more of an adolescent.
“I’m doing great Sam. Very excited to be here.”
I smile graciously as he loads my bags into a beat up white truck.
Sam hops in to the driver’s seat so I slide into the passenger side, and we
make our way down the sandy road. We pass a large, colourful sign that reads
“Welcome to Iama,” with a hammerhead shark painted on the right, and a
brown whap (spear) on the left. I barely have time to fasten my seatbelt when
we pull up to a quaint white and blue painted guesthouse across the street from
the edge of the airstrip, and Sam turns off the engine.
“Here’s where you will be staying,” Sam explains as we hop out. I laugh,
realizing that although everything on the island is in walking distance to
everything else, each house has at least one car parked in the drive way.
I drop off my things and we continue down the road another hundred yards,
pulling up to a ragged house on stilts facing the church. It looks like it hasn’t
been painted in years, the sun bleached wood rotting away at the edges and the
yard strewn with discarded oilcans and engine parts.
“This is my home,” Sam declares as he points at the place. I try not to gape.
We mount the stairs (carefully avoiding the broken one in the middle), and
Sam explains in an apologetic tone that he’s been away crayfishing for several
weeks. The inside is an extension of the exterior. The same weatherbeaten wood
floor throughout, cardboard boxes of tinned food in the kitchen, and a meagre
scattering of chairs and couches with ripped cushions. From the front room I
can see part way into the bedroom in the back, empty save for a bedroll and
another cardboard box. None of the windows has shades or curtains. I wonder
why Sam, who is a traditional owner of this land, settles for such a modest
house, so empty and battered.
“A total bachelor pad, I know,” Sam mutters.
Definitely a male’s place, I think, reminiscent of a boy’s tree house.
He grabs a hat sitting on the kitchen counter, and then we continue our tour,
not bothering to lock the door behind us. We walk down a narrow street that
ends at the community boat ramp. Beside it is a picturesque wooden wharf
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Kristen Weiss, The Wind as my Compass
built out over the half-moon shaped lagoon in front of town. Half a dozen
dinghies are tied up to the wharf ’s pillars, and crayfish pots bob in the shallow
water a few feet beyond. We walk out along the wooden pathway to the last
pillars, where we have a full view of the town on our left, and the open ocean
with distant islands on our right. The azure water directly below is clear enough
to reveal a community of colourful fish darting about between a few larger fish
and meandering nurse sharks. Red and blue spotted crabs peak out from among
the cracks in the wood when they think no one is looking. Families sit calmly
along the wharf and on nearby rock walls fishing with hand lines, buckets of
fish heads and bread dough beside them for bait.
Sam and I stand facing the ocean, mostly silent, and watch the sun sink lower
and lower until it melts into the horizon, leaving behind a streak of faint stars
bathed in shades of orange and purple. I can hear a reggae beat somewhere in
the distance. Some children laugh. A boat engine hums. A soft breeze plays with
my hair. I take a deep breath, realizing that I hadn’t thought about school, work,
or anything else outside the present moment since I had arrived. All my worries
have dissipated. I look around me, and it seems as if everyone else, from small
child to grizzled elder, is in the same peaceful state of mind, satisfied to spend
their afternoon lounging beside the sea, perhaps collecting a few small fish for
dinner. I sigh deeply, taking in the scene before the sky goes dark.
***
“Do you know that I have visited you?” I stared blankly at Mr Louis, not
understanding his meaning. “Your spirit can leave the body, you know, and
mine has come to visit you.”
He goes on to describe how his spirit had watched over me several times,
analysing me, protecting me. From what, I had no idea. All I could register were
the goose bumps spreading across the nape of my neck. My mind wandered to
ridiculous childhood speculations about whether spirits of dead people walked
among us. I felt like I had been violated, yet I still grappled with whether or not
I truly believed what Mr Louis was telling me.
He didn’t acknowledge my awkward silence. He was looking off into the
distance, lost in reflection.
“I can still see what you were wearing on that day we first met. I can smell you.
Taste you.”
I sneaked my left hand closer to the car door handle, hoping I would have the
courage to pull it if the situation turned dangerous. The confines of the car
seemed to be shrinking all around me, closing in on me. I understood that
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Mr Louis often talked metaphorically, but I also realized that he was a virulent
middle-aged male alone in a car with a 25-year old female. I felt like I should be
able to get myself out of the situation, but for the life of me was powerless to do
so. I chanted silent prayers and hoped that I was indeed reading too much into
this man’s intentions.
“Do you feel Mullah toward me?” He asked, in a much quieter voice than his
typical oratory boom. It was even more intimidating. I stared at him, fronting
a confused expression to evade answering. He tried again: “I feel Mullah toward
you. Do you feel Mullah toward me?”
No, I thought. I don’t feel anything except frightened. But I was equally scared
to defy him by responding in the negative.
“Yes,” I squeaked out. His domineering presence seemed to force me into
stating the answers he wanted to hear. I knew he could sense my hesitance, but
hoped he would take it as shyness and nothing more. I felt like I was trapped
inside a cage with a tiger. The second he sensed my fear, he would pounce. If I
kept my calm, I would pull through unscathed.
“Alright.” He seemed satisfied. “Then will you dance for me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I would like you to dance for me. All Aboriginal people dance. Do you know
why I want you to dance for me?” I stuttered out some response about how it
can reveal aspects of one’s character that couldn’t be expressed through words.
“Exactly. And do you know how Aboriginal women dance?” I shrugged my
shoulders. “Without clothes.” He looked at me, reading my response to this. I
raised my eyebrows and wrapped my arms tighter around myself.
“Your mind went in the gutter, didn’t it?” Where else was it supposed to go?
“Listen, why do you think Aboriginal women dance in the nude?”
“So they can be uninhibited?” I mumble, immediately regretting I had said
anything at all.
“That is exactly right,” nodded Mr Louis. “In order for you to find your mullah,
you must release your inhibitions. Your only problem is that you cling to a
culture that forces you to restrain yourself. That culture is flawed. You will get
nowhere if you do not expand your mind beyond it. So, will you dance for me?”
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Kristen Weiss, The Wind as my Compass
“We will see,” I lied.
“The reason you are here is to expand your mind. So you have to trust me.”
I didn’t respond. I stared straight ahead, and Mr Louis sat silently as well. In the
darkness, a distant street light flickered on and off, on and off. I knew I would
never dance for this man willingly. Finally, Mr Louis let out a raspy breath and
started up the car engine. I too breathed out in relief as he put the car in reverse
and pulled onto the street. Our conversation had ended.
We stopped by his family’s home, but by that time everyone had eaten. I
pretended to receive a text from my boyfriend, and fake texted him back to say
that I would be home soon. Like a dog being dragged to the vet, the last thing I
wanted to do was to get back in that car. I fervently hoped my little texting ploy
would encourage Mr Louis not to make any more detours.
***
“Do Torres Strait Islanders have any legends about the constellations?” I ask,
flopping down on a yellow padded armchair in Sam’s house. We had stayed on
the wharf until dark, then walked back to his place to crack open on a bottle of
wine he had found in one of his boxes.
“Funny you should ask,” Sam answers, and disappears for a moment to the back
room. When he returns, he has something in his hand. He sets it next to me.
It’s an entire book about Torres Strait Islanders’ connection to the stars and the
mythology related to the constellations.
“That’s how our ancestors navigated from island to island,” Sam says, sitting
down on the couch across from me. “They told stories they saw in the stars,
stories that led ‘dem home. A lot of us can still use notin’ but stars to get around
the sea at night.”
As I flip through the book, I notice that Sam is fiddling with one of the
floorboards next to the couch. In a few moments he pulls the board up and lifts
out a plastic bag with some green dried bits in the bottom. His friend Robert
removes a tall glass bong from behind his chair and whips out a lighter.
Robert takes a hit and then passes the bong to Sam. Through the haze I notice a
cylindrical wooden sculpture hiding beside the couch, and cross the room to explore.
“That’s a traditional drum,” Sam says. “My uncle made it.”
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“Do you ever play it?” I ask as I lift it carefully for a closer look. Beautiful
carved faces and oceanic designs cover the hollowed out instrument.
“Yea, I play ’dem for ceremonies and stuff like that. We do a lot of dancing.”
I look around and realise that Sam’s place has lots of these little cultural emblems
scattered throughout. It wasn’t as empty as I had first assumed. He shows me
another carving hung on one of the walls, this one of a great hammerhead. “My
family totem,” he explains. He reaches for a box sitting on a small corner stand,
opens the lid. Inside is a carved hammerhead figurine connected to a leather
necklace, made by another family member. Sam has lots of little treasures tucked
away in boxes or buried under stacks of mail on the floor.
I look around again and see past the cardboard boxes and stained cushions. I
begin to see that way of life for Sam has nothing to do with a nice house, new
furniture or a big screen. It’s pride in one’s culture, and people. It’s having the
freedom to live off the land (and sea), or to develop it if the community so
desires. The freedom to wear multiple hats, to be both commercial fisherman
and traditional hunter. To possess sacred knowledge and customs but listen to
hip hop and play on the local footie team. Freedom, in other words, to develop
one’s own sense of meaning in a contemporary world forever growing upward
and outward, without ripping out the roots of the past.
***
I blamed myself for putting a man such as Mr Louis on such a high pedestal.
In the end, blame, though, is not a useful form of catharsis. The more painful
experiences in life, for better or worse, meld each of us into complex, fragile,
and yet resilient beings. I was unwilling to join the occult in the blind hope
of being handed ‘meaning’ on a silver platter in exchange for all of my
accumulated ethics and morals. Somewhere within me my internal compass
led me a year later to Iama. By this time I had lived in Australia for over two
years, and finally began to understand what it means to be connected to place,
to culture, and to oneself. I realised that it is the relationship we develop with
ourselves that keeps us steady, and is the most important of all.
***
“People say that this lodge was built on land with bad spirits,” Sam says
nonchalantly as I swing open the gate to the guesthouse.
“What do you mean?” I ask, stopping in my tracks.
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“Weird things have happened in this place. The last guy who stayed in your room
had seizures. Blood comin’ from his mouth. Had to be flown off the island.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I moan. Despite my scientific background, I
make no qualms about my susceptibility to ghost stories. “I’m the only guest
staying here tonight!” I whine as Sam laughs. “There’s no way I can sleep now.”
“Aw, you’ll be fine girl,” he laughs. I shake my head, tentatively unlocking
the front door. Sam seems to sense my hesitation, so he offers to sleep in the
common room. He says it’s a good excuse to take advantage of the brand new
air conditioning and comfy couch. I breathe out in relief, hoping whatever
spirits may be lurking around will be appeased by his presence.
There is no tension. No awkwardness although we are alone in the house
together. I feel safe with Sam around. He acts like my big brother who will
protect me from bullies (or vengeful ghosts). He sits unassumingly on the
leather couch propping a pillow beneath his head. We agree to wake just before
sunrise so we can use the morning high tide to get over the fringing reefs to
Sassie island, where we will look for nesting turtles. I retreat to my room and
crawl into bed, leaving on a desk lamp in the corner. Even with Sam in the next
room, I can’t bring myself to turn off the lights.
At 4:45am the alarm on my mobile shocks me out of dream-filled sleep. I pull
myself out of bed to see if Sam is awake. From the snoring I get my answer.
“Sam?” I whisper. Pause. Again: “Charrrrles, it’s morning.” No response. I
decide to try a different tactic. I enter the kitchen, flip on the light, and start
making breakfast. I ruffle the cereal package and peak around the corner back
at Sam. He has turned over and started snoring again. I bang some bowls and
spoons around. Still nothing. I marvel at his sleeping abilities, feeling regretful
at having to wake him. It takes me another twenty minutes until he finally rolls
onto his back and realizes that I keep calling his name.
“Morning already?” he gurgles scratching his head, which makes me laugh. We
drowsily munch on cereal, wash it down with tea, then stroll down to the wharf
beneath the last twinkling stars of dawn.
Sam decides to take me to a nearby island, Mukar, to show me turtle nesting
sites. Robert comes along for the ride. As we pull up to the island, the swells
subside and we enter a cove protected by fringing reef, where we pull the boat
up onto the beach. I follow Sam up the steep slope of sand until he pauses at
the top. He turns toward the centre of the island and begins speaking softly, half
in English and half in “broken,” the Islander’s version of pidgin.
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I catch only some of what he says, but I hear enough to understand that he is
introducing me to the spirits of the island, explaining to them why I am here with
him. I look down while he talks, not sure how best to express my respect. Sam’s
typically feisty nature is more subdued here, I notice — more serious and pensive.
Satisfied, he starts pointing out various features of the island. I follow him with
my camera as he treads across the beach, here and there collecting little red
seeds off the ground — “I make instruments with them,” he tells me. “Shakers
for traditional dance”. He talks about the island in a low voice, as if not wanting
to disturb the residential spirits. We come across mounds of trochus and giant
clam shells, which Sam proudly claims as the middens of his ancestors, built
up over hundreds of years. He also shows me the widespread erosion that has
ripped away at the coastline and flooded the turtle nests lay all over the island.
We come across a pile of sand with several turtle-hatchling carcasses littered
around it, shrivelled and stiff. Sam is stricken, and stumbles around the nest as
if looking for an answer to the deaths. Perhaps a goanna dug up the nest, and
then was scared off; or the hatchlings may have emerged during the day and
expired under the unforgiving heat of the sun. Only the island spirits know
for sure. We mourn the little creatures for several minutes, and I record it on
film. Silently, we head back to the boat to find Robert sprawled out on the bow
smoking a cigarette. Sam pushes the dinghy off the beach and we head back out
through the maze of fringing reefs.
“Well, are ya ready to tag some turtles?” Sam winks. My heart leaps. Robert
stands at the bow as spotter. In no time he catches sight of a juvenile green
turtle, and the chase begins — he points left, and Sam turns left. The next
instant he points right, and we jerkily change directions. I’m amazed at how he
can take every jolt and wrench in stride without being thrown off the front of
the boat. He balances with the ease a tight-rope walker, with nothing to hold on
to save a rope he loosely grips with one hand, while he points or shades his eyes
with the other. It’s the same technique used to hunt both turtles and dugongs. I
imagine that Robert’s skills make him an expert hunter.
He motions for Sam to speed up, then slow down. I try desperately to keep
my balance while I stand behind Robert filming his every move, expecting to
fly over the edge myself at any moment. After several more zig-zags, Robert
suddenly throws off his sunnies and leaps into the water. He disappears for a
few seconds, then pops up behind us with the exhausted turtle in his grasp, its
flippers flailing lethargically and a clump of seagrass still locked stubbornly in
its jaw. It all happens in a flash, and I don’t know whether I even remembered
to keep the camera focused on the action. I never imagined catching sea turtles
would be so exhilarating. Sam and Robert together heave the turtle into the
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Kristen Weiss, The Wind as my Compass
boat as I try to keep my balance, and film them as they place a tag on the front
left flipper, then measure the turtle’s shell. After everything has been recorded
in a little notebook Sam keeps in his front shirt pocket, he heaves the turtle up
onto the side of the boat.
“Esso (thank you) little one,” he whispers as he gives it a pat, then helps it over
the side and into the water.
“Your turn!” Sam turns to me, and we start scouting for our next catch. My
heart starts beating more rapidly. I want to try it, but I feel too self-conscious.
I shrug my shoulders, but the guys give me a look that says, ‘Nonsense — you
give it a go’. Robert takes the bow again, helping me spot. He finds one, and
we go through the several minute chase. Right, now left, now right again. He’s
behind us! Turn around, speed up — there it is! I see the turtle begin to tire and
slow its pace.
“Now!” Sam and Robert shout in unison. Before I can think, I spring off the
left side of the boat, aiming just ahead of the turtle as Sam had told me to.
Once I hit the water, I see nothing, I just feel ahead of me with my arms. I
touch something hard and smooth, and grip. It’s the shell! I pull it towards me
and push off the sandy bottom to get back to the surface. When I emerge, I
hear whoops and clapping behind me, and turn to see Sam using my camera to
take a picture. I shriek with delight, like a child in the spotlight.
For the rest of the afternoon, we meander through coral bommies while Robert
intermittently catches turtles for tagging and spears crayfish for dinner. In
all directions, the shimmering blue of water blends with the creamy blue of
sky. I lay back and feel as if I am floating in an endless blanket of cerulean
warmth where time no longer exists. I marvel at the relaxed, carefree pace of
life the islanders lead. The people of Iama seem filled with an ageless wisdom of
savouring every moment rather than worrying about the next. It’s a tantalizing
way to live.
After a long while, we pass a particularly large reef and Sam suggests I go for a
snorkel. I lazily pick myself up and throw on a mask and fins. When I plunge
into the water, I am surrounded by a new paradise. On all sides of me swim fish
large and small, in all colours, darting in and out amongst the shelving reef. I
drift along, inches above giant purple-lipped clams and orange spotted corals.
I notice a white tipped reef shark a few feet ahead, so I follow it along as it
wanders along the reef edge. I’ve never seen such a diverse, vibrant habitat, even
on the Great Barrier Reef. I pop up to the surface and give Sam a thumbs up.
It’s a humble way to express my utter amazement at such a magical place. But
somehow it seems right to understate my wonder, to accept this moment for
what it is without forcing meaning upon it.
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I slowly kick my fins in the direction of the boat, reluctant to leave the
underwater world behind. It is not my world, but for a few moments I belong
to it. Out here I do not need to search for myself, for who I am spiritually or
intellectually. I just am. Maybe Sam and Robert aren’t consciously aware of it,
but their unassuming ease of existence embodies a spirituality that most of us
seek for the better part of our lives. I realize that the moment I cease worrying
about who I am or where I am going, the past and future blur while the present
moment becomes crystal clear, and is all that matters.
With a last kick I reach the boat, and Sam takes me by the arm to lift me up
and over the side.
“Ready to head back?” He asks. “We gonna cook up a feast for kai kai!” He
waves his hand over the stack of fish and crays piled in the front of the boat, our
dinner for tonight.
“Sounds good,” I say with a smile. I take my seat at the back and brace myself
for the bumpy ride back. The sun, now orange as it stretches far to the west,
basks everything in a warm glow.
I’m not thinking about my flight home the next day. I’m not even thinking as
far ahead as dinner. I had flown all this way to help Sam make an educational
film for his community. In the end, it was his people who educated me; about
life, about myself. I realize that spirituality is not some goal you can work to
attain; it is immersion in the present, and respect for the past. In the end it was
by falling into the rhythm of the land and sea, like two men sitting with me
did, which leads me a step closer to inner peace. As the engine roars to life and
we pick up speed, I look behind and give silent thanks to the spirits of this place
for revealing one of their special secrets to me.
***
I’ve always felt like a drifting dandelion spore, wafting about in whatever
direction the wind desires to carry me. It had carried me to Australia. Shortly
after my trip to Iama, I returned home to help my mom unpack her new
post-married life. One day I walked from my mom’s apartment up into the
hills overlooking my hometown, hiking along dirt paths through scrub oak
woodland. Halfway up the trail, it hit me — a familiar smokiness, the thick
heady scent of sage — a smell that effortlessly pierced through the fainter grassy
scent of the wind.
At once, images flooded into my mind — plucking bright red berries in a
pretend game of survival, learning the secrets of the noble yucca plant native to
this land, wading through ephemeral creeks in search of invisible croaking frogs
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Nathanael O'Reilly, Anna Karenina in Canberra
— a childhood deeply connected to this particular place, with its tapestry of
seasonal creeks and towering oak trees, golden grasses and wildflowers.
I peered through the sagebrush as it rattled in the light breeze, spying mother
quails zigzagging away with their clusters of chicks. I looked up at the ageless
oaks to find blue jays chattering amongst themselves, as squirrels clamoured up
their worn trunks. No matter how far away the wind had carried me, its circular
voyage brought me back to a place where my blood surged stronger than ever.
It was not about a particular house, or even about particular people, but about
my own unspoken connection to this land. After so many years of drifting, I
had roots all along, as thin as gauze, stretching across the sea back to a home
that lived on patiently in case I ever was to return. And when I leave, it now
travels with me, pulsing through my body as I continue on a life-long path with
newfound wisdom and rediscovered comfort.
g
Nathanael O’Reilly
ANNA KARENINA IN CANBERRA
After viewing the Picasso exhibition
At the National Gallery, spending
A lazy afternoon studying
Charcoal sketches of nudes,
We watched Anna Karenina
In an almost empty cinema.
Oscillating between melancholy
And desire, we lay on the lawn
Beside the lake and drank
Half a dozen stubbies of VB,
Her breasts squeezed into a blue
Chesty Bonds t-shirt, and talked
Of the impossibility of true
Love between people like us.
g
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David J Delaney
TONY THE WOG’S MANGO TREE
In the mid 1960s I did not really understand the ramifications of the music
revolution, politics and peoples changing views on Vietnam. We were young
mischievous boys, just enjoying time just as it was.
We lived in Rocklea, a small outer southern suburb of Brisbane, with my
parents, four brothers and two sisters. My parents named me David and I was
the eldest of the siblings. It was me, my second eldest brother and my mates
who often got into some sort of mischief. At that time our area felt like a small
country town, caught in the era of the late 1950s. We filled our lungs with the
freshness of clear morning air, listened to early morning magpies warbling and
the echo of harking crows in the pine trees at the nearby school and streets.
There were still a couple of dirt roads in the area and these doubled as a lot of
fun for me and my mates whenever it rained.
Old Queenslander homes dominated my suburb. Most were fronted by white
timber and chain mesh or picket fences and had the obligatory garden bed
running its full length. These homes also sat on high stilts and underneath
became the ‘living area,’ especially during the summer months when the breeze
would blow through making the area a cool escape from the heat. My father,
uncles and a couple of their local male friends would gather in this area to enjoy
a cold beer and chat after a hard days work.
There was that comfortable feeling that everyone knew everyone else and kept
an eye out, so to speak. I can remember our whole family piling into the old
Vanguard and driving the few kilometres to the Moorooka Shopping Village.
We always left the house wide open without any fear of it being ransacked. Even
during humid summer nights, when we were all in bed, the house would be left
open. I can recall hearing the distant echo of car tyres going Ka-chook, Ka-chook
as they crossed over the joins on the single lane cement slab road.
Munroes’ local store was a three minute walk along our street. My brother,
Rodney, my mate, Larry and I would cash in empty soft drink bottles that we
had collected from around the area. Then we would sit under the large awning
and lean against the front of the shop laughing and hatching mischievous
schemes. If Munroes didn’t have what Mum needed, it was just a fifteen minute
bike ride along a well used track beside the train line, to Ashs’ general store.
Now, to a thirteen-year-old boy, this store was amazing! They carried everything
from tools, clothes, magazines, models, toys as well as a huge selection of ice
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David J. Delaney, Tony the Wog's Mango Tree
creams and lollies. Across the main road was a group of shops, which included a
rock ‘n roll café, a tobacconist, Mr Gray’s barber shop and a fish and chip shop
to name a few. The bulk of the area, however, was covered by Hansen’s pub.
This is where, almost every Friday night, Dad and his mates would spend a few
hours drinking and placing some bets on the horses.
One of Dad’s mates was “Tony the wog.” According to Dad Tony had inherited
this nickname because there was already “Tony the truckie” and “Tony the
butcher” so, to separate the three, he became “Tony the wog.” Tony didn’t
mind his nickname because he knew the term was not being used offensively.
Nevertheless, Tony used to “give it back” as well. Whenever they were enjoying
a beer under our house and some of the men would give Tony a hard time,
saying “Ya bloody wog,” Tony would reply “Ahh! Youse are da bloody Malukas.”
They would all have a good laugh, including me, even though I didn’t know
what Tony meant by Malukas until quite some years later. But there was never
any malice. It was always light hearted and friendly.
Tony wasn’t a huge man. He was only about 5ft 3inches tall with dark olive skin
and jet black hair. But he did have what I used to call “Popeye arms.” They had
hardly any hair and on the inside of his left arm was a tattoo of a ship’s anchor
entwined with rope. I once heard Mum say that Tony and his wife had migrated
to Australia from Greece after the Second World War. Apparently they had two
young teenage sons who had both died fighting for the Greek resistance against
the Germans. Anyhow, Tony and his wife bought the house two streets up from
ours. About twelve months later Tony’s wife died. Mum reckoned it was from
a broken heart and homesickness for Greece. Most of the people in the area
rallied to support Tony through his grief and he never forgot the generosity of
the locals, including Mum and Dad. Tony was very good at welding and if Dad
needed something on his truck welded, Tony would be there in a flash to help
Dad out.
Nothing much ruffled Tony. Dad would often say, “He’s a good sport.” Quite
often during hot summer afternoons Tony could be found sitting on his
wooden fold-up chair at a small round table under the shade of his magnificent
mango tree. He sliced off pieces of the fruit with a small pocket knife that he
always carried in the pocket of his shorts. Sometimes, when my brother and I
had been walking home from playing with our mates near the train shunting
yard, we would walk past Tony’s house. Now Tony’s real name is Antony
Demopoulos. Every now and then I would make fun of his surname as we
passed by his driveway gate. Tony would say “Eh! You a boys been a getting to
trouble?” I used to have a good laugh at times, listening to his broken English.
This time I replied, “Not us Mr Demop-olop-olop-olop-oulos!” Tony shook his
fist: the one now holding an big apple.
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“Eh! You a cheeky a little bugger! You a not a make a fun of a my name eh!” he said.
“Sure, Mr Demopoulos” I would reply. But I was sure he was having a giggle
under his breath.
The following Sunday afternoon, I was walking towards Tony’s place again.
This time I was flanked by my mate and my brother. Now Tony’s house was
like all the others in the suburb. Timber weatherboard on stilts with a dug out
area underneath where he would park his old Austin car. He would always let
the grass grow to about six inches high before he would drag out the old skirtless Victa mower and spend most of the day mowing his large yard. As we drew
closer to Tony’s place, I noticed he was again sitting under that beautiful old
mango tree with a bowl of fruit and that pocket knife. He called out the same
familiar line
“Eh! You a boys been a getting to trouble?”
“No, Mr Demopoulos,” I replied, noticing that his huge delicious looking Bowen
mangoes were starting to turn. I estimated that by the end of the week they would
be ripe for picking. I pointed up and said “Those mangoes are looking nice!”
Well then it happened. And even with the vast knowledge of my thirteenyear-old brain, I couldn’t pick if Tony was being serious or not, but he sure
scared the hell out of us as he sat on the edge of his chair and pointed his pocket
knife in our direction. He twisted it from side to side, like he was penetrating
an orange.
“If a you a come a near my a Mango I will a skin a you boys alive!”
In unison we replied, “Yes, Mr Demopoulos,” and kept walking at a slightly
quicker pace.
On Sundays, the normally deserted train shunting yards were a good place to
hang out. In the cool shade of a big old gum tree we sat eating the two foot
soft lolly snakes we had bought from Munroe’s shop. Discussing what had just
happened at Tony’s and were trying to determine whether or not, he was fair
dinkum about skinning us alive. But all I could think of were those big juicy
Bowen mangoes. I reckoned Tony had the best mangoes in Australia, so there
and then I planned a way to retrieve some of the delicious fruit.
The following balmy Friday evening there was a yellow moon but it was still
bright enough to see. On the footpath’s edge, opposite Tony’s place, Mrs Kelly
maintained a thick bushy three-foot hedge which made the perfect place for the
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David J. Delaney, Tony the Wog's Mango Tree
three of us to meet and squat behind whilst we waited for Tony to go to the pub
for the men’s weekly TAB meeting. I figured we had about two or so hours to
fill the sugar bag we had brought with us and get back home in plenty of time.
I heard the back door close, then the familiar slap, slap, slap of Tony’s rubber
thongs on the back steps. It seemed like an eternity before I heard the car door
close and the engine start. Tony reversed the car from under the house and
wheeled it to the left before driving forwards out of the driveway. We waited
until the red lights of Tony’s car disappeared into the distance.
I nominated Larry to stay below and collect the mangoes whilst Rodney and
I picked and dropped them to the ground. Things were moving along nicely
and I didn’t even think about of the sound of the approaching car until I heard
the familiar crunching sound of its second gear. A blood freezing chill raced
through my body.
“It’s bloody Tony!” I whispered as loud as I could. “Get your carrot top up here
now!” I called.
Larry left the bag where it was and shimmied up that tree quicker than a frilly
lizard being chased by a Kookaburra. He reached the thick branch near me just
as Tony drove in the driveway.
“What are we going to do now?” whispered my brother.
“We wait and be very quiet,” I replied.
Tony steered his car under the outer branches of the mango tree then to the
right and into its parking spot. I heard the car door shut before he proceeded up
the stairs and into the house. It was then that I thought it would be a good time
to make a run for it. Just as I was about to make a move, the kitchen light came
on. Again, I felt that blood freezing chill as Tony slid the old casement window
up as far as it would go before propping it up with a piece of dowel. We had
unwittingly positioned ourselves only about eight feet from Tony’s kitchen
window. Had he leaned forward to look out the window, I reckoned that he
would have spied three bug-eyed, shaking, white with fear kids perched close
together, resembling a trio of wide eyed possums that had just been spotlighted.
There I sat, like an ice block in a freezer. From my perch I could see a good
deal of Tony’s kitchen. I watched as he walked past the corner of the old retro
table with its red mother of pearl laminate top. It also sported a broad chrome
trim and twin “V” style chrome legs. Tony approached the kitchen bench
and plugged the cord into the yellow china jug. He flicked the switch to boil
before retrieving a large cup and saucer from the overhead cupboard. He then
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picked up the upturned white and floral patterned teapot from the sink top
and placed it on the bench in front of him. From a row of old tin canisters
he grabbed the one with a faded label printed Tea. Then he shovelled two
teaspoons-worth into the teapot before returning the canister to its place next
to the others on the shelf. By this time the jug had furiously boiled and Tony
turned off the power, unplugged the cord and proceeded to pour the boiling
water into the teapot. He then approached the cream coloured round topped
“Crossley” fridge and reefed on its lever-type handle and removed the tapered
top glass bottle of milk. Tony poured the tea into his cup before adding the
milk and returning the bottle to its place in the fridge before slamming the
door closed.
It was at this point that I realised that we had another small, but large
problem: that haunting, annoying, drive you crazy, unmistakable sound,
ZZZZzzzzZZZZzzzz…Bloody mozzies! Swarms of the blood sucking, stinging
kamikaze buggers had found us. It was okay while we were moving around, but
now that we had to stay put, they seemed to sense that it was time to come in for
the kill. We couldn’t slap them for fear that Tony would hear us so all we could
do was to slowly brush them off with a hand, which didn’t seem to help much.
My mind ran wild as it played out different scenarios…“Would I end up like
a wrinkled piece of leather hanging over this tree branch once the mozzies had
sucked me dry?” Or … “If Tony did catch us, how would I be able to explain,
why and where my skin had disappeared to, to Mum?” My mind flashed back
to a Laurel and Hardy movie that I saw once. They had been skinned alive and
were walking down the street as skeletons. “Hmmm!” I wondered. “How long
would it take for the skin to grow back over my bones? I certainly wouldn’t be
able to go to school for a while, that’s for sure!”
I was startled back to reality when the kitchen light was switched off and Tony
walked to his lounge room. Rodney whispered, “Can we go now?”
“Wait just a second,” I replied watching Tony place his cuppa on the side table
next to his big wide-armed lounge chair before walking to the corner of the
room and turning on the TV…I’ve always wondered how the old H.M.V. tellys
balanced on those long thin spindly legs. Tony settled into his armchair with the
T.V. blaring away. We quietly absconded with the sugar bag almost full of juicy
mangoes… But that’s not the end of the story, Ohhhh No!
We were so glad to be back on terra-firma and free to scratch away those
dammed mozzie bites. I decided to divvy up the mangoes on the way home.
Cracker night was fast approaching and I knew that the sugar bag would be
needed for that event. We stopped at Larry’s place first and he took his share of
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David J. Delaney, Tony the Wog's Mango Tree
mangoes before Rodney and I carried the remaining mangoes on to our place,
then tipped them into one of the old cement tubs under our house.
Tuesday evening arrived and Dad, along with some of the men, including Tony,
had again gathered under our house to enjoy a drink. Being a growing thirteenyear-old, I liked to spend time with the men and, even though I didn’t really
understand most of the jokes, I would always laugh along with them. Now,
everything was fine until Mum went around with a large bowl of … sliced juicy
mango. Because nobody was paying any attention to a mere young boy, they
didn’t notice the colour draining from my face or that I was turning a shade of
illuminating white. Tony accepted a large slice of mango and said, “Beautiful a
piece of a mango missus.”
“Oh, thank you Tony,” Mum replied. “The boys brought them home the
other night.”
Then, in a tone I will never forget, Tony said “Oha, did a they just?”
Tony slowly turned his head until his piercing brown eyes met mine. I felt that
same blood freezing feeling come over me when Tony patted the side of his
shorts where he kept his pocket knife. I almost couldn’t contain, what surely
would have been, a glass shattering scream. It was a good cue to leave. So with
quivering voice I said to Mum, “Be back shortly, have to go and see me mate!”
I don’t recall ever riding to Larry’s place in such record breaking time. But I do
know this: we never raided Tony the wog’s mango tree ever again.
g
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Kate Osborne
SEEDS, CORALS, SHELLS AND DRIFTWOOD
Erykah Kyle, former Mayor of Palm Island remembers
The sign announces: “Great Palm Island welcomes you” as the ferry nudges in
alongside a jumble of pylons of various ages and styles.
Vehicles cluster around the end of the jetty and a crowd gathers to help offload
the goods they have brought from the mainland. Tall citrus trees, pot plants in
full flower, winter jumpers, DVD players, cartons of beer, and loaves of bread.
Children on bikes and skateboards weave in and out of the crowd, while others
throw a line, hoping for a fish to bite.
Last year, during the July NAIDOC Week celebrations to celebrate the history,
culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the
Premier, Anna Bligh stood on this jetty, full of optimism for the future of the
island, the rolling sandy flats and the dusky blue of the barrier reef water behind
her. Bligh was opening the new government offices, built to replace those burnt
down in the riots in 2004 after an indigenous man, Cameron Doomadgee died
while in police custody. Speaking on the ABC 7.30 report, she was there to
convince the wider world that Palm Island had turned the corner.
“We can be pulled down about all the problems but if you want to make
something better you have got to be hopeful and optimistic and that’s what I
am,” she said.
Erykah Kyle was the Mayor during this turbulent time of the island’s history
when Doomadgee died. She does not share the optimistic view of the Queensland
Premier. It was Erykae who delivered the news to her people of Doomadgee's
death in police custody. Chris Hurley, the police constable involved in the
incident, was acquitted of manslaughter in 2007. In 2008, the Queensland court
ordered the inquest findings be set aside and a third inquest was held in March
2010 — another chapter in the island's violent past.
Erykah was born on Palm Island and has lived there most of her life.
Most days, she walks into town from her home around the headland to the
south. She waits for the Post Office, a simple besser block building with a roller
door to open so she can go through the mailbag to find her mail. There is no
Post Office sign and no indication of when it might open or close.
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“It’s all geared for the government no matter what you look at. You see people
walking around their shoulders slumped. We will never see change. Ownership.
I believe that. To see people inspired. Never.”
Palm Island is 65km SE of Townsville in North Queensland. Its peaks dominate
the skyline of the group of around 10 islands, known locally as “The Palms” or
Greater Palm Group. The main township is scattered between the jetty and the
forested hills behind. In the gullies, vine forest gathers in deep green pockets.
Eucalypts careen down the hillside to the wide sweeping bay. Towards the
southern end of the bay, small green figs cauliflower from the trunk of a huge
tree. Its luscious spreading canopy casts a deep shadow on the dusty ground
around. Erykah says the old people, the Manburra people, used to see ‘spirit
dogs’ appearing here. It is a special place.
The 3500 residents of Palm Island are collectively known as the Bwgcolman
people. They claim ancestral links to at least forty tribes, having been forcibly
brought to island from all over Queensland from 1918 until the 1960s. Erykah’s
family grew up near the Cooktown people in Far North Queensland. Erykah’s
mother was born Rose Lillian Hall. She was brought to Palm Island in 1911,
when she was seven years old, because her father, Arthur Hall, was white.
“My father was fortunate. He came with the whole family. Big mob. He was a
builder and he was a great fisherman in between. Our mother would cook it up,
and that helped us. She baked bread and sold it. Our father’s job was minimal.
At that time, they called it family allowance. It used to go into a pool regulated
by the superintendent. He ruled with an iron fist. Very authoritarian. My
mother was the one who went and said: ‘I’d like that money in my hand. I want
to buy clothes, I want to buy flour.’ She was very brave.”
“In that time there were different areas tribally. My brother David, when
we were growing up, he’de go over there with the old people, and he’de do
corroborree too. The old people sang out to my mother, ‘Missus can we put
some mud on him, he’s too white’. She just laughed.”
Walking from the jetty into town, there is a sharp delineation between the
“loved” and the “unloved” parts of the landscape. Every concrete table along
the foreshore is smashed. A row of empty street planter pots is testimony to the
violence and vandalism that the island suffers.
Erykah says, “Our people destroy things because they don’t feel part of it. See all
that there? There were plants in there. They pulled them up. They are thinking:
‘What about us?’”
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Tucked in against the hillside is Erykah’s island home, where she lives with her
daughter and her family. The house is on the road that runs by the airstrip, a
couple of bays to the south of the main township. Across the street, six or seven
short legged, curly tail dogs battle to bark from the pinnacle of a large rock in
the corner of the yard. Nearby, a street sign points vaguely toward the airstrip. It
reads ‘Jonny Jumbo road’.
“He was one of our hunters,” Erykah says. “He struggled during his life. Why
do they put up a street sign now that he is dead?”
A big mango tree cups the front of the house where a makeshift shelf is stacked
with sprouting coconuts. Bird nest ferns and orchids thrive in the cool, shady
yard. On Erykah’s verandah, lattice splits and scatters the afternoon light.
As the day fades, Erykah speaks of the violence and tragedy that has dogged her
all of her life. Her distress is tangible, her hand on her heart as if she longed to
wrench it out as she talks of the night Doomadgee died.
“People just ran, and to me, at that moment, it was like I was watching a movie.
It’s this rush. They headed up to the police station.
“It was terribly painful, as a mother, because I had lost my son in police custody.”
Erykah’s son, Brett, was found hanging in his cell at Lotus Glen, a correction
center in the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns, in 2001.
“The message (of Brett’s death) came to me before the messenger. My niece was
the mayor here at that time. As soon as she arrived at the house, I said: ‘You’ve
got bad news for me’. I went to the inquest. Sitting there, going through the
details. I still ask the question: ‘Who was on duty? Where did he get what was
used?’ We never got any answers. I wanted to die. It is only natural to come to
that point. If it wasn’t for my family…they said: ‘Don’t leave Mum alone. Don’t
leave Mum, now.’”
Erykah is a survivor but she said things don’t always turn out well for
aboriginal people.
“My own cousin, she threw petrol all over herself. She had children, one after
the other. Her husband was a top cultural man. They were forward thinkers.
They were active in the community. But things went bad. She threw it over and
lit herself up. We have had a lot taking their lives.”
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“It’s affected my whole life, the violence, the brutality. I have the two daughters.
They saw the violence. They had one daughter each and never wanted anymore.”
Erykah was sixteen when she fell in love with a man who was sent to Palm
Island for punishment from the south. He was charming and he had this
particular whistle.
“In those days the men had different whistles. It was very romantic. It was the
only way to communicate. When I went home, my uncles knew I wasn’t at
church. They took me into a little back room. I was flogged. I ran away. I heard
someone say. She’s gone to see him. They caught him and they flogged him.
And then he was sent away.”
I should be dead now. My husband, he nearly broke my neck. I dropped the
baby. The father and I, afterwards we became friends. You can’t hate forever. I
made sure I went to his funeral to make sure he was gone.”
Erykah said that on Palm Island, people “go to funerals here regardless”.
“It’s a community thing. Our ceremony is very beautiful. At least we make
sure we say goodbye. The men prepare the grave and afterwards, they shovel
everything on. And then afterwards the women come and prepare it, they put
the flowers on.”
Her position as Mayor from 2004 to 2006 was her last position in public
office, but not the end of her lifetime of activism to improve the lives of
Palm Islanders. She does not believe she will live to see change after what she
describes as ‘the withdrawal of self-determination for aboriginal people’.
“We take 2 steps forwards and 10 back. The government controls our lives.
They’ve got hold of us,” she said.
Anna Bligh’s visit to the island during NAIDOC week coincided with the first
Palm Island death from swine flu last year and the pandemic spreading out of
control on the island, which brought the living conditions on Palm Island again
into the media spotlight. Mayor Alf Lacey said, at the time, that containing
the virus will be impossible because of the mass overcrowding and shortage
of housing. It is common for 15 people to share a three-bedroom house, a
situation that would never occur on the mainland.
When she was mayor in 2005, Erykah put a case to the case government for 50
new houses on Palm Island.
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“They came back. They said we could have three.”
She shakes her head sadly; her silver Indian earring dangles against the red,
yellow and black beaded necklace.
“I said to the council, ‘Should I accept this?’ They were unanimous that we should
not. It didn’t make any difference. We got three. We still get what they dictate.”
Black rubber matting, to keep the dust out of the house lines the front pathway,
which in turn is flanked by hibiscus bushes, each with a different bloom. Some
white, some yellow with a scarlet flush at the centre, and some a deep red, the
same colour as Erykah’s dress. Their colours dissolve into the fading light.
Erykah said when she was younger she didn’t think of herself as an activist.
“I just saw things were needed. Like my mother. She had a soft heart. She made
bread and pies. She’d say, ‘Here take over there to those people.’ I am fortunate
to come from that, because that’s where I started.”
Tendrils of aroma from the evening meal sneak out of the house. Next door, the glow
of a campfire flicks through the mango trees. Someone starts strumming a guitar.
Erykah continues, “Apartheid didn’t start in South Africa. It started here on
Palm Island. This was a punishment place. They thought: ‘Put them on an
island. They’ll probably kill themselves off.’ But it didn’t turn out that way. We
are known as ‘historical’ people. I hate that. It’s like we are from some museum.
Our mother’s afterbirth is here. It’s buried in this land. For me, I’ve got my
grandparent, my parents, my son, my young sister. Down there in that cemetery.”
Inside, the house is like a shrine to her loved ones and to her island home.
Photos jostle for space on every wall. Treasures abound. Seeds, corals, shells,
and driftwood. Amidst the jumble of nature, piles of notebooks, newspaper
cuttings, are small traces of the activists and spiritual leaders that have inspired
Erykah’s life. An American Indian warrior has pride of place next to a small
aboriginal flag. Among the photos is one of Erykah and Murandoo Yanner, an
activist from the gulf country. They are speaking at the tent city in Canberra,
which was established in 1972 on the lawn in front of old Parliament House.
Erykah said, “Aboriginal right to self-determination was established by our
activists, way back in Canberra. We were real activists, very brave. They brought
the forces in. Phew, a lot of our people got knocked and gaoled.”
Here on Palm Island though, she said, everything they have tried has come
to nothing.
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“In the 1980s, a group of Island residents devised and promoted the concept of
a place on Palm Island for young men who had been in prison. We talked with
Paul Wilson, criminologist. We met with him, and he said: ‘You have to take
them out of the community where there is so much alcohol abuse and violence.’”
Recidivism is the reoccurrence of criminal behaviour in prior offenders. The
number of re-offenders on Palm Island is high. Add alcohol, unemployment and
overcrowded housing to the mix, and day to day life becomes volatile. According
to the March Quarterly report on key indicators in Queensland’s discrete
Indigenous communities, rates of serious assault peaked in 2006/07 and in 2009
the rates were still three to four times higher than the average for Queensland.
“We were going to set up a place at Mundy Bay,” Erykah says, “A beautiful
place. It was about getting back to our ways. Hunting, fishing, relaxing, sharing
and being part of the land. It wasn’t a prison away from prison. It was quite
dramatic and exciting. The community organisation incorporated in 1985 and
forwarded its submission for funds to the Queensland Corrective Services. The
project was not approved. When that situation happens, the people’s spirits go
down. So we all went down. Lo and behold, corrective services came in and
built an outstation. We call it the big house. Similar concept but different. A
state run institution that just ticks off this and that, and our people are still
incarcerated. It’s empty now.”
Erykah said this was typical of government responses to Indigenous communitybased efforts to gain control over the services provided to its residents.
“We applied to set up a Murri school. Education Queensland did not support
it. We set up our own health service. We called it Turtle dreaming because the
turtle is a beautiful, gentle creature. Queensland Health did not support this
locally run initiative."
“Another time there was a proposal to run a retail store. I ran around. I talked
to the women: ‘Do you think we can run that store?’ They said: ‘Yes’. We were
forward thinkers, which was amazing at that time, considering the oppression
we lived under. We wanted to set up a co-operative. We wanted the profits to go
for housing for our young people. We engaged an accountant and a lawyer out
of fundraising.”
The project never went ahead.
In the past, she says, she had enthusiasm.
“I travelled a lot, long, long way. I visited 14 countries as a delegate of the
World Council of Churches. Mostly black countries. You see the despair but
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you see the hope. One woman said to me: ‘You can’t do nothing.’ She had given
up. Back then, I believed that was too simplistic. I thought change comes slowly
but what we do in this time will make a difference for the next time.”
Once a Queensland government controlled and run reserve from 1918
until 1985, the land title for Palm island was then handed over to the local
community Council. When the government pulled out, houses, shops, the
timber mill and farming equipment were disassembled and shipped back to
the mainland. Since then, Palm Island has been without an economic base.
There is on ongoing struggle to meet basic infrastructure needs and most of the
community is reliant on welfare.
Erykah said, “My daughter and I set up a bakery. We had a beautiful building
built by our own men here. One of our people had learnt to be a baker while
he was on one of the outstations. We had three and half thousand people. We
could have had fresh bread every day but we couldn’t get the funding for the
equipment. We had to import everything. One day my daughter said, ‘Mum,
we can’t go on like this.’ I always say when the government was in charge, the
key person here was known as the superintendent. The superintendent is still
here. His spirit is here. We are still importing bread.”
In 2004 there was massive media coverage following the riot. Feature stories,
books and films. In 2009, the vital statistics on employment, health and
violence are still shocking. Erykah says, “What do you do? We have had a strike.
We have had a riot.”
The PCYC is one of the newest buildings in the township. From inside
didgeridoo and upbeat background music blares. Preparations for NAIDOC
week are nearly complete. Painted boys are on the stage dancing with various
degrees of enthusiasm and prowess. A crowd of school children and passers-by
interject: ohh ahh, ayeee, carried away by the music. During the final song,
a couple of the children’s white teachers join the dancers in a parody of the
children’s spirit characters. The crowd is in uproar, their laughter so loud it
overwhelms the ghetto blaster in the background. A speech of thanks winds up
the rehearsal and the children wander back out towards the school.
Erykah sees tourism as a threat to the lifestyle of Palm Islanders, especially in
the unspoiled bays that dot the coastline. “The bays have ‘camps’ in them where
our people go, to relax, to get out of the suburbs,” Erykah said.
The turn off to Pencil Bay is at the old mango tree at the end of the airstrip, just
a short distance toward town from Erykah’s house. Erykah likes to walk this
way in the morning with her dogs. Her step is light and sure over the rough
gravel surface. The road passes through small shrubby gum trees, which gives
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Kate Osborne, Seeds, Corals, Shells and Driftwood
way to swamp. Tea coloured water laps the road on either side, flanked by tall
paperbarks. Their grey trunks criss-cross in the mirror like water. A single lily
colours the reflections with it delicate mauve and yellow bloom.
“Brett, the son I lost, used to get in there and pick the flowers. I don’t know
why the flowers have gone now. Our family are possum eaters too. I miss that
now. The hunters in my family have gone.”
Pencil Bay is named after the sharp clam-like shell that is collected and eaten
along with small clams, spider shells and oysters. At the beach, the road turns
into a sandy track and winds through the scrub past a series of camps. A
concrete slab with a couple of steps. Nothing else is left. Another one with
sheets of tin, slowly lifting and coming back down to rest in the breeze. Another
shelter, this one with the roof intact. A shovel rests against the lean-to and
nearby, a hole in the ground and charcoal, the remains of a kup murri, the
traditional way of cooking food by buying it the ground with hot coals.
When she was a child, Erykah used to come past Pencil Bay in the family boat
that her father built, called Caroline. They would wave to the people with
leprosy, who at that time, lived in the huts down one end of the bay.
“I grew up at a time when Fantome Island was a leprosarium. They always had
a boat on standby. If there were births, it went straight over and brought the
babies back. The mother was never able to caress that child. It’s very painful for
me as a mother. I want my son-in-law to take me there. This community should
acknowledge that burial ground.”
From the end of the beach someone yells out: “Erykah.” An old man and his
son are at the last camp. Their shed close to the beach has a tarp slung over a
timber frame. Under the tarp, a pair of old shorts is hanging out to dry. Sheets
of tin enclose another shelter. Erykah and JB pull up some chairs in the sand.
Mud covers reef rocks close to the beach give way to the mounded shapes of
corals exposed in the low tide. They sit and talk, while JB’s son wanders around
picking up the red and yellow leaves from the beach almond trees that carpet
the sand around the camp. He spears each leaf with a stick until he has a stack
and then piles them up around the fireplace.
Erykah laughs and her green eyes twinkle, happy now, to be on the beach,
having a chat.
“Once I had my own children we drove down here in my Subaru. The old
people, they used to say: ‘That Erykah, she got a selfish car.’ Because, you know,
I could only fit two people in it.”
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The conversation turns to Mundy Bay, south of the airstrip, which is Erykah's
family’s camp place. She says, “We used to go to Mundy Bay during the school
holidays. We’d stay there the whole time, just come back if we needed something,
you know. We swam and fished. There were waterfalls. It was beautiful.”
JB wants to bring his children and his grandchildren to this bay. He says he
comes here now and then, but he is worried the beach is being washed away.
They talk about who comes to the other camps on the beach and how an
influential local resident is pegging out land up on the ridge.
Erykah admits: “Dirty politics are strong here. It’s cut throat. I fear for our
future. I want to ask the CEO, is there going to be a community meeting to
talk about change? They have not had meetings with us. I would like to invite
the traditional owners over here to talk with us, maybe under the big fig tree.
We, the Bwgcolman people, need to make that move. My mind has been
whirling. Where do we go from here? I can see them coming on the jetty with
their cameras. Our people dancing. To me, it is like an invasion.”
Erykah resigned from her position as mayor in November, 2006. The enormous
strain of the ongoing investigations into Doomdagee’s death had taken their
toll. Criticism and political pressure came from within the council and from the
Queensland Government.
In 2007, the current mayor Alf Lacey was elected. At that time the structure of
government on Palm Island was also revised, as the island became an Aboriginal
Shire Council. Mayor Lacey said that Palm Island Council is now the same
as all other Local Government Authorities in Queensland and therefore
governance of the community will be transparent and just.
Lacey, Erykah says, is experienced and is politically minded. While there is
widespread disagreement about land ownership and tourism amongst Palm
Islanders, one thing everyone seems to agree on is the need for employment.
Money flows into Palm Island and it flows right out again. Erykah says:
“Our councillors are young people. We have lawyers now, and doctors. Our
young people will take things forward from another angle.”
Back at the house, Erykah leafs through a folder where she keeps press clippings
and letters she has written. She picks one and reads the final paragraph.
“The regional report by Lewis Wyvill QC, covering aboriginal deaths in custody
has long been forgotten. Yet I still marvel at his insight concerning our plight.
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Nathanael O'Reilly, Suburban Fantasy
One of the statements I keep close to my heart: ‘The effective re- empowerment
of aborigines in communities requires no less than the granting of power over
law, land and people.’”
g
Nathanael O’Reilly
SUBURBAN FANTASY
As pre-pubescent boys roaming
The suburbs on our BMXs, searching
For excitement on long, hot Sundays,
We were simultaneously disgusted
And thrilled to discover used condoms
(Which we called Frenchies, rubbers
And dingers) on the dirt slope beneath
The squash courts behind the Underwood
Road shopping centre. The discarded
Rubbers hinted at a sordid world of furtive
Teenage sex going on all around us, yet
Out of sight and out of our childish reach.
We perved on horny teens French-kissing
And groping underwater in public pools,
Took mental notes and foolishly imagined
We had a chance with bikini-clad classmates.
g
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Rebecca Babcock
FLAG MAN
Summers during university, my brother Michael worked on a road construction
crew. He was the flag man. He spent most of the day holding a Stop sign, then
turning it around to Slow, letting the cars creep by as other people ran the
machinery behind him.
I used to ask him if it didn’t drive him nuts, standing around like that all day.
“I don’t mind,” he’d say. “It gives me time to think. And I get to spend my
summers outside.”
Michael had managed to collect enough scholarships not to have to worry about
working summers, but he worked anyway. He told me once that he had saved
almost everything he made, working the road crew. He didn’t say how much that
was, exactly, but I knew it was a lot. I asked him what he was saving for.
“Don’t know yet,” he replied.
I knew he was lying.
I drove by him a couple of times, while he was working. He didn’t even look at
the cars he was signalling, just gazed off, staring at the sky or the buildings, or
past them, watching things I couldn’t see. Behind him, the other workers on his
crew tore up asphalt with jackhammers, or thrust shovels into the dry earth that
lay beneath the roads. Michael didn’t even seem to know that they were there.
He just stood in front of them, holding his sign in one hand, with the other
hand, glove and all, thrust into his pocket, his chin tilted up and away from me
and the people in the other cars.
***
With all the money he made, my brother didn’t bother to buy a car for himself.
He said he liked riding the city bus. He also caught rides home with me,
whenever we went up to visit our Mom. He never pitched in for gas.
My last year of university, Michael and I drove home for Christmas Holidays.
We agreed that I would pick him up at ten that morning. At eleven, I was still
sitting in his living room, listening to him rummage through his closet and
pack for the week-long trip. Finally, he emerged freshly shaved, his clothes neat
and ironed, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
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“Could you grab that one for me?” he asked, gesturing to a backpack by the
foot of his bed.
I picked it up and nearly toppled under the weight. “What is this?” I asked,
hoisting it over my shoulder.
“My books,” he said.
“You’re going to do homework over Christmas?”
“You’re not?”
The ride home took three hours on a good driving day. You don’t get a lot of
good driving days in December. We’d had a short autumn and a lot of snow
already that year. The roads were slotted where tyres had worn through the
packed snow, and my nerves crackled at the possibility of black ice and of
animals on the highway. I told Michael to keep his hands off the radio while
I was driving, that I didn’t need his crappy music to distract me. As I crept
around the slick curves of the highway, with my teeth gritted and my fingers
locked on the wheel, he teased me about being a nervous driver. He rode
with his seat all the way back, staring out the window at the sky. His legs
were crossed, and he looked at once uncomfortably pretzeled and oddly lotuspositioned.
“Take your feet off the seat,” I told him. He grinned and dropped his sneakers
to the floor.
We pulled into my mom’s driveway around suppertime. She rushed out into the
cracking-cold evening air in sweatshirt and jeans. “What took you so long?” She
hoisted Michael’s book bag over her shoulder.
“You know how Katie drives,” Michael replied, hugging her.
“As long as you’re both here safe, I’m happy,” Mom said, squeezing my arm with
her free hand. She was smiling widely, almost vibrating with excited energy.
When she ran into the house ahead of us, my brother’s bag slung from her
shoulder, her jeans hanging loosely on her thin legs and her too-big sweatshirt
falling almost to her thighs, she looked like a little kid.
We spent a quiet week at my mom’s house. Christmas was just the three of
us, like it had been most of our lives. The temperature slipped down to a
forbidding cold that kept us indoors most of the time, and the sun shone all
week, so bright and so clear that it looked like a bleached stain in the impossibly
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blue sky. Michael and I let Mom fuss over us and cook us more food than we
could ever eat, pretended we didn’t notice when she loaded up the trunk of my
car with home-made frozen dinners to take back with us.
It had been a long time since I’d been around my brother as much as I was that
Christmas. Michael had grown wide-jawed and monosyllabic, and he seemed
to have trouble sitting still. He walked aimlessly from room to room, or sat on
the couch, watching TV and flicking from channel to channel. He hardly spoke
at all, and when he did, his voice would trail off before he reached the ends of
his sentences. I filled silences for him, and so did Mom, as though we could
calm the air around him and ward off that nervous silence. His textbooks lay
spread across the dining room table most of the time we were there. When we
sat down to eat, we would have to push them out of the way. Mom was always
careful not to lose his page. Every few hours, Michael would sit down in front
of his books, flipping from page to page, scribbling notes into a notebook with
a torn cover, and Mom would beam at him, offering him warmed plates of
Christmas leftovers. After a half hour or so of studying, though, he would be
up from his seat, staring out the window, his pencil twirling in rapid circles
between his fingers.
The last afternoon before classes started up again, I was jamming our bags into
the back seat of my little car, as Michael looked on from the patio. He was
leaning against the wall of the house, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“If you’re in that much of a hurry to get back, come help me,” I called.
“I’m in no hurry,” he replied. “Do you want to go for a drive?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “A drive home.”
“First let’s go out to the cabin,” Michael said.
I didn’t answer for a moment. I closed the car door and leaned against it,
hoping Michael wouldn’t see that my right leg had started shaking so badly I
couldn’t put weight on it. Our father had built the cabin years before. It was
in the elbow of a pine forest that stretched thirty miles in each direction. There
was no power or running water. When we were little, our father had wanted
us to spend weekends out there, but Michael wouldn’t — and I wouldn’t go
without him. Finally, Dad gave up, disappeared. We didn’t see him for years
after that. “What if someone else lives there now?”
He shook his head. “There’s no one there. I went to see it last summer. We
should go have a look together.”
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I wanted to say no, to tell him that we had to get on the road before it got
dark, but I was afraid that if I did, he would hear the thinness of my voice, my
desperate desire to stay as far away from the cabin as I could. I was afraid he
would ask me why I was so afraid to go. And if he asked, I didn’t know what to
tell him. I felt trapped. “Okay,” I called back. “Let’s go.”
***
The clear, white-brightness of the sun sharpened the cold, lending the winter air
a searing quality that snagged my breath. As we drove out of town, I fought a
quiet panic that was uncurling just under my rib cage. I hated the area outside
the Northern Alberta town where I’d grown up. I hated the sparse, stunted
poplars and the weedy-looking fields. I hated the way the gravel roads dropped
away without warning, their sides disintegrating into marshy ditches. The fields
were edged with whited-over ponds, filled with cat-tails and stunted willows
tipped in hoar-frost and poking through a heavy white blanket. I hated the
loneliness of the place. I always did.
It was a long drive to the old cabin, and we had to wind through old back
roads. I had been out there only once since I was a little girl, but I knew every
road, remembered every field. The houses along the way seemed smaller now,
and some of them looked abandoned, but I remembered them. As I cut down
range roads that spat gravel at the underside of my car, I remembered every
curve and every corner. Finally, I turned down the old driveway. I had to slow
almost to a crawl as the heavy spruce boughs scraped the sides of my car.
When we got there, I climbed out of the car first and walked bravely to the
front door. A small pine tree had grown up in front of it, and the kitchen
window was smashed. The walls were weathered and greying. Here and there,
bits of grass and plants were growing out between the logs. They were dead and
frost-covered, but I could see that they had taken root in the wood.
“Probably animals living inside it now,” I said, brushing past Michael as I
moved towards the faint indentation in the earth under the bay window. I
remembered playing there when I was little; it was the spot that Dad said would
be a flower bed some day. I pushed away the snow with my foot, but all I could
see underneath were the same weeds and wild grasses that had always covered
the rest of the cleared area around the cabin. Michael nodded, and rubbed his
hand along the greying logs. He was smiling faintly, looking into the trees on
the other side of the driveway.
“I remembered it being so big,” he said softly. It still surprised me how deep
his voice had become. I always expected a faint adolescent squeak, even though
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he looked much older than his eighteen years. “Look,” he said, laughing, as he
reached up and put his hand on the eavestrough, his fingers grazing the curling
shingles of the roof.
“I’m getting cold,” I said. “Can we get going?”
He was quiet for a long moment, his palms pressed flat against the cabin walls.
“Can we go inside for a moment first?” He didn’t wait me for to answer. “Bet
the door’s not locked,” he called, testing it.
I followed him into the kitchen. The window had been boarded over, but the
plywood had been torn away, letting in the dim winter light that managed to
filter through the evergreens. I wondered if Michael had been the one to pull
the plywood down. “Okay,” I said, trying to relax. “Okay, Michael. What are we
doing here?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. Instead, he rubbed his foot back and
forth along the floor until he had pushed aside the dirt enough to see the lino
beneath. He closed his eyes. His face was mostly turned away from me, but I
could see that he’d closed his eyes. “Did you ever meet my girlfriend Pam?” he
said at last.
“No,” I said. I thought for a moment. “I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
“She was fun. I liked her. She was a runner, did triathlons, things like that.”
Michael had opened his eyes, but he was staring out the window, through the
space where the glass clung to the frame like thick pointed teeth. “Then she
went jogging one night, back when we were still dating. She was running over
the High Level Bridge, and this guy came up behind her and punched her in
the back of the head. She fell down. Hurt like hell, she told me, and it made her
mad. When she was still lying on the sidewalk, she started swearing at the guy
— What the fuck are you doing, Why the fuck did you hit me, stuff like that. And
she said that he just stood over her, staring at her, looking confused. So finally,
Pam stops swearing long enough to get scared. She’s still lying on the ground, so
she kind of rolls off the sidewalk, under the guard wire, and onto the road part
of the bridge. Thank God there weren’t any cars coming, but she did manage to
flag down one guy, this old man in a great big Buick. When they drove off, she
could see this guy who punched her, still standing on the bridge, watching her.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Yeah,” Michael replied, finally looking at me. “Police said that this guy
was a rapist, he knocked women out by punching them in the head, then
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dragged them off to — you know.” He shook his head, and looked back out
the window. “Pam was lucky. She called me over the next day, told me about
the whole thing. I thought she was so brave, she didn’t cry or anything. I
was freaked. But Pam seemed so calm when she told me about it. After that,
though, she didn’t want to go out much. I told her, No big deal, I understand.
I was glad she wasn’t going running alone anymore. Then, pretty soon, she
stopped going to her classes, she quit her job. And one day, she hands me her
bank card, asks me if I’ll go grocery shopping for her. Tells me she can’t stand
the crowds at the grocery store. She stopped going out altogether. Wouldn’t
leave her apartment. I bought her groceries, fucking tampons and everything,
and when she ran out of money, I paid for everything. I didn’t tell her she was
broke, just kept taking her bank card with me when I went.”
Michael stopped talking. He looked like he was going to start crying. He kept
swallowing hard, blinking. “Why didn’t you tell someone?” I asked him.
“Who was I going to tell?” he said. His voice was even again. He wasn’t going to
cry. “I didn’t know her parents, and what were her friends going to do? So I just
kept coming back to her place, bringing her food. She gave me her apartment
key. She said she didn’t need it.
“She stayed inside her apartment for nearly a month. After the first week or
so, she started yelling at me every time I came by, picking fights over the kind
of milk I brought her, started screaming that she doesn’t like the shows on TV.
And I take it. I let her yell at me, if that’s what she needs to do, and I buy her
groceries, and I look after her. Then, all of a sudden, she asks me for her key
back. Says she’s managed to re-enrol herself in a couple of classes, that she’s got
a job. And then she just stops calling me, won’t answer when I phone her. And
that’s it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there. I couldn’t look at Michael. He
shuffled off, and I could hear him prowling around the place, heard him
dragging something — maybe it was our old bunk bed ­— across the floor in
the room we used to share. I didn’t want to follow him, just stayed where I
was, looking at the cracked log wall. I stood there, listening to Michael move
through the bedrooms of the cabin until my fingers were frozen and numb, and
my toes became unresponsive lumps in my boots. I walked back out to my car,
hoping that he would hear the engine. I held my hands in front of the hot air
vents, waiting for him.
Finally, he emerged. I watched him shut the door behind him, shove it with his
shoulder to make sure it was closed.
“Just wait a minute,” he said as he climbed into the car.
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“I want to get home,” I said. “To Edmonton. To the city.”
“Help me.”
I looked at him. He was looking at the cabin, smiling a little. “Help me,” he
said again, more softly this time.
“Help you what?”
“Help me buy this place. We can share it. You get it one weekend, I’ll take it the
next. It could be fun. Like going on vacation whenever you want to.”
I looked out at the rough-looking log walls, the bits of dead grass that clung to
the joints. I could feel the silence, and it seemed even heavier in the cold. I had
to remind myself to breathe, to draw in the searing dry air that was blasting out
of the car’s vents. “Michael, I can’t afford it,” I said at last.
He nodded. “Right,” he said. “I understand.” He still wasn’t looking at me.
We didn’t say anything else as we drove back to town.
***
Mom hugged us at the door until our bones almost cracked. She was still
scolding us for waiting until dark to drive home as we pulled away from the
house. Michael put his seat back and slept. I kept the music loud enough to
keep me from dozing off.
As we rounded a dark corner on the highway, a motion in the darkness along
the ditch caught my eye. I slammed on the brake, and the car skittered across
the lanes and along the shoulder before finally sliding to a stop, the right
bumper nudged into the snow bank. I watched as the deer leaped across the
highway and down into the ditch, its white behind fading like a puff of breath
into the darkness.
“What’s up?” Michael asked sleepily, following my gaze into the darkness.
“Nothing.” I cranked into reverse, tightening my arms to hide the quaking.
“Roads are slippery.” I pulled back onto the highway, and Michael fell asleep
again without another word. He snored a little as he slept, and I imagined him
sleeping alone in our father’s cabin, his snores resonating between the cracked
log walls.
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It was dark by the time the highway curved us around the city. To my right,
yellow-tinted lights glowed above the contours of the earth, bounded on the
far side by a bright edge of pearls. We drove closer, nearing the lights, and I had
a sudden desire to see what was underneath the lights and roads — a hidden
world of meaning and mechanism, almost independent of everything above.
I felt if I could get my fingers under that blanket of lights, I could pull it up,
and it would sound like I was pulling a handful of chickweed from my mom’s
garden — a slow, juicy popping and tearing as I rolled the lights and the streets
and the houses away from the ground. And underneath, in the cool, dampsmelling earth there would be pink worms and bright-black beetles, surprised
by the sudden air on their backs. Before I could imagine them squirming and
writhing, the highway dipped down into the lights, and we were in the city, the
streetlights and neon storefronts all around us, rolling alongside other cars, and
I couldn’t see it as a blanket anymore, as anything that could ever be torn up or
rolled away.
I reached over and nudged my brother awake.
“Almost home,” I said.
That night, as I lay in bed, I didn’t need music to keep me awake. I couldn’t
close my eyes without seeing the inside of the old cabin, and Michael’s oddly
blank expression as he told me that story. I tried to remember if I had ever met
Pam. I called up the faces of all the girls I could ever remember seeing him with.
There weren’t that many, and none of them seemed to fit the name Pam.
***
I didn’t talk to Michael much that spring. We were both busy with school,
and he never was much good at being the first to call. Every time I picked
up the phone to talk to him, I would stand there, trying to think of what to
say, wondering what I had been doing while my brother was buying food and
tampons for his shut-in girlfriend. And I would hang up the phone, nothing to
say to him, nothing to ask but questions about him and Pam.
I didn’t sleep well that spring. I had nightmares, sometimes. I would wake
up, and be too afraid to close my eyes again. Most often, I would phone my
boyfriend Aaron who had just moved to London, usually catching him just as
he got home from work. I would ask him about his day, and tell him I missed
him, listening to his deep, familiar voice when he told me he missed me, too. I
would close my eyes and imagine being with him in a country without breathcracking cold and thick black forests that go on forever.
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One night, I had barely fallen asleep when my dreams woke me. Too unnerved
to close my eyes again, I lay awake until I knew Aaron would be home. I
listened to his voice in the dark as he told me about his music students.
“Aaron,” I interrupted him, “what would you do if I asked you for help?”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “What kind of help?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, frustrated. “Just — help.”
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I replied. I closed my eyes in the dark. “I’m just tired. And I miss you.”
I didn’t see Michael again until one weekend, not long before the end of classes,
when my mom called from his apartment. She was spending the weekend, she
said, and she had cooked dinner for us.
Michael’s apartment was a twenty-minute walk from mine. It was a warm night,
and I enjoyed the cool, green smell of grass and damp spring earth. It reminded
me that soon people would be mowing these lawns, planting flowers in the soil.
I slowed down when Michael’s building came into view, enjoying the softness
of the night. Across the street, a guy dressed in dirty jeans and a baseball
cap stepped out from a pub doorway. I felt him watching me, and my steps
quickened, almost running me up the walkway and into the lighted doorway
of Michael’s building. My hands were still shaking when I knocked on his door.
Mom was still making dinner. “Go and sit down with your brother,” she said,
hugging me quickly. “I’ll be done in a minute.”
Michael was on the couch. I took the chair. “Have you bought Dad’s old cabin
yet?” I asked. I hadn’t meant to ask it like that, I had intended to say Hello first,
at least, but Hello didn’t come out.
“No.” He didn’t even look away from the TV.
“Michael — why do you want to buy that place? Dad only lived there a couple
of years. Do you even remember being out there when we were kids?”
“A little,” he replied. He wouldn’t look at me. Mom came to tell us dinner was
ready. He grinned suddenly and told her a joke.
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Mom and Michael chatted over dishes of stew and dumplings. I couldn’t keep
up with what they were saying. I wasn’t hungry, but I finished my supper
before they made much of a dent in theirs. There was the tiniest lull in their
conversation, and I blurted, “Mom, Michael wants to buy Dad’s old cabin.” I
hadn’t intended to tell her that, certainly not over supper, but I was glad that I
had. I watched my mother’s face, eager for her reaction.
“What?” Mom looked up from her dinner, her gaze almost frightened as she
glanced back and forth between me and my brother.
“It’s what he’s been saving his road crew money for.” I couldn’t look at Michael.
“Michael?” The frightened stare was on him now. I heard Michael clear his
throat and fidget in his chair.
“It was an idea I had,” he said. His voice was strangely deep, and I knew he was
trying to sound grown-up, in control. “I found out who bought it after Dad
left, and he said he’d be willing to sell, but it’s more than I can afford right now.
I’d have to take out a mortgage.”
“Why on earth?” Mom said. Her napkin found a dribble of stew on the table,
and rubbed it briskly. “What would you do with a broken-down old cabin in
the middle of nowhere?”
“I thought it would be a nice place to get away to. Weekends, that sort of thing.
Only — I spoke to the bank, and I don’t really have the credit to get the kind of
mortgage I’d need. I would have to get someone to co-sign.”
“Me.” Mom’s eyes had narrowed. I could look at Michael now. His gaze was
locked on the table.
“I was going to ask,” he muttered. His voice had softened. He had already lost
his bravado.
“Michael, I don’t think you’ve thought much about this.”
Michael didn’t answer. For a long while, no one said anything.
After supper, Mom went out onto the balcony to smoke while Michael and I
washed the dishes. His silence prickled me, made me shut up.
“I’m sorry, Michael,” I managed to say at last.
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“Yeah. Well, she probably wouldn’t have said yes anyway.”
I heard the sliding door open then, and Mom stepped back into the living
room. I looked at Michael. He was stacking the plates in the cupboard, and
his back was to me, but I knew he wasn’t mad anymore. “Are you doing the
construction crew again this summer?” I asked him.
“Yeah. What about you? Have a job yet?”
“Not yet.” I looked away. In fact, I had a job — in a library in London. But I
couldn’t tell him that. Not yet.
***
I remembered one girl that Michael introduced me to. She was small, pretty.
She spoke with an accent. I wasn’t sure if she was from New Zealand or
Australia. We went bowling together, the three of us. It was Michael’s idea.
Whenever it was my turn, she and Michael would sit close together, and she
was always touching him, her hand on his shoulder, or his thigh.
When she went to the washroom, I waited for Michael to ask me, Do you like
her? or What do you think? He never did. He bowled his turn, then slid into
the seat in front of the scoreboard, stage-whispering Gutter ball as I stood to
take my turn. He didn’t tell me where they had met, or even what she did. And
before I could ask, she was back, sliding her arm hand down his back as she
walked past him to bowl her turn.
I tried hard to remember her name. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Pam.
g
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Paolo da Costa, Figs and Wings
Paulo da Costa
FIGS AND WINGS
On the tip of his toes, the father crossed the lake of splattered figs surrounding
the tree. He approached the cage cradled on the lower branches. The son tucked
away his duffle bag under the double swinging chair and joined him at bird cage.
“Father, is the blackbird happy?”
“Anything sheltered from this braising sun should be happy.”
The father returned his attention to the bowl of seeds. With care, he sifted the
seeds, ensuring only the very best reached his captive bird.
“Can’t trust commercial feeds any longer. In business to swing a buck. No love
for the creatures.”
The father squeezed his hand into the cage, nestled the seed bowl in the far
corner against the mesh wire. He changed the bird’s water while the son
collected a handful of figs from the tree.
Together, father and son strolled a few steps away to the double swinging chair
under the persimmon’s foliage admiring the coal-like shine on the blackbird’s
plumage, its bright orange beak.
“Only birds pluck their feathers to provide offspring with the comfort of a
nest!” The father’s words hung suspended between them.
The figs, fermenting on the ground, perfumed the air. The son whistled the
blackbird’s song. The bird responded.
The father smiled.
Father and son listened to the blackbird’s canto, perhaps its last before changing
to winter plumage and falling silent.
“If you opened up the door to the blackbird, would it choose to stay?” the
son asked, he parted a ripe fig in half and dug into the flesh with his teeth.
Succulent nectars dripped from the corner of his lips.
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“Can’t invite trouble, my son. Such a cruel thing to do. So many cats and
ospreys around. Wouldn’t last a day in my count.”
“What about those? They seem happy.” The son pointed to three blackbirds
circling them from above.
“Not blackie, my son. Raised in the luxury of captivity, he has never known the
outside of a cage. No safer place than a cage where nothing can torment him.
It’s a dangerous world out there.”
The three blackbirds landed on the enclosure’s railing. Worms wriggled from
their beaks. In shifts they flew back and forth, convoys of aid.
“They don’t trust us to feed their own. Could never tame those used to
freedom.” He interrupted his words, his dull eyes wandered the sky. After a long
pause he concluded. “Impossible to fit the wild ones into a cage. I’ve tried. Their
wings broken after endless days banging their bodies against the wire. Bone
against metal. Blood running from their beaks. They soon die. Their last breath,
one last run at the wire and happy to depart. Their souls escaped through the
tiny holes in the mesh, and again crossed the skies, I suppose.”
Father and son followed the undulating flight of the three blackbirds across the
blue. The birds vanished and their gaze returned to the caged bird.
“Birds grow used to anything father, as long as they aren’t offered a taste of the
broader world. They are almost happy, hopping from swing to swing inside the
cage, running up and down the miniature ladder, up and down as if it was the
best thing in the entire sky. In a way, they are right, it is the best thing in their
tamed horizon.”
The son whistled. The blackbird did not respond this time.
“Our family carries the love of birds in our veins. Your grandfather raised turtledoves. Smooth and warm as a mother’s bosom. The cooing always near and sweet.
Can’t cuddle them in the skies. Tell me now, what sort of birds will you keep?”
A gust of wind plucked a few leaves from the fig tree. The son wanted to voice
something about the changing weather, the changing times but his father continued.
“It would break my heart to see a family tradition die, son.”
The leaves still swirled in mid-air when a second gust lifted and carried the
leaves over the rooftop. The son stood up. He reached under the chair, swung
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the duffle bag over his shoulder and stepped toward the iron gate. At the gate
he stopped, turning for a last glance at the silent blackbird. The bird stretched
its beak through the mesh wire for a peck at a fig splattered on the branch
supporting the cage.
“I’ll write,” the son waved and strolled into the luminous morning, nibbling on
the flesh of a ripe fig.
g
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Sam Hall
SHOTGUN NOT
Drew and I weren’t at uni. We had both quit and were back home working.
Most of our mates were at uni slaving away — ‘they’re mugs’ we thought. We
spent our days playing golf, drinking or working; sometimes a combination of
the three, inseparable. We did everything together. It had been like this since
about grade nine. We had been best mates for nearly ten years now.
One particular day that we both had off from work, we went out for a game of
golf. I had never lost to Drew up to this point, but on this day he was playing
like a man possessed. Every ball was hit out of the middle, landing with a
crisp thud on the greens wherever he was aiming. We spent the whole round
drinking, smoking and laughing like always. After we finished we knocked the
top of a few more in the clubhouse before heading home. Usually neither of
us would drink and drive, but it was early, around 1 in the afternoon, and we
knew even in our small town there was next to no chance of being pulled over.
So off we went, back to my place via the drive-through.
With a carton under one arm and the score card held aloft over his head, Drew
paraded around the driveway like he had just won the Masters. For those who
don’t know, the Masters is the biggest tournament in professional golf. People
would kill to win the Masters. Anyway, Drew and I proceeded to put a few sixpacks in the fridge, and the rest in the esky, and then his trash talk began.
“This is a turning point mate! Now that I’ve done ya once, you’ve got no chance
of beating me again!” Drew crowed.
“Got lucky ya little fucker,” I replied, happy for Drew but inside a little
disappointed that my unbeaten run had come to an end. “Grab us another cold
one hey mate? Get it from deep down in that esky where they’re cold.”
“No chance mate,” Drew offered, “losers get the beers tonight.”
“Righto mate, if that’s the way you wanna play it.”
“Gotta do it while I can man, gotta abuse this power while I’ve got it.”
The next few hours were full of this back and forth trash talk, both of us trying
to gain the ever blurring upper hand. We moved from in front of the TV to the
pool room without even needing to suggest it to each other. Drew and I were so
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in tune with each other’s thoughts it was scary. We always knew what the other
was thinking, we were connected on such a deep, subconscious level that when
we met some people for the first time they thought we were brothers. For the
record, I won the pool match that night, 8-7. It was the first time I had beaten
Drew in about a year; it was a happy moment for me. Again, we were reduced
to banter, this time with Drew getting me beers.
After the pool, we migrated out the back and lit a fire in the pit. This was
a sign when Drew and I were on the piss. It meant three things — that the
conversation was about to get deep, meaningful, and exaggerated; we would
regurgitate the same stories we had been telling for a few years now (different
hockey games when one of us did something flukey, recounting particular shots
in that day’s golf round, how we know the other one is gay… always the same);
and it meant that we were getting well and truly skinful.
“You know how I know you’re gay, mate?”
‘Here it is,’ I thought, ‘what’s it gunna be this time?’ “How’s that Drew?”
“You have two Spice Girls CDs.”
“Noose yourself Drew. I bought them when I was about ten, that’s not a
reason!” We both laughed and had a swig. The fire was roaring now, six feet
high and just as wide. The dog had taken himself off to bed, content that we
wouldn’t burn down his kennel. Drew and I moved our seats a few steps back
and settled in for the long haul.
“Got any durries Drew?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah lad got a new pack today, are your olds in bed?”
“Sure are mate, arc one up and swing us one hey?”
“Fucker, you still owe me from last weekend,” Drew fired back.
“I’m good for it man. Next time I’m on in the drive-through I’ll pick up a
couple of packs.”
“Righto mate, but you better come up with the goods.”
I reassured Drew, “You know I’ve got you covered mate, just swing us one will ya?”
We fired up durry after durry, and chain smoked our way through the next hour or
so, drinking our beers and talking our shit. Then the night changed direction sharply.
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“I’m hungry man, you got anything to eat?” Drew asked in an ever more
slurring tone.
“Dunno hey Drew, go have a look in the fridge, I’m slack to get up.”
“Yeah me too hey. I’d murder an S B & C right about now hey.”
“The fuck’s an S B & C?”
“Steak bacon and cheese pie man, get your head in the game dickhead,” Drew said
with an enthusiasm for abbreviations which only reared its head after half a carton.
“Shut the fuck up. Since when is it called that?” I slurred in his general
direction.
“Since now. Only women and gays don’t call it S B & C. You know how I know
you’re gay mate?”
“Don’t say it Drew.”
“Because you’re not a female, and you still call it a steak, bacon and cheese… Ya fag.”
That was Drew and me to a T — talking shit around a fire, beer and smoke in
hand, never happier. Our life was unreal.
“Fuck it, let’s go for a burn, shotgun not driving.” Drew said as he leaned so far
over he nearly fell off his chair.
“No chance mate, no fuckin chance.” I replied, confident I’d put to rest any
chance of a late night drive to BP.
“I’m goin mate, you comin or not?”
“Ahhhhhhh righto then, better make sure you get back in one piece,” I had
decided that it was best to go along, just incase he got pulled over, “but you’re
driving, I’m way too fingered.”
“Let’s do it. Where’s my keys?”
“Fucked if I know, where’d you last have them?”
“Not a clue, I’ll check the car, you check the house.”
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I stumbled around the TV room and the pool room, without success. Then I
heard the car fire up, and knew Drew had, to my disappointment, found his keys.
“Gimme some Meatloaf,” Drew said as we left the driveway.
“Fuck Meatloaf gaybo, Johnny Mayer all the way,” I replied with such gusto
that Drew conceded without putting up a fight.
We went out the driveway and down the road, turning right to take a back road
that was just across the main road. As we got to the end of our street I could
feel my right foot pushing on the footwell as if pushing the brake pedal. The car
wasn’t slowing down.
Drew had a glazed look in his eye that instantly made my heart start to race.
He wasn’t going to stop, instead just hitting the intersection head-on, throwing
caution to the wind. Drew was a reckless driver at the best of times, I guess this
time he just wanted to show me how crazy he really could be.
“SHIT!”
As I heard him yell, I turned towards him, and in that split second I saw the
headlights a foot away from the driver door.
BANG!!! The loudest, most horrible crunching noise I have ever heard in my
life. The car spun, tyres screaming, I could feel myself being pushed against
the passenger door as the car went round and round. Then the most peaceful
quiet as the night returned to normal. That didn’t last long. The driver of the
car that just hit us was sitting in her car screaming. Drew wasn’t in his seat. I
could feel blood dripping off my chin. It was warm, almost surreal. I looked
out the window and could see in the light from the other car’s headlights an
awkward looking shape down the road. Slowly I got out of the car, and started
limping down the road. My knee was busted, I could see a big cut down its side.
I got to the shape and saw it was Drew. He wasn’t moving, he was just staring at
me. Pale and cold to the touch, I knelt next to him. I could feel the rough road
surface biting into my knee caps.
“It’s OK mate,” I whispered, terrified but remaining calm on the outside,
“everything’s gunna be ok.”
I didn’t for a second believe what I was saying, but I felt Drew’s hand rest on
mine. I could see his lips moving, he was trying to talk. I bent over and put my
ear next to his mouth.
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“Fucked it this time, didn’t I?” he murmured.
“Nah mate, we’ve had worse. Don’t move OK? I’m not goin’ anywhere, just lie
still Drew.”
I could still hear the woman screaming. Now she was out of the car, walking
in circles. I could also hear the ambulances in the distance, someone must have
called them, I still don’t know who it was though.
It was starting to rain, I took off my shirt and held it over Drew’s face to keep it
dry. His lips were moving again, I leant over.
“Mate I wanna tell you something. Just shut up and listen to me. All this time, I
just wanted to say…”
“I know mate, I know. Just chill out a bit longer, ambos are nearly here.”
“Mate,” he cut me off, “I love you. Not just as friends, I fuckin’ love you man.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe what I just heard, I had been glancing down the
road, I could see the lights of the ambulance. Now I was looking him dead in
the eye, I thought he was delirious, but he was returning a steely cold glare that
I knew meant he was fully aware of what he was saying.
I stared him down, unsure what to do. I felt his hand slide up the back of my
neck, onto the back of my head. He pulled me close, and kissed me. I pulled
away, I fell back on my haunches. ‘No,’ I thought, bewildered, unable to accept
what had just happened, ‘no.’
Drew was looking at me, content. The rain felt so cool on my face I just
lay back and let it hit me. Then I drifted off, everything was quiet, I was
comfortable, at peace. I fell asleep.
***
Slowly I opened my eyes, my head throbbed, my leg ached. I looked around.
Everything was bright white, it took a while for my vision to fully recover.
“You’re a lucky man, Jason.”
I turned to where the noise came from. I saw a doctor in a big white coat, just
like in the movies.
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“Drew” I said, instinctively.
“He’s in ICU, you can see him shortly.”
“What happened?” I couldn’t remember anything from the day before. Then
it started, flashbacks popping into my head like machinegun fire. BANG, I
remembered the golf. BANG, the beers. BANG, getting in the car. BANG,
Drew kissing me.
“Car crash, Jase. It’s a miracle you and Drew are alive. You have a laceration
to your forehead, and a broken knee. Drew is a little worse off. He cracked his
skull and broke his neck, not to mention a hundred cuts and scrapes. He will be
lucky to walk again,” the doctor said, with a look as if to say ‘not another one of
these, when are kids going to learn?’
I felt myself drifting off to sleep again.
I woke up again, this time I had a splitting headache. I rolled over and tried to
throw up, but all I managed was bile. I could see mum asleep in a chair across
the room. Slowly, I slid out of bed and into a wheel chair I saw next to my bed.
Everything was stiff and ached. It hurt to roll the chair just an inch forward, but
eventually I got to the elevator, and then up to ICU.
“Drew,” I said as I rolled up to his bed. “You awake mate?”
“Fucked it this time,” Drew whispered, flashing his wicked grin and winking at
me. “I always said, if you’re gunna do a number on yourself, make it a big one.”
I could see it hurt him just to talk, but it was characteristic of Drew to pretend
all was well. I felt like crying just looking at him. I didn’t know what to say.
“You angry at me mate?” Drew asked, he always knew how to cut the silence.
“Nah mate, there’s no hate. You remember what happened?”
“I got nothing, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast. The doctors say
that my memory will get better, but the last thing I remember at the moment is
goin to work three days ago.”
“Want me to fill you in?” I said hesitantly.
“I know we crashed the car, I know I have a busted neck, what else is there?”
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“Righto mate, relax and I’ll tell you what happened.”
“Fire away.”
“We played golf, I won.”
“Don’t lie,” Drew always knew when I was lying.
“Righto fucker, you won.” I decided there was no point lying. “You smashed
me actually mate, you played like Tiger.” I could see Drew’s eyes flicker, he was
remembering. “Then we went back to my place and kept drinking. We decided
to go for a drive to BP at about 1.” Drew was crying now. “We got t-boned at
the end of the street.”
“That’s it?” Drew said. “Nothing else?”
Tears were running down his face.
“That’s it mate. The ambos rocked up, and we woke up here I guess.”
“Nah that’s not all Jase, something else happened. Don’t you remember?”
He looked at me, I could see he was waiting for my reaction. I could feel myself
welling up.
“That’s all I remember, Drew.” I was crying too. I couldn’t help it. It was the first
time I’d seen Drew cry, and I’m sure it was the first time he had seen me like
this. “That’s all I’ve got mate.”
***
My buddy Drew, that was the last I saw of him. Slipped into a coma, and was
gone — like that.
Someone once told me that you remember what you want to forget, and you
forget what you want to remember.
Every week, after a game of golf, I think the good things about Drew and me
when I get my S, B & C pie. Before I swallow and it’s gone.
g
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Laura Solomon, The Faker
Laura Solomon
THE FAKER
I faked my death, just as I faked so much in my life; passports, degrees,
orgasms. I was a fraud. My English Literature degree from Oxford I had bought
online at www.fakedegrees.com five years ago. My New Zealand passport,
which would allow me to stay in that country indefinitely, had been purchased
from a dodgy friend who had “connections.” Even the software on my PC
(Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver, Photoshop) had not been bought legally,
but acquired for free from other people who had burnt my CDs. I lived with
the constant fear of being “discovered,” “rumbled,” found wanting, needy,
substandard and inadequate. An impostor.
I left a note; Dear Jake, I have had enough of this world and have decided to leave
it all behind. Thanks for the time we had together. I signed it with a lipstick kiss.
I packed everything I would need into a hot pink suitcase I had bought from
Argos the week before. Dressed casually in jeans, trainers, dark sunglasses,
a blonde wig and a grey hoodie, I caught a cab from our flat in Peckham to
Heathrow, checked in and sat waiting for my flight. I felt tense, furtive, as if
somebody may have followed me and at any moment might put one hand on
my shoulder, Hey you, you’re coming with us. Nobody arrived to drag me back.
On the flight, after two gin and tonics, I relaxed slightly. There was a lightning
storm as I was leaving; it lit up the early morning sky with its spidery electric
fingers and made me feel that the heavens were complicit with me, cheering me
on, putting on a sort of farewell-to-your-old-life and good-luck-to-your-new
show in order to signal their approval of my decision, which had not been a
snap decision at all, but rather had been meticulously thought out and planned
and pondered over for many months prior to this morning’s departure. I ate my
meal of rice and stir fried chicken when it arrived on its plastic tray and drank
a glass of red wine and buried myself in the Jackie Collins novel I had brought
with me.
We refuelled at Hong Kong airport. I couldn’t sit still, but wandered the airport
restlessly, admiring the orchids. In my wallet was a picture of the shack (New
Zealanders would say “bach”) in Te Anau that my Uncle Quentin had left me
upon his death. Planks were missing; space for the wind to whistle through. The
paint was chipped and falling off of the wood. It would be my space apart; I
needed time out. I treated myself to some noodles which I ate quickly and then
wandered around the airport in that stupefied limbo you enter on long haul
flights. It seemed that there was nobody else around, just me, and yet at the
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same time, the airport was packed with people, busy. Perhaps it was more that
there seemed such a great distance between them and me, as if they stood on
one side of an ice floe and I on the other with an ever-widening crack opening
up between us. I felt as if I were a different species. Purposefully, I had left my
mobile — my Blackberry and my laptop — at home, so there was nothing to
tether me to my normal channels of communication. This was the moment I
had dreamed of for months, and how many others, ordinary Londoners like
me, also dreamt of slipping free of their chains; their jobs, their mortgages, their
established relationships and setting out into nothingness? I was doing this for
everybody, I thought, rather too grandly, to see if it could be done. Was it really
possible, to set up a life and then vacate it, leaving the empty rooms of your old
existence behind to gather cobwebs and dust?
In the ladies room, I took off my itchy wig and had a good scratch, feeling a
little like one of Roald Dahl’s witches. Was that a wart sprouting at the bottom
of my nose? No, and no newts in my hand luggage either. I remained, beneath
my costume, good old Harriet May, a less-than-notable journalist who had,
during her four year career, written for a number of not-so-prestigious UK
papers and who now wanted nothing more than to live in a shack and eat, what
did they call them? Oh, yes, huhu grubs. Huhu grubs and supplejack. My uncle
had sent me a brochure on the Wild Foods Festival a few years earlier and I had
cast my eyes over the fine specimens that were available there. New Zealand
— a green land, lush. There were mountains, proper ones, with snow on them
and fjords and deep lakes and beaches both tame and wild. They had a summer
there, not just two weeks of the year when the sun made a pitiful effort to shine.
They had swimming pools in their backyards and quarter acre sections and you
could still buy a halfway decent house for a hundred thousand pounds. Jake
would be frantic by now. He would’ve called the cops. They would be looking
for me.
Back on the plane, I felt lighter, freer as if I was shucking off the baggage of the
years. There was ten thousand pounds in my bank account; my life savings. I
had no commitments, not anymore. I had, to put it bluntly “buggered off.”
I did not intend to be easily traceable. I wanted to pull off a vanishing act, a
disappearance, whoosh, up in a puff of smoke, into thin air like some third-rate
magician performing a cheap trick. Now you see her, now you don’t. Vamoose. An
escape artist.
I spent two days taking in downtown Auckland (I bought a second blonde wig
to match my first) and exploring the beaches of the North Shore. Wanting to
see the city, I had allowed myself this time before flying down to Queenstown,
from there to take the bus to Te Anau. I was missing my laptop a little; my
fingers were in the habit of rapid typing and with no keyboard to drum upon
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I found myself tapping away at the top of the little wooden dresser in the
Sky Hotel. I had checked the top drawer upon arrival: no Bible, Gideon’s or
otherwise, though the liquor cabinet, I had gratefully noted, was stacked high
with miniature bottles of spirits of which I made short work, reprimanding
myself as I did so. Easy on the liquor, I told myself. You don’t want to make a habit
of drinking. You will need will power and discipline to make this new life work.
Queenstown was hideous. It was the ski season, so the place was packed with
tourists — Japanese, German, American. They were there in droves, swarming
over the city like ants. The whole place was geared up to cater to them, with
its expensive boutique shops and over-priced restaurants. I hid in the YHA and
cooked a simple dinner of steak, beans and spuds washed down with a couple of
Steinlagers. I didn’t want to think of myself as a tourist; I wanted to be local, a
Kiwi girl, at home. I didn’t want to be camera to the eye, click, click, clicking. I
wanted to blend in to the landscape.
The one electrical appliance I had bought was my iPod. Sigur Ros, which Jake
had given me last Christmas, provided good company on that winding bus
trip, through the spectacular scenery that greeted my eye as we wove our way
towards Te Anau. Closer and closer, closer to the dream. Further and further
away from the life I had come to despise and in which I had felt so trapped.
I was shedding neuroses like a tree sheds dead leaves, springing back to life
like a Jack released from its box. I applied a fresh coat of lipstick and wriggled
my toes. The lipstick was called Fuschia Shimmer — it was a shade of pink
that Jake always like me to wear. Jake worked at Reading University, in the
Cybernetics Department there. He was part of a team that was developing a
robot that had, or at least could simulate, emotions. It was a long commute for
him; he worked from home two days a week and occasionally stayed over in
Reading. According to him, his research was of global importance.
“Imagine it,” he used to say. “A robot that can feel. They’d make great
companions for old people, or could be used to help raise kids. A sentient
machine. Something that would fly through the Turing test.”
He was very engrossed in his work. It wasn’t work so much as a grand passion
and he found it difficult to disconnect, to switch off. I would be talking to him
about something, what to have for dinner, say or what I had accomplished
during the day and I would get no response and realise that he wasn’t with me
at all, but off, somewhere else, lost far in his mind, “on another planet” as they
say — not the planet of our marriage but “planet AI” where he was a sort of
God who had the power to create life. The robot he was developing was his real
wife and he gave more time and attention to it than he did to me. Lovelace was
the team’s name for the robot they were creating, named after Ada, rather than
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Linda. I had only met Lovelace once. We had a most pleasant conversation.
She was very congenial. I liked her. She seemed to have a personality all of her
own and I was most disappointed when Jake switched her off. I found myself
wondering if he didn’t sometimes wish that I had a switch so that he could shut
me down when I became tiresome. All that was behind me now. My tiny world
was about to expand. I walked the three miles from the bus stop to the shack.
***
The shack was unlocked. Three large bugs with enormous feelers, which
I recognised as wetas from the Wild Foods brochure I had been given,
consolidated in one corner. I swept them out with a broom that Quentin, or
whoever had been here last, had thoughtfully left behind. The place was musty
and stank, so I threw open the creaking windows and let in the cold winter air.
It was freezing, below zero, but I was rugged up, prepared, with my hot pink
beanie with its matching scarf and my polar fleece and my thick wool trousers
and socks. The shack was simple but it would do. There were four rooms; a
bedroom which contained two bunks, with the plastic casings around the
mattress worn and split, a kitchen which contained a jug (thank God!) and
a small electric hob with a grill beneath it. The cupboards were completely
bare but for an ancient tin containing five teabags, a few chipped plates and
cups and half a packet of rice. I would have to walk back to the supermarket
tomorrow. Stupid old me, I should’ve thought about food before coming all the
way out here. There was a bathroom, which contained only a bath and a sink,
no shower. A mouldy-looking sofa sat in the living area, a number of springs
poking up through its cushioned surface. A fireplace was in the living area; there
were ashes in the grate and I wondered how recently there had been a fire. There
were no mirrors anywhere so I could not check my reflection. The bookshelf
in the living area held a few musty old volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica,
the Gideon’s Bible I had looked for earlier in the Sky City Hotel and an old
map of the area, which began to fall apart at the creases when I opened it. The
toilet was outside, an outhouse; I would have to buy a torch then. There was
no garden to speak of, though you could see that there had been one once, for
stones had been used to divide the yard up into sections. Behind the house was
a large patch of native bush and to the front was the pebbly shore of the lake
and the jetty which I had seen in the photograph. Best of all, parked up outside
the shack (I knew I had to start calling it a bach) was a rickety old pushbike that
would serve me well. I didn’t want a car. A bike was just the ticket. I wouldn’t
have to walk to Te Anau tomorrow, after all.
I spread out my sleeping bag and placed my belongings on one of the lower
bunks in the bedroom and was boiling the jug in order to enjoy a mug of tea
when I heard heavy steps, a man’s steps, crossing the front porch. A brief knock.
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“Hello, anyone home?”
I quickly applied some face powder then moved towards the door to answer him.
“Hello there,” I said. “You must be a neighbour of some sort.”
“Indeed I am. Name’s Dave. Pleased ta meetcha.”
He was enormous, well over six feet tall; if I had to estimate I would say six foot
four or five and built like the proverbial. His hands were what I really noticed;
great callouses bloomed on them and the knuckles were red and swollen up to
half again the normal size.
“Come in,” I said. “I’ve just boiled the jug.”
“Oh na na, I can’t stay. I was just on my way to mend a fence that borders your
land. I’ve got the land behind yours but I live in town. You might see me out
here from time to time, so I just thought I’d introduce meself to the new girl so
as you didn’t get a fright if you see my around and about.”
“But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,” I quoted, but it was lost on
him of course, he simply said “Eh?” and squinted down at me from his gigantic
height as if he was hard of hearing.
“Do you need me to contribute anything? For the fence, I mean. If it borders
both of our properties, is it my responsibility or yours?”
“Well, nobody’s been out here for years, see, so I’ve always taken care of it but I
suppose that technically it’s half your responsibility.”
“Oh, I’m happy to pay.”
“Oh the money’s nothing. It’s more the effort, if you see what I mean. Checking
that the fence posts haven’t rotted and that the wire hasn’t been damaged where
some animal’s tried to get through.”
“I see.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t throw you in at the deep end. But if you’d be happy to
help out from time to time…”
“Yes, of course.”
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“What do you do for a living then?”
“I write romance novels.”
It was only half a lie. I hadn’t yet written one, but that was what I intended to
do out here, in the middle of nowhere; lose myself in a doctor/nurse fantasy,
or the tale of a ski instructor seducing a pupil or a man gradually helping an
amnesiac woman to regain her memory, or a story of love across the class divide
— the son of an earl falling for a shop assistant.
Dave looked amused.
“Righto then. I’ll be seeing ya round, I guess. Nice to meetcha. What did you
say your name was again?”
“Oh, I didn’t say. Lola. Lola Sullivan.”
“Lola! Gosh that’s unusual. Met her in a bar down in old Soho eh? You’re not a
tranny are ya?”
“No, no, I can assure you that I am one hundred percent female. Last time I
checked anyway.”
“Yea, good on ya. I’ll see ya later.”
Stomp, stomp, stomp and he was gone. What was he doing out fencing at dusk?
I made my cup of tea; sat out on the porch sipping it slowly, smelling the fresh
native forest which smelt like heaven.
Dinner was a plate of congealed rice, with nothing to decorate it.
I would have to be more sharp, I thought. I really should’ve remembered to bring
groceries with me.
***
Early morning frost coated the grass at the side of the road. The bike
creaked and groaned and felt like it hadn’t been ridden in many years, which
undoubtedly, it hadn’t. The chain needed oiling. I pushed my way back into
town and parked my new vehicle outside the local store. My requirements were
simple; meat, vegetables, bread, perhaps some pasta, matches for the fire, that
torch of course and light bulbs in case the ones in the bach blew. And seeds.
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“Do you have any seeds?” I asked the gentleman behind the counter and he
pointed me towards a small rack, a scanty collection; my choices were spinach,
radishes or carrots. I bought two packets of each and because he didn’t sell
potting mix and informed me that nowhere else in the town did either (You’d
have to go to Queenstown for that, love). I prayed that the soil on my patch of
land would be rich enough in nutrients for the seeds to sprout and thrive.
I creaked and groaned homewards, with my bounty on my back, then changed
into my swimming costume, intending a dip in the lake. That would wake me
up, bring me to my senses, keep me “with it.” Then I could tackle cleaning the
bach and getting everything organised. Organisation and structure would be
key, or else I would just drift through my days without getting anything done
and I did want to get things done, I had plenty to do. I wanted to get on with
those romance novels.
There was a speedboat on the lake. It bounced across the surface of the water, its
roaring engine cutting the silence. I dipped one toe into the water. A mistake;
the lake was freezing. Better to simply leap straight in. I took a breath and
dived; the shock of the cold left me gasping. I did four brief lengths of the jetty
before hauling myself out of the water and drying myself with a towel. The trick
had worked; I felt awake, alive, my senses shocked. A fish leapt, breaking the
surface of the water with a splash before diving back under. The boat was out of
sight now, but you could still hear the distant drone of its motor.
When I returned to the bach, Dave was sitting on the front steps.
“I was just in the area,” he said. “So, I thought I’d come see how you were
settling in.”
“Oh, fine, fine.”
It was vaguely creepy having him there; he was after all, still a stranger, an
unknown quantity.
“Won’t you come in?” I said politely, opening the door.
He rose to his feet, stomped into the bach.
“Oh, you’ve done wonders with the place,” he said jokingly, looking around.
“Yes, it’s not much to write home about, is it? Still, it’s mine. Home for now.”
“What part of the UK you from?”
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“London.”
“Ah, the big smoke. I’ve been to Blighty meself a couple of times. Didn’t think
much of the place. Better over here.”
“Yes, I dare say.”
“It’s a bit odd though.”
“I’m sorry?”
“It’s odd you being out here. A woman alone and all that. Come all the way
from London just to live in a tumbling down old bach.”
I didn’t say anything.
“How’s about that cuppa then?”
He plonked himself down on the old sofa, his legs, with their muddy brown
boots on the end of them, stretched out in front of him. Christ, he was
enormous, like somebody had stuck a straw in a normal man and inflated him.
Enormous and nosey.
“You got a husband then? Kids.”
“A husband. No kids.”
“He gonna be coming out here too then?”
I murmured something that sounded like “no.”
“You’re a brave one.”
“Brave or stupid. Milk? Sugar?”
“Milk and two thanks. I like it sweet.”
I took him the cup of tea.
“Any biscuits? I love a good piece of shortbread, me.”
“No, sorry.”
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Laura Solomon, The Faker
“Ah.”
He blew on his tea, then slurped at it noisily, while I merely sipped at mine.
“I used to have a wife,” he said suddenly.
“Oh. Used to? I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be, she isn’t dead. She ran off with a chef from Queenstown who was
down here having a holiday. Bitch. She had everything a woman could want
down here and what does she do but run off with the first ponce who comes her
way spouting talk of ‘fine dining.’ Fickle, like all women, no offence intended.”
I sipped my tea.
“She’d never have the guts to do what you’re doing, just rough it in a shack on
your own. That’s admirable in a woman. Independent-minded.”
I checked my watch.
“Well, I can see you’re keen to be getting rid of me. Listen, I’ll need some help
on that fence early next week. I’ll come by and get you. You got sturdy shoes?”
“Running shoes.”
“Oh na, you’ll need some decent boots. I’ll bring you a pair of Trisha’s old ones.
She left a lot of stuff behind. You can have some of her old clothes too if you like.”
“Oh no, that’s quite alright.”
“Yea, I’ll bring them anyway. Somebody might as well get some bloody use out
of them.”
Stomp, stomp, stomp and he was gone.
I had bought five exercise books with me from Britain, hopeful of filling them
up. I should’ve bought the laptop after all, I’d probably have to buy one now,
that’d be a trip to Queenstown. I wrote three romantic beginnings, but none of
them held much promise so I tidied up the shack a little and then went outside
to chop firewood, using an axe that I had found by the back door.
In the night, I awoke to the sound of heavy breathing outside my window.
Terrified, faking bravery, I grabbed the torch that was on the floor beside me
and headed outside, shining the light directly into a face which contained two
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Volume 36, 2009
small gleaming eyes. A black shape scurried off into the bush. Heart thudding I
returned inside. Sleep did not return until I took a Seconal.
***
“Possums,” pronounced Dave, having been told of the incident when he arrived
the following morning, with a truck full of fencing posts and wire.
The chemical taste of the Seconal was still in my mouth though I had cleaned
my teeth twice to be rid of it. He handed me a rubbish bag full of old clothes.
“Get changed into something old,” he said. “Those poncey clothes you wear
aren’t good for working on the farm.”
I did as I was told.
“Jump in the ute,” Dave said, when I emerged from the bedroom. “You are
good for it aren’t ya?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Yes I’m ‘good for it’ as you say.”
In the ute, Dave pushed a pair of boots much like his own towards me and said,
“Here, put these on. You need decent shoes out there, not those little city things
you ponce around in. You need what real women wear.”
His world, I suppose, was divided into “ponces” and “real people”; a dichotomy,
black and white with not much room for shades of grey.
The ute jerked and shook along the gravel road. Window down, with the breeze
in my face, it felt good. Wasn’t this what I had dreamed of, back in Britain —
wide open roads? Dave stank; old sweat and unwashed clothes — his odour
assaulted my nostrils.
“My land stretches for miles,” he said, when we arrived at the fence that needed
repairing. “As far as the eye can see.”
He gestured to the open fields where cattle and sheep grazed.
“I think I’ll get you pulling out staples,” he added and handed me a pair of
fencing pliers.
It was tedious work, but not difficult. Dave was busy digging out old fence
posts that had rotted. I wanted to keep up a conversation, but had no idea what
I could talk to him about. What did we have in common, this rugged man and
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Laura Solomon, The Faker
I? What could we talk about? Sheep and rugby? Dave said nothing, just gave the
odd grunt and the occasional nod in my direction to indicate that he was happy
with my work. At eleven, he boiled the billy and handed me a cup of tea and
one of his beloved shortbread.
“Gotta keep the tucker box stacked,” he said, patting his stomach.
When we returned to the bach, Jake was at the door. I froze. God, how he had
tracked me down to this remote corner of the earth? He stared at me, scowling,
as Dave and I approached.
“I found your itinerary on your laptop,” he said. “I guessed your password. Your
sister’s name. You’re lucky I haven’t called the cops. Yet.”
I nodded slowly, feeling like an animal caught in a trap. He stood to one side of
the doorway.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“Do come in,” I said icily and pushed open the door.
Both he and Dave followed me inside. Jake turned to Dave.
“And who, may I ask, are you?”
“I’m Dave. Lola’s mate.”
“Lola? Who the hell is Lola?”
Dave pointed at me. Jake sneered.
“Oh, had a name change have we. Listen, Harriet, this whole escapade is
completely juvenile. I don’t know what you think you’re trying to prove.”
“I’m not trying to prove anything.”
Jake held out his wedding finger.
“We’re married, Harriet. Doesn’t that even mean anything to you?”
“Who’s Harriet?” interjected Dave.
“My wife!” snapped Jake.
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I sighed heavily and lowered myself down onto the sofa.
“Listen, Jake. It’s over between us. I’m a new person now. I won’t say all of it
was bad, but I grew to hate my old life, the life I had in London. I need a fresh
start. It happens. People get tired of their old shackles and they want to start
again somewhere new. Just let me go. Set me free.”
He looked like I’d slapped him in the face.
“But what about us? What about the seven years we spent together? Don’t they
mean anything?”
“You heard the lady,” said Dave. “It’s over.”
“You keep out of it buddy. This has nothing whatsoever to do with you.”
“Forget me Jake. Just go back to London and find a new woman. Work hard on
Ada. Get famous. Dazzle the world.”
“But I’ve flown all this way. I’m not returning without you.”
“You’re not returning with me.”
His shoulders slumped, defeated.
“Fine.”
He yanked off his wedding ring and threw it into my lap.
“You can have that hunk of metal back. I assume you don’t want any of the
possessions you left behind, either?”
“No, you can sell it all on eBay.”
“Good. I’ll do that. See ya later. Good fucking riddance.”
He strode out of the shack, slamming the door behind him.
“Moody bugger, ain’t he?” commented Dave. “You okay? Fancy a cuppa?”
I nodded.
***
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Hazel Menehira, Beguiled
David and I sit out on the front porch, drinking cups of tea. I am no longer
Harriet May. I am the beginnings of Lola.
g
Hazel Menehira
BEGUILED
Plump as a pumpkin mouse meandering waist deep
in slender china bluebells, the wild common
was my princess kingdom.
Florabelles handmaids paid homage, ensconced
me in an azure bower where spring winds waltzed
upon my face and dimpled knees.
While bombs and cities fell, I lay beguiled in
sibling bells believing primrose sun shafts charmed
bird flutes would last forever.
Then I grew up you see. But even now, world wise, age weary
my heart will give a sudden rush when an expanse of bluebells
floats into my mind.
g
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Volume 36, 2009
Brian Edwards
WINTERING
There is still grass on the hillslope, brown whisps poking like pencil
lines through the snow and bunching in crazy scribbles where the cover
is thin. Moved by winter cold, a mad poet writes to keep a few ideas
warm. Shadows shift with the dipping sun, tracing patterns of bare
branches, those black and ruined choirs where birds once sang, and a
lone hare limps beside hedgerows and the stream, travelling the length
of a fenceline. On the rise, a stone church huddles as darkness falls, its
windows closed in silence, and off in the valley a cottager’s light comes
on, and then another. Hunched into a notebook, lost in his conjurings
and careless of the cold and darkness, the poet continues.
Hello, I say. Hello.
But there is no answer,
only the wind’s sigh
along the stone wall
and noise of branches.
For this is the land of the dead. In the churchyard, gravestones gleam in
fitful light, catching fire for a moment, as if in some fantastic reassertion
of a spirit that never dies. No waste but continuation. Listen to the voices
of the once dead. Listen, and let us hear what they say. Speak Geoffrey
Morgan. Speak Elsie Aura. Albert Thomas too, and Catherine Ada and
Morgan Watkin. And what does the child say? The tiny child, the one
who died so young and never grows old? For this is the land of the dead.
In the silence, we can hear them.
Hello, I say. Hello.
And wind whispers
in the she-oaks
and along the wall.
I see sunlight, brilliant sunlight,
and feel the warmth.
There are sounds of children
in the street.
Noise of cartwheels in gravel,
of water beneath the hull,
of people by the river.
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Brian Edwards, Wintering; The Town; In Love with the City
And I see the young woman
at her easel,
the old woman in her garden,
and the man with the horse.
There are flowers too,
whole fields of flowers.
We need no voice from the dead to tell us this, the sceptic says. Ah,
patience. You must be patient. What is there after death? he says. If they
can, let them tell us where they are and what they know. Do they know
only their own past? Or do they, like God, see into the mysteries of
things? Do they know anything? What do they see? I hear this, as a cold
wind crosses the stubble and rattles in the she-oaks. Moonlight gleams
for an instant on the stones, on names fixed in marble, and the reverie
slips like a black seal in black water. Huge waves rise over the churchyard,
the wind is a torrent and time’s past crashes like surf on rocks. Lifted in
this surge, one’s view shifts as voices come crowding in — they are barely
distinguishable from noises of wind and water.
he says there is no change to be had
once all dues are paid, but for all that,
delight resides in small things; he says
that love counts, that we know what we
know too late to prevent dying and,
besides, immortality’s
not all it’s cracked up to be
she says that she has loved well,
despite stories to the contrary,
that nothing now can affect
her sense of beauty and value,
that against deserts of eternity
she stacked walls of moments
The boatman is waiting. Some say the trip’s long though I suspect it’s no
more than an eye-blink from here to there. There is only one light in the
tower; the rest is darkness. Images are lifting from the page, flying over
lakes and valleys and mountains, gathering in small eddies of recognition,
plunging on into the tumult. In his fury, his mind unsettled and his table
bare, a poet continues.
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THE TOWN
When townspeople look up it’s the blue of the mountains
they see — when they turn back again to the flat land, back
to the treeline along the river and to the farm paddocks,
they’re aware always of something above them in the distance.
Along the river, weatherboard houses gather
like broody hens in gravel streets and in lanes
by trees and hedgerows, dams and straggly gardens.
There are three churches, but these people are not so much
fixed on religion or even the law itself if it comes to that.
They’re mindful of neighbours and commonly partial
to stories, gossip and a bit of sniping.
On Sundays, Presbyterians congregate near the river,
Catholics on the road out of town, and Anglicans in the gravel street that is main street.
The police station is next to the Royal.
This could be any town but it isn’t.
At St James, there’s a bell that kids ring and pine trees
full of sparrows and cones. From a side window, blue
light fills the nave, and falls on pews, a white marble font
and a gold cross. In the corner post office, the telephonist
plugs in lines and makes connections. She filters the news
and weeps silently for people’s sorrows, and her own.
Kids gather in a playground lined with peppercorn trees
where they hang from swings, throw balls, score runs,
and clamber through twisted branches.
Empire House provides provisions and conversation,
company and a small lending library.
Once there was a butcher’s that smelled of meat and sawdust
and a blacksmith’s with a glowing forge where ghostly horses
still stamp and snort in the cold by a dam where muscular geese
float amongst the reeds. At the bakery, the smell
of new-baked bread and Easter buns
floats out upon the sleeping town.
When townspeople look up they see blue mountains
beyond the detail of flatland by a river.
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Brian Edwards, Wintering; The Town; In Love with the City
Here is old Tom Turvy was a traveling man once, come
out of his cottage. He’s off for his morning walk and the paper.
And there’s Mrs Borella who runs the corner shop —
“Mornin’ missus,” he calls as he walks by on the gravel road.
“Good Morning, Mr Turvy.”
She sells fruit, sweets, drinks and bicycle parts
and sweeps her footpath with a straw broom.
Di Brown’s done the week’s washing — clothes pegged
on her line already in early sunlight; and Jimmie Mitchell’s
at his oven, the smell of newly-baked bread
wafting over the town, tantalizing the noses of stay-a-beds
reluctant, yet, to let the night’s dream image go.
“Come on over some time,” she says,
the lady in black
lonely in the darkness,
the one with a wan smile
and the fragrance of roses.
Here’s Joe Jenkins, retired man, grows vegetables and children .
He’s digging in the gutter —“Mighty fine worms,
them” — to head off to the river. Images of trout and redfin
lurk in the snags of his memory where they pull deep
and flop about in the leaves and grass on a riverbank.
Birdsong and sunlight,
a steam train in the cutting,
clatter of wheels on the bridge,
and a line of smoke in blue sky above the redgums.
The gangers are out along the line, stabbing at blue metal,
replacing worn sleepers on the track to Wal Wal,
Lubeck, Murtoa. “Bloody hot,” says Siddy, wiping his brow,
damp patches showing on his shirt
and hours yet to knock-off time.
“Only tiddlers,” old Joe curses, “tiddlers in a jamjar.”
Holding the line in his fingers, he drowses, waiting
for his luck to change. Memories of family matters
as ancient as stories and Cornwall lead him away there’s Nellie was
“a young girl once, very pretty”
chasing seagulls on a stretch of sand,
and Captain Cat too, come growling
down to the sea —
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“Set us up another,” he says,
leaning back in his captain’s chair,
surf in his ears and the hiss of wind on water.
Miss Pritchard, school teacher, cleans the board,
and writes up the day’s lessons. She is thinking about young Alf,
farmer, the one with twinkling eyes and reckless hands —
“Naughty boy. Very enjoyable!”
Listen. You can hear the chaff cutter and chuckle of poultry,
cart wheels in the street, the telephonist’s sigh, men talking
on the verandah and whisperings in the boatshed. Listen.
When townsfolk look up they see blue mountains
beyond the detail of flatland by a river.
IN LOVE WITH THE CITY
Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
How the camera loves Manhattan. Woody Allen loves Manhattan. And
there he is again, ambling along in sneakers, the famous glass towers
and the pavement crowds threatening to overwhelm everything, glances
like gunshots in the street. The opening is brilliant – a view west across
Central Park at dawn with that grand sweep and the detail of buildings
and leaves as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” fills the sound track with
its haunting tribute to a magical city. I listened to the music again in
Radio City Music Hall in 1982 as the skyscraper sets were bathed in
blue light and the very idea of “America” filled that vast auditorium
and flowed out through the streets and across the hills and plains and
valleys of an irresistible dream and love affair. Comedy and romance,
Woody Allen with his trademark mix of self-conscious wit and fumbling
affirmation, uncertainties always there at the edge of definition, and
Mariel Hemingway just eighteen and very tall. When Diane Keaton
asks her “What do you do, Tracy?” and she replies artlessly, “I go to high
school,” we see a small shiver of recognition and doubt in the shuffling
forty-two year old little man at her side. He has told her already to go
to London on a scholarship: “You’ll think of me as a fond memory.” But
when the doubts come, as they must, we are reminded of his former wife
who left him to live with another woman and who writes a bestseller
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Nadine Brown, At Fourteen
ridiculing their marriage. We are reminded too of his fling with Diane
Keaton, back again after Annie Hall, and how he, Isaac, doesn’t know
whether to stay with her or to leave, both of them isolated, needful and
uncertain. Being in love in Manhattan gives way, really, to being in love
with Manhattan – with the Guggenheim, Elaine’s, Zabar’s deli, Central
Park, art movies and concerts, the street theatre, the changing light
amongst the leaves and the moods of songs colouring all ideas of identity
and relationships: “Sweet and Lowdown,” “I Got a Crush on You,” “Lady
Be Good,” Embraceable You,” Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Strike
Up the Band,” an assembly of old favourites for feeling and for style.
The cinematography is perfect. The softness and shine of black-andwhite establishes the strains of a lasting love affair, the little man lovingly
at home in his city, the dream real and sad, the past so close always to
moments of the present.
g
Nadine Brown
AT FOURTEEN
At fourteen,
I turned barren paddocks into many shades of green.
I learnt to draw water from deep beneath the earth.
To dig trenches, to lay reticulation, to plant, to pick, to tend.
I walked behind a tractor on exhausted, indifferent land.
And there, in the fathomless heat,
We watched green shoots arise before our red tantrum faces.
I drank salt water and kept up with the men.
As far as the eye could see, we planted pipes and sprinklers.
And the thought, that people would eat their vegetables so effortlessly,
wore — me — out.
At fourteen
I walked home, after twelve hours.
My head full of black poly pipe thoughts.
Burning and thumping from inside out I laid my body
On the cold tiles.
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And from the window all the paddocks looked like a giant, green prison,
With many well organised compartments.
g
Will Fraser
SPEAKING UP FOR THE LITTLE NIPPERS
I wonder
do
ants
dream
of wealth
bigger crumbs
holidays
no
more
picnics
freedom
leaving
the
line
longevity
avoiding
walkers
immortality
the
big
ant
do
ants
dream
it's hard to say for sure
but
I
imagine so.
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A.A. Norton, Pow Wow in Taos; Buying Back My Soul
A.A. Norton
POW WOW IN TAOS
North of the pueblo,
the sky loses heat in quilted frames.
Belt buckles and bolo ties,
fetish necklaces and medicine wheels
avoid the road
where dirt creeps like little black ants
into jerkied nostrils.
The dust is psychotic —
even after young Indians
sporting heavy metal concert tee shirts
hose it down.
Tepee tops announce the mountains.
Toddlers in feathered leather
groom the pasture in play.
A superman logo is sewn to a traditional costume.
Willy Wonka flavored feathers
look out of place.
Like a spaceship with wood paneling,
the pow wow is anachronistic.
When the clockwise dancing begins,
the music is a violence
sewn together with sharpened animal bones.
Drums and feet are bound together
by a simple thong.
But after an hour
of what looks like repetitive dancing,
I am drawn away by the Indian fry bread
that tastes like my grandmother's
blackened kettle
enfolded in a pillow.
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Volume 36, 2009
BUYING BACK MY SOUL
eBay — ghost world of merchandise —
offer me your turquoise rosaries
with no reserve.
Offer me your poetry of brand names
that disappear at their appointed
Cinderella hour.
You are the mall of the disembodied.
I am a convert
roaming among the newly listed.
I confess to countless searches
for my childhood possessions.
Innocence cannot be auctioned,
but a vintage version
of the Game of Life
may suffice.
Redemption is offered,
briefly, in the moments
when I am high bidder
on two Eisenhower silver dollars
the tooth fairy left
for an eight year old me.
What mystery allows memories
to materialise
through anti-corporate subversity?
eBay — you are my silent Psalm —
a video game of acquisition,
a balm, "I shall not want."
With electronic debits, I buy
a phantom past.
I gladly tithe.
g
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Vaughan Rapatahana, Not Really Missing You
Vaughan Rapatahana
NOT REALLY MISSING YOU
Ki a Ereti
not really
missing
you,
the incessant
smoky
homage
&
checks
on dad.
Yet,
you
are here
far
more
now
you have
gone.
wardrobe
s p a c e
&
empty
bed – side
frequent
signposts
to
your
presence,
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Volume 36, 2009
while
the
unused
towels
clamour
far
more
for
my attention
than
they
ever did
before.
g
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Nikesh Murali, Tweets From the Camp
Nikesh Murali
TWEETS FROM THE CAMP
I have tried to imagine what kind of tweets someone might send from a
camp in Northern Territory that has been identified for intervention by
the federal government. The tweets are placed inside the embed script
for YOUTUBE.
<object >
<embed >
< param >It cost me 130$ to sleep on the street. I didn’t even bother
trying the motels.</param>
< param >My Basic Card did not work today and I haven’t eaten a thing.
Its ok though, even my hunger is managed for me by CENTRELINK.
</param>
< param >Someone had to sign for my new chair. All I need now is the
permission to sit on it.</param>
< param >NO LIQUOR/NO PORNOGRAPHY board — We have
one in our camp. I’ts white and blue. You should get one too.</param>
</embed>
</object>
g
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Allison Craven
THE BOTHER WITH BOOKS
Exit
Exiting a book is sometimes not so easy, no matter how driven is the desire for
the ending of a story. Readers curl back to earlier pages, reviewing inscriptions
and acknowledgements, and returning to details that haunt the conclusion.
With the onset of digital book forms — e-books, Kindles, and the forthcoming
and biblical-sounding Sony Tablet — there is a sense that the book itself is
exiting, that its history is coming to an end. The prospect of disappearance of
the book, a thing so loved and reliable as a possession, gift, companion and
accessory that has populated all dimensions of modern existence from archive to
showcase, city to field, car to living room, and commanded myriad repositories
in libraries, shops, and domestic shelving, seems both unlikely and disturbing.
Nostalgia for this object of centuries of consumption is compounded by both
panic about literacy, and confusion about the proliferation of new media that
might replace books. The creep of technological change and the many un-ideal
eventualities of the Information Age have also forewarned that some changes
bring regression. So the people of the book, the book lovers, the book burners,
the bookworms, the collectors of first editions, the loiterers in vintage shops,
and consumers in pristine stores, those for whom a book is something to touch,
hold, see, feel and scribble in, will contend uneasily with the conversion of story
modes into digital concentrate. This era, however, is also one of rebirth, with
potential for the most spectacular era of literacy that has yet been experienced,
in the western world. The book is more alive today than ever but its forms are
changing and multiplying.
In a way, this is no change at all as books have always existed in a multiplicity
of evolving styles and components, and the medium of book-form has been
endlessly adapted to a multitude of uses. Novels, plays, screenplays, storybooks,
journals, comic books, diaries, notebooks, logbooks, pattern books, text books,
fabric books and books covered in human skin, down the ages the book has
never been a singular type of object, except in its presence as a thing with
pages. Neither does its receptivity to what we now call “multimedia” date from
the digital era. As Anne Cranny-Francis (2005) points out, even the earliest
books in the West, the medieval illuminated manuscripts, combined visual and
verbal modes like any postmodern text. These ancestors of modern paperbacks
and hard backs gained power through the authority of their sources, the
churches and states that authorised and imbued the words and pictures with
the aura of the divine speech of God. The ideology of faith in words that has
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been so challenged over the decades since Derrida’s rattling of the unstable
properties of writing is one that will likely be maintained into the future
without preference for whether books appear in physical forms or the content
is commuted to new media because books ultimately are the memories and
imaginings contained within. As Georges Poulet (2001) has written, “a book is
not shut in by its contours… It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself,
or to let you exist in it.” Books, he says, “in order to exist as mental objects …
must relinquish their existence as real objects” (1321). For Poulet, a book is a
site of communion between the consciousness of writers and of readers and his
view, expressed in the late 1960s, seems almost premonitory today as books
shed their shells and transform.
Passages
The passage of the book into digital forms was discussed in August 2009, in
a public panel entitled, “Why Bother With the Book?” that was convened for
Children’s Book Week at CityLibraries Aitkenvale in Townsville, and which
I was invited to chair. The panellists were assembled from various reaches
of the world of books: an award-winning children’s author, James Moloney;
a book-maker and publisher, Jeanie Adams, founder of Black Ink Press; a
communications officer for the Queensland Writers Centre, Lisette Ogg; and
a long-time bookseller, Sue Cole, the proprietor of Mary Who? Bookshop in
Townsville. Contemplating the future of books within the setting of a library
seemed both appropriate and ironic as it is not easy to imagine the demise of
the book when surrounded by shelves of them. Not many specific book titles
were mentioned, but our panellists discussed books without nostalgia for
their passing and rather as material and immaterial icons of the present and
the future that are very relevant to notions of truth, community, intellectual
property and commerce. The comments of the panellists were sensitive to the
profound implications of technological change and optimistic for the ways in
which literacy and literature are paradoxically both at risk and at a premium in
the changing forms of the book.
Lisette Ogg opened the forum by reflecting on the onset of the digital era as an
evolutionary stage in communication that is analogous to the history of change
in forms of transport. Just as pedestrian travel has given way over centuries to
various forms of vehicle transport, and as sea and rail have been replaced by air
travel, so, she argued, has reading, literacy and communication been adapted
from the mechanism of the printing press to the various digital modes of
reading and writing. Ogg’s views are long heralded in Communication Studies,
notably in the work of James Carey (1989), who has highlighted how historical
changes in modes of transport are comparable to transitions in communication
technologies. This history, he suggests, is condensed in the meaning of the verb
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“to communicate” which once referred to the movement of goods or people
or information, and later, as technology overcame the limitations of space and
place, transformed to mean only the movement of information. Ogg’s careful
plotting of technological change created a broad perspective on books that
arrested any sentiments for nostalgia.
Jeanie Adams, an independent publisher of children’s books and books by
Indigenous writers, reflected on the business of publishing and on the art of
book making. She explained and demonstrated how her business is developing
towards maintaining traditional book forms and also adapting to digital
publishing with the recent release of her first e-book. Jeanie also spoke of the
creation of Little Black Books, her recently published set of tiny books written
“by kids for kids” that were developed in workshops with children in North
Queensland schools. Holding up a palm-sized “story-board” on which children’s
images, words and themes were captured, Jeanie showed how these books were
essentially “handmade.” While her business as a publisher continues to involve
material objects and design, her engagement with communities of readers
and writers is largely unchanged by the mechanisms of production. Jeanie’s
passion to capture stories through engagements with readers found resonance
with James Moloney’s comments on the ineffable connections between books
and truth. For Moloney, the “cover to cover” journey of reading right through
a book is coterminous with the desires of the writer to realise and express
something that might be meaningfully understood as “truth,” irrespective of
whether the realisation is gained through the articulation of fiction or fact. The
book, whether it is read or written stands, he suggested, as a signifier of the
intangible connections between writing, reading and knowledge. The abiding
issues he perceives therefore in this era of change concern youth literacy and
communication rather than the fate of a commodity.
While Ogg’s, Adams’s and Moloney’s comments arose from their engagements
with the creative processes of writers and readers, Sue Cole addressed a
highly topical issue of territorial copyright, circulating a petition against the
Productivity Commission’s recommendation to the Federal Government
to abolish territorial copyright, which is viewed by its critics as a form of
publishing industry protection. The issue had been much in the news through
the intense and sometimes emotive rallying of public opinion by writers’ groups
and publishers, especially Tim Winton’s comments a few months earlier at the
annual Miles Franklin Award. Australian territorial copyright is claimed to have
worked in the combined interests of local publishers, writers and independent
booksellers and has enabled the national literary output to grow and to compete
in markets in Australia and abroad. Within our panel, the issue brought to the
fore the tremendous weight of cultural sentiment and value that attaches to
books, especially those by Australian authors. Sue’s petition was well supported
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by audience members, and, happily, the Federal Government has since declined
to implement the Commission’s advice, for the time being at least. However,
issues of copyright are at the core of the future of books, and the spectacular
expansion of publishing — and potential piracy — that is enabled through
digital book forms menaces not only the sanctity of authors’ rights but the whole
fragile apparatus of the literary and commercial values of books.
The debate about territorial copyright as a national issue bespeaks the relatively
regional status of Australia — or any nation, for that matter — within the global
publishing industry. But in the sense that Jeanie Adams and Sue Cole specifically
addressed issues within their businesses that are located in Townsville and North
Queensland, a degree of regional focus occurred in the discussion but it was not
an emphasis. James Moloney, whose popularity with teachers and secondary
school students in Townsville brought him to this city twice in2009, and he will
return again in 2010 for more school engagements, also maintained reflections
that were oriented to general rather than regional issues. Lisette Ogg, on her first
visit to Townsville for the panel, emphasised the role of the Queensland Writers
Centre in supporting and fostering writers within the state. So it seemed that
region was a latent or lesser element in the discussion than the more abstract
cultural values of books, reading, writing and literacy. Perhaps this was simply
the direction of the evening; a series of panels might identify more specific
issues for the reading and writing publics of specific locales, and as this is a topic
worthy of extended debate, if only to reflect at more length on the passages of
the technological changes underway, future forums should be encouraged. Some
parting comments by audience and panellists about gender and reading, and
about youth literacy sparked lively interest that was quelled by time but showed
nevertheless that there are many more reasons to be bothered with books.
Re-entry
Books — those things with pages that one holds in a hand — will not disappear
too soon. The worldwide collections are too plentiful to vanish entirely, and
powerful forces of conservation will maintain books as historical artefacts in
perpetuity. But the future production of these commodities will undoubtedly
transform, especially as young and unborn generations increasingly take for
granted the remediation of stories through HTML and digital prose, and the
digital book will speak in its own voice through audio technology. And those
readers of the future who will never know the pain of a shoulder strained
by a bag-load of books carried to school or to university, and for whom a
portable downloader will serve not only for entertainment but for all needs of
information, books will likely be seen as just that: baggage. Writing, reading and
literacy are the forces that continue, and with every new arrival of an idea and its
interpreter, the book re-enters, its forms remodelled, its archives expanded.
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Works Cited
Cranny-Francis, Anne. Multimedia: Texts and Contexts. London: Sage, 2005.
Carey, James. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. London: Unwin
Hyman, 1989.
Poulet, Georges. “Phenomenology of Reading.” In Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. NY and London: W.W. Norton, 2001. 1320-1333.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr Judith Jensen, Ms Shan Boller and Ms Audrey Shamier for
convening “Why Bother With the Book” at CityLibraries Aitkenvale in August 2009.
g
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D.C. Elliott
ANONYMOUS RISING
On February 10 2008, over 7,000 individuals from across the globe participated
in synchronised protests outside their regional branch headquarters of the
Church of Scientology. Disguised in the Guy Fawkes masks made popular
through the film V For Vendetta, and brandishing placards with baffling,
largely indecipherable messages, the protests were considered the first wave
of a global protest movement known as Project Chanology, a concept devised
by a leaderless, decentralised group calling itself Anonymous. Upon closer
inspection by a largely confused, unprepared
media, Anonymous turned out to be
loosely connected to a group of websites,
with their primary base of operations
being 4chan.org. The image sharing site
Flickr reported 2,000 images uploaded to
its servers featuring images taken from the
protests, causing mayhem through crashes
and software malfunctions, with Flickr
completely unprepared to cope with the Project Chanology — Sydney, Australia
traffic generated as onlookers scrambled to
February 10, 2008
their browsers to access the images of what
was shaping up to be a unique, bizarre experiment in political resistance and
global participation.
Subsequent protests were executed throughout 2008, code-named “The Ides Of
March” and “Operation Reconnect” — with video sharing site YouTube being
drawn into the battle, hosting a number of press releases issued by members
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of Anonymous, drawing attention to Scientology’s alleged ethical and legal
misdeeds. A particularly disturbing release featured a poem narrated over a
recording of a child’s music box, describing the deaths that have been ascribed
to Scientology’s policies regarding mental illness and prescription medication,
ending with the chilling warning: “Church Of Scientology beware. We are
legion. Be afraid.”1
The campaign waged against Scientology by Anonymous finds its roots in
the hypercharged, savage world of the Internet underground. Here is a world
without borders and without geography. Personal identities are dissolved in the
broth of images and text that spill across the screen with little to contextualise
them to outside eyes. This is a classless, communally constructed environment
that is uninterested in the real world’s standards of morality — moral codes are
almost completely self-determined, and standards of behaviour are disconnected
from anything that mainstream society considers “appropriate” or “decent.” This
is 4chan.org — beyond the body, beyond society, a web community that gives
voice to a netherworld of Internet geeks, sniggering misanthropes, and overeducated mischief makers.
The site’s history runs roughly as follows.2 In 2004, a 15 year-old boy using the
assumed name “moot” built a website, paid for using his mother’s credit card.
The site’s layout was based on a similar Japanese model, and was dedicated
primarily to the posting of images relating to Japanese animation. The caveat
placed on the site’s user-base was that all users were to be anonymous — there
were no accounts, no personal identities, and everyone was welcome to
contribute as much, or as little, as they deemed appropriate. The site was named
“4chan,” a reference to the Japanese original, 2chan. Over time, attention
became focused on 4chan’s “/b” forum — the “/b” denoting a board dedicated to ‘random’ images. As time went on, 4chan’s
users started to communicate using pure images,
and a strange new language built on the display
— and redisplay — of recontextualised, replicated media artifacts started to take shape.
Collage, pastiche and parody became integral to
this new communication paradigm that 4chan’s
user-base was unwittingly developing, the
immediacy of Internet communications allowing
for the almost instantaneous appropriation of
new cultural artifacts that could be injected into
4chan’s endlessly changing lexicon. This, however,
is not to suggest that in the initial stages of
4chan’s development, there was anything on the
4chan.org
user-base’s mind other than insular pranks and
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attempts to be amusing. 4chan was not, in any way, created to be a force for
anything obviously worthwhile — and in many ways, that credo remains. In its
lowest, darkest moments, 4chan is racist, sexist, violent, misanthropic, and
obsessed with sexuality on a completely juvenile level. 4chan’s user-base is
involved in an almost continual game of moral brinkmanship, attempting to
outdo one another in terms of nastiness, cruelty, and the rejection of anything
that mainstream society would consider sacred. Worldwide news stories such as
the deaths of celebrities such as Heath Ledger or Michael Jackson almost
immediately form the basis of new images and text combinations, usually
intended to slander or mock their target. Nothing is off-limits for 4chan’s brand
of cruel, dark humour — and for most people, the nihilism and rage of the site’s
user-base proves completely unacceptable.
For better or worse, and despite the complicated moral questions one must ask
oneself when becoming involved in the mind-warp of perversion and brutality
that is 4chan’s subculture, 4chan represents something extremely new in terms
of electronic community and globalised culture. It is a borderless, worldwide
culture processor, devouring anything that the users feed into it, and converting
the material into recontextualised components that are subsequently integrated
into 4chan’s synthetic language. With users coming from pretty much every
country with commercially available Internet access, there is no limit to the
possibilities of cultural ephemera that can be sourced for reprocessing and
reintegration — from a still shot of a Serbian politician, to Kevin Rudd
laughing, to a windmill in Sweden, to the cover of a book, any image is ripe for
4chan’s processing. This would suggest, however, an automation in the process;
but on the contrary, there is an organic, artistic aesthetic at work. These are,
after all, no different to the digital art pieces that are so prominent in modern
galleries — they are collages and/or manipulations created with
software packages such as Adobe Photoshop.
The by-product of 4chan’s culture, whether by
accident or design, is the harnessing of the
globalisation of community that the Internet
facilitates, and using it to promote a new kind
of democratised popular art, heavily influenced
by postmodernism’s obsession with replication,
pastiche, and collage.
4chan’s brand of popular art, however, is also the fuel for two very interesting
and important offshoot activities that the site’s userbase indulges in — the
aforementioned construction of a language founded on pure semiotics and
their manifestation in the real world — in the form of pranks, activism, and
culture jamming; and the realisation of the Internet underground’s very real,
very powerful culture army, in the form of Anonymous. In Anonymous, the
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regional and the global become politically fused, and the power of shared ideas
is harnessed and directed at otherwise unreachable targets, such as the Church
of Scientology.
Project Chanology3, the long campaign of attacks intended to discredit and
ultimately dismantle the Church of Scientology, was initiated on January 14,
2008. Somewhere, a member of Anonymous acquired and posted a video of
Tom Cruise, noted Scientology figurehead, to YouTube. In the video, Cruise
engages in a deeply bizarre rant, with the Mission Impossible music playing in
the background, claiming a number of strange, highly dubious “facts” about
Scientology’s teachings. With a wild-eyed mania, and a bellowing, crazed
laugh, Cruise tells the camera that Scientologists are the only people who can
truly help at the scene of a car accident, that they are the “authorities on the
mind,” the “authorities on getting people off drugs,” and that he “will not
resist ruthlessly placing [his] ethics in other people.” The Church’s reaction was
immediate and brutal, insisting that the video was edited from a three-hour
original, intended only for distribution within the Church of Scientology, and
that YouTube were to remove the video or face litigation. Gossip site Gawker.
com was also instructed to take the video down — but they resisted, insisting
that the video was news, and would thus be reported.
Anonymous responded with the announcement of Project Chanology —
initiated somewhere in the milieu of 4chan and affiliate site 711chan — in the
form of a YouTube video, posted on January 21, 2008.4 Over sped-up footage
of clouds rolling across an urban landscape, a digitised voice announced:
Hello, leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been
watching you. Your campaigns of disinformation. Your suppression of dissent. Your
litigious nature. All of these things have caught our eye. Anonymous has, therefore,
decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers.
For the good of mankind. For our own enjoyment. We will proceed to expel you
from the Internet, and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in
its present form. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our
campaign to be completed in a short time frame. However, you will not prevail
forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your choice of methods,
your hypocrisy, and the general artlessness
of your organization have sounded its
death knell. You have nowhere to hide,
because we are everywhere. You will find
no recourse in attack, because for each of
us that falls, ten more will take his place….
“Message To Scientology” January 21, 2008
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Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do
not forget. Expect us.5
The cryptic, unsettling nature of the short film did not stop it from being
viewed over two million times as of February 8, 2008 — writer Warren
Ellis describing it as “a manifesto — a declaration of war.”6 The lessons that
Anonymous had learned from its gestation as the clown prince of 4chan’s
underworld were finally being put into practice — all of the tools required to
mount a full-scale war against a designated target were at the fingertips of the
Anonymous userbase: Video editing software. Mashups. Pastiche, parody, and
satire. Distribution nodes such as YouTube. In “Message To Scientology,” all
of these things finally coalesced into something that the world simply hadn’t
seen before — a global announcement on behalf of a global organisation
with no leaders, no membership, no borders, and no means of identification.
Anonymous didn’t seem to exist — except as a construct in the minds of the
audience who saw its films and images.
For the media, the emergence of Anonymous was a baffling, perplexing social
phenomenon. Yet, it was one that could not be ignored. Groups such as the
Cult Of The Dead Cow, and media pranksters such as Negativland or the Max
Headroom Hijacker could easily be dismissed as bored misanthropes attempting
to stir up trouble for the sake of it. Here, though, was an artful, elegant
declaration of war. There was an intelligence behind the voice, and a sense of
overwhelming dread. This was something new — a harnessing of technology in
the pursuit of perpetuating a globalised culture offensive. The media, typically,
responded by misunderstanding, or misreporting the facts surrounding Project
Chanology. On January 25, 2008, Anonymous issued a second video that was
highly critical of the media’s coverage of their campaign, and drew attention to
the unwillingness of the press to address specific criticisms of Scientology that
Anonymous levelled against the organisation:
We find it interesting that you did not mention the other objections in your
news reporting. The stifling and punishment of dissent within the totalitarian
organization of Scientology. The numerous, alleged human rights violations, such
as the treatment and events that led to the deaths of victims of the cult, such as Lisa
McPherson. This cult is nothing but a psychotically-driven pyramid scheme. Why
are you, the news media, afraid of discussing these matters? It is your duty to report
on these matters. You are failing in your duty.7
The reference that Anonymous makes to Lisa McPherson is designed to draw
attention to the McPherson case, in which a Scientologist and victim of mental
illness died in appalling, inhuman conditions — largely attributable to the
Church of Scientology’s policies regarding the treatment of mental illness, and
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their wanton usurping of the law. The February 10, 2008 global protests against
the Church were designed to coincide with what would have been Lisa’s 49th
birthday.8 This second video was banned from the YouTube network on January
25, with YouTube’s administration team citing a “terms of use violation.”9 The
truth is that Anonymous was drawing worldwide attention to itself, and Project
Chanology was escalating beyond the boundaries of a simple Internet prank,
and was about to go global, spilling out into the courtrooms of the entire world.
Anonymous announced its intentions on January 28, 2008, in a YouTube
film called “Call To Action.” 10 Again, the synthesised voice and timelapsed footage of clouds and skies were the centrepiece of the film, yet the
message was an attempt to explain exactly what Anonymous was to the
uninitiated and confused. Denying their reputation as “super hackers,” the
voice announced that:
Anonymous is everyone and everywhere. We have no leaders — no single entity
directing us. Only the collective outrage of individuals guiding our hand in the
current efforts to bring awareness. We are individuals from all walks of life …
united by an awareness that someone must do the right thing. That someone
must bring light to the darkness. That someone must open the eyes of a public
that has slumbered from far too long. Arm yourself with knowledge. Be very wary
of the 10th of February. Anonymous invites you to join us in an act of solidarity.
Anonymous invites you to take up the banner of free speech. Of human rights. Of
family and freedom. Join us in protest outside of Scientology centres worldwide. We
are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. We will be
heard. Expect us.11
In a further act of globalised
resistance and borderless policy
making, Anonymous issued a film
entitled “Code Of Conduct”12 on
February 8th, two days before the
protests, designed to ensure that a
semblance of uniformity existed
across the global protests.
Twenty-two rules — many of them
couched in cr yptic, baffling
in-jokes relating to videogames and
the Internet underground — were
Project Chanology — London
issued to protesting members of
th
February 10 , 2008
Anonymous. The rules stressed the
peaceful, non-aggressive nature of the protests, insisted on promoting solidarity
amongst members of Anonymous, looking after each other’s wellbeing and
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safety, and maintaining anonymity. The stage was set. The Church of
Scientology arrogantly dismissed Anonymous as a group of teenaged crackpots,
and did nothing to prepare themselves for the protests. Law enforcement and
the media — similarly — were unprepared for the events of February 10th, and
when Project Chanology’s physical manifestation occurred, it would be a shot
heard around the world, announcing the birth of a very new kind of art and
culture-powered method of political resistance, which united the regional and
the global in a united, ruthless offensive.
From Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney, Australia — to Toronto, London,
Dublin, Texas, and New York City — a simultaneous, worldwide assault on
the Church of Scientology was launched on February 10th, 2008. Anonymous’s
tactics had worked better than they’d dared imagine — with little more than a
few websites and their love of creating digital art, the group had led a charge
that spread over 100 cities worldwide. Sydney, Australia was one of the first,
catching the Church off guard, causing the building to be locked down. Seattle,
Pittsburgh, and Santa Barbara followed suit, as the legions of Anonymous, clad
in their now infamous Guy Fawkes masks, took to the streets in an act of global
insurgency. Mirroring V For Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes masks are provided to
the public by rebels in a dystopian fascist state, in order to enable the public to
organise mass protests. The masks made Anonymous’s physical manifestation
even more eerie — the sea of identical faces providing a striking image for the
press, who began to cotton on that this may be a story more deserving of its
attention. Major newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian, and The Gateway
attempted to capture the flavour of the protests, but this borderless group with
no leaders, no administrative or command structure, and no definitive, clearly
stated goal proved too elusive to characterise. Across the world, Scientology
churches were temporarily shut down, under siege from the hordes of masked
protesters, and for a brief, undeniably perfect moment, technology, art, politics,
and culture operated in complete communion. Anonymous had arrived.
Since the Feburary 10th protests, Anonymous have staged a number of global
insurgencies, with the Church of Scientology responding with equal parts
wrathful venom and litigious paranoia. Attempts to wrangle the legal system
as a weapon against Anonymous have proved a mixture of success and failure
— arrests have occurred across the globe, and instances of Project Chanologyrelated gatherings are now understood and prepared for by law enforcement
officials, who are mobilized ahead of time by the Church. That’s not to say,
however, that Anonymous’s campaign against Scientology has been terminated.
On the contrary, in many ways it has become more intricate and fascinating,
retreating into the world that it dominates — the internet — and mobilising
the forces of art and communication in a weaponized alloy that is increasingly
difficult for Scientology to deflect.
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This kind of activism, however, has antecedents stretching back to the mid-1980s.
To put it in some kind of historical perspective, it helps to examine the twin cases
of the “Max Headroom Incident”13 and “Captain Midnight,”14 two early, highprofile cases of technologised political insurgency using re-contextualised cultural
artifacts — or, as it has come to be known, “culture jamming.”
“Culture Jamming” is a term coined by experimental art collective Negativland
on their JamCon ’84 cassette and — essentially — it refers to a tactic employed
by an activist, intended to disrupt mainstream cultural institutions or corporate
advertising. In Negativland’s parlance, the term comes from amateur radio, and
refers to the process of radio jamming — in which one signal is suppressed and
overpowered by another. In modern terms however, culture jamming involves
modern technology’s aptitudes for image manipulation, filmmaking, and
digital art — the replication of images leading to an endless array of possible
recontextualisations and detournements, and an endless array of possibilities for
usurption of cultural institutions.
The event that has become known as the “Max Headroom Incident” is an
interesting blip on the cultural radar, not so much for the technological
sophistication required to suppress a broadcast television signal but for the
status of the event as a high-profile, relatively early instance of what has become
known as culture jamming — a term that
is wholly appropriate when examining the
activities of Anonymous. On November
22, 1987, a broadcast signal intrusion
occurred in Chicago, Illinois. The first
instance of the intrusion took place during
WGN-TV’s News At Nine, in which the
original programme suddenly disappeared
from the air and was replaced by an image
of a man dressed as cult TV character Max
The Max Headroom Signal Intrusion
Headroom. The intrusion was silent,
November 22, 1987 — 11:15 p.m
except for a buzzing sound and lasted
twenty seconds — at which point WGN switched the modulation of their
studio link to another transmitter.
Later that night at around 11:15pm, WTTW 11 was broadcasting the Doctor
Who serial The Horror Of Fang Rock, when the hijacker struck again. This
time, he appeared with synchronised audio, speaking in cryptic phrases,
parodying Coke’s advertising slogan “Catch The Wave” while holding a Pepsi
can, making a number of surreal references to the Chicago Tribune before
being seen with his buttocks exposed, being spanked with a flyswatter by an
unidentified accomplice, while exclaiming “They’re coming to get me!” The
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hijack ended after 90 seconds, leaving a city stunned and confused about
what they had just witnessed.
The Max Headroom Incident is a clear precursor to the activities of Anonymous
and indeed to the processing of cultural material that takes place on 4chan.
org. The hijacker’s intentions are unclear to this day but it is clear that he was
parodying something — his ramblings were random, yet not quite random
enough for them to be empty, disconnected ravings. Unfortunately, we’ll
probably never know exactly what the incident was intended to achieve —
the Max Headroom pirate was never apprehended, despite a standing reward
offered for information leading to his arrest.
An even earlier example of culture jamming in the modern era can be seen in
the Captain Midnight HBO Incident.
Here, we see a far more pointed
and politicised example of culture
jamming, and a clear antecedent of
Anonymous’s digital manipulations
and technologised resistance. On
April 27, 1986, a satellite TV dealer
in Ocala, Florida named John R.
MacDougall was working at Central
Florida Tele por t, a company
providing uplink services to satellites.
He was supervising the uplink of the The Captain Midnight Incident April 27,
1986 — 12:32 a.m
movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when,
at the end of his shift, he was struck
with subversive inspiration. He aimed the dish at Galaxy 1 — the satellite that
was carrying the HBO (Home Box Office) channel. In protest against HBO’s
recent policy of raising fees and introducing scrambling equipment, he jammed
HBO’s airing of The Falcon And The Snowman for four and a half minutes,
replacing the image with a text message:
GOODEVENING HBO
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
$12.95/MONTH ?
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
McDougall chose the “Captain Midnight” moniker in reference to a movie he
had recently seen — On The Air With Captain Midnight. He was eventually
caught, and the Federal Communications Commission brought him to trial,
resulting in a $5,000 fine and a year’s probation.15
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From a contemporary perspective these two examples are interesting, as they
illuminate the schism that exists between the work of pre-internet culture
jammers, who were locked in time and space by the constraints of technology,
and the globalised, post-Internet monster that is Anonymous — borderless,
timeless, cultureless, and decentralised. They were both incidents that locked
directly into issues stemming from the regional, by virtue of their technological
limitations — while Anonymous provides nascent culture jammers with a
fusion of the regional and the global as a forum for dissent. They both provided
their jammers with the ability to give voice to their concerns in a world in
which calm, legally-mandated dissent is increasingly impossible. With western
culture being so heavily corporately colonised, and the very nature of the
image being hijacked for commercial interest, culture jammers fight against
this branded, corporatised environment, even if only to raise attention to
issues which are marginalised in the face of corporate interests. Whether it is
a little guy working in a satellite store who is angry at HBO’s rate increases,
or Anonymous assuring the world that it is a group of people “united by
an awareness that someone must do the right thing,” 16 culture jamming is
separated from empty or blank parody — or pure, pointless vandalism —
through the altruistic politics at the core of the jammer’s activities. The early
culture jammers intersect with Anonymous in the form of their reliance on the
basic unit of communication in culture jamming — the meme.
Richard Dawkins, writing in The Selfish Gene, coined the term meme in
an attempt to explain the role of evolutionary principles at work in the
spread of ideas and cultural phenomenon. His examples include melodies,
catchphrases, and fashion as memes that have evolved through the process of
natural selection, much like biological evolution. Information is introduced,
reproduced, and inherited; it enters into competition with other memes,
and if it is unsuccessful in its proliferation, it may become extinct. Other
memes may flourish, spread, replicate and ultimately, mutate into other, new
memes. They may also, of course, be interbred with other memes to create a
third, hybridized meme. In terms of culture jamming, the meme refers to a
condensed, refined image that is designed to generate a specific response in
the recipient — whether visual, verbal, or behavioural — which can easily be
imitated and replicated, and transmitted to others. Classic examples of familiar
memes include the Nike swoosh, or the McDonald’s arches — images which
immediately elicit a response in the viewer and which they can immediately
identify has having an intrinsic meaning. Culture jammers then, take familiar
memes such as the McDonald’s logo and use them — via the process of
detournement — to comment, reflect upon, or refute their original meaning.
Industrial band Snog’s 1999 album cover “Third Mall From The Sun” is a
perfect example of this kind of cultural re-contextualisation, in which a meme
is used to comment on the source artifact — usually negatively and falling on
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the side of anti-capitalism. In this case, McDonalds was decidedly unamused and
threatened legal action against Shock Records, unless they dropped Snog from
their roster in an alarming act of bullying on behalf of the corporate behemoth.
Anonymous is itself a meme, born from the
meme culture embraced by 4chan, and
weaponised by the meme’s transmitters. It
should never be forgotten that Anonymous is
an idea — it may look like a highly organised,
paramilitary pressure-group but in reality, it is
none of these things. As Anonymous describes
itself in the short film “Who Is Anonymous?”
Anonymous is ideas without origin — may it
be a phrase, a fad, a proverb. The concept of
Anonymous has always existed… Anonymous
started as an image-board in Japan, nearly a
decade ago. A place where there were no rules.
Anonymous –
Logo & Motivational Poster
No topic. No identity. Images and text with
no authorship. The only control being whether
a post was enjoyed, or simply deleted from lack of interest. The individual isn’t
measured. Slowly, through repetition, and this unique process of natural selection,
popular ideas duplicated, and developed into memes. These memes would be
incorporated into new ideas. Evolution of thought.17
Anonymous, then, complies with the basic outline of a meme as posited by
Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.18 Anonymous, and involvement in Anonymous,
requires nothing more than participation in the culture of memetics — popular
ideas, such as Anonymous, and by extension, Project Chanology itself, thrive by
a process of cultural and intellectual natural selection, whilst unpopular ideas
are discarded through lack of interest. The genius behind Project Chanology,
whether by design or by serendipity, is that it takes the memetic thrust of
Anonymous’s activities — the films, the images posted on forums, and the
websites dedicated to Anonymous’s various targets — and uses them to ensnare
a target in the memetic process. The documents, video clips, court reports,
and other pieces of information regarding the unscrupulous practices of the
Church of Scientology are now a part of the Project Chanology meme — ideas
that are transmitted from person to person, and that are given life through
natural selection. Project Chanology has been such a rousing success because
of public interest in it, and because of the user-base’s desire to be involved
in it. Public reception of Project Chanology can also be attributable to the
effect of memetic transmission, with the criticisms laid against the Church of
Scientology being seen as real, credible complaints, worthy of investigation.
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Ultimately, Project Chanology is the birth of a new kind of culture jamming — a
globalised reimagining that takes the form of memetic process, rather than the
static, almost auterist image manipulation of the past. Through memesis, all
information is democratised and destabilised, with culture jamming becoming
a communal effort, easily lending itself to globalised transmission and — as
with Project Chanology — implantation at the regional level, bridging the space
between the regional and the global.
The globalised nature of Internet culture would suggest that there exists
an incompatibility between notions of the regional and the global, with
the regional being subjugated in the face of a worldwide torrent of ideas,
information, and cultural nodal points. 4chan’s memetic dialogues prove that
this is simply not true. While 4chan — and by extension, Anonymous —
operates by decontextualising found cultural artifacts and reconfiguring them as
easily transferrable and modifiable packets of information, the democratisation
available to regional users through the destabilisation of identity that the process
facilitates indicates that regional coding is possible — if that is the direction
that the information organically pursues. In this sense, regional identity
operates in one of two ways — regional culture that is transformed into global
culture, or global culture that is infused with the regional.
The implications here are obvious. All art and culture is, in terms of 4chan’s
memesis, information. Whether music, art, or film, it is simply transferrable
information that has the potential to be reconfigured and reintegrated into
new works — and so the process continues. The neutrality of images and
sounds indicates that regional codings are irrelevant in the face of a matrix
of configurations so massive in scope as to obscure microsocial readings. The
contrary, however, is true. The homogeneity of globalised western culture can
be broken through the introduction of regional dialects, images, and political
movements. In terms of Australia, the very “Australianness” of Australia runs
in direct counterpoint to the region-neutral cultural milieu of much Internet
culture, and as such, this intersection of the regional and the global — or, a
fusion of micro- and macrosocial cultural influences — gives us an opportunity
to reflect on what defines an image, or sound, or a piece of film as being
“Australian,” and to observe, actively, the ways in which “Australia” interacts
with foreign cultural material at the point of alchemy.
Interestingly, one of the by-products of Project Chanology has been an
investigation of the synergy that exists between the regional and the local in
terms of electronic cultures. If Project Chanology is a meme, and memes are
designed to be constantly unstable, modified, and restructured according
to the desires of the transmitting audience, then the success of the Project
Chanology demonstrations suggests that there was a connection with regional
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cultures at work. Each protest was
different, according to the location and
demographics of those in attendance,
and in terms of the legal ramifications
of the city in question. The protests,
then, were united as a global offensive,
but the global was ver y much
entwined with the regional in terms
of understanding the specific needs —
legal and technical — of the protestors,
and the language that needed to be
employed to inject the memetic transmission of charges against Scientology into
the dominant cultural dialogue of the region. The Church of Scientology may
be a global organisation, but it thrives by understanding the legal axioms of each
host country, and the regional variables at work in the culture and society of
the region. Anonymous understands this, and seeks to replicate this process of
regional connection — but in the service of passive resistance.
The Church of Scientology has long been at war with the freedom of speech
that the Internet provides. Their earliest attempts can be traced back to a
1995 attempt to have Usenet group alt.religion.scientology 19 removed from
the global Usenet feed. This led to the first War On Scientology, conducted
from the embryonic electronic underworld of the mid-1990s. In this case, it
was the Cult of the Dead Cow,20 21 a notorious text file collective and hacker
group affiliated with Phrack Magazine,22 the underground’s journal of hacking,
electronic crime, and general mischief. The Cult of the Dead Cow can be seen
as the spiritual ancestors to Anonymous, despite CDC’s influence being far
more minimal in scope due to limitations in the technology of the day — they
have existed in one form or another since 1984, and are now considered elder
statesmen of the underground, often contacted by the mainstream media when
an opinion on an electronic crime issue arises. In 1995, the Cult Of The Dead
Cow’s mission statement was very similar to that outlined by Anonymous in
the present day: “Save people from Scientology by reversing the brainwashing.
Cause current Scientologists to doubt their ‘religion’ (CULT). Gain experience
of performing operations on a global scale. Alert the public to our presence
and recruit active participants.” The CDC were limited to text-file releases and
other examples of the then-embryonic art of “hacktivism” and culture jamming,
although they did from time to time indulge in the kind of manipulation
of existing cultural material that has become a key weapon in Anonymous’
arsenal. Activism was a largely regional affair, conducted through Bulletin
Board Systems and the remote, isolated nature of text file releases. Technology
manifested in the real world in far more traditional ways — fliers, zines,
and pamphlets designed to transmit information and dissent to the public.
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Interestingly, Anonymous has in recent times started to reach back into the
bag of tricks that pioneers such as the Cult of the Dead Cow employed — the
simplicity of fliers and websites, though infused with a cleverness that indicates
all that has been learned since the halcyon days of internet activism.
As a case in point, the “You Found The Card” campaign is as simple as it is
ingenious. Anonymous members are given a business card template, and are
encouraged to print it out, and to leave the cards in and around real-world
locations. The cards feature the Anonymous logo, and a link to a website —
http://youfoundthecard.com — which hosts an information repository on the
criminal activities of the Church of Scientology, links to a site explaining Project
Chanology and the details of upcoming protests and insurrectionist activities.
This grassroots brand of viral marketing is an effective, quirky way of spreading
the information that Anonymous deems so precious, and is an innovative fusion
of new and old technologies, combining archaic print media and the Internet.
Perhaps, more importantly, it allows Anonymous to operate beyond the scope
of globalised activism for which it has become infamous, and allows it to return
to the regional scale of the original wave of culture jammers and art-terrorists.
In that sense, Anonymous has — as a culture jamming body — finally found
comfort in its history, and has found a way to truly start integrating the lessons
of the past with the cutting edge technologies of the future. Anonymous
marches on, with new targets, new enemies, and new ways to fuse art, culture,
technology, and politics — and Anonymous itself will change. The essential
body of Anonymous is constantly destabilised, with participation requiring
nothing more than a willingness to participate, and as the evolutionary forces of
the information age continue the process of natural selection, Anonymous will
continue to shift and reshape itself — an idea in constant flux: the public face
of evolutionary thought. A legion that does not forgive, and does not forget.
Expect them.
Endnotes
1 “Why
We Fight.” February 22, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_78hgi3Hoo
2 “4chan.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009. http://whatport80.com/4chan
3 “Project Chanology.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://whyweprotest.net
4 “Message To Scientology.” January 21, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August,
2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCbKv9yiLiQ
5 Ibid.
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6
Ellis, Warren. “We Are Your SP’s.” January 23, 2008. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=5476
7 “Response To The Media.” January 25, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August,
2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcr1trjtLaU
8 Lisa McPherson Memorial Site. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
9 Vamosi, Robert. “Anonymous Steps Up Its War With Scientology.” CNet News,
January 25, 2008. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://news.cnet.com/8301-10789_3-9858436-57.htm
10 “Call To Action.” January 28, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrkchXCzY70
11 Ibid.
12 “Code Of Conduct.” February 8, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-063clxiB8I&feature=related
13 “WTTW Chicago — The Max Headroom Pirating Incident.” 22 November,
1987. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
14 “The Captain Midnight Incident.” 27 April, 1986. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFlMHCdYXLM
15 “The Captain Midnight Incident.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.textfiles.com/news/captmidn.txt
16 “Call To Action.” January 28, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrkchXCzY70
17 “Who Is Anonymous?” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0WCLKzDFpI
18 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 1976; Reprinted 1989. Oxford: Oxford UP.
19 Usenet — alt.religion.scientology. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
News://alt.religion.scientology
20 Archive Of Cult Of The Dead Cow Releases. Various authors. Accessed 14
August, 2009. http://www.textfiles.com/groups/CDC/
21 The Cult Of The Dead Cow. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.cultdeadcow.com
22 Archive Of Phrack Magazine Releases. Various authors. Accessed 14 August,
2009. http://www.textfiles.com/magazines/PHRACK/
Works Cited
Archive Of Cult Of The Dead Cow Releases. Various authors. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.textfiles.com/groups/CDC/
Archive Of Phrack Magazine Releases. Various authors. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.textfiles.com/magazines/PHRACK/
“Call To Action.” January 28, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrkchXCzY70
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“Code Of Conduct.” February 8, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-063clxiB8I&feature=related
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 1976; Reprinted 1989. Oxford University Press.
Ellis, Warren. “We Are Your SP’s.” January 23, 2008. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=5476
Lisa McPherson Memorial Site. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.lisamcpherson.org
“Message To Scientology.” January 21, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCbKv9yiLiQ
“Project Chanology.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009. http://whyweprotest.net
“Response To The Media.” January 25, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcr1trjtLaU
“The Captain Midnight Incident.” 27 April, 1986. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFlMHCdYXLM
“The Captain Midnight Incident.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.textfiles.com/news/captmidn.txt
The Cult Of The Dead Cow. Accessed 14 August, 2009. http://www.cultdeadcow.com
Usenet — alt.religion.scientology. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
News://alt.religion.scientology
Vamosi, Robert. “Anonymous Steps Up Its War With Scientology.” CNet News, January
25, 2008. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://news.cnet.com/8301-10789_3-9858436-57.htm
“Why We Fight.” February 22, 2008. Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_78hgi3Hoo
“WTTW Chicago — The Max Headroom Pirating Incident.” 22 November, 1987.
Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cycVTXtm0U0
“4chan.” Anonymous. Accessed 14 August, 2009. http://whatport80.com/4chan
g
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Christopher Kelen, Lamenting the Loss of the Local
Christopher Kelen
LAMENTING THE LOSS OF THE LOCAL
The Treatment of “Anywhere” Space in Contemporary Macao Poetry
Macao is — a city in south China, a Special Administrative Region of the
People’s Republic, the last of Europe’s colonial possessions to be returned in the
Far East, the region’s only city with casinos, a mere dot on the map. And yet
this 28 square kilometers (at the time of writing), current population 600,000,1
among other things, the world’s most crowded territory, has historical and
geo-political importance far outstripping the first impression given by this
collection of facts. That importance has to do with Macao’s various kinds of
uniqueness, for instance in intercultural terms, and as the only place in China
where gambling is legal. This latter fact has powered Macao’s twenty-first
century transformation from sleepy backwater into the Vegas of the East — a
casino capitalist sponge for some of China’s new wealth. One might say that its
dot-on-the-map status makes Macao capable of bearing the symbolic burden
that goes along with having been for several hundred years the principal portal
between China and West, that goes along with being the last of the East Asian
colonies2 returned. It’s the dot-on-the-map status as well that makes Macao
seem an unthreatening place in which to isolate acknowledged vices (of the kind
for which it has long been famous).
From the inhabitants’ point of view, Macao has long conceived itself as a
place of good fortune: hence the appellation, “city of the name of god.” 3
Time and again, regional conflagrations and disasters have swept past, leaving
Macao largely unscathed. Or so the local mythology regards the Japanese
War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and, most recently,
(2003) the SARS epidemic which cost hundreds of lives in Hong Kong.4 Of
course a reputation for luck is a helpful attribute for a city whose revenue is
predominantly based on gambling. But drastic changes have taken place in the
cityscape and society over the years since the liberalisation of casino licensing in
Macao (since the end of Stanley Ho’s STDM monopoly in 2002).
In these years, Macao’s people have sometimes felt themselves the victims of
contradictory forms of re-colonisation — by Beijing on the one hand and by
Vegas-style casino capitalism on the other. Between these gigantic pincers, what
chance of survival has local culture and custom? Remarkably, however, as we
see in the case of Macao’s contemporary poetry, not only has Macao culture
continued to thrive despite these outside pressures on the city’s regional position
(a part of “one China” with a localised function), but also the need to produce
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a critique of these pressures has itself been productive of a politically interested
(and interesting) literary culture.
Regional Roles
Regionalism, in the case of Macao, can be taken in several senses. There’s
South China as region, there’s position within the Pearl River Delta (including
neighouring cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Shenzhen), and
there’s the larger regional construct of East Asia. It’s interesting to note that
whereas Macao has traditionally been under the shadow of both Hong Kong and
Mainland (across-the-border) culture, it’s not regional pressure that threatens
Macao culture today; rather it’s pressure of a national and of a global kind that
poses a threat. Macao’s uniqueness is easily recognised at the regional level.
Longstanding images portray Macao as a place of decadence and corruption —
a place where bonds and mindsets are loosened. Witness Lu Xun’s 1930’s poem,
“song for Macao.”5
I shook my fate in the bamboo cup
out came a long string — paper cranes of hope
they shot into the air, broke apart
my soul roamed freely with the pieces falling
I was fooled again by the dice bowl
the bowl upturned, gold all over the floor.
O, from day to night, my heart
galloped back and forth on the table
war tossed me into a wine-glass,
I buried myself in regret, in melancholy
unkempt, slipped into a temple
gnawing slowly at memory
you sat in the middle of the place
phony laughter drowned out your gravitas
powder nurtured you all night long
high spirits drew in thousands of travelers
smoke filled the room,
a woman like a snake lay on my bed.
O, suck me! O, let me fall! O, was I thrilled!
to be in this heaven of microbes!
(27)
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Foreshadowed here is one of the major themes of poetry in the present-day
casino-fed Macao: luck, for good and for ill, and the moral miasma that reliance
on it brings. The “heaven of microbes” furnishes a seamy side for the microcosm
conceit. The laughter and the gravitas mixed remind us of the concluding
advice of Auden’s famous sonnet of the same epoch — that nothing serious can
happen here.
The moralism witnessed in Lu’s poem above is characteristic of Macao today —
a place where the gambling industry is widely looked down upon as decadent
and corrupt. This attitude, measured against the fundamental facts of Macao’s
economy, points to what I will call the “casino contradiction” — or the
paradox of a town whose inhabitants profit by a single dominating industry of
which they wholeheartedly disapprove. More generally, it suggests a broader
contradiction in Chinese culture — between superstitious belief or hope in
luck and the upright thrifty values promoted by Confucian and equally by
communist teaching. It’s in the teeth of this contradiction that Beijing finds it
convenient to have a place like Macao in which to isolate the aberration that
proves the virtue of not allowing gambling on Chinese soil (or on the soil of
China proper). Macao gambling is thus a Barthesian inoculation6 — the small
dose of acknowledged evil that allows the cultural organism as a whole to be
healthy. Macao being the point at which such a paradox comes to light, one
might read all of Macao’s casino poetry as an articulation of contradictions
between global capitalism and the state power of the People’s Republic of China
— two of the present-day world’s great cultural juggernauts. Of course longer
term East/West mythologies and misrecognitions are at stake in Macao, in its
moralism, its casino culture, and its poetry.
Macao stands for many things, and Macao as metaphor is bi-directional, and
reversible. In other words, disclosing the metaphor means that there are two
distinct questions to be answered: What does Macao represent? How is Macao
represented? There are a number of planes on which these questions and
answers can be tilted, confused. For instance, the question of representation
has a political as well as a semiotic dimension. And so we can ask, for instance:
Who has the right to represent Macao? And to whom? Nor, rhetorically, is
it merely metaphor that is at stake here. We need to interrogate the various
associations Macao brings to mind for the resident, for the tourist, for the
prospective visitor. Here, marketing meets governance, corporate and otherwise.
And there is the question of part/whole relations, the obvious shift in that
instance being from participation in a European world empire to being a part
of China again to being a part of a world capitalist experiment in the so-called
pleasure of gambling. These foregoing are in outline some of the dimensions of
connotation carried by the use of the word “Macao.”
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Macao’s new-found prosperity is based on gambling, and “the gaming industry”
(as it euphemistically declares itself ) is a focus and locus for many of the key
contradictions. Prior to the financial tsunami of the second half of 2008, it had
been apparent to all in Macao that the rich were getting richer and the poor
were being marginalised faster than ever before. Widely read as an effort to
forestall likely May Day demonstrations in 2008, the government was moved
to give its citizens five thousand patacas each, one might disingenuously claim,
to make tangible the idea that the new prosperity was being shared. With these
circumstances in mind, one may match Wong Man Fai’s island metaphor with
Debby Vai Keng Sou’s image of a house being offered to the citizen:
a big house
I am offered
a big house
the keys to the house
he keeps
I’m just a little woman
need a home
in this smalltown of mine
miraculously expanding by the minute
less and less space to breathe
a big garden in front
roses greeting me in pink and red
to grow
to pick
to smell
priceless furniture
mahogany
style
cool
a balcony to the sea
good view for a change
from there
to watch the world
to be watched
o, vanity
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I am promised five thousand kisses too
dry on the cheeks
no love
May, 2008
In Sou’s poem, the “five thousand kisses” are easily recognised. Highlighted here
is the contradiction inherent in Macao’s style of progress — more territory, less
space to breathe. The new opulence is somehow vain and loveless; really it’s all
about what one might call a local style of voyeurism — a “see and be seen” ethos.
The subject knows she is hailed; or in Stuart Hall’s “articulation” theory
we might say: here is a subject who recognises herself as discovered by an
ideological apparatus. She contends with — she contests — her interpellation
by reading more into the government’s gesture than the innocent sharing of
wealth it is intended to demonstrate. An ironic effect is achieved by attributing
human affect in the form of a putative love to what’s offered. But no — there
isn’t love; the cheeks are dry — the gesture was rote, was pragmatic.
Sub-National Identity
Macao’s sub-national identity entails some forms of identification unique to
Macao. Things Macanese7 — like the patois (patua), and certain examples of
Macanese cuisine — have the advantage, for the poet wishing to give local
flavour, of being unmistakably of a place. In Macao’s case, being a territory with
integral borders, laws, currency and telecommunications, some of the official
aspects of identity usually thought national apply. This too has its poetic uses.
Consider Hilda Tam’s poem “tossing the old one pataca” (the pataca being
uniquely the unit of currency in Macao).
tossing the old one pataca
between sense and nonsense
pots and pans in the brain —
that’s the speech of the self
because words won’t mean
I pick up a coin from the desk
two delicate pictures
one I call yes
and the other side no
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so double the meanings
tire the mind
the lion nods —
that’s the signal
air flows
while the coin spins in it
it’s fate
falls into the palm
why are there
just two answers?
(325)
There’s mystery added by the fact that it’s the “old” pataca, not the coin
currently in circulation. But there’s nothing else in the poem to link it with
Macao; it’s this one central image — highly specified — that places this
meditation on what must be admitted a very Macao conflation of themes —
luck, choice, meaning, decision.
The gambling theme is one that has increasingly been given Macao
characteristics in recent poetry. In the “blind” section of Pierre “Tai Pi” Wong’s
poem “midday images,” the reader is shown how everyone’s field of vision is
diminished by focus on the object of luck and the moment of winning or losing.
blind
I see
busy midday moments
everyone stuck inside a can
one taxi driver, sometimes blind
won’t see the residents anymore
at the slot machine
I bump into that poor blind man
his eyes are so bright now
like Sands neon
gazing at the iron pearl of the Russian wheel
mumbling
‘18’, ‘18’, ‘18’, ‘18’
the iron pearl is like the losing gambler
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after some emotional cramps
it falls on ‘0’
that poor man
is just like me —
he’s completely blind
AV & KK
(270-1)
Blindness manifests in several related ways in Wong’s poem. The taxi driver is a
danger to the pedestrian residents because he sometimes won’t see them crossing
the road, and then there’s a real blind man in the poem (with blazing eyes to
remind us of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle). The brightness of the blind
man’s eyes is likened to that of Sands’ neon (i.e. the neon signs of the Sands
Casino, opened in 2003, first of the new generation of casinos). This brings us
by association to the object of the gambler’s gaze, which is the roulette ball. We
hear the gambler’s prayerful incantation, his mumbled wish that the ball land
on his number, which of course it doesn’t. All of this provides an unexpected
analogy with the poem’s persona. We learn that s/he too is also blind and that
this surprise has the disturbing effect of suggesting that everything we’ve gleaned
so far through the poem (images, associations, analogies) has been unreliable.
As a result, we the readers are literally in the position of the blind being led by
the blind. Implied here, is that there is no stable point of view available from
which the city or anything in it might be viewed. It’s a pattern of metonymic
shift — glissement — driving through this poem that prevents the reader’s eye
from resting on any particular image or any certain analogy. The effect overall
is to simulate the infinitely distracted experience of the gambler — of the one
obsessed with the win/lose evanescence of luck in the vanishing here and now.
In case the reader might be tempted to look for hopeful signs, in the last section
of the poem, “darkness,” the reader is offered this conclusion:
darkness
darkness
spreading after noon
we’ve been searching
hoping to leave the lost
then you will discover
we are together
completely blind —
this century’s horrible disease
(271)
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Here we read some of the ethical questions characteristic of the Macao casino
poem and its overarching interest in the idea of an economy premised on the
voluntary taxation of those who come from far-flung places because they are
addicted to chance.
An Open Door
Consciousness of place in contemporary Macao poetry appears to be dominated
by two kinds of space; I will gloss these here as “Macao space” and “anywhere
space.” In his 1995 monograph Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology
of Supermodernity, Marc Augé describes three “figures of excess…employed
to characterize the situation of supermodernity.” These three figures are
“overabundance of events, spatial overabundance, the individualization of
references” (40-41). Augé writes of an “excess of space…correlative with the
shrinking of the planet”
with the distancing from ourselves embodied in the feats of the astronauts and the
endless circling of our satellites. In a sense, our first steps in outer space reduce our
own space to an infinitesimal point, of which satellite photographsappropriately
give us the exact measure. But at the same time, the world is becoming more open
to us. We are in an era characterised by changes of scale — of course in the context
of space exploration, but also on earth: rapid means of transport have brought any
capital within a few hours’ travel of any other. And in the privacy of our own homes,
finally, images of all sorts, relayed bysatellites and caught by the aerials that bristle
on the roofs of our remotesthamlets, can give us instant, sometimes simultaneous
vision of an event taking place on the other side of the planet. (31)
Cosmopolitanism, since ancient times, has been the privilege of an elite capable
of exercising the knowledges and recognitions required to transcend the ground
on which a subject stood as particularly of a place and bound to place. It’s in
such a sense Macao’s poetry today may be regarded as broadly cosmopolitan
— i.e. constituted in overlapping universes of recognition, to which the poets
in question and their good readers hold the appropriate keys. But today’s
cosmopolitan elite lacks the defined knowledge and identifications of ages past.
On the macro scale we can read Macao as an open door through which goods,
capital, humans and their imaginary references all circulate, sometimes at a
dizzying pace. A cinematic sense of the place (discussed a little below) then
does perhaps convey an idea of (what Augé names) spatial overabundance.
Late noughties’ advertising for Macao as a tourist destination (as for instance
shown non-stop on the jetfoil from Hong Kong) reveals the dot on the map
as making available to its citizens and visitors every conceivable kind of space
and concomitant activity — windsurfing, tower-viewing, bungee-jumping,
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heritage walks, leafing through ancient tomes in a library, dining in every style
imaginable and of course placing bets on the gaming tables. On the ground
though, during the boom years now passing, public transport had increasingly
become an undesirable way to get anywhere. With no particular brakes on the
acquisition of private vehicles by the wealthy citizenry, at peak hours a great
proportion of the cars on Macao’s roads are there because their drivers are
simply trying to park; leading to the maxim that to go anywhere in Macao one
must first go everywhere.
For Augé, important characteristics of non-places include “an experience
— without real historical precedent — of solitary individuality combined
with non-human mediation (all it takes is a notice or a screen) between the
individual and public authority” (117-118).
Clearly the word “non-place” designates two complimentary but distinct realities:
spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure),
and the relations that individuals have with these spaces. Although the two setsof
relations overlap to a large extent, and in any case officially (individuals travel,
make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another; for nonplaces mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others,which are
only indirectly connected with their purposes. As anthropological places create the
organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality. (94)
It’s interesting to think of “solitary contractuality” in terms of a slot machine
culture: the slow lonely process of making a fortune or losing the lot. And yet
the crowdedness of spaces in Macao (in China/East Asia more generally) belies
the sparsity and the inhuman aspect Augé associates with “non-place”:
But the real non-places of supermodernity—the ones we inhabit when we are
driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or sitting in
an airport lounge waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille—have the
peculiarity that they are defined partly by the words and texts they offer us:
their “instructions for use,” which may be prescriptive (“Take right-hand lane”),
prohibitive (“No smoking”) or informative (“you are now entering the Beaujolais
region”). (96)
Macao has such signage, to be sure, and yet (given how little road there is) the
average citizen’s (or vistor’s) experience of it would be brief. In Macao — the
particular paradox with regard to the signing of non-place space — is that what
makes it particular is the fact of it being exoticised as incomprehensible. The
street and shop signs compulsory in Portuguese cannot be read at all by the
vast majority of the population; nor can Chinese tourists read the Portuguese;
nor in general can western tourists read the Chinese or the Portuguese signage.
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Of course a Portuguese name, written in the Roman alphabet, will serve for
a name in English or in any other European language. But try telling such a
name to a Macao taxi driver and — good luck. The main street of Macao is,
to the population at large, San Ma Lo. Ask anyone about Avenida da Almeida
da Ribeiro (the Portuguese name) and you’ll get a blank stare. The sign in
Portuguese is something people simply don’t see (the way I don’t see the
Chinese characters on the keyboard on which I’m typing this — because they
are simply not relevant to my semiotic landscape).
To return then to a distinction between “Macao space” and “anywhere space.”
Macao space is uniquely of an historical moment and place, something
culturally positioned; in anywhere space (e.g. inside of a casino or an airport)
subjects are hailed by consumption-oriented reifications of putative universal
value. In the terms Umberto Eco elaborates in The Role of the Reader, we
recognise in anywhere space a “closed text,” i.e. a text in which the addressee is
not invited to participate actively, but is rather offered a pre-determined role,
open neither to interpretation nor negotiation. Macao space, being particular,
is contingent. Having a history, it can have a future. Contemporary Macao
poetry typically values Macao space and sees it as under threat from the ‘nonnegotiable’ space of culture that could be anywhere.
Reclamation
In Loi Chi Pang’s poem, “to Coloane,”8 we get a picture of anywhere space
being added to Macao:
little city too cramped
so cramped that there is only space left for muttering
the many roads not taken knit into a helpless net
skims from my eyes
under the net there is such a stunning hope
a naming for all kinds of new things
simply
a word
‘cold’
the autumn of September here is a book of sorrow more than sadness
so sad that the egret can’t stand any longer under the mangroves
holding up an oilpaper umbrella to Coloane
I can’t see rain
but only
ashes and stones of the cement trucks
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flying past
and
the Cotai Strip
still under construction
HT & KK (290)
Here, witnessing the process of “reclamation” shows us that liminal space —
green space in this case — cannot become a part of the known place. The egret
will be deprived of its mangrove; instead the ‘new things’ are worthy only of the
word “cold.” This is anywhere space in the making; and it’s made of ashes and
cement, of anything.
In Erik Lo Yiu Tung’s poem “the city starts to flee with the speed of the stars,”
we indulge the fantasy of the city escaping a violence of growth even dreams
can’t conceal.
the city starts to flee with the speed of the stars
grow up rapidly, the city starts
to flee with the speed of the stars
used to chase after each other in the park when young
one year the hand of the clock was sprained
even dreaming can’t conceal
the violence of growth
after dark the street becomes the future trenches of the children
they have been asking lots of questions that adults can’t answer
when I was young, mother fooled me and said those were just accidents
perhaps there are too many accidents beneath the sky, for example:
on the street in June or July, we might have
met behind the police tape
watching the city continually flee with the speed of the stars
it turns out that there are still lots of unanswerable doubts
within the distance that can’t be asked
I have long been used to that
EL & KK
(324)
Where is the poetry in this? On which side of the police tape? Clearly accidents
are suspicious; some transgression is indicated. Doubts are unanswerable, space
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and time as we knew them can no longer be relied on — the clock is sprained,
the distance cannot be asked. In these circumstances the idea of the future is
reduced to trench warfare.
In Xi Lan’s “it’s only in death we’re not foreigners” we get a skewed picture of
the poet’s place:
the view through the mirror
is the reflection of contorted reality
I suddenly lost all hopes, but am joyful
I lie below the Ruins of St Paul — they’re under construction
drinking a beer once cold, following the whole city working hard
at being dispirited breathing in the air breathed out by others
as I understand it, poets have always tried to live well
in other people’s lives
JL & KK
(379)
In the touristic city the ruins are under construction. Life is close. We breathe
in the air others have breathed. We see that even poetry is a compromised
activity; it’s essentially parasitic. Poets try to live well in others’ lives. Tam Chon
Ieng’s “a game,” by contrast shows us poetry as a kind of resistance to the house
becoming unknown:
the world can almost stop, the rotten sound of the bell
hasn’t submitted to poems
poets stand one by one next to each other
thinking with their eyes covered, they finish the game
in the midst of the singers
too many people enter, more and more stones in the house
can no longer be known
HT & KK (386)
Cinematic Un/Consciousness of Space
What kind of a space is a city? Is the city in particular? Is any city anywhere?
What relationship obtains between the city in particular and any city anywhere?
I think there are useful terms of analogy with the relationship we can theorise
between nation in general and a nation in particular. Benedict Anderson’s
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second paradox of the national is that nations are particular instances of
identity of which all persons are — at least notionally — possessed (5). That
is to say, nation is a kind of universal difference: everyone’s nationality is
not the same as someone else’s. Along these lines, a key paradox of “anthem
quality” (the soul stirring evocation of national sentiment felt by those who
stand for their national anthem) is a uniformity of differences. Every member
of the series ‘nation’ must have a national anthem; as a consequence, though
anthems are notionally intended to express the differences between nations,
reflection reveals that they serve also to illustrate the consistency of national
investments across international borders. In other words, although people
generally feel that expressions of devotion to flag or soil or anthem or any
other abstraction of national homeland are particular, and suggest distinction
from the devotions of others to other places, in fact dedication to nations
in particular is — as evidenced by the machinery-in-common — the shared
worldwide “spiritual”commitment of the modern citizen. In this sense we may
think of national devotion as essentially devotion to the notion of nation.
Devotion to a city (for instance the artist’s or writer’s commitment to the
representation of his or her city) has a number of similarities with national
devotion; and yet it is a less abstract devotion in that the city’s citizens are —
relative to those of the nation — more likely to have met each other. They are
also likely to have more in common: they breathe the same air, experience the
same weather. So the connection is more natural, less manufactured.
In her 1995 volume The Culture of Cities, Sharon Zukin writes:
for several hundred years, visual representations of cities have “sold” urban growth…
Images, from early maps to picture postcards, have not simply reflected real city
spaces; instead, they have been imaginative reconstructions — from specific points
of view — of a city’s monumentality. (16)
Zukin tells us:
Cities impose visual coherence in many ways: by using zoning to impose design
criteria for office buildings, by making memory visible in historic districts, by
interpreting the assimilation of ethnic groups in street festivals, by building walls to
contain fear. (77).
From the point of view of the current investigation, the point needing made is
that a city’s poetry does not represent some kind of objective or independent
witness of place. However obscure or difficult it may seem, poetry is not above
or outside of the cultural processes by which places and peoples represent or
symbolise themselves; rather it is — as other forms of culture are — bound by
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what we might think of as a culturally produced aura of the place, for which
purpose the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. So poetry and
the points of view it expresses are bound up with more general attitudes and
opinions of places, with the everyday loyalties and doubts people have for the
places they identify as theirs. And the poetry of a place, produced as it mainly
is by a cultural elite, is naturally a vehicle for a critique, both of the culture
in general, and of those specific representations — especially the official (for
instance the touristic) representations– which impact on “the place in mind”
experienced by inhabitants, by visitors and by outside observers.
In Tourism and the Branded City: Film and Identity on the Pacific Rim Stephanie
Donald works through three case studies (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney) to
look inter alia at how “the tie-in between enhanced film locations and national
tourism campaigns offers a perfect commercial and creative synergy between the
digital media, the film industry and the tourism agencies” (2). Donald writes
that it is:
no secret that the global narratives of cinematic affect and urban resonance are
rooted in the pre-eminence of American and European cities. This is due in part
to the academic and popular publishing power in those regions and also, need it
be said, the phenomenal success of American film export over the past century.
Everyone who sees films knows, or thinks they do, what a US city looks like. New
York, San Francisco, Chicago and LA are embedded in cinematic consciousness,
thanks to the many versions of those cities that populate the Hollywood screen.
Even specific locations (the easterly view over the Hudson River, the running path
by the basketball courts in Central Park) are recognizable to viewers who have never
set foot in the United States. Europe also has its cinematic cities: Berlin, London,
Paris and Rome. (4)
Embeddedness of cinematic consciousness (and perhaps more importantly of
cinematic unconsciousness) clearly prevails in the case of Macao, in a poetry
that is written with cinematic ways of seeing space in mind. Take for example
Siu Hey’s poem “developing a port — repertoire”:
prelude, <xylophone concerto>
please switch off mobile phones
for the purposes of historical reflection
messages can’t be sent four hundred years back
the church is a light-purple ticket
gets you into Lang Bai Ao the moment the storm stopped
iron strikes against flesh composing a drum rhythm
but the melody is sour
now
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you command I order
cruel applause
and weeping
second, <majestic march>
drums and cannons
mate under the statue
of Governor Ferreira do Amaral
waving to you
recruiting you to join the hero who destroyed opium
the lotus stone is for cutting open the belly
so it’s redder than Christmas flowers
smiling need not entail frivolity
blood is flowing in the east
heroes’ hearts beat slowly JL & KK
(334)
The overt musical structure of the piece belies the filmic — it could almost be
read as scenario (plus commentary) for a commercial-length film montage. Yi
Ling’s 1989 poem, “filming in the residential district” avows the space of the
poem as cinematic:
filming in the residential district
night darkens
glance at the middle of the street
a young man in a jumper, trainers and trousers
looks like he’s running
looks like he’s talking on the phone
looks like he’s walking a dog
looks like he’s making a deal with someone
his running legs
rely on an automatically extending dog belt
maintaining the link between human and canine
sometimes long sometimes short sometimes broken
the dog is in front
he follows behind
the dog is pulling him
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then he runs
middle of the street
stops
his left hand moves the phone nearer his ear
the mouth starts to eject words, sentences
it’s like a dog that squeezes its work onto the street
the dog hasn’t finished
but the master pulls him away
a Macanese with his office smile
eyes up at the sky
night draining away
the rest of the day
5 September 1989
AV & KK
(180)
And in Lou Kit Wa’s “inspirations of the chicken,” we likewise witness
directed space.
of course, having a pair of wings
rather than a pill or a dance floor
makes the ears and eyes wild
angers the hair
and then
you forget your identity
your parents
guilt
forget about its iron cage
their bodies get close to each other
wiggling
falling to the ground
waiting for dark night to enter
directing a film’s plot
choking the city with sobs
AV & KK (301)
Who’s directing and who’s directed here would be somewhat more difficult
to establish. As in Lou’s poem, one sometimes finds a surreal cartoon quality
— an oneiric city of impossible transformations is conjured, as in Erik Lo Yiu
Tung’s “Sleepwalking”:
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your world slims down, flowing along the river outside the window
little birds also fly away, you said
as if once you spread your hands you could touch
the edge of the sea
the bottle has been collecting the rain
recording restlessly just like a typewriter
hey! you naughty kid
you throw the bottle on purpose towards
the edge of the sea. you said
to step across time, we even step onto our own heads!
you’re a wolf, also a sheep
for example, if a hunter suddenly had to shoot you down
you would flee right across the swamp, the river, go through the forest
flee to the path that leads to the life of sorrow
finding the only entrance
hey! do you really need to pick the poison worm seed from the dream
scheme?
that pair of devilish hands which direct fate will soon let
eyes drop into the ocean of lashes
you haven’t got over the sleepwalking
it doesn’t connect at all
EL & KK
(323)
This cinematic un/consciousness of space is, in Macao’s case, despite the fact
that Macao space — unlike that of New York or Paris or Rome or Hong Kong
has not been the object of a long tradition in film; nor would its landmarks
be easily recognised by an international film-viewing audience. Macao’s space
is however cinegenic. The fact that it has not much been depicted in actual
cinema provides poets with both opportunity and responsibility. The place is
changing so quickly, there is danger at every moment that a particular ambiance
will be irretrievably lost.
Macao Mythologies
I hope that these jottings may be suggestive of work that will be timely if it
coincides with the development of a Macao cinema — an aesthetic adventure
of an ideally poetic nature, and one which should hopefully make maximum
use of the poetic talent available in Macao today. But with that optimistic
suggestion perhaps it will be wise to ask to what extent the cinematic or the
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cinegenic conception of space allows a bearing witness to particularity of
place; to what extent does it entail the homogenizing of what was our place
as somewhere that could be anywhere? Or reverse the proposition: is there a
bearing witness to the becoming general — the becoming anywhere — of our
here and now; and is there generalising the anywhere so that it’s now ours?
This last possibility is, I think, something borne witness to in what I call the
mythologising strain of contemporary Macao poetry. Take for example these
lines from Li Ying’s poem, “Coloane”:
no sparkles dot the rippling waves
is it to hide
the shadows of the benign magician
who rules this Homeric island?
bells and sirens are stories of another sea
something muffles all voices
could it be the air
translucent, sweet jelly on her dinner table?
somewhere in soup euphoric
mah-jong tiles clack the camphor-framed clock
are those her eyes talking in silence
electric candles flicker on the altar?
a traveler strolls out of Lord Stow’s Cafe
he wishes for some serendipity in deep woods
will he wander into her water mansion
house of captives and treacherous love?
(247)
Somewhat reminiscent of the high/low, quotidian/classical conflations of
T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Li’s poem brings the reader/tourist within
striking distance of Circe’s (or arguably Calypso’s) space of enchantment. The
mock classical pretensions are there in the flicker of the electric candles, in
the ambiguity of sirens and mansions, the appellation “traveler,” the idea of
captivity. Macao is after all officially the land of the lotus,9 so it should come
as no surprise to learn that Odysseus called in here with his men. Nor should
it surprise us that some men might have had trouble departing. As with Circe,
there’s something treacherous in all of this — a feeling that things are not what
they seem. And as was the case with Odysseus, the duplicity can be read as
something reversible. Odysseus may have been beset with the problems that
come of crossing a powerful god (Poseidon), but he was himself a man of
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many tricks (anthropos polytropos). In the case of Circe, it was by — following
Hermes’ instructions and — lunging with his sword our handsome hero won
the enchantress over. So Li’s poem furnishes the reader with a serendipity
of its own — a convenient myth in which to bring the West’s millennialong colonial adventure to the end of the earth the Portuguese found and
which their national poet, Camoens, celebrated in an imitative epic style.
Interestingly, Li’s poem empowers the assumed-to-be Chinese woman with the
magic of Greek Mythology.
All this somehow sits aptly with the mythological pretensions we find in
Macao’s casino cultural today. Since the 2004 renovation, the New Century
Hotel (on the other island, Taipa) has been host to the “Greek Mythology
Casino” — a frankly bizarre drawcard for Mainland tourists, decorated
throughout with pastel Aegean scenes and larger-than-life gods and heroes. In
its heyday it featured an occasional wall of flame above a fountain (“Greek fire,”
no doubt) in the cramped entranceway of the hotel/casino.
The more massive and more recent structure, The Venetian (opened 2007),
lends itself to mythologising of the kind we see in Athena Kong’s poem
“armageddon in Cotai.”10
armageddon in Cotai
night, starless
sky, inky
against the dark curtain
the winged lion landed on the arch
under his feet
lies the Rome built in days
at the moon’s eclipse
the lion bowed to the audience
opening his eyes to his enemy
across the bitumen river
dust, sand
twelve beasts stand on the planted forest
dividing the battlefields
the wordless lion stands confident
guarding his palace in wilderness
his prosperity in the desert
(257)
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Almost a parody of Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” we see here that Macao is
becoming a parody of a place with historical pretensions. The whole landscape
is parodic — rivers are bitumen, the forest is built. The lion bows to the enemy
because we see that — despite the apocalyptic scale — everything entailed in
the poem is performance. What kind of a desert is intended here? Surely the
cultural kind.
Myth is, in Michel de Certeau’s terms, “a discourse relative to the place/nowhere
(of origin) of concrete existence, a story jerry-built out of elements taken from
‘common sayings, an allusive and fragmentary story whose gaps mesh with
the social practices it symbolises’” (102). De Certeau writes of the city as a
“suspended symbolic order” of the habitable city “thereby annulled” (106).11
The question of habitability suggests then a complex of issues, concerning us
with place as symbolic, as ordered by symbols, or of order suspended; with place
as narrative consequence of all the building, of every footfall, that brought it
into being; with space as something seeping from elsewhere, space that could be
anyone’s and anywhere. As residents, as citizens, do we exist in — partake of —
a place that is spatially and temporally contingent? Or have brought — do we
bring — space with us? Do we exist atemporally, according to the terms of some
categorical imperative?
Sleepy Backwater/Bubble Bursting
Macao is among other things perhaps the world’s largest open-air museum of
kitsch, a phenomenon for which the casinos are largely responsible. They have
gone to great lengths to outdo each other in bizarre Vegas-style grandiosity,
frequently with some tacky pseudo-Chinese add-on element. The Emperor,
The Pharaoh’s Palace, now the Venetian, soon the City of Dreams. There’s no
shortage of Orientalising (and self-Orientalising) in the concoctions arrived at.
Perhaps the most serviceable (and durable) example is in the “bird-cage” of the
old Lisboa Hotel (early seventies landmark of Stanley Ho’s gambling empire),
often thought to vaguely resemble an old-fashioned Chinese peasant’s hat. The
smoke-filled desperation12 of the Lisboa’s large circular gaming rooms has been
to Macao’s cultural heart what the Reading Room of the British Library is to
England’s. Apt setting for all kinds of intrigue, material for fiction and for poetry.
From the point of view of poetry, of art, one may well ask — is there any
making ourselves at home in all of this? How shall we think of the heimlich/
unheimlich of places ambiguously ours and not, by virtue of habitation and
by virtue of global consciousness, of place de-historicised through commercial
interest? Is there any prospect for domestication of the anywhere space of
the tacky casino capitalist concoction? I think I have already answered the
question. In the old Casino Lisboa gaming rooms we may have seen just such
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an appropriation. Though perhaps those rooms were built uniquely as a den with
Chinese — Macao — characteristics, I think it will be fair to say that a recent
coat of paint, freshen-up and smoking ban have re-absorbed that particular space
as part of a global project and so put the icon at risk from the point of view of
Macao’s heritage. So here’s a space we may read as having gone the full circle and
perhaps more than the full circle, in terms of alienation and domestication.
I suppose the key point needing to be made here is that, however we classify
spaces, in Macao or elsewhere, ambivalence in and towards them will be
generated simply by the fact that space inhabited is space in semiotic motion;
inhabited space, in other words, is evolving and revolving in terms of any
prospect of belonging. Cinegenic space is a nice example of the ambivalence
generating ambiguity of space as lived and concomitantly read. T
h e conception
of — the recognition of — space as cinegenic could be seen as foreshadowing
an advent of the-already-known-from-elsewhere and so, a recognisable place;
alternatively, cinegenic space can be read as unique, demanding recognition
as such, valued for its particularity. Which kind of space is homely and which
uncanny; or how are these combined? Which is the real city and which is the
city dreamt? Tourism promotion and poetry, each equally wrestle with problems
of identity and representation as invested in these ambivalences.
In the case of Macao — to borrow a line from Neil Young — let’s say, everyone
knew this was nowhere; and then, but then, the sleepy backwater became a
destination, a becoming happening hyped-up place, and then — we live in the
now of that bubble bursting. Macao was a place with curious nooks where the
spent past persisted (in ruins on various scales); Macao has become a place with
landmarks of postmodernity — a tower and since then casinos with notable
names and noteworthy as structure — the Sands, the Wynn, the Crown, the
Venetian. What magical names and what fairytale anywhere hype all about
them. I think it’s interesting that the process of making nowhere somewhere
entailed the colonisation of that particular place’s space with things that could
be anywhere, with a phallic monumentalism with Cantonese characteristics (as
disclosed in the feng shui reports).
The best thing to do with all of this? Poets and scholars have this capacity in
common — to bear witness to what is happening to their city. Witnessing
environmental degradation and the sense of nature lost is the flipside of a
development and pace-of-change poetics in casino-age Macao. Things gone
are witnessed along with the new things that have come. Many poets deal with
risks of nostalgia and certainly there is cynicism directed at the past as well
as the present. There are persistent critiques of consumer culture. In Macao
poetry today, chance and luck loom large as themes, along with their figuration
in Macao life through sites such as casinos and temples, through personae such
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as those of the gambler, the beggar, the prostitute. Macao as dot-on-the-map
is conceived as a site for all kinds of portal semiotics, as paradigm for cultural
crossing and cultural shift. Interested in the paradoxes, ironies, and hypocrisies
inherent in the present-day culture, politics and international position of
Macao, the new Macao poetry reveals a place-based poetics deeply concerned
with Macao identity, its evolution, and potentials.
I hope it will not be construed in any form as a defence of the various
juggernauts riding over local culture, if I say that the current healthy state of
Macao poetry is both — product of a perceived need to defend Macao culture
from attack and proof that Macao culture is alive and kicking today.
Endnotes
1 95%
ethnic Chinese and Chinese speaking.
strictly we should not think of Macao as a colony. In 1887 a Luso-Chinese
treaty was signed allowing Portugal’s perpetual occupation and management of Macao.
The Peking government, however, never ceded sovereignty over Macao to Portugal.
Because of the separate development on two cultures (the Portuguese in and around the
forts they built, the Chinese farming between these), historians have generally agreed to
consider Macao under the Portuguese as an“enclave” rather than a colony.
3 The god in this case being the maritime deity A Ma, after whom some believe the
city to have been named.
4 Macao recorded only one case — that of a Mainland man who took fever-suppressing
drugs to cross the border so as to be treated in a Macao hospital.
5 A minor poet who visited Macao in the 1930s, not the very famous Lu Xun of the
early twentieth century Chinese letters.
6 This is a figure named by Roland Barthes in Mythologies. For Barthes “the innoculation”
is that figure where “one immunises the contents of the collective imagination by means
of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil” (150). In his essay “Operation Margarine”
Barthes gives a number of examples of this figure:
2 Though
Take the army; show without disguise its chiefs as martinets, its discipline as narrowminded and unfair, and into this stupid tyranny immerse an average human being, fallible
but likeable, the archetype of the spectator. And then, at the last moment, turn over the
magical hat, and pull out of it the image of an army, flags flying, triumphant, bewitching...
(41)
7
The Macanese population (properly speaking, those of mixed descent, and from
lineages embracing all parts of the former Portuguese Empire) are just a few thousand
(around two per cent of the total population).
8 Coloane is the outermost (and larger) of Macao’s two islands (the other being Taipa);
Taipa and Coloane are now joined by what is called the Cotai Strip, a Vegas style casino-
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row featuring the Venetian (second largest building in the world), a golf course and
sundry other casino resorts.
9 The lotus is the territory’s official symbol and a stylised lotus in shown in green on
the flag of the Macao Special Administrative Region.
10 The Cotai Strip is the stretch of reclaimed land between Taipa and Coloane on
which the Venetian and a number of other casino resorts have been built or are under
construction at the time of writing.
11 “Thus, as a woman from Rouen put it, no, here ‘there isn’t any place special, except
for my own home, that’s all… There isn’t anything.’ Nothing ‘special’: nothing that is
marked, opened up by a memory or a story, signed by something or someone else. Only
the cave of the home remains believable, still open for a certain time to legends, still full
of shadows. Except for that, according to another city-dweller, there are only ‘places in
which one can no longer believe in anything’” (106).
12 Smoking has recently been banned on the lower floor.
Works Cited
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso,1991.
Augé, Marc. Non-Places — Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John
Howe. New York: Verso, 1995.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley:
University of California Press,1988.
Donald, Stephanie H. Tourism and the Branded City: film and identity on the Pacific Rim.
London: Ashgate, 2007.
Kelen, Kit and Vong, Agnes (eds). I Roll the Dice: Contemporary Macao Poetry. Macao:
ASM, 2008.
Zukin, Sharon. The Culture of Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
g
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Cheryl Taylor
TROPICAL FLOWERS: ROMANCING
NORTH QUEENSLAND IN
EARLY FEMALE FICTION AND POETRY1
Here in the North, with the day a yellow panther thirsting in the heat, and
the night a naked savage, lawless as love, incomparably chaste as Nature,
splendid as passion and desire, even the most disciplined woman may turn in
a moment back to the golden days of simple forest beginnings.
(Zora Cross. The Lute Girl of Rainyvale 50)
Interviewed in 1999, shortly before her retirement after many years of teaching
literature at James Cook University, my late friend Elizabeth Perkins recalled her
arrival in Townsville in 1970:
Immediately I set foot in the place I loved it….When I got out of the plane — it
was the end of April, and it wasn’t very hot, but it was dry, barren, I knew I was
home….I like to visit places outside of North Queensland but I wouldn’t like to
live or die in them. (10
Associate Professor Elizabeth Perkins
Elizabeth’s feelings about the tropical North match my own. I arrived in
Townsville in 1968, and soon came to appreciate my luck to be living near
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the Reef and rainforest and teaching in a new University College where the
creative possibilities seemed limitless. For both of us as young women, North
Queensland was where we could hope to develop our potential, in Elizabeth’s
case as a teacher, playwright, editor, theatre director and scholar.
However, decades before Elizabeth and I made our happy discoveries, a
succession of female poets and fiction writers had already recognised tropical
Queensland as a place where women might gain freedom and strive for
fulfilment. I think of these writers as the flower tradition, because their
romantic texts are crammed with allusions to flowers. My purpose in this essay
is to celebrate these writers, whom I regard as our literary fore-mothers, by
commemorating the lives and writings of a representative seven. The poetry
and stories selected for discussion were written between 1899 and 1937, when
romance writing and reading reached a peak of popularity in the Englishspeaking world.
Since the emergence of the feminist movement at about the time Elizabeth
and I arrived in Townsville, a standard approach has condemned such writers
for contributing to women’s oppression. This idea over-simplifies the mixed
messages in the flower authors’ works. Their writings do often endorse gender
divisions and roles, and they assume that a passionate union with a loved man is
a woman’s fulfilment and a magical solution for life’s difficulties. However, they
focus also on unhappy wives, and frequently challenge the constrictions that
gender imposes on female characters. While some accept women’s victimhood
as unavoidable, others implicitly promote resistance and glorify escapes from
oppressive marriages. Without exception, the flower authors encouraged
their readers to think more deeply about women’s choices. Moreover, several
championed female freedom through their brave and rebellious lives.
The flower tradition’s portraiture of tropical Queensland invites recognition
as a divergent strand. In choosing to depict the region’s unfamiliar land- and
sea-scapes, the authors set aside the dusty outback Australia of the masculine
Bulletin and pioneering traditions, and reverted to underlying Romantic
perspectives on nature as dynamically beautiful, spiritual and creative. Their
texts therefore claimed the region as an alternative feminised space. Although
as romance writers they often avoided racial issues or replicated their era’s
assumptions, they sometimes replaced stereotyped responses with advocacy for
Aboriginal people.
Nineteenth-Century Flower Writing
The earliest tropical flower, Harriet Patchett Martin, was born in England
and resided mostly in England and France. Following her marriage to an
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army officer, she lived in Queensland from 1867 to 1870. In 1886, after her
first husband’s death, she married Arthur Patchett Martin, an enthusiast for
Australian literature. Harriet’s small body of work includes two collections of
Australian stories for English readers. The later, Coo-ee: Tales of Australian Life
for Australian Ladies (1891), contains a story of her own which she expanded as
the romantic novella, Cross Currents, and republished in Lala Fisher’s landmark
1899 collection, By Creek and Gully. Stories and Sketches of Bush Life by
Australian Writers in England.
Cross Currents takes place during Sir George Bowen’s governorship. Alma
Belmont, the unhappy wife of a gentlemanly but improvident army officer,
voyages northwards by steamer from the capital, Bristowe (Brisbane), to
Ellenborough (possibly Maryborough). She receives kindly hospitality from
the Customs Collector and his family, but during a night spent alone in the
Customs House a nearby corroboree so terrifies her that she faints. Cross
Currents thus contrasts the delicate femininity of a visiting Englishwoman with
what it sees as the savagery of an alien race.
Harriet’s emphasis on Queensland’s strangeness continues in the second section,
when Alma, still unhappy in her marriage, is returning to Bristowe from an
unnamed North Queensland town, again by steamer. One evening Hilarion
Bingham, son of the Customs Collector family, entices her ashore at a northern
port, where a wedding has just taken place. Harriet’s description of the setting
emphasises the uniqueness of the tropics, while paradoxically submerging details
in romance tropes of magic and paradise:
It was such a night as one sees only in the tropics — flooded in moonlight and
as bright as day. One could distinguish the different shades of leaf and flower, the
delicate pink of the oleander, the greenish white of the seringa bloom, the waxen
hue of the magnolia; the air was full of soft sounds and mysterious murmurs, laden
with nutty fragrance and the heavier scent of the datura and trumpet-blossom. They
had walked on till they had left the scarce habitations behind them, and Alma felt as
if she were in some enchanted place. There was an unreality about this luxuriance of
beauty, in the midst of which she and Hilarion were walking together as Adam and
Eve in the Garden of Eden. (30–31)
Immediately afterwards, Hilarion and Alma view from a distance the
young couple’s “close, long embrace” (20). They are drawn to replicate this
consummation, but Alma rejects Hilarion’s approach.
The final section of the picaresque story is set in the French Casino town of
Beauplage. (Harriet lived as a child in Boulogne-sur-Mer.) Now freed from
her marriage, Alma agrees to wed the Oxford University sportsman Hugh
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Davenant. Assured of future joy, she looks back on girlish vanities and asks:
“[W]hat had been the outcome of it all? Satiety, discontent, a reckless, unhappy
marriage, exile, misery!” (25). Harriet’s verdict on Queensland thus remains
that of a cultivated European visitor — that this was a savage land of exile.
Cross Currents associates the tropical North with danger and forbidden passion;
sensitive people would be wise to avoid the temptations of such a place.
Turn-of-the-Century Flower Writings
The second tropical flower, Frances Campbell, is less well known than Harriet
Martin. According to E. Morris Miller (vol. 2: 691), she was a “doubtful
Australian author” who learned about Queensland only from relatives who lived
there. Her first novel, For Three Moons (1900), follows Cross Currents in tracing
the northerly steamer voyage of an unhappy, and in this case abused, wife,
Angela Vivian. The opening description, which contrasts with Elizabeth Perkins’
gritty arrival in Townsville, is surprisingly political in its support for a separate
North Queensland and less sensuous than Harriet’s comparable evocation of the
romantic moonlit tropics:
Townsville, with the full moon hanging over her house tops, is really very
beautiful; that is, if you are on board a ship anchored in the bay, and you are
looking at the capital of North Queensland from across the smooth sea, and you
can just guess at the dim outline of the purple shore, thick with the blue gum and
Moreton Bay fig clothing the rich hills down to the very waves.
The moon sailed aloft over the Ilonia, in all the beauty of the midsummer
tropical night, over purple sea and wooded shore, where the little waves were
breaking on a beach like silver, and lighted up the tin roofs of sleeping Townsville,
dreaming in her fragrant gardens of the time when she will obtain separation, and
be a capital of a country to herself. (1)
The narrator seems relieved to observe a Townsville softened by distance, and to
this extent Frances’s approach resembles Harriet’s. Assorted female passengers
on the England-bound Ilonia nevertheless encourage the reader to consider
women’s roles in the free nomadic environment provided by a ship transiting
tropical waters, and For Three Moons consequently raises issues that Cross
Currents does not address. Mrs Tredwin, a station owner and “the millionairess
of Mt Coo-tha” (7), has become the richest woman in Australia by surviving
a brutal marriage for the sake of her children: “…Mrs Tredwin was a strong
woman, with a manly mind....Yet she had gone on living with her tyrant, till
justice overtook him, and he went the way of all tyrants” (36). She disappoints
as a role model, however, when she makes the Southern Cross a symbol for the
passive endurance through which she has prevailed: “I often think it’s set there
above to show that it is the lot of all. We are born to it, Angela dear, we women
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folks. We’ve all got a cross to bear, from ever we know what it is to feel” (38).
For Three Moons is also disappointing in its rejection, through the blue-stocking
governess Miss Tozer, of the “New Woman” — the Ibsen-inspired woman
who strives to be financially and emotionally independent. Captain James
MacDonald of the Scots Greys, who comes on board at Townsville, promises to
resolve Angela’s unhappiness as their ship steams onwards to Batavia.
Rosa Campbell Praed, the best-known and most prolific of the flower authors,
grew up on rural properties on the Logan River, in Central Queensland, and
near Moreton Bay. In 1872, aged twenty-one, she married Arthur Campbell
Praed, and moved to his station at Port Curtis near Gladstone. Here she
rebelled against the isolation and hardship of bush life, and in 1875 the couple
sold up and settled in England, where Rosa quickly achieved fame as a novelist.
Beginning in the early 1880s she published nearly forty long romances, an
autobiography and biographies, and about twenty short stories. After separating
from her husband, she lived between 1899 and 1927 with Nancy Harward,
whom she believed to be the reincarnation of a Roman slave girl, and moved
in Bohemian intellectual circles that included Oscar Wilde and Madame
Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Rosa was notorious for her
occult beliefs and her opposition to the bonds of marriage.
Rosa Campbell Praed
(State Library of Queensland
Image No. 68050)
Fugitive Anne, Cover of Early Edition
In contrast with Cross Currents and For Three Moons, Rosa’s novels Fugitive
Anne (1903) and The Lost Earl of Ellan (1905–1906) incorporate extensive
first-hand knowledge of tropical Queensland. Like their predecessors in the
flower tradition, they feature scenes on coastal steamers but with heightened
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romance and drama. In addition, the seas of the Far North provide their female
protagonists with opportunities for heroism and revolt.
In Fugitive Anne the twenty-year-old Anne escapes from Elias Bedo, her
drunken miner husband of four months, by pretending to swim ashore
from a steamer between Thursday Island and Cooktown. Disguised as a boy
Lascar (East Indian sailor), she journeys through the bush with Kombo, an
Aboriginal youth befriended in childhood. She respects Kombo’s miraculous
bush knowledge, his strength and agility, but each evening confirms her status
as Cloud-Daughter, intercessor with his creator-god, by singing Ave Baiamè
in her beautiful contralto voice to the tune of Gounod’s Ave Maria. Safe after
a two-day journey to an abandoned sheep station, she records her feelings in
notes that embrace the tropical bush as a place of women’s freedom:
“Better death in the wild woods than life in chains.”
“Anne Marley hails Nature, the emancipator.”
“How sweet the taste of freedom! How intoxicating the joy of deliverance!” (31)
Anne revels in her revived bush capabilities, and in the small animals and birds.
Naked, she takes a ritual swim in a “dug-out pool” in the heart of “her native
forests” (38).
Anne and Kombo journey onward to her aunt’s station, Kooloola, on the edge
of known territory at the foot of Cape York. Here, in an event based on Rosa’s
childhood memories of the massacre of the Frasers at Hornet Bank (Clarke
16–19), they find that the inhabitants have been murdered. However the
perpetrators, the Maianbar clan, are seduced like Kombo into revering Anne as
a goddess. By singing “God save the Queen,” she survives a battle with a second
Aboriginal group which ends in a cannibal feast (93–95). Later she is found by
an admirer, Eric Hansen, an explorer-scientist embarked from Denmark on a
study of Australian fauna, flora, geology and peoples.2 Anne, Eric and Kombo
are then taken up by the Red Men of Acan, a lost Mayan race descended from
the drowned continent of Lemuria, the source of all civilisations.3 The Acan
install Anne as high priestess of a virginal cult, and Rosa devotes much space to
rituals, beliefs and emotional interactions in this fresh setting. A climax comes
when Bedo, who has pursued Anne in hope of monetary gain, reveals their
marital connection. The Acan retaliate by casting Bedo over a cliff. They are on
the point of sacrificing Anne to their tortoise god, when a volcanic eruption
allows Anne, Eric and Kombo to escape, to be later lionised in London as
discoverers of the lost civilisation.
Fugitive Anne expands Harriet’s and Frances’s accounts of tropical Queensland
with land- and seascapes that juxtapose the familiar with the fantastic. Anne’s
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love of the bush and sea, mixed with versions of Aboriginal lore gleaned
from Rosa’s childhood, create a pastoral romance to which Hansen’s excited
discoveries add a scientific dimension. Dangers parallel to the corroboree in
Cross Currents further complicate Rosa’s rendition of the region. The land of
the Acans draws on the unexplored African plateaux popularised in H. Rider
Haggard’s imperial fantasies.4 For example, King Solomon’s Mines (1886) sculpts
the borders of Kukuanaland as Sheba’s Breasts, extinct volcanoes where men
starve and freeze to death. The elaborated equivalents in Fugitive Anne are the
Acans’ Crocodile and Tortoise Mountains. The Crocodile’s phallic, skywardpointing jaws, from which lava erupts, form an ultimate vagina dentata.5 The
Tortoise Mountain’s lapis lazuli mouth likewise exhales a lethal gas, while a
giant phallic tortoise (Dixon 97) is the heart of Acan religious observance. Rosa
therefore surpasses Haggard by embodying male as well as female anatomy in
grotesque land forms and creatures. Her fusing of destructive animal life with
weird topography hints at a sublimated dread of the inland tropics, actualised
previously in Anne’s discovery of her murdered relations.
The Lost Earl of Ellan, Rosa’s second romance set in tropical Queensland, offers
overall a more benign and idealised view of the region. The plot hinges on
contrast and rivalry between the sisters, Susan and Oora Galbraith, who both
fall in love with the lost earl, James Wolfe. Susan dominates the first third of the
novel, which recounts her lonely life on the northern station of Narrawan:
The store buildings lay along one side of the yard — three slab-walled, barkroofed humpies, with low earthen-floor verandas, in which were saddles waiting
to be mended, green hide ropes in process of making, carpenter’s tools, leather
saddle-bags, and a variety of station properties. On the other side of the yard was the
kitchen building, with a large stone chimney, a corrugated tent at the end, and the
Chinaman’s hut attached behind….The meat-house was quite at the end of the store
wing, and had hides stretched on its bark roof — a primitive mode of curing — and
blocks of sawn gum-tree trunks, scored from the chopping of meat, set against the
wall of the veranda, while there were dry little heaps of salt on a rimmed wooden
slab beneath the window. Just here disagreeable blow-flies hovered, and on a bare
gum-tree close by a number of crows perched in line and cawed lugubriously, like a
set of ghouls biding their opportunity. (9–10)
Except in its domestic details, this account, which balances efficiency and
purpose with crudity, deprivation and the threat of death, reverts to the
pioneering traditions of literary Australia. Susan is a perfect lady of the period,
Madonna-like, “slim, graceful, pure-looking” (3), with complicated clothing
and a perfect coiffure, a rational scion of northern Europe at odds with her
surroundings. By contrast, her sister Oora, so named by the station Aborigines,
is a bush girl like Anne Marley. A passionate descendant of warm southern
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Europe with unruly coal-black hair, she embodies the spirit of the hot new
colony. She is associated, not with the dry inland like her sister, but with the
watery environment favoured by the earlier flower authors, Harriet and Frances.
Oora and James embark on the Quetta, which struck an unsurveyed rock and
sank near Cape York on 28 February 1890, with the loss of 134 lives. In a
gripping episode, Oora heroically saves the Earl, who cannot swim, from the
sea. Her feats of endurance follow the newspaper exploits of Alice Nicklin
and Emily Lacy, young survivors from the Quetta. During a terrible night and
day in the sea, protected by a shark-tooth amulet given to Oora by childhood
Aboriginal friends, Oora and James discover that they are twin souls, destined
to meet through the centuries in successive reincarnations. Later scenes sketch
Thursday Island, Somerset (Acobarra), and Rosa’s in-laws the Jardines, renamed
the Aisbets. As James gazes at his “sea-witch” in a beachside grove at Acobarra,
Rosa’s underwater imagery creates tropical Queensland as a magical land of
undefined edges and mythical beings, in contrast with the dangerous sculptured
landscapes of Fugitive Anne:
He gazed at her with melancholy ardour and something of bewilderment.....
This was not the world he had known — this world of green luminosity, of fantastic
forest growth, where the wind s-s-rred in the tops of the palms and through the
intertwined creeper-withes and branches of the trees, making a sound something
like the sound of the sea, if one could imagine one’s self far down below the crests of
the waves, and hearing them break as they swept along to an enchanted shore. It was
a world of fantasy. And the sprite-woman was part of the fantasy, with her cowrieshell lips and her strange eyes and her alluring smile. (324–325)
Rosa’s portraits of Oora in The Lost Earl of Ellan therefore affirm female strength
and courage and call on Aboriginal, Pythagorean, and Eastern spiritualities to
validate a passion that transcends middle class and colonial sexual restrictions.
This transcendence remains, even after the romance plot has legitimated Oora
and James’s relationship by marriage.
Rosa’s presentation of Aboriginal people is, as Belinda McKay claims,
“ambiguous and inconsistent.”6 Her tropical Queensland novels may however
have functioned in part to destabilise racial assumptions in a discursive
environment otherwise controlled by the pioneering mythos. Fugitive Anne
dwells on Aboriginal violence, but also confronts colonists’ raping of Aboriginal
women and the poisoning of a peaceful clan with Christmas pudding (66–
67). While both novels profess enthusiasm for Aboriginal languages and
culture, they end by subsuming Aboriginal spirituality in occult beliefs. In fact
Fugitive Anne supports the Theosophical Society’s inter-faith mission by forging
synergies among Catholicism, the so-called druidism of Stonehenge, and
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ancient Mayan and Indigenous Australian beliefs and practices. Finally, Anne’s
friendship with Kombo while alone in the bush threatens the separation, strict
in colonial societies, between white women and black men. The plot ultimately
upholds this division and defends white supremacy, but side comments draw
attention to the underlying injustice: “Anne almost cried sometimes when she
thought of the treachery which pioneering Whites had dealt to his race” (66)
The Flower Tradition between the Wars
By no means in the front rank of Australian poets and story-tellers, Nancy
Francis was born in England in 1873, and settled at Rossville south
of Cooktown with her family in about 1910. She and her husband later
retired to Herberton, and Nancy was buried in
the Herberton cemetery on 28 June 1954. The
“Writing the Tropical North” AustLit team has so
far located 417 poems, short stories and essays that
she contributed to The Cairns Post, The Northern
Herald, the Sydney Bulletin, The Australian Woman’s
Mirror and other newspapers between 1914 and
1941. Her serial “Queensland Luck” appeared in
The Northern Herald between August and October
1923, and in 1947 The Cairns Post published her
anthology, Feet in the Night and Other Poems.
Nancy’s love of tropical Queensland shines through
her published work. “Queensland Luck” tells how
the first-person narrator, Harry Prince, matures to confident manhood and
finds love after he sets out from Sydney for the Tableland tin fields. His first
experience of the Far North in Cairns (Torreston) evokes surprise and delight:
Nancy Francis, 1953
I had never been so far north before and was accustomed to hear my Sydney
friends speak of North Queensland as a dreadful place impossible for white people
and only fit for black or coloured folk. I found a delightful climate, a summer that
lasted all year round, grand and beautiful scenery, healthful breezes and cooling
rains. Our house was covered with yellow allamanda, the verandah hung with
orchids, brown, purple and feathery cream, which we bought from the blacks who
brought them into town from the scrub. (The Northern Herald 15 August, 1923: 28)
On the tin fields a dying miner directs Harry to a fabulous find of alluvial
gold. During an arduous treasure hunt led by his Aboriginal companion Pluto,
he feels trepidation in the “twilight of the jungle scrub....a woven wall of
lawyer vines, stinging trees and all manner of monstrous tropical growth” (The
Northern Herald 5 September 1923, p. 29), where the travellers come upon
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signs of a cannibal feast. Above all, however, they are awed by the beauty of the
rainforest, which is a home for tree kangaroos, snakes, and many species of birds
(The Northern Herald 29 August 1923: 28–29).
North Queensland nature is the most frequent subject also of Nancy’s poetry,
which is heart-felt rather than accomplished. Her perspective is romantic and
deeply Christian. First published in the Sydney Bulletin in March 1932, “Cedar
Bay” is one of her more successful poems:
I mind it well
The jungle drops quite steeply to the bay,
Where is a crescent flat, well grassed and edged
With palms and she-oaks leaning from the sea.
Great boughs bend over, set in wave-lapped sand,
Form a dim colonnade; on either hand
Beach lilies blooming. Through each dusky tree
Are white and amber jewels — orchids ledged
To light the crannies of the enchanted way….
The camp we pitched
Beneath the talking trees close to the shore;
The beat of homing pigeon wings at eve
Close overhead, the lonely curlew’s cry,
The great moon swinging to the purple dome…
Ah! It is Paradise, my Northern home!
Peace spreads her mantle ’neath the brooding sky,
Beauty and joy their spells in silence weave,
And all my love is there for evermore. (Feet in the Night 63)
Compassion for Aborigines inspired both the
title poem and the first section of Feet in the
Night. Although patronising, some of these
poems, such as “De Profundis, The Cry of
Black Brother of the North” (10–11), protest
powerfully against abuses, which they list
comprehensively as enslavement; poor food;
the chaining of young black men; white men’s
sexual exploitation of black women, including
the transmission of sexual disease; the stealing
of children fathered by white men; and the
exploitation of black labour on pearling boats.
In contrast with Rosa’s balancing of attitudes
Nancy Francis' Poetry Anthology, in Fugitive Anne, Nancy’s protests against racial
Feet in the Night, 1947
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injustice occupy a prominent place in her oeuvre, elaborated as they are in four
essays that she contributed to Aussie in 1925.7
“By Forest, Scrub and Shore,” her late series on Aboriginal culture published in
The Cairns Post between 1939 and 1940, includes five essays8 that seek both to
confirm the historicity of cannibalism, practised from necessity and for ritual
purposes, and to excuse it by referring to ancient atrocities in Europe and more
recent ones in tropical Queensland:
It all sounds very shocking and horrible, but it must not be supposed that the blacks
were alone in perpetrating murder most foul. There were barbarous white men in
those early days who were actors in abominable crimes against the natives, both
wholesale murders and unnatural cruelties that only live in the memories of aged
white people and have been handed down through the few native survivors of these
horrors. (The Cairns Post 28 March, 1940: 11)
The three later essays summarise tales from Carl Lumholtz’s Among Cannibals
(1889), including an alleged “native” preference for black and Chinese over
white flesh, and for kidney fat as a supreme delicacy. Together with the reference
to cannibalism in “Queensland Luck” and Nancy’s often-expressed regret that
Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction, the series reveals how far she had
assimilated her era’s racial myths. Even so, though somewhat lacking in dignity,
her portrait of Pluto in “Queensland Luck” is more trusting and affectionate
than Rosa’s portrait of Kombo. “King Pluto,” an old man forcibly transported
to the Hull River Mission, and Nancy’s major concern in an open letter to the
Protector of Aborigines published in Queensland newspapers in December
1919, probably became the model four years later for the fictional Pluto. The
letter is an eloquent protest on behalf of Far North Queensland Aboriginal
parents and children, separated from each other and their ancient way of life by
the ruthless execution of government policies:
I have decided to write you, as I think it unlikely that you will come to Rossville,
and I feel that I must speak for those who are dumb — to plead for those who are
without a pleader. I have lived here for ten years, and am most interested in the
welfare of the blacks, and on their behalf would ask you, if it is within your power,
to stop the deportation of the black and half-caste children, which is taking place
even now.
I had the unhappiness of seeing the last police raid on these innocents several
years ago, and shall never forget it. The police rode up and demanded the children,
who were torn from their heart-broken mothers, to be taken by strangers, amongst
strangers, to a strange district — from freedom into servitude. Several of these were
living in respectable households, learning domestic duties, and their employers
in every case treated them with the greatest kindness, and they were happy. They
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were herded off into Cooktown — one girl had her collarbone broken in the
process, and, it was reported, died of it. I say reported, because from the moment
these poor creatures (little children of seven were amongst them) were taken away,
nothing more was heard of them by their parents or white people who knew them,
and it is believed that few of them have survived. For the blacks will not survive
this parting from all they love, and the curtailment of their freedom! I have noticed
the effect of the raid I have referred to: the blacks have decreased in number; they
have become melancholy; and they are afraid all the time of the police, of the law,
of the Protector.9
The mellowing of racial attitudes apparent in the contrast between Nancy’s
and Rosa’s writing reflects northern settlers’ increased security, the authors’
ethical differences, and generic factors, including a declining popular interest in
Haggard-style imperial romances.
Nancy Francis lived, as far as one can tell, an exemplary family life, but the
next tropical flower, Zora Cross (18 May 1890–22 January 1964), was an
independent woman and a passionate fighter, whose life and writings, like
Rosa’s, braved the marital conventions of her era. Zora was born at Eagle
Farm, Brisbane, and educated at Gympie and the Ipswich Girls Grammar
School. During World War I she toured tropical Queensland with a concert
party in aid of war funds, but spent most of her adult life in New South
Wales. After bearing two children, one of whom died, to unnamed fathers, and
marrying an actor, Stuart Smith, but refusing to live with him, Zora and David
McKee Wright, the literary editor of the Sydney Bulletin, established a lasting de
facto relationship. They had two daughters, and the family lived at Glenbrook
in the Blue Mountains. After Wright’s sudden death in 1928, Zora maintained
outward good spirits while battling to support her three children by writing and
freelance journalism, supplemented by a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension
of £2 a fortnight.
Zora Cross
In 1917 Zora had scandalised literary Australia
by publishing a poetry collection, Songs of Love
and Life, which embodied her defiant passion
for Wright in language that was both erotic and
spiritual. Sixty sonnets in the collection, modelled
on Shakespeare, demonstrate what Miller
recognised in 1940 as “originality” and “vigour,”10
and what the distinguished critic Dorothy Green
later described as Zora’s “true lyric gift” (ADB).
These gifts surface in “Home-Sickness,” which
views Queensland, and especially the north, from
the poet’s Blue Mountains cottage. The naming of a
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dozen or more Queensland places makes this work an appropriate quotation in
the state’s sesquicentenary year:
STANZA 1
I want my own North land again tonight,
St George and Brisbane, Cairns and Charleville.
There is a coldness at this mountain height
That touches me with hands too cool and still
And sends my thoughts like wandering summer flocks
There where the Johnstone runs through Innisfail,
And all the precincts of my Gympie rocks
Are showered with the hoya blossoms pale….
STANZA 3
How can I think of home and check my sighs
For the bauhinia hills of Herberton,
Cane waving in the spear where Goondi lies
Green as a carpet by a genie spun?
Chill is this moon, clean-cut as pallid ice,
It seems not the same lamp that lights my land,
All dappled with the dust of tropic spice
A-swoon in a blue dream and bamboo-fanned...
STANZA 7
Oh, give me my own home — its carelessness,
Its prodigal wild wealth of fruit and flower,
The spell of its indifferent caress
Its scarlet banksia or hibiscus bower.
Give me its bougainvillea embrace,
Its stinging trees, its orchids poised for flight,
The filmy green of the wild cedar lace
Seen through the sleeves of wattles silver-white.
(Stable and Kirwood 85–87)
The conclusion, however, dissolves home-sickness in another feeling: “all I long
for leaps into my eyes/ With every blossom-look Love’s glances give.”
In addition to nearly 450 poems and forty short stories, Zora’s oeuvre includes
An Introduction to the Study of Australian Literature (1922) and about forty
essays, among them an innovative series on Australian women writers in the
Australian Woman’s Mirror. Four novels appeared only as newspaper serials,
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but This Hectic Age, set in Sydney during World War II, and two Queensland
novels achieved volume publication. McKay has analysed Daughters of the
Seven Mile (1924), set in and around Gympie (Hillborough), as demarcating
racial boundaries at a time when the vanishing race theory was giving way to
assimilationist trends (2004: 62–63).
The Lute Girl of Rainyvale, which survives in rare copies dated to 1925, follows
the adventures of an eighteen-year-old naive heroine, Melise Hargreaves, who
lives in Brisbane. Melise’s lover drowns; and after her mother simultaneously
dies from being struck on the temple by a falling Buddha statue, Melise flees
northwards on a voyage of escape. Aboard the by now predictable steamer she
forms a friendship with Lili the Lute Girl (player), who invites her to visit her
merchant father’s town of Rainyvale. The fictional name and later descriptions
reveal this to be Innisfail. Melise meanwhile falls in love with the ship’s purser,
Dale Acton, and the couple battle other characters for possession of two ancient
jars of Chinese porcelain bequeathed to Melise by her mother. These gradually
reveal themselves to be a source of blessing. Melise’s northern odyssey brings her
maturity and emotional fulfilment. Descriptions progressively associate tropical
Queensland, not only with nature and naked passion as in the epigraph above,
but also with beauty, romance, adventure, ease and contentment:
She saw through the open door the moonlight-coloured waters, blue as lapislazuli, spread out like a lake of gems for miles about them. The ruby-tinted
ship lit up by hundreds of mellow electric lights, must have looked to the
unforgetting stars above it like a great jewel set in a jewel as lovely as itself, so
calmly did the steamer move on.
Something of the warm persuasive tropic soul of the sea slipped
imperceptibly into Melise’s soul. For she leaned a little nearer Dale; and she
scarcely knew herself for the girl who had boarded the steamer so reluctantly at
Brisbane; and had suffered the first part of the voyage alone in her cabin. (49)
At Townsville:
A strange smell of copra mixed with tar, and the heavy sweet scent of tropical
fruits and sugar came out to meet them from Townsville. She is only an echo
of the real North, but the breath of the distant Northern farms and fisheries is
there. (55)
But the North had a breath of comradeship in its air for all people. Quarrels
are difficult to provoke in a land where Content has had home, Ease and
Indifference their being. (62)
Anything at all might happen in such a fairyland world as the North. (75)
Mourilyan to Innisfail (Rainyvale):
In a near farm they were burning off the cane, and as still night came down
suddenly on the scene she drew in a deep breath of delight. Let come what
would, this was adventure, this was romance! (125)
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As if reinforcing the ethnic boundaries established in Daughters of the Seven
Mile, Zora’s idealisation of tropical Queensland nevertheless seeks to exclude
blackness and racial mix. Dale avers:
“The North’s like a fire in my blood. The islands sicken me because they are black,
black, black, whichever way you look at them. Here it is different — brown if you
like, but somehow cleaner, fresher, and wilder.” (53)
Melise’s first view of Rainyvale’s people seeks both to conceal the region’s multiracial composition, and to counter the prejudice which habitually derided
tropical Queensland as “Queensmongreland” (Reynolds 145):
It was a novelty to Melise to find herself being drawn through the centre of
Main Street, Rainyvale. But more novel still was her welcome when stopping, just
as a tram might stop, at the Star Hotel, Melise became aware of a crowd of people,
prominent among whom were an exquisitely dressed Chinese lady and a tall man,
apparently in evening dress. The others in the crowd were just ordinary people
such as she would have met in Brisbane. She could not find a black or Oriental face
among them. For though the population of Rainyvale may number many hundreds
of Chinese, Rainyvale does not parade the Orient, and it was to good Aussie
laughter and the sound of her own tongue that Melise entered the town. (126–127)
Zora’s descriptions repeatedly contrast Lili’s Chinese with Melise’s Caucasian
features, but other passages acclaim Chinese philosophy, art, history and wealth.
Mainly through Lili’s family, the novel therefore ensconces positive aspects of
Chinese culture as part of the North’s mystique, again in refutation of accounts
that numbered the Chinese among Innisfail’s poorest citizens.11
Dorothy Cottrell, the next writer in the flower tradition, was born on 16 July
1902 at Picton in New South Wales. Her parents soon moved to Ballarat,
where, aged five, Dorothy contracted polio, which confined her for the rest
of her life to a wheelchair. After her parents divorced, Dorothy was brought
up by her grandmother at Picton and on her maternal uncles’ Queensland
properties of Elmina, near Charleville, and Ularunda, near Morven. Here she
trained cattle dogs to pull her wheelchair, “and was good at most things that
could be done sitting down” (Ross 1997: 56). In Sydney she lived with her Aunt
Lavinia and studied sculpture and painting. In 1922 she secretly married Walter
Cottrell, book-keeper at Ularunda, and eloped with him to Dunk Island,
arriving in February 1923. Edmund James Banfield, author of The Confessions
of a Beachcomber, died on the island in June, while the Cottrells were visiting
Townsville, and they finally left the island on 29 July. After a poverty-stricken
interlude in Sydney, Dorothy and Walter returned in 1924 to Ularunda,
where Dorothy wrote four novels, one of which, The Singing Gold, proved to
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be a bestseller, serialised in America, England and Australia and published
as a book in London in 1928. In the same year the Cottrells migrated to the
United States, where Dorothy wrote further novels, children’s books, stories and
articles, some with an Australian theme.12
Dorothy Cottrell
The Singing Gold, Cover of Early Edition
Dorothy’s romantic flight to tropical Queensland scorned disability and
dramatically proclaimed her adult autonomy. For her, as for the earlier flower
authors Rosa and Zora, the region stood for romance and freedom. In The Singing
Gold, a tom-boyish bride and sweet but incompetent husband spend their early
married life bedevilled by humorous contretemps as they battle fauna and the
weather on an island which is clearly Dunk,13 before moving to Sydney where the
husband is tragically killed. Descriptions of the island vividly evoke the colourful
landscapes and tranquillity of the tropics. Detachment is evident however in
Dorothy’s deployment of tropical tropes, which Banfield had filled out with
amateur science and which earlier flower authors had whole-heartedly embraced:
We stood together amongst our piled possessions, and panted…We stood now
in an effulgent world of strange brilliant peace and light….possessing that most
compactly magical thing in all the world, a tropical island…The divine setting for
adventure, for youth, for love; never to me quite real.
There were wistful brown casuarinas against a smoke-blue horizon; ragged
yellow-flowered beach hibiscus among the sedge; umbrella-trees lifting candelabras
of red coralled flowers with the fire-green butterflies about them….
There was life and colour and life, life, life…in the vine-rioting jungle on the
orchid-knotted rocks; life rising from the coloured floor of the sea in pillars and reefs
and flower-forms of coral. (120–121)
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Banfield devoted much of his writing to anthropological and archaeological
study of Coonanglebah’s (Dunk Island’s) Aboriginal people, but The Singing
Gold limits Indigenous reference to a canoe visit by “soft-skinned brown natives
from the Palm Island Missions” (142). Dorothy admires the Islanders’ manual
proficiency and local knowledge, but complains of theft. When they chant
a mission hymn, “Grant us when we come to die,/ Light at eventide,” she
comments: “It seemed the cry of a people dispossessed, being driven back into
the old sea” (141).
Dorothy’s unpublished novel, the colourful fantasy Nika Lurgin, is also set
on Dunk Island (Ross 1997: 66). In addition, she based thirteen stories on
her youthful experience of tropical Queensland. The marital humour of The
Singing Gold recurs in “A Matter of Comparison,” set in the Gulf region and
the Northern Territory and published posthumously. In 1932 and 1933 she
published six sentimental stories about Dickie, a boy born in America, but
orphaned and brought up in “Eolian,” a far North Queensland town, by four
elderly maiden aunts. In the same period appeared “Into This World” and
“Racing Abe Goes Home,” tales of heroic rescue from flood and fire in the
Gulf, a theme further elaborated in “The Gauntlet of Flames,” published in the
Saturday Evening Post in 1952. Finally, she drew on thirty-year-old memories
of coastal North Queensland for “The Reef ” (1947), “Shark Bait” (1950 and
1951), and “The Pit in the Jungle” (1951) (Ross 1997: 66, 67, 70). These are
her best stories, suspenseful, well-paced, and carefully observed. When, in “The
Reef,” a downed pilot at last summons help, he reflects:
It was just a matter of time until man fished man out of trouble. Nothing in the
great and teeming Reef could have done that! Defying time and space to bring help
to its kind. (15)
Like her early south Queensland novel, Earth Battle (1930),14 and like Rosa’s
account of station life in The Lost Earl of Ellan, Dorothy’s late stories predict the
triumph of human moral and emotional life, and of civilised intelligence, over
tropical Queensland’s rainforests, reefs and vast unknown spaces.
The latest tropical flower, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, grew up near Copenhagen
and migrated to Tasmania with her family in 1891 when she was sixteen. Her
first job was as a teacher of girls at her brother Christian’s School of Physical
Culture in Hobart. Her eldest brother Carl moved on to New Zealand where he
fathered Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, later Premier of Queensland. Marie turned
to writing commercial fiction when illness ended her teaching career. Her
first novel, The Captive Singer (1917) sold over 100,000 English and 40,000
Danish copies. She ventured into remote regions on foot and in a variety of
conveyances, and enjoyed painting trips and holidays with her housemate
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and friend, Sylvia Mills. Her leading passions throughout life were female
friendships and Christianity. Marie’s biographer, Alison Alexander, praises her
as a forerunner of Second Wave feminism, concluding: “She was not openly
rebellious, but she was quite determined to run her own life without male
interference, and in her quiet, courteous but definite way she did” (238–39).
In Jungle Night (1937), Marie’s eleventh and
last published novel and the only one set in
tropical Queensland, the hero, the wealthy
timber magnate, Tony Valmont, lives in a
dazzling white Tableland mansion, Marble
Hall. He falls in love with Robin, the eighteenyear-old daughter of his manager Walter
Lockhart. Drawn from popular historical
fiction, Valmont’s “castle,” the leading
characters’ names, and Robin’s costuming as
an eighteenth-century page boy (213) impose
on the rainforest a romanticised version of
old Europe, while the lovers’ characterisation
Marie
Bjelke-Petersen,
and relationship owe much to Georgette
Heyer’s bestseller, These Old Shades (1926). Wearing Velvet Hat with Leaf Motif
Obstacles to their love include the murderous
machinations of the timber thieves Brood and Rudder, and the contrivances of
two mature, beautiful ladies who are determined to marry Valmont themselves.
Good and evil characters finally receive their just deserts, and Valmont, Robin and
Lockhart are improved by becoming practising Christians.
Robin is most closely identified with the Tableland “jungle,” and for her as for
Anne, Oora, and Melise, tropical Queensland is the site of both sexual chase
and of independent spiritual quest. Raised in the rainforest, Robin roams there
freely in her boy’s clothes — a defiance of gender categories that a commentator
interprets as indicating “a crisis of category itself.”15 Disorder is overcome and
boundaries re-established only when Robin flees to Brisbane, where she dresses
and tries to behave like a girl and finally accepts Valmont’s proposal.
Presented alternately as sinister and alluring, the “jungle,” dominates the
narrative. Like other flower authors, Marie is addicted to adjectives, but, unlike
some, she is an accurate observer whose lists of plants and animals reflect both
her careful research (Alexander 194) and the evolving ecological consciousness
of the 1930s:16
On all sides there was a riot of an almost unbelievable green loveliness.
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It began on the ground, where lianas and numerous vines looped over grasses,
ferns and mosses. Above this layer, shrubs, plants and bushes held one another in a
suffocating embrace. Then came smaller trees, and beyond these rose the immense
giants of the jungle, which shot almost out of sight before a single branch broke
their stately straightness. Kauri pine, walnut, silkwood, buttressed-rooted penda
trees, maple, red tulip oak and many other varieties of timber, raced skywards, their
perpendicular boles ornamented with stag-horns, orchids, elkhorns, and ferns….
Over this maze of beauty there brooded a gigantic, a colossal peace — a peace
which had no connection with gentleness or things spiritual. It was wholly of earth:
wild, savage, primeval. It was a peace which could not be disturbed or rifted; it was
indomitable, indestructible, and it was everywhere. (28–29)
Love for wild nature and its creatures, such as bower birds (85–86) and
cassowaries (240), is fundamental to Marie’s descriptions, which, however,
are often blurred by the approved romantic aura. As in earlier flower fiction,
perspectives obscured by mist, moonlight and darkness, mixed with the fluidity
of water, create the rainforest as a mysterious, dangerous place, a conception
that is heralded in the novel’s title. Marie’s portrayal of Cairns, so unlike the
pragmatic observations by early residents, nevertheless exemplifies her weaving
of fantasy, even when the doors of perception are unobstructed:
Cairns, the capital city of the North, lay in the white, glistening sunlight like
a lovely dream, a thing too exquisite, too perfect to be of earth. It looked utterly
insubstantial, elusive, remote. It was a mirage city, conjured up by a magic blend of
rainbow hues and the hot, scintillating sunlight — a vision of beauty which might
vanish at any moment as a mirage disappears on the sands....
Yes, the North was full of surprises. In this sun-scorched land marvellous
things took place. (24–26)
Despite its observance of romance conventions (Smith 90), Jungle Night departs
from its predecessors in the flower tradition by focusing on settings in a defined
district, a feature that invites recognition by residents and by tourists, whose
numbers had increased since the 1920s. For example, Marble Hall takes its
name from Alfred Bunn’s popular song in Balfe’s opera, The Bohemian Girl: “I
dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,” which is performed by a suitor of Valmont’s
(137), but ethereal descriptions of the Hall (134) also recall “Joe Paronella’s
Spanish extravaganza at Mena Creek Falls outside Innisfail” (Smith 94).
Beyond such opportunistic uses of place, Jungle Night claims Cairns and the
Tableland for Christianity through a wholesale mythologising which some may
read as a fictional foreshadowing of the planned commercial expropriation of
the Daintree in the 1980s supported by Marie’s nephew Joh.17 Preluding this is
an excision from the text of Aboriginal people, of their ancient spiritual shaping
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of the land, and in fact of the district’s whole non-Anglo-Australian identity.
The only exception is a brief mention of Chinese servants, insulated inside the
Marble Hall fantasy (73–74). In thus depicting the Far North as white, Marie
goes further than Zora in The Lute Girl and Dorothy in The Singing Gold.
The Christian mythologising in Jungle Night reproduces the simple medieval
cosmos of heaven above, middle earth, and hell mouth below. Sky patterns
suggest heaven, “clear and stainless, forming a vast expanse of unearthly azure”
(102). The Curtain Fig Tree, still an attraction on the outskirts of Yungaburra,
becomes the “Cathedral tree” “a mile or so out of Bourburra” (191), where
Robin first experiments with prayer and where she and Valmont at last stage
their wedding (192). Marie makes the tree a symbol for a Tableland nature
participating in the worship of Christ. Listening at a crack in the wood,
Robin hears
...a music curious and weird. She knew it was caused by the hum of
numerous insects and various notes of birds all blending together in wonderful
harmony and producing an extraordinary unearthly symphony. It was like music
played by wind and sea, by flowers and moonshine and stars, strains which could
not be drawn from the strings of instruments invented by man (192).
Inside hangs a gleaming white cross, “formed by thick branches” (192),
“even here in Nature’s own temple!” (192). Finally in Jungle Night, Tableland
descends into watery depths in the image of a hell-mouth. Encountered
in inky blackness, bottomless Lake Eacham with its terrifying ghost-seal,
approximating to the devil, foreshadows the green slime lying at the foot
of the drop into the Mount Hypipamee crater, “the very portals of — hell”
(243). A vengeful Rudder lures Brood into the Devil’s Pool below the Barron
Falls, where a crocodile, another Satan-proxy, seals his fate. Marie’s many
descriptions develop the connotations of the Pool’s European name: “The
sunset had caused the rock and hill-sides to catch fire, and the whole deep
Barron gorge was aglow with lurid flames” (284).
Conclusions
The seven preceding vignettes have uncovered variations and inconsistencies
in the flower tradition, yet the arguments for remembering these writers with
affection and respect can be summarised as follows:
First, in giving a voice to white women travellers and residents, their writings
create a tropical Queensland distinct from the region that the male pioneering
hegemony constructed on an economic base, the ideological weight of
which has constricted dissident voices since colonisation. Flower fiction and
poetry focus, not on manmade technology and buildings, but on the natural
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environment, especially the Far Northern seas, the inland wilderness, and the
rainforest, for which these female texts are unconscious but eloquent advocates.
Although stories by the “bush girls,” Rosa and Dorothy, revert on occasion
to settlers’ antagonistic perspectives, the flower authors’ presentation of the
Queensland tropics is generally uplifting. For them it is a place of romance and
adventure, a “fairyland” where “anything at all might happen,” but where the
overcoming of challenges leads inevitably to happiness. Harriet and Frances
base tropes of moonlight, paradise, and flowers on a judgment of the region
as ungoverned and dangerous. Rosa fills the unexplored north-west with a
fantasy of a forgotten people, and the far northern seas with tales of female
heroism. A long-term resident, Nancy writes of the North with an intimate
appreciation for its multifarious wild beauties, while Zora and Dorothy express
a more distanced affection and desire. Like them a visitor, Marie offers incisive
descriptions of the rainforest, misted over with romance and a Christian
mythologising of named places.
Secondly, the flower authors see tropical Queensland as a place of liberation
for women. For them it is a playground of the imagination, where young
female characters assert an identity freed from parental or marital restrictions.
In the North they escape from disability or dependence, embark on hazardous
journeys, experiment with forbidden passions and undertake spiritual quests.
Moreover, the warm coastal seas and unspoiled “jungle” are spaces of uncertain
boundaries where, in Rosa’s and Marie’s works, gender definition likewise
becomes fluid; here women escape from loneliness, recover from loss, and aspire
to heroism or athletic self-fulfilment. By revealing such female potential and
hope of freedom, the flower writings encouraged their women readers to take an
expanded view of their life options.
Thirdly, these authors deserve credit for displaying a striking independence in
spiritual matters. They embody this in their heroines, most of whom engage in
an individualistic search for meaning. While the flower authors’ descriptions
transpose the essential Romantic veneration for nature as beautiful, joyous and
infused with divinity into the fresh tropical setting, they go further in seeking
to sanctify the landscape for European possession through a creative synthesis
of spiritual traditions. In doing so they use the language of romance, especially
tropes of magic and enchantment, to draw together Christian, Aboriginal,
Chinese, Buddhist and Mayan spiritualities into new configurations. We
have seen that Marie’s evangelical fiction is an exception to this. However,
the open-minded syncretism displayed by other members of the flower
group generally counters the region’s dominant Manichean discourse, which
portrayed Christianity, the colonisers’ religion, as white, light and rational, and
its binary opposite, Aboriginal spirituality, as the dark unknown, inherently
filthy and abject.
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Partly as a consequence of this, the flower tradition departs from most tropical
Queensland writing in expressing affection and support for Aboriginal people,
though it retains some of the era’s racial assumptions. Dread of an alien race
is paramount in Cross Currents, and Aborigines are absent from the shipboard
narrative of For Three Moons, but Fugitive Anne mingles distrust and ingrained
contempt with advocacy. Advocacy, compassion and a growing respect are
evident in Nancy’s poetry, essays and fiction on racial themes, though she also
accepts contemporary beliefs about Aboriginal cannibalism and inevitable
decline. Reflecting the accelerating assimilationist trends of the 1920s and ’30s,
The Lute-Girl of Rainyvale simultaneously concedes and denies the region’s racial
mix. Dorothy’s depiction of Palm Islanders gives elegiac shape to the vanishing
race theory, while Jungle Night omits reference to the region’s non-white races.
With qualifications chiefly in respect of race, therefore, these arguments
generally establish my case for celebrating the flower tradition of tropical
Queensland writing.
Endnotes
1Earlier
versions of this article were presented as a public lecture at the Perc Tucker
Gallery, Townsville, on 3 August 2009, under the auspices of the Foundation for Australian
Literary Studies, and as a keynote address at “Tropics of the Imagination,” a conference
hosted by the Cairns Institute at James Cook University, Cairns, on 2 November 2009.
The author thanks James Cook University, the Australian Research Council (ARC), and
the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies for travel and research grants supporting
this project. I am also grateful to the “Writing the Tropical North” AustLit team at James
Cook University for research assistance.
2 Rosa modelled Hansen on Leichhardt, whom her father had accompanied on a
journey to Moreton Bay in 1843 (Clarke 11), and on the Norwegian zoologist Carl
Lumholtz (Macainsh 10).
3 Macainsh (12–13) finds the main source for the Lemurian fantasy world of Fugitive
Anne in Ignatius Donnelly’s popular work, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (London:
Harper, 1890).
4 See Robert Dixon’s analysis of this trend, Writing the Colonial Adventure, Chapter
4: 62-81.
5 Crocodile Mountain with its spewing lava may be a nightmarish rendition of the
unlimited child-bearing which had destroyed Rosa’s mother’s health and which her other
female relations dreaded (Clarke 22, 24, 36, 105).
6 McKay 2001:34; McKay concludes that in her memoirs, Australian Life: Black and
White (1885) and My Australian Girlhood (1902), “Praed exercises the colonial power
to control representations of the contact zone, and undermines her self-representation
as a sympathetic, knowledgeable and detached spokesperson...for her ‘old [Aboriginal]
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friends’” (“Writing from the Contact Zone,” 2004: 57). In her fiction, however, according
to McKay, “Gradually...Praed begins to subject colonialism to critical scrutiny, not as an
advocate for Aboriginal rights, but rather to seek moral redemption for the white race”
(“‘The One Jarring Note’,” 2001: 34).
7 “The Spirit of Australia Extended to the Aborigine.” Aussie 15 September, 1925:
29; “The Australian Aborigines — Can They Be Saved?” Aussie 15 October, 1925: 31;
“The Decimation of the Australian Aborigines.” Aussie 14 November, 1925: 26; “Has the
Aboriginal No Claim on Australia?” Aussie 15 December, 1925: 31.
8“By Forest, Scrub and Shore. More about Cannibals.” The Cairns Post 28 February,
1940: 9; “By Forest, Scrub and Shore. Cannibals.” The Cairns Post 19 March,1940: 10;
“By Forest, Scrub and Shore. Cannibals and Boongarries.” The Cairns Post 28 March,1940:
11; “By Forest, Scrub or Shore. Cannibals.” The Cairns Post 13 October, 1939: 11; “By
Forest, Scrub or Shore. Cannibals.” The Cairns Post 18 December, 1939:10.
9The letter concludes:
There is no fear of [Aboriginals] being short of food here; the scrubs abound with
their natural food, and so long as their adults are allowed to keep their natural birthright
— freedom — the camps are well supplied. They are honest and interfere with none. The
bush is wide enough. Why should they be hounded like criminals, their children stolen
from them? I have no axe to grind. I employ neither boy nor gin, except for an occasional
errand, although I know most of them in the district. I am writing in the name of common
humanity, and again beseech you, if you have the power or influence to use it, to really
protect the little children, whom a mistaken policy is hurrying to their doom. If you have
children of your own, picture what I have briefly described to you.
Ask any people in the North who are disinterested, who have an understanding of the
aboriginals and their temperament, and they will agree with what I have written.
There is one particular case I would draw your attention to: it is that of King Pluto.
He was taken to the Hull River Mission Station to see his daughter there, on the distinct
promise made by the police, that he should return. The old man was nervous about going,
and consulted both myself and R. Hislop, J. P., of this place, and we told him he could
trust the promise made by the police. Soon after his arrival the cyclone occurred, which
destroyed that establishment, and Mr. Kenny, whom we knew and trusted, was killed; and
the present authorities refuse to let Pluto return, although we are told he is fretting to death.
Once he escaped and tried to make his way home, but was “re-captured.” May I ask that you
will inquire into this poor exile’s case?
I hope I have not trespassed too long on your time and attention. I feel so sure that it
is the desire of those in power to do the very best for the vanishing Australian aboriginal,
and their present action is due to a misconception of their needs. (Townsville Daily Bulletin
17 December 1919: 6; North Queensland Register 22 December 1919: 34; also published
Daily Mail)
10 “Zora Cross is probably the most vigorous woman poet that Australia has produced.
She writes with marked originality, revealing a deep intensity of imagination, and a
passionate emotion....The images have an atmosphere of homeliness, ringing true to the
sentiment of love as the unifying power in human life. As so many men in their writings
on love do not free themselves from a masculine bias, a woman’s interpretation has a
distinct literary value” (E. Morris Miller. Bibliographical Survey of Australian Literature
vol. 1: 192).
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11
Racist descriptions published in the Bulletin in 1902 denounce the poverty of
Innisfail’s Chinese population: “Across the bridge the Chow and Malay carry on fantan....Filthy half naked Chows and Japs lounge about all day long....You can see here
piebalds of every nationality it would take an expert ethnologist to define” (quoted
Reynolds 147).
12 See Barbara Ross, “Drawn by ‘Dossie’.” Voices 1.4 (1991–1992): 21-27, for a more
detailed account of Dorothy Cottrell’s life.
13 “To return to our island: it was small, some two miles in length and about a mile
wide, and it sat amongst the gaily dotted isles of the Family Group, about five miles from
the peak-set Queensland coast, and forty from the Great Barrier Reef, and the friend
who sold it to Clippings had said that there was ‘a compact little cottage’ on it, ‘perhaps
in slight disrepair’” (The Singing Gold 123).
14 Dorothy wrote Earth Battle, published in America as Tharlane, before The Singing
Gold, during her 1924–1927 creative years at Ularunda. These, with the unpublished
novel, “Wheel-Rhyme,” “make a loose trilogy” based on the Grey Country of south-west
Queensland (Ross 1991-92: 29).
15Jeanette Delamoir analyses Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s Jewelled Nights, partly by
applying Marjorie Garber’s view of transvestitism as an attack on categorisation itself
(120).
16 “Ways of seeing the rainforest began to shift in the 1920s from the Romantic view
of nature as a collection of fascinating curiosities and grand and sublime landscapes,
to an ecological paradigm which views nature as a systemic interrelationship between
all living things including humans, and their environment. In the 1930s the North
Queensland Naturalists’ Club lobbied for language change, seeking to replace ‘scrub’,
often used in a derogatory manner, by ‘jungle’, in a bid to change community attitudes
to the rainforest.” Queensland Government Environment and Resource Management,
28 December 2009 <http://www.epa.qld.gov.au/chims/placeDetail.html?siteId=30615>
The title and usage of “jungle” throughout Jungle Night adopt the Club’s advice. The plot
is poised between conservation and exploitation. Valmont’s fortune comes from felling
rainforest timber, but Brood and Rudder are condemned as timber thieves. Valmont
wants to shoot pigs and turkeys, but refrains from shooting parrots and pigeons. Robin
opines: “Birds should belong to themselves, just the way we do” (86).
17 From 1981 the developer George Quaid, backed by the Joh Bjelke-Petersen State
government, planned to build a road north of Port Douglas, through the Daintree
River rainforest, with a view to residential subdivision of adjacent land. Legal battles
and dramatic physical confrontations between conservationists and police took place
over the next few years. The road opened in October 1984, but determined efforts by
conservationists, supported by the Federal government, ensured the listing in December
1988 of the Wet Tropical Rainforest of North Queensland as a World Heritage
conservation area. Most of the remaining Daintree land was thereby protected from
development.
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Works Cited
Alexander, Alison. A Mortal Flame: Marie Bjelke-Petersen: Australian Romance Writer
1874–1969. Hobart: Blubber Head Press, 1994.
Bjelke-Petersen, Marie. Jungle Night. London: Hutchinson, 1937.
Campbell, Frances. For Three Moons. London: Digby, Long, 1900.
Clarke, Patricia. Rosa! Rosa! A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist. Melbourne:
Melbourne University Press, 1999.
Cottrell, Dorothy. The Singing Gold. 1928. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956.
—. Earth Battle. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930; as Tharlane. Boston,
Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1930; first published in The Ladies Home Journal
(USA); serialised in Australian Woman’s Mirror 4 February to 29 April, 1930.
—. “The Art Class 1917: A Discarded Section from the Unpublished Novel, WheelRhyme.” Ed. Barbara Ross. Voices: Quarterly Journal of the National Library of Australia
1.4: 31–36.
—. “Into This World.” Liberty, ca. 1932.
—. “Racing Abe Goes Home.” Pearson’s Magazine 82: ca. 1933.
—. “The Reef.” Argosy. July 1947.
—. “Shark Bait.” Argosy 1950; Australian Journal 1950.
—. “The Pit in the Jungle.” Saturday Evening Post 18 August 1951: 24, 83–88.
—. “The Gauntlet of Flames.” Saturday Evening Post 11 October 1952: 41.
Cross, Zora. “Home-Sickness.” J. J. Stable and A. E. M. Kirwood, eds. A Book of
Queensland Verse. Brisbane: The Queensland Book Depot, 1924: 85–87.
—. Daughters of the Seven Mile. The Love Story of an Australian Woman. London:
Hutchinson, 1924.
—. The Lute Girl of Rainyvale: A Story of Love, Mystery and Adventure in North Queensland.
London: Hutchinson, [1925].
—. This Hectic Age. A New Novel. Sydney: London Book Company, 1944.
Delamoir, Jeanette. “Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s Jewelled Nights: Gender Instability and the
Bush.” Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women’s Liberation 29.1 (2003): 115–31.
Dixon, Robert. Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian
Popular Fiction, 1875–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Francis, Nancy. Feet in the Night and Other Poems. Cairns: The Cairns Post Print, 1947.
Lumholtz, Carl. Among Cannibals: Account of Four Years’ Travels in Australia and of Camp
Life with the Aborigines of Queensland. London: John Murray, 1889.
Macainsh, Noel. “The Hidden Civilisation of North Queensland: Mrs Campbell Praed’s
Fugitive Anne.” LiNQ (Literature in North Queensland) 10.1 (1981): 1–18.
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Cheryl Taylor, Tropical Flowers
Martin, Harriet Patchett, ed. Under the Gum Tree: Australian Bush Stories. London:
Trischler, 1890.
—, ed. Coo-ee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies. London: Robert Edward King,
1891.
—. “Cross Currents,” in Lala Fisher, ed. By Creek and Gully. Stories and Sketches of Bush
Life. Told in Prose and Rhyme. By Australian Writers in England. Colonial Edition.
London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899: 7–51.
McKay, Belinda. “‘The One Jarring Note’: Race and Gender in Queensland Women’s
Writing to 1939.” Queensland Review 8.1 (May 2001): 31–54.
—. “Writing from the Contact Zone: Fiction by Early Queensland Women.” Hecate: An
Interdisciplinary Journal of Women’s Liberation 30.2 (2004): 53–70.
Miller, E. Morris. Bibliographical Survey of Australian Literature from Its Beginnings to
1935. 2 vols. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1940.
Praed, Rosa Campbell. Fugitive Anne. London: John Long, 1903; New York: New
Amsterdam, 1903; New York: R. F. Fenno, 1904; repub. 1908, 1919.
—.The Lost Earl of Ellan. London: Chatto and Windus 1906; first serialised in The Age, 9
December 1905–26 May 1906.
Reynolds, Henry. North of Capricorn: The Untold Story of Australia’s North. Crow’s Nest,
NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003.
Ross, Barbara. “Drawn by ‘Dossie’.” Voices: The Quarterly Journal of the National Library
of Australia 1.4 (1991–1992): 21–30.
—. “Different Leaves from Dunk Island: The Banfields, Dorothy Cottrell and The Singing
Gold.” LiNQ 24.1 (1997): 56–70.
Smith, Ross. “A Forgotten Novel of North Queensland: Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s Jungle
Night (1937).” LiNQ 16.1 (1988): 89–99.
Taylor, Cheryl. “‘The Excellence Keeps Coming’: An Interview with Elizabeth Perkins.”
LiNQ 26.2 (1999): 9–18.
g
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Victoria Kuttainen
A LOST AUSTRALIAN STORY: MAN IN THE 1930s
In early Australia, “a land of newspapers and magazines” (Johnson-Woods
66) where book production was difficult and cheap copy proliferated, the
short story played a vital role in literary production. Its development is
typically traced from early colonial sketches in diaries and newspapers to a
first significant flourishing in the 1890s with the Bulletin/ Lawson-Furphy
tradition, where the priorities were the depiction of the Australian landscape
and the expression of vernacular cultural identity. After the war, in the
Depression, it went into decline, to bloom again with the first series of
anthologies that emerged in earnest in the forties.1 This period of renaissance
for Australian short story writing was also marked by the rise of the first
university English-department little magazines, the Jindyworobak movement,
and postwar nationalism,2 all of which became in due time significant organs
for the production of what was to become accepted as canonical Australian
literature. The 1970s and 80s are said to have brought another wave of literary
nationalism, where the short story again rose to prominence as it was visited
by local writers experimenting in the form and as it was critically celebrated
in anthologies such as Gillian Whitlock’s Eight Voices of the Eighties, a feminist
corrective to an already established canon of Australian short fiction.3
Each rise of the short story in Australia coincides with a rise in literary
nationalism and this, I think, is not coincidental. As Robert Dixon has recently
observed, early attempts at literary history and canon formation in Australia
often connected Australian literature to ideas about nation and place, going
so far as to create a sense of agonism between nationalist literature where “allpervasive images of place and landscape play an important role” on the one side
and “cosmopolitan” or “expatriate-minded” writers on the other (12). Many of
the short stories celebrated in critical and retrospective anthologies of the short
story are Australian in the most thorough sense, perhaps because the form —
being so thoroughly collectable — lends itself well to the pedagogical project
of teaching and writing place. But the question arises: what about all the short
stories that are and have been excluded from this literary history, which did not,
and do not, make the anthologies?
Without wishing to discount the genealogy of the Australian short story I have
traced here, I suggest that its nationalist alignment leads it to systematically
overlook — even to repress — non-nationalist, lower brow, mainstream
publications which have also played a formative role in Australian writing and
culture. In the case of the short story — with its long-time association with
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ephemeral medium of the magazine, the critical alignment of highbrow taste
and nationalist loyalty risks overlooking the mass of short stories as they were
actually published and widely read.
Recent years have seen some welcome correctives to the standard account.
Bruce Bennett’s 2002 Australian Short Fiction: A History is a valuable history
of the often critically neglected short prose form in Australia that points out
the fact of “original fiction, including short stories…published in increasing
amounts from the 1850s” (18) and mentions the importance of the Australian
Journal in this regard, although his study after 1930 sticks mainly to familiar
Australian practitioners. Toni Johnson-Woods’s 2001 thesis on the Australian
Journal examined its fiction extensively, also pointing out that that The Bulletin
was merely one among many venues for short story publishing in Australia,
not all of which were as austerely Australian in tone and theme. Studying
the circulation of serial fiction in popular periodicals to 1900, she describes
a vibrant publishing scene, and makes the major point that much periodical
publication has been overlooked by the literati — both at the time of its
production and in critical retrospectives — because “[c]ritics did not embrace
the cheap publications as a serious literary form” and because “[t]heir very
popularity condemned them” (28). Periodicals, however, played an instrumental
role in shaping and reflecting the actual reading tastes of the Australian public,
and are worthy of critical attention on that ground alone.4 The popular reading
practices Johnson-Woods traces through the Australian Journal can be traced
beyond the nineteenth century, as Roger Osborne begins to do in his 2006
JASAL article “Behind the Book: Vance Palmer’s Short Stories and Australian
Magazine Culture in the 1920s,” which surveys the culture of short story
publication in Australian popular magazines after the war. However, as Dixon
insightfully points out in article cited above, Vance Palmer himself, and his
wife and literary partner Nettie, were key players in tying the Australian literary
project to landscape and the expression of national culture. For example, Nettie
Palmer’s Modern Australian Literature 1900–1923 (1924) and her short story
anthology An Australian Story-Book (1930) present the Australian short story in
a thoroughly nationalist, highbrow frame.
The study of popular reading tastes through the interwar period is thus an
incomplete project, which perhaps matters more to the historiography of the
short story than to other genres because of the story’s dependence on popular
magazines. In addition, the interwar period is often seen as a time of decline
for Australian letters, but a close study of the period leads us to challenge this
view. One pertinent, as-yet unsurveyed site whereby we might guage public
taste at this time is the then-new and innovative Man magazine: in the 1930s,
when many other well-established publications were going bust, Man was a
spectacular publishing success.
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The proliferation of the so-called “gentleman’s magazines” in the Depression
years represented a major new trend. Although they produced an enormous
amount of fiction and appealed to a wide readership, they have suffered an
especially intense form of the critical dismissal Johnson-Woods observes for
periodicals in general, in that they tend either to be overlooked altogether or
isolated to constructions of gender. Their contribution to culture has been
ignored.5 Given its simultaneous importance to nationalist literary anthologies
and its association with popular magazines, short fiction as a genre can get lost
between the highbrow and the lowbrow, as a comparison of the short fiction
in a popular magazine such as Man with the form recorded in the anthologies
allows us to see in sharp relief. As a publication that consciously modelled
itself on America’s Esquire, Man shows Australian cultural production in the
1930s to be at the crossroads of American and British influences — perhaps
not as “cosmopolitan” as Robert Dixon describes the more serious, at least
more consciously “arty” form of writing often pitted against the more prized
bush realism of the period, but certainly open to outside interests, somewhere
between mainstream tastes and high cultural aspiration.6 While this first trend
is important to trace as a corrective to the “dun-coloured realism” often
preferred by the anthologisers, the second trend is important too. It illustrates
an Australian case of Catherine Turner’s hypothesis about the interwar period
as a pivotal phase in cultural production where high and low — experimental
and mainstream — often came together. This coming together of British and
American culture, and the intermingling and clashing of these two registers of
cultural production, can be witnessed spectacularly in the pages of Man.
Reconsiderations of the Interwar Scene
Ian Reid’s description of interwar scene in Australian literature is characteristic
of the narratives of despair characterising this period. Personally and
professionally, publishing firms, periodicals, and writers were, he observes,
all in deep decline (115). He shows how drastically the Depression affected
the import trade of books and periodicals: “During 1929 English books
worth £1,094,346 were brought into Australia — a quarter of England’s total
export of books; in 1931 the figure was as low as £483,630 — only an eighth
of the export” (115). But even as Reid tells his tale of decline, he notes the
complexity of his figures: in fact, England’s total book exports world-wide did
not decline during the Depression era. Some countries must have been buying
more English books if others such as Australia were buying fewer. As far as
Depression economics go, then, the affordability of English books does not
seem greatly to have altered on the world market. This also indicates, as Reid
notes, that “the Depression, in Australia as well as elsewhere, removed with
one hand money that might have been spent on this commodity, [but] with the
other enforced leisure to many — and reading was a common pastime.” (115)
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Victoria Kuttainen, Man in the 1930s
So — if imports fell and book production in Australia did not sharply rise,
what were Australians reading during this period? I suggest that local periodical
production must, at least in significant part, have gone to fill this void.
This is consonant with Bennett’s observation that “[t]he 1930s saw a boom
in short story writing in Australian magazines
and newspapers which was accompanied by
rising expectations of the genre as an art form”
(101). Although some magazines, like the more
intellectual Triad (Osborne 53), and the popular
Punch magazine [see fig. 1], did not withstand the
Depression, others rose to fill the void and, if
they were shrewdly marketed, to appeal to this
new “leisure class.”
The meteoric rise of Man during the late ’30s
certainly suggests that it was part of this second
Figure 1: Melbourne's Punch
trend. Indeed, its story is not of a struggle to
Magazine 1855–1925
survive, but of spectacular success. Man saw the
changing nature of the economy and culture in the 1930s, and set about
capitalising on it.
The Rise of Man
Many middle-aged men these days remember Man magazine, but they are
too young to have known its earliest and most important incarnation. They
remember a “slightly risqué” girlie mag in barber’s shops and stashed in boxes in
sheds — the rude rag that avuncular relatives tried unsuccessfully to hide from
prying eyes. By 1974, when the repeal of censorship laws and the subsequent
flood of Playboy and other foreign glossy magazines into the Australian market
finally saw it off, Man had long been supplanted by other, trendier publications.
But, as the Man Collectible website points out, Man was not always a rude rag
or a thing of the past. It began as an ambitious local publishing enterprise that
accurately perceived a yawning gap in the market for an aspirational gentleman’s
magazine that was modern, urbane, and cosmopolitan:
Born in 1936 — the brainchild of ad-man Kenneth Murray — Man prospered …
through… the late 1930s and the second world war to become the centrepiece of
an astonishingly successful home-grown Australian publishing empire. In its heyday
Man and its spinoffs like [Man Junior] published excellent fiction and non-fiction
articles, cartoons and artwork. [In fact] [s]ome of the best of Australia’s writers and
artists appeared between its covers and many careers were built on its influence.
Priced at… two shillings, Man was a bold, undercapitalised venture that took a
calculated risk. But the first issue was a big success. The public liked the plush, art
deco style, the high-quality and diverse articles and stories, the risqué cartoons, …
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Figure 2: Max Dupain's The Mechanical Birth of Venus and Laurence Le Guay's Conflict
both published in Man 1936
and the titillating photographs by such renowned cameramen as Max Dupain and
Laurence Le Guay. After a year Man had quadrupled its initial circulation (from
5000 to 20,000). By the onset of the second world war circulation was 60,000
and by [the war’s end] it was 100,000 [making it one of Australia’s most popular
magazines in that era, by a landslide]. (Online)
Association with Man exposed writers to large readerships in very difficult
economic times. Given the declining circulation of other Australian magazines,
the economic attractor was very powerful. At the same time, many writers in
the 1930s expressed despair with the “intolerable” limitations of The Bulletin
formula: snappy endings, heavily plotted stories, and bush settings (Osborne
50). Nettie Palmer may have looked down upon Man, but the fact is that her
husband published in it, drawn perhaps by the money, or perhaps by the fact
that it was nothing like The Bulletin.
“By 1930,” as Roger Osborne points out, “the circulation of The Bulletin
had dropped to 30,000 (Arnold 265) after a purported circulation of 100,00
at the turn of the century” (50). Although Osborne partly attributes this
decline to AG Stephens’s departure and the magazine’s attendant drop in
literary standards — resorting to the more common formula of romance and
adventure by the late 1920s (50), disappointed highbrow readers alone could
not account it. In fact, The Bulletin’s turn toward more popular genres in the
1920s and 30s might be seen as evidence that it had lost its almost exclusive
hold on the Australian reading public. A generation after its most loyal readers
of the 1890s, The Bulletin was clearly attempting to attract a broader, more
modern readership and was put in a position of following the trends rather
than setting them. Punch, Triad, and The Australian Magazine were certainly three
major competitors that also published short fiction in the 1920s and their
broader publishing agendas and enormous success certainly would have set
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Victoria Kuttainen, Man in the 1930s
The Bulletin on guard. The decline of The Bulletin, the closure of Triad, and the
buy-out of Punch signaled a shift in the Australian periodical marketplace. New
formats and a fresh approach were called for, and the gentleman’s magazine
was one such. It both reflected and shaped the changes taking place in culture
and reading tastes in the 1930s.
Changes in Reading Culture
These changing tastes, borne out by increased literacy, new print production
and distribution mechanisms and laws, and the exposure of Australian soldiers
to European influences during the war, were slow in coming. By the end of
the 19th century, working class literacy levels in England and beyond had
dramatically increased. During this period reading for pleasure became a
working-class fad — indeed my own working-class great-grandfather read the
complete works of Shakespeare alongside the adventure stories of Jack London,
a star in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction. At same
time, although commercial nudie pictures first appeared during the 1880s when
cheap ephemera such as postcards outstripped older, more expensive text-based
forms of pornography, the fad of photographs of naked women eventually
found a more permanent place in the jostling, competitive market for cheap
magazines and dime-novels.
In Governing Pleasures: Pornography & Social Change (2002), Lisa Siegel
argues that new technologies and distribution mechanisms at the end of the
nineteenth century democratised the erotica that was once the domain of the
elite reading classes. In turn, the proliferation of cheap images triggered anxiety
among government agencies and advocacy groups (Caslon, online). T
h e 1873
“Cornstock Act” in the US was one direct result. Anthony Cornstock was a
New York bookkeeper who conducted a lifelong campaign against “smut” by
directly targeting the postal service, “lobbying the US government so long and
hard that they finally gave this civilian bookkeeper power over the American
postal service” (Hanson 10). Because magazine distribution relied on the
post, censoring the postal service effectively cut off supply of what Cornstalk
regarded as the “flood of vile obscenity flowing into the US from across the
sea, which was being dispersed to vulnerable innocents via the US mail” (10).
Australia followed suit, officially enforcing postal censorship in 1914. Here and
in the US, this was a protectionist move to cut off the contagion of overseas
influences. Much erotic magazine ephemera originated with the French, who as
far back as the 1870s (Hanson 10) had produced the earliest men’s magazines,
offspring of cabaret pamphlets and programs that included photos of barebreasted dancers. The problem was, however, that the authorities’ attempts
to block supply could not surpass the overwhelming demand, in the USA in
particular and, partly because the European magazines had a certain high-art
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style, Cornstock could not prevent the entry of all of them. As Diane Hanson
points out in her book The History of Girly Magazines, “by the 1890s American
courts were increasingly considering artistic merit when making obscenity
determinations” (10). The Parisian magazines had progressed quickly from
cabaret pamphlets to miscellanies that combined nude art studies and discreet
nude photographs with “spicy fiction and humour” (10), and these gained
widespread acceptance in Europe because they were “relatively sophisticated,
something nearly respected in France as fine art” (10). During the First World
War, Australian and American soldiers experienced European cabaret and girlie
magazines for themselves, such that on their return home they quite literally
could not get enough of them.
In Australia in the 1930s, censorship laws kept these publications from the local
market, and tariffs on print imports made their passage into eager Australian
hands doubly difficult. As Reid notes, one major reason for the “spectacular
decline” in the import of print matter in the Depression was that these items
were “subjected in mid-1930 to high customs duties in order to counteract
effects of the slump” (115). This period of protectionism provided an obvious
opportunity for Australian publishers. At the same time, American magazines
like Esquire (whose pin-ups were made famous by the cover art of Eduardo
Vargas) had managed to get around the Cornstalk Laws by imitating the
highbrow magazines of Europe. Esquire in particular modeled itself on leisure,
culture, and art magazines like Shadlowland, that had taken a cue from the
art magazines of Paris. As Hanson describes it, in 1922 Shadowland was the
“most elegant thing every conceived in Queens, NY…: a sophisticated film and
literary review with ‘continental’ photos and illustrations” (66).
Another way that these magazines were made respectable enough for sale was
through the pulp fiction market. As Hanson explains:
Cheap, legal popular fiction magazines, called pulps… were new moneymakers [in
the USA and Britain] in the 1920s, but they didn’t deliver much erotic stimulation
— until the Spicy pulps. Spicy meant “sexy,” and the idea was to sell sex without
getting busted. Naked breasts were like a red flag to the censors. The word ‘spicy’
on the cover alerted the sex-hungry audience without resorting to nudity, and
sexy stories instead of photos meant that these pulps could be displayed on a
newsstand… (99)
So these, alongside the arty, aspirational publications like Shadowland and
Esquire, true cosmopolitan gentleman’s magazines, and the recently defunct
Punch, were precursors of Australia’s Man which cornered the market with
its miscellany of nude studies, erotic photographs, cartoons, international
affairs, book reviews, and fiction. These magazines were therefore a unique
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combination of art and writing that aspired to highbrow status with vehicles
that appealed to the basest of lowbrow tastes for soft-porn, comics, and pulp.
Man’s true inheritance is thus both high- and
lowbrow, and this point is of interest because of
the way that canonical collections of Australian
short fiction have overlooked all of the fiction it
produced, despite its spectacular success. In its
prime, it boasted the fastest growing readership
of any magazine in Australia, and with that came
a capacity to reach both a broad and discerning
readership. A quick look at the early issues of
Man shows that its target readership was affluent,
aspirational, and educated: the glamour of the
modern shines from its glossy pages. In its early
incarnation Man was no smutty rag, but a tasteful
publication for gentlemen who liked to think of
Figure 3: Cover of Man
themselves refined, elegant, and sophisticated
February 1937
but also fun and modern. The third issue puts its
agenda on the cover: this is for a cosmopolitan man of good taste and style, with all
the world (and by implication all its women) at his finger-tips.
But just like Esquire, Man’s claim to highbrow status is also designed to keep the
censors at bay. Cartoon formats were employed strategically to lend the magazine
respectability. They were a way to escape the censor’s pen. Drawings of nudes were
doubly mediated to make sure they were extra safe: the full-nudes in drawings were
mermaids, figures from art, or cartoons of nude-studies — pictures of pictures, clear
ruses to avoid the accusation that Man actually showed naked bodies.
Figure 4: Cartoons of drawings and mermaids doubly mediated the nude figure. Captions
here are ‘They say it took Angello two years to get as far as her knees,’ ‘Is that him?’ and ‘She
doesn’t know it but I ran out of paint two days ago.’
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These strategies, like their arty photos, enabled the popular publication to pass
as a sophisticated gentleman’s magazine, an aspiration that also had implications
for the tone the magazine set for its writing and fiction.
Almost immediately into its publication Man formed a cross-promotional
partnership with Angus & Robertson in which A & R exclusively supplied all
of the books Man reviewed. Despite Nettie Palmer’s remarks about the crassness
of popular books that A & R put out during this time in which its Australian
market also expanded rapidly (Palmer qtd. in Reid 116), the books that Man
selected for review — novels like Capricornia, and titles by Hemingway and
Steinbeck — show the kind of readership they expected to attract. The choice
of books for review shows a modern sensibility that attempts to overcome
Australia’s insularity, looking to America and American books, interested
in cosmopolitan art movements and international affairs. The books Man
chooses for review are aspirational in taste, but also deemed by the editors to
be accessible enough to attract a wide readership. In 1939, the fiction editor
Gilbert Anstruther wrote a telling article entitled “Are we Too Well Educated?”
The education system is highly beneficial. Only one thing hampers it — that
is the PREJUDICE AND SNOBBISHNESS OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO,
CONSCIOUS OF THEIR OWN SUPERIORITY ARE JEALOUS OF PEOPLE
WHO ARE IMPROVING THEMSELVES, AND COLD-SHOULDER THE
ENDEAVOURS OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC TO ATTAIN A HIGHER
LEVEL OF CULTURE. (35)
Man saw itself as helping this “common man” attain this “higher level of
culture.” But Anstrutherr did not believe this “higher level of culture” had
to oppose popular tastes. In a representative film review, Anstruther mixes
his love of American popular culture with English highbrow tastes, and also
demonstrates that he pays attention to the general public:
Hollywood, in its relentless search for something different, turned to Bill of the
Shakespeare ilk…The first Wagglestaff epic left much wanted on the credit side
of the ledger but MGM have no fear of that happening with their production of
“Romeo and Juliet”…It will not only satisfy GP, and it’s the General Public that,
not unlike the female of the species, pays and pays and pays…It’s as near a perfect
production as one would dare hope. (2 December 1936)
In May 1937, in a satirical article called “How to Write,” he scorns high
modernism — “If you scorn to use a plot your are either lazy or ultra modern”
but his next issue includes an interview with a surrealist artist and discusses
the “elegant lines” of modernism. This jostling of highbrow, lowbrow, and the
market is seen in the magazine’s mix of luxury advertising and cartoons.
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Victoria Kuttainen, Man in the 1930s
Figure 5: Luxury Advertising and Cartoons
It is apparent too in the way Man marketed its fiction as brand name commodities,
praising the quality while promising to pack in more bang for the buck.
The formative influence
of Esquire magazine and
Anstruther’s own taste
for things American
clearly shape Man at
this time, yet there is a
tension in the magazine’s
admiration of Americana
that intensifies in the
build-up to war. In
June 1941, in a review
of The Bedside Esquire
Anstruther lampoons
Figure 6: "And these names" — Magazine Feature and Fiction
Writers as Celebrity Commodities
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Australian literature as second-rate and defends his choice to review American
fiction, but in July discusses American literature in these terms:
[S]ince I am a bit sore on the subject of American literature we shall dally a space
with that subject. It would be interesting to know how much Australians spend,
each year, on American books… what does make me very annoyed is the fact that
the great, self-centered United States of America will never — never, mind you —
publish , or sell in any appreciable quantities, an Australian book.
They make absolutely no attempt to do so. Idriess is probably the only
Australian author who has ever sold anything in America. I…eat the next issue
of MAN if the total amount paid by America to all Australian authors since the
beginning of our history exceeds 1,000 pounds. (111)
Anstruther goes on to argue for an embargo on American fiction — “one
Australian book sold over there for every American one imported here…” He
regularly discusses books as commodities, and continues discussing admirable
sales figures by referring to bestselling American novels. Even if he thinks
he has sorted out his love-hate relationship with the Americans here, he still
has his brows muddled. He complains in one review of a book that has “the
kind of surprise ending that any short-story writer turns out by the dozen to
catch a couple of quid here and there from magazines”(113), even though this
was exactly the kind of fiction that Man itself featured, which Anstruther was
personally responsible for selecting.
Writing in Man
The Man Collectible website describes the fiction thus:
In its brief description on the AustLit database, Man is characterised as “not aiming
for literary quality” though this was not entirely the case. Man published many
short stories and some poetry: some of its stories clearly aimed for a higher brow,
and some were popular, formula driven genre-pieces. A 1938 editorial reported that
between four and five hundred manuscripts were received each month. In addition
to the many amateur writers who contributed to Man, writers such as Vance Palmer,
E. V. Timms, Will Lawson, R. Carson Gold, J. M. H. Abbott, Ruth Park, Dal
Stivens and Dulcie Deamer also appeared. Another [later, wartime] literary feature
of Man was the “magazine within a magazine” called “Australianasia.” Edited by
Ion Idriess, this section published essays and adventure fiction set in places like
the Australian Outback or in the South Seas. Idriess contributed many of these,
but contributions were also received from Frank Clune, Will Lawson, and a wide
variety of other writers. Austlit also claims that “While Man asserted an Australian
attitude in early issues, its later contents often reflected the adoption of language
and commercial attitudes of the United States.” (online)
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Victoria Kuttainen, Man in the 1930s
However, as I have sought to show, Man’s attitude toward the USA was
distinctly ambivalent. Its early advertising gives evidence of British and
American influences, and although they were written by Australians, many
early stories were remarkably American in tone, in marked contrast to that
very “eucalyptus setting” of The Bulletin stories of the same era. Man’s stories
were likely to be cosmopolitan and urban in their settings: city streets, theatres,
cinemas, hotels, and taxi-cabs feature prominently. A busy world in motion is
also reflected in the international travel section that spanned destinations as
diverse as the Pacific Islands, Chinatown, San Francisco, Europe, and Alaska.
These settings are the backgrounds of the stories, too — crime fiction set against
a tropical South Pacific, or spy fiction in Eastern Europe. And although many of
these were genre stories, in the ’30s and early ’40s at least, they discernibly more
original than mere formula fiction. A wide array of genres, writers, and themes
was represented — something akin to the level of writing now in up-market
popular magazines. A few steps below The New Yorker, perhaps, but many above
the “spicy pulps.”
Interestingly, when in July 1938 it first advertised advance subscription, Man
promoted its next issue, which it touted as the MOST LITERARY YET, as a
particular selling point. Australian Post approval for circulation was crucial to
Man’s survival at this time, and the grab for literary status is clearly designed
to promote the magazine’s respectability to that end. But literary quality is
also an asset Man advertises to the general public. In fact, the August 1938
issue is particularly remarkable for three stories in it have explicitly Australian
settings and themes, and that it includes no nude photography and no scantily
clad women, even in the cartoons. Certainly this suggests that Man was doing
everything to win approval for circulation within Australia Post (subscription
coupons are offered for only the second time in this issue). It is significant
that the rise of Australian-themed fiction corresponds with their effort to
appear highbrow, and so acceptable for circulation. Indeed, in the next issue,
two years after its inception, Man is registered for circulation — perhaps not
coincidentally, in the previous month’s issue Man promised to add an extra 32
pages of Australian material. This spike in the Australian-themed fiction occurs
only in the build-up to GPO approval; it is not generally sustained thereafter.
In the 1930s, while other magazines were in decline, Man established a
prominence among Australian periodicals that it maintained for more than
thirty years. In its first decade it published nearly 1500 short stories, almost
500 by Australian writers to readers with an interest in modern culture who
were eager to embrace the tone and content of a contemporary Australian
commercial magazine. Such readers were not in principle averse to the
highbrow, but neither were they wedded to it as a value in itself. This was the
time when writers of the calibre of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald
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were writing for Hollywood. Such developments allowed Man to embrace the
cachet of the gentleman’s magazine and be bought and read by the average
reader. And despite the familiar jokes about buyers never reading the stories in
girlie magazines, the early issues of Man were heavy on text and light on images.
Furthermore, Man was designed for a reader who saw reading and writing as
ways to improve himself. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbooks common in
the 1920s and 30s, which included advice for aspiring amateur writers, would
list periodlicals that accepted stories and sketches from unknown names. A
salon writer and amateur-artist culture was emerging, that fostered writing of
the kind that Man published in the 1930s. In turn, Man carried a number of
advertisements for night classes in writing. The aspirational class that arose
between the wars saw writing as a means both to income and self-improvement,
and as a mark of class, talent, and education.
By the mid-1940s this jostling of literary brows and tastes was sorting itself into
two distinct streams, as is evident with the formation of the little magazines.
Southerly and Meanjin emerged in the early war years, in ’39 and ’40, flanked
by others after the war such as Overland (1954), Quadrant (1956), and Westerly
(1956). All of these were, or soon became, connected with the universities, and
helped to maintain highbrow (art) literature rather than popular (trash) writing.
At the other end of the spectrum, the lowbrow and popular became decidedly
mainstream, pulp, and Americanised, and Man followed this trend. In the midto late 1940s it reflects a rising Australian patriotism, and its content begins to
abandon the cosmopolitan ambitions of the late ’30s. It seems that during the
war nationalist expression became the property of highbrow art-house fiction,
while the lowbrow stuff fell to the Americans. After the war, tired of the expense
of sourcing and screening work by independent writers, Murray publishing
moved toward pulp. Regular staffers cranked out short fiction according to
formula thereafter, and with the lifting of paper-rationing, the Murray franchise
moved into the production of pulp dime-novels, many of which were cheap
reprints of American books. The Man of the 1930s is thus a very different
phenomenon from the pulp magazine most people remember now, different too
from the print culture we derive from the short fiction anthologies that survey
this period.
A Comparison with Anthologies
Short fiction has long been tied to the twin agenda of nationalism and
pedagogy. Early collections were school readers, but colonial editions of local
colour fiction also supplied cosmopolitan readers with exotic snapshots of
life in the colonies. These too served a pedagogical purpose, along with their
entertainment value. Another early version of the short fiction book was the
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single-author collection, which rose to prominence with the commoditisation
of big names, recycling the ephemera of well-known authors and books. A
third kind of collection was the Periodical Annual, like The Sunday Times
Book. In Australia, these were the first discernibly non-colonial short fiction
anthologies. In stark opposition to the short fiction anthologies designed for
distribution through New York or London, The Bulletin published its Storybook
“for Australia.” The strident nationalism of Nettie Palmer’s 1928 anthology,
coupled with the Bulletin tradition, tied the idea of the Australian anthology
to a certain idea of Australianness. After 1928, Palmer’s nationalism became so
closely associated with high Australian standards that cultural nationalism won
the purchase of highbrow.
Testing all of the anthologies of Australian short fiction I could find between
1901 and 1950 to an Australian subject matter/setting check produced some
interesting results. Collections after the war are replete with Australian settings
and stereotypes. The odd urbane or cosmopolitan story stands out starkly
from the rest. But what is most interesting for our purposes is that despite the
relative lack of Australian themes and backgrounds in stories in Man magazine,
the Man Storyteller collections follow these trends, too. Man published two
short fiction annuals in the early ’40s, both clearly marketed as giftbooks for
the Christmas buyer. In stark contrast to its magazine fiction, and despite the
fact that it was collected from these same magazines, the anthology fiction is
remarkably Australian in tone, setting, and theme. This development suggests
that some tweezing of brows occurred toward the end of the war — what
went into a “book” was something lasting, and therefore of a certain class.
Man’s anthologies seem to suggest that, in Australia at least, by the mid 1940s
a high-class original story in Australia story had begun to mean an Australian
story. By the late 1940s, then, Man seems to have divided its fiction into two
streams: a popular, American-style formula that subsequently filled the pages of
its magazines after the war, and an Australian-themed with which it aimed for
cultural respectability, and which it preserved in its annuals.
Conclusion
Man magazine’s fall between brows can be
traced by following the subsequent output of its
two 1930s editors, Frank Greenop and Gilbert
Anstruther. Greenop, the general editor, wrote
poetry and fiction. His collection of poetry
proudly bears his name and is emblazoned with
all the requisite tokens of Australian nationalism
on its cover.
Figure 7: Cover of Frank Greenop's Verses
(Sydney: K.G. Murray, 1944)
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His fiction, however, remained something of an
embarrassment to him. He wrote it because it
sold, but he was evidently unwilling to put his
name to it. His pulp production amounts to a
total of 122 works, penned under the pseudonyms
Robert Dudgeon, Hart E. Martin, Lee Thorpe,
and Walt Dundee (Johnson-Woods, online).
“Gilbert Anstruther,” the name of the literary
editor, was a pseudonym itself. (His birth name
was Russell S. Clark.) Perhaps he took the name
Anstruther to protect his personal respectability,
perhaps to lend a hint of foreign exoticism to
the magazine, to help the highbrow cultureFigure 8: One of 38 titles
vulture pose he tried to maintain in the 1930s.
produced by Greenop
Interestingly, his work, too, continues to cross
under the pseudonym
streams after the ’30s — he produced one
Robert Dudgeon
middlebrow serious novel (Three Went West, 1939)
and a number of less serious books that sold well, which suggests that his role as
literary editor at Man had given him a substantial personal readership, and that
his readers were indeed reading that magazine rather than merely salivating over
soft-porn eye-candy.
Man in the 1930s affords us a vibrant snapshot of Australian writing and
culture at that time. When we do read Man magazine for the stories, especially
in its formative years, they show us a bustling time for literary production
in a period that is too often described as miserable, bereft of energy, and in
decline. And this, I think, invites the conclusion that we should adjust to what
we mean by “culture” when we talk about Australian literature. The merging
of brows and their subsequent sorting into high and middlebrow-Australian
and lowbrow-American pulp that we see by following Man magazine from its
inception to its post-war decline affords us insight into a time when Australian
culture began to look beyond its insular concerns and Eucalypt settings. What
is patently clear is that we do not understand or even glimpse this phenomenon
if we continue to view it retrospectively through the short fiction collections,
either those that emerged at the time or those which have appeared since.
The nationalist emphases of these collections are often anachronistic and
unsympathetic, but they have for too long been understood to preserve the best
and the brightest.
By contrast, the image of 1930s’ Australian writing that emerges from the pages
of Man bears surprising similarities with our own time, of which Delia Falconer
has this to say in her Introduction to The Best Australian Stories of 2009:
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Are stories of transnational identity where the literary action is these days? the Los
Angeles Times wondered on the publication of Granta’s markedly diverse best of
young American novelists last year. Having read my way through the submissions
for this year’s best Australian stories, I can only answer yes. Put it down to a
change of government or a dissatisfaction with the last one but a great restlessness
characterises so many of these stories. As many seem to be set offshore as on. Others
spanned ambiguities of living across several countries or cultures…. They stretch
across a disorienting in-between space, like the overlap between two scenes in a
film… and [subject matter] is diverse. (iX)
A term like “transnational identity” perhaps belongs too closely to the aftermath
of the culture wars and to the postcolonial to serve for the 1930s, but that sense
of looking beyond Australian cultural borders and the comparison with film
that Falconer discerns now is as appropriate to Man in the 1930s. In its pages
then we gain a sense of the short story in Australia that is modern, commercial,
and confident. It is telling that it has taken us the better part of a century to
return to such an outlook, and to put this kind of writing back in focus. As
Elizabeth Webby has pointed out, putting the reader rather than simply the
writer of fiction is part of this shift in focus, and it is no easy task to reconsider
Australian literature in this way:
If histories of literature have, until recently, showed scant regard for anyone but
authors, apart from an occasional glance at a publisher or critic, it is largely because
authors, or at least those who manage to achieve book publication, have a public
profile which readers do not, with the exception of some highly specialist readers
such as critics or reviewers. Those interested in the history of what was read, as
opposed to what was written, have to look much harder for their evidence…
(Webby 308)
Even so, the phenomenon of Man produced masses of short fiction during
a period that has previously been regarded by critical histories as a decade of
dearth and decline. If we adjust our definition of “decline,” too, to avoid the
elision of quality and quantity that has been implied by literary histories, a
very different history of culture and literature in Australia begins to emerge.
Man produced a quantity of short stories that were read by large numbers
of Australians, and the magazine is worth our attention because of its large
readership. Overlooking this magazine and the fiction it printed simply because
of its popularity skews the history of the short story in Australia and the
history of Australian reading and writing culture more generally.
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Endnotes
1
Certainly, anthologies of Australian short fiction emerged before the 1940s, but the
sheer volume produced in the 1940s represents the first major critical mass in terms of
production. Volumes before these tended to be Christmas gift books, often produced as
annuals by The Bulletin, or one-off primers of colonial tales. The emergence of Coast to
Coast became a major force driving production of the Australian short story anthology
in the 1940s. Titles from this period include the following: Tales by Australians (1939)
edited by Edith M. Fry (London: British Authors’ Press, 1939); Some Stories by Ten
Famous Australian Writers edited by Albert Dorrington (Sydney: New Century Press,
1940); Out of the West compiled by James Pollard (Perth, W.A.: Paterson’s Printing Press,
1940); Coast to Coast: Australian Stories (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941); Coast to
Coast: Australian Stories, 1941 selected by Cecil Mann (Sydney: Angus and Robertson,
1941); Coast to Coast: Australian Stories, 1942 selected by Beatrice Davis (Sydney: Angus
and Robertson, 1943); New Signatures in Australian Literature edited by J.M. Stevenson
(Melbourne: View Publishing, 1944); Pillar to Post: A Collection of Australian Short
Stories selected [“at random”] by Harley Matthews (Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1944); Coast
to Coast: Australian Stories 1943 selected by Frank Dalby Davison (Sydney: Angus &
Robertson, 1945); Australian Short Stories edited by George Mackaness (London: J.M.
Dent; Melbourne: G. Jaboor, 1945) (This is a reprint of the 1928 edition, which shows
there was a mature market for the anthology that was only just emerging when the
collection was first in print and when it represented a much rarer phenomenon); Coast
to Coast: Australian Stories 1944 selected by Vance Palmer, Sydney: Angus & Robertson,
1945. An Australian Muster selected by A.A. Phillips (Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1946);
Twenty Great Australian Stories complied by J.L. Waten and V.G. O’Connor (Melbourne:
Dolphin, 1946); Coast to Coast: Australian Stories, 1945 selected by Douglas Stewart
(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1946); Coast to Coast : Australian Stories, 1946 selected by
M. Barnard Eldershaw (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1947); Coast to Coast: Australian
Stories, 1947 selected by Don Edwards (Sydney Angus and Robertson, 1948); Coast to
Coast: Australian Stories, 1948 selected by Brian Elliott (Sydney: Angus and Robertson,
1949); Coast to Coast: Australian Stories 1949–50 selected by Nettie Palmer (Sydney:
Angus and Robertson, 1950); Australian Round-up: Stories from 1790–1950. Edited by
Colin Roderick. (Sydney : Angus and Robertson, 1953).
2 Bruce Bennett points out that “[t]he Illustrated Australian Annual, edited by William
H. Williams from 1869 was the first series anthology containing stories” (19) and that
an anthology of stories by women writers — Australian Ladies Annual, was published
in 1878 (19). These were along the lines of the annuals I discuss later in this paper, and
in the vein of colonial short fiction anthologies like The Red Kangaroo published for the
overseas market that I also discuss at this later point. The significant point about these
publications is that there were anthologies published before the 1940s, but that they
were not in the vein of the kind of cultural nationalism that we see characterising later
anthologies produced by Australia’s literary and critical elite, and certainly not in the
spirit of the first of these kinds of nationalist collections such as the exemplum published
by Nettie Palmer in 1928 — Australian Storybook (Sydney: Angus and Robertson).
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3 Volumes like Leonie Kramer’s edited My Country — Australian Poetry & Short Stories
— Two Hundred Years (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1985) were typical of the bicentennial
zeitgeist in the 1980s. Others that emerged around this time included The Australian short
story : a collection 1890s to 1990s edited and introduced by Laurie Hergenhan (St Lucia,
Qld: U of Queensland P, 1992); Neighbours: Multicultural Writing of the 1980s , edited by
R.F. Holt (St. Lucia, Qld.: U of Queensland P, 1991) http://books.google.com/books?id=
PXCpAAAAIAAJ&cd=1&source=gbs_ViewAPI Australian Short Stories edited by Carmel
Bird (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and Relations: Australian short stories edited by
Carmel Bird (Wantirna South, Vic: Houghton Mifflin Australia, 1991); and The Penguin
Best Australian Short Stories edited by Mary Lord (Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1991). These
were just some of them that emerged in the 80s and 90s, most of them with the aim
of providing a corrective to previous anthologies — that is, a sense of more inclusive
female and multicultural coverage of the national voice. Since then, a steady stream of
anthologies continues to be published, but most of these are from local writers’ groups
and are either self-published or present a regional rather than national voice. Others
are single-author collections, anthologies of emerging writers rather than established or
canonical writing, themed anthologies (like Delia Falconer’s Penguin Book of the Road)
or more significant anthologies that aim for tome-like inclusion, such as The Cambridge
History of Australian Literature edited by Peter Pierce (Cambridge; Port Melbourne,
Vic.: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and The Penguin Century of Australian Stories
edited by Carmel Bird (Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group, 2007). An emerging trend
is the period anthology, like Ken Gelder and Rachel Weaver’s The Anthology of Colonial
Romance Fiction (Carlton, Vic. : Melbourne UP, 2010) which encouragingly aims to
consider often-dismissed popular short fiction and to place it in its historical context,
rather than establish or celebrate a canon of representative Australian writers.
4 Roger Osborne makes a similar point — citing David Carter, as well as Richard Nile
and David Walker very succinctly:
With little opportunity for book publication in Australia or overseas (Nile and Walker
286–89), the payments and exposure offered by newspapers and magazines were essential
to any established or aspiring freelance writer. As cultural institutions, these periodicals
performed a significant critical function and their pages often reveal a “lively, wordy,
intelligent, sometimes intellectual and certainly literate and ‘literary’ local culture.”
(Carter 9–10)
5 While undertaking the research for this paper, the SBS documentary Paper Dolls:
Australian Pin-Ups of World War 2 was produced by the Film Finance Corporation
Australia, Film Victoria, and Paper Dolls. This documentary showcased the significant
role played by Man in Australia. However its focus was on war-time, not pre-war, and
this was within the context of the “pin-up,” so again it was a study focused on gender.
Nonetheless, the production and its subsequent DVD sales demonstrate rekindled public
notice of this magazine, which is exciting considering the long period that interest in this
publication has lain dormant.
6 The term “gentleman’s magazine” is in fact the oldest name for a periodical using
the term “magazine,” derived from “miscellany.” (See the OED: “A periodical publication
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containing articles by various writers; esp. one with stories, articles on general subjects,
etc., and illustrated with pictures, or a similar publication prepared for a special-interest
readership. The use of the word (rather than periodical) typically indicates that the
intended audience is not specifically academic. Cf. quot. 1731 at sense 1a, with reference
to the Gentleman’s Magazine, or Monthly Intelligencer.”). The fact that the term “girlie
magazine” is not documented until 1942 but that the term “girlie,” in reference to “a
publication, entertainment, etc.: featuring young women, usually naked or partially
naked, in erotic contexts” was in currency since 1906 (according to the Oxford English
Dictionary) implies that in the decade leading up to the war, in particular, the status
of the gentleman’s magazine as girlie magazine was in transition — a larger point to be
derived from the trends I document here regarding its mixed highbrow and lowbrow
content in this decade.
Works Cited
Carter, David. “Magazine History.” Media International Australia Incorporating Culture
and Policy 99 (May 2001): 9–14.
Dixon, Robert. “Home or Away? The Trope of Place in Australian Literary Criticism and
Literary History.” Westerly 54:1. 12–17.
Greenop, Frank, History of Magazine Publishing in Australia , K G Murray, Sydney, 1947.
Johnson-Woods, Toni. “Beyond Ephemera. Serialisation of Fiction in 19th Century
Popular Australian, US and UK Periodicals.” Diss. University of Queensland, 2000.
—. Online. A World of Australian Pulp Fiction. australianpulpfiction.blogspot.com.
Accessed 1 February 2010.
Nile, Richard, and David Walker. “Marketing the Literary Imagination: Production
of Australian Literature, 1915–1965.” New Literary History of Australia. Ed.Laurie
Hergenhan. Ringwood: Penguin, 1988. 284–302.
Osborne, Roger. “Behind the Book: Vance Palmer’s Short Stories and Australian Magazine
Culture in the 1920s.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature,
6: 49–64.
Palmer, Nettie. Modern Australian Literature 1900 to 1923. Melbourne: Lothian, 1924.
—. ed. An Australian Story-Book. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1930.
Paper Dolls: Australian Pinups of World War 2. Nar. Claudia Karvan. Marina Films
and Special Broadcasting Service Corporation. 2008. DVD. Prod. Film Finance
Corporation, Film Victoria, and Paper Dolls, 2008.
Ray, Greg. “Man Magazine: the Australian Publishing Icon Published by K.G. Murray.”
Online. http://www.collectingbooksandmagazines.com/man.html.
Accessed 1 February 2010.
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Webby, Elizabeth. “Not Reading the Nation: Australian Readers of the 1890s.” Australian
Literary Studies. 22.3 (Apr. 2006).
White, Richard. “The Importance of Being Man.” Australian Popular Culture. Ed. Peter
Spearritt and David Walker. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1979.
g
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Russell McGregor
— loom large in this book; and
Freudenberg’s recounting of them
highlights Churchill’s arrogance
and determination to get his own
way, if need be by deviousness
and dissembling. This is not a
complimentary portrait of the great
statesman, although Freudenberg is
too sensitive an historian to give a
wholly negative, one-sided portrayal
of his subject. Churchill’s undoubted
abilities as a leader, as well as the
vital role he played in crushing the
scourge of Nazism, are given due
acknowledgement.
DEVOTEES OF
EMPIRE
Graham Freudenberg, Churchill and
Australia, Sydney: Pan Macmillan
Australia, Sydney, 2008. ISBN
9781405038706. RRP: $55
hardcover. pp.613 + viii.
A slightly dishevelled Winston
Churchill, hands on hips, solar
topee on head, cigar stuck in his
mouth, adorns the cover of this
book. The pose suggests Churchill’s
legendary belligerence, but in this
image his eyes are closed. Perhaps
that was a reaction to the searing
light – the photograph was taken
during Churchill’s visit to the
headquarters of the Australian 9th
Division in Egypt in 1942. Yet the
combination of belligerent bodylanguage and selective blindness
epitomises the Churchill depicted
in this book.
While Churchill was a devotee of
empire, so too were Australians in the
first half of the twentieth century, as
Freudenberg makes abundantly clear.
Yet the Empire looked very different
from an Australian, as against a
British, perspective. As Freudenberg
puts it: “There was always this basic
difference: when Australians thought
about the Empire, they were trying
to define a place for Australia within
it; for Churchill, it was not so much
the British Empire, but Britain’s
Empire” (4). Australians conceived
the Empire as a shield against a
hostile — especially Asian — world
and as a bond of blood kinship that
united white Britishers around the
globe, discounting the fact that the
majority of members of the Empire
were neither white nor of British
ancestry. When the shield turned
out to be a mere facade, with the
fall of Singapore on 15 February
1942, and the bonds of kinship
were reduced to little more than
connections of convenience with
Churchill frequently expressed
great admiration for the Australian
people. Yet his actions as a political
leader show that he had little
understanding of, and still less
empathy with, Australian outlooks
and interests. Devoted to the British
Empire, he was willing to sacrifice
almost anything to ensure the
Empire’s survival. Those episodes in
Churchill’s career where Australians
were to be the sacrificial objects
— the Gallipoli campaign of 1915
and the Pacific War of 1942–1945
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Churchill’s attempts to redirect the
Australian 7 th Division from the
defence of Australia to the defence
of Burma later that year, Australians
were understandably distressed.
Even then, however, they were not
alienated from the Empire.
First World War; and, most of all,
the Second World War. The focus
is understandable, since it was war,
more than any other factor, that
pushed Churchill and Australia’s
leaders into mutual engagement,
although it does give the book a
strong flavour of military history.
Churchill’s activities in the interwar
years are ably, if briefly, recounted,
but Freudenberg’s account of the
post-Second-World-War years is
too cursory. Only one of thirty-two
chapters deals with the two decades
between the end of the war and
Churchill’s death in 1965, yet it was
in those decades that the empire
esteemed by Churchill fell apart,
Australia moved from a British into
an American orbit, international
relations were reconfigured by the
Cold War and the United Nations,
and the demographic makeup of
Australia moved slowly but steadily
away from Britishness. Freudenberg
glances at these developments but,
coming after his meticulously detailed
recounting of war-time dramas, the
effect is anti-climactic.
Freudenberg shows how deeply
committed to the Empire Australia
remained during the Second World
War, despite the Empire’s inability
to render material assistance in
the Pacific theatre of that war.
Prime Minister John Curtin made
his celebrated “Australia looks to
America” statement on 27 December
1941, but looking to America was
then imagined as a mere short-term
expedient in the emergency of war.
Labor leaders like Curtin were no
less devotees of Empire than their
United Australia Party opponents.
Churchill was affronted by Curtin’s
“looks to America” statement, but
from Freudenberg’s account it seems
that Churchill was affronted by any
attempt by Australia, or any other
dominion, to step outside their
subordinate role within the Empire.
Churchill and Australia’s leaders
were as one on the need to maintain
the Empire; their disagreements
derived from differing perspectives
on the Empire rather than differing
assessments of its legitimacy or
necessity.
Apart from the over-hasty final
chapter, Freudenberg’s narrative is
both engaging and insightful. Though
crammed with the minutiae of
intra- and inter-governmental and
military communications, it moves
at a sprightly pace, enlivened by
Freudenberg’s eye for the revealing
anecdote and the exemplary incident.
It helps, too, that Freudenberg
himself has had a long political career,
as speech-writer for two Australian
prime ministers (Whitlam and
Hawke) and three New South Wales
Freudenberg devotes most of his
pages to those times when Australia
and Britain were together at war:
the Boer War (where Churchill first
had substantial interactions with
an Australian, Banjo Paterson); the
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premiers (Wran, Unsworth and
Carr). All, of course, were Labor
leaders, and Freudenberg makes no
secret of his Labor sympathies and
especially his admiration for Prime
Minister Curtin during the war
years. Nonetheless, he is generally
even-handed in his judgements of
political figures of whatever party
allegiance. The only exceptions are
the Labor “rats,” in particular the
foremost “rat” of all, Billy Hughes.
Even at this distance in time, it
seems that the party faithful cannot
remain neutral on — let alone
forgive — Hughes for splitting the
Labor Party in 1916.
something of that old-fashioned
sense of duty in Churchill’s character
alongside his arrogance, deviousness,
and petulance.
Freudenberg characterises himself
as a member of “the last Australian
generation that, in adolescence,
took being British for granted”
(vii). Perhaps it is partly this
generational perspective that allows
him some measure of appreciation
of the ambivalences in Churchill’s
attitudes toward Australia. Though
critical of Churchill’s imperious
and high-handed manner in his
dealings with Australian leaders,
Fre u d e n b e r g c o n c l u d e s t h a t
Churchill genuinely believed that
he had “a solemn responsibility to
the Australian people” (537). It was
a patrician sense of responsibility,
suffused with the assumption that
his British Empire vision trumped
the parochial and self-interested
outlook of Australia. It is a sense
of responsibility not readily
appreciated in Australia today. Yet
it is a measure of Freudenberg’s
literary skill that he able to convey
Christos Tsiolkas. The Slap. Sydney:
Allen & Unwin, 2008. ISBN: 978
1 74175 359 2. 488 RRP: $32.95
pp.488 Paperback.
g
Jean-François Vernay
THE SECRET LIVES
OF THEM
The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’s fourth
novel, is clearly at odds with the
offbeat rebellious voice, the narrative
stamina, the hyperactiveness of his
previous flamboyant characters and
the confronting subject matters
standing for the hallmark of his
fiction. However, as most obsessions
die hard, The Slap is yet again an
indictment of contemporary society
delving into the secret lives of sexobsessed characters looking for copouts in a drug-infested Australian
culture. Plotwise, the content and
structure of The Slap smacks of
soap opera culture which informs
the narrative from cover to cover.
The expository first chapter sets the
scene for a family and friends gettogether in a suburban Melbournian
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backyard. Coincidentally, the
crowd of merrymakers hosted
by Hector and Aisha showcases a
carefully well-balanced sampling
of Australia’s multicultural society.
The party turns sour because a
seemingly domestic incident — a
non-family related adult has slapped
Hugo, a spoiled brat raised by an
overprotective mother — triggers
a nonsensical psychodrama which
is blown out of all proportion and
climaxes in a far-fetched lawsuit.
The lack of clear judgement mingled
with some kind of crass generalisation
and amalgamation expose the
characters’ arguments as an exercise
in blowing hot air. Anouk reckons
that “maybe he shouldn’t have
slapped Hugo but what he did was
not a crime. We all wanted to slap
him at that moment” (77). Connie
goes one step further by saying: “I
don’t think an adult has any right to
physically abuse a child, that’s what
I think” (173). Rosie, unmistakably
besotted with her child, consoles
Hugo: “That awful man who hit you
has been punished. He got into such
big trouble. He’s never going to do
such a thing again. He’s going to
jail” (281). Manolis feels not without
reason that “Harry had been a fool
to hit a child, but the little brat had
deserved it and it had not been
anything, just a slap” (331). In a
crescendo of hysteric opinions, the
eponymous incident is exaggeratedly
turned into child abuse and even into
assault (385) but everybody loses sight
of the fact that the only lesson one can
draw from this mundane incident is
that violence begets violence. In point
of fact, the slap was an emotional
response to a physical attack and one
might understand why Harry being
physically assaulted by Hugo did
not decide on ridiculing himself by
suing Hugo for abuse or assault —
a decision which would be deemed
out of place and disproportionate by
common assent. Conversely, Tsiolkas’s
turning of tables, which presents
Harry as the victimiser and Hugo as
the victim, is at once ludicrous and
nauseous. And one fails to understand
In a nutshell, the kids were having
a game of iconic Aussie cricket and
Hugo did not accept defeat. His
father Gary stepped in to reason
the child but “the boy looked as
if he was going to hit his father
with the bat” (40). Harry, another
grown up witnessing the scene, had
a more energetic response as “he
lifted the boy up in the air, and in
shock the boy dropped the bat.”
(40). It is noteworthy that, to this
point, no violence has marred the
situation. Then “Harry set him on
the ground. The boy’s face had gone
dark with fury. He raised his foot
and kicked wildly in Harry’s shin”
(40). Exasperated Harry, who was
not in a mood to turn the other
cheek (nor shin for that matter),
slaps the obnoxious child. End of
story. Well not quite for Tsiolkas
who exploits this domestic episode to
imagine a narrative which ties neatly
together the various viewpoints of
seven guests present at the barbeque:
Hector, Anouk, Connie, Rosie,
Manolis, Aisha, and Richie.
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Volume 36, 2009
how a writer can, no matter how
good he is, expect to entertain and
stimulate his readers over 480-odd
pages on such triviality.
bleached his dirty realism through
a process I would call “ethical
cleansing.” And, amazingly, it has
paid off since this Melbourne-based
author has won the first major prize
in his literary career: i.e. the 2009
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
However, this achievement might be
seen as a Pyrrhic victory because this
toned down novel has alas neither
the freshness and sprightliness
of Loaded nor the complexity and
ambitiousness of Dead Europe. To
all intents and purposes, The Slap
ends up robbing readers to pay
Christos, but if it takes this sacrifice
to acknowledge — even belatedly —
the novelist’s writing skills, readers
can always slap the book on the table
and eagerly wait for the next one.
And perhaps this is why the slap
and tickle scenes are there for — to
spice up an otherwise tedious plot.
The Slap is Tsiolkas’s first attempt
to give pre-eminence to wartsand-all depictions of straight sex
when most of his previous novels
were an exploration of gay sexuality.
But it does not sound right. One
jarring note among others is that
Tsiolkas has projected the pervasive
male cannibalistic fantasies in Dead
Europe onto a female character in
The Slap and imagines straight sex
to be animalistic. When Anouk and
Rhys engage in sexual intercourse,
Tsiolkas writes: “She wanted to bite
him, scratch him, devour him. Fuck
me, she ordered him sharply now,
and she wondered, is this how a
man understands sex? This ravenous
animal desire?” (60).
g
Marie Ramsland
Christos Tsiolkas has so far lived
up to his reputation of being the
enfant terrible of Australian fiction
— an enfant terrible who probably
got a slap on the wrist when he
realised his heretical subject matter
prevented him from winning any
major prize such as the Miles
Franklin Award. To be able to write
The Slap — a novel expunged from
same-sex depictions, exposed antiSemitic ideas, sexual deviances such
as zoophilia or coprophilia, nihilism,
and so many other confronting and
repelling subjects — Tsiolkas has
A PANORAMIC SURVEY
OF THE
AUSTRALIAN NOVEL
Jean-François Vernay. Panorama du
roman australien des origins à nos
jours 1831–2007. Paris: Hermann,
2009. ISBN 978 2 7056 6803 7.
RRP: 25 Euros. pp.250.
This concise volume of 250 pages
provides a wealth of valuable
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information for anyone interested
in Australian literature, culture,
and history.
As the title of the book suggests,
the author has chosen an innovative
cinematic structure for his work. At
the outset, the Trailer informs us of
the reasons for choosing to present
the study chronologically according
to the main historical periods, and for
presenting a lengthy “cinematic essay”
from the book’s beginning to its
end, punctuated with three types of
inserts (or enclosures): Close-ups of an
author or a book; Low angle shots for
the “greats”— novels and/or authors;
and Panoramic views that treat themes
or the career of specific writers.
There are thirty-five inserts that can
be read independently from, or in
conjunction with, the essay where
they provide further information and
make generalisations of the specific
subject treated in each.
Once again, its author, Jean-François
Vernay, has made a considerable
contribution to Australian literary
and cultural studies, which is
“timely, thorough and generally
persuasive,” 1 with this broad,
sweeping survey of the colonial
and post-colonial Australian novel.
His study is based on substantial
scholarship and research delving
into a broad selection of novels, and
resulting in an encyclopaedic but
insightful summary of the history of
the genre, its trends and themes, its
authors and their works.
Written for a French audience to
inform them of the untapped
richness of Australian writing, which
up until now has only been hinted
at by the French publications of a
select few, the book is both scholarly
and didactic in nature. Vernay says
that the idea for such a publication
came from people constantly asking
whom they should read to become
familiar with Australian literature.
The answers he gives reflect his
own personal preferences. “If I
could come up with a work where
everything is on display then the
reader would be in a better position
to make their own choices.” 2 Of
course, the book is not exhaustive in
its choice of authors and novels, but
it does cover the major movements
and changes of the genre from early
colonial times to the present. And
some of the writers chosen have now
been unjustly forgotten.
The first of the inserts is a lowangle shot of the celebrated novel
by Marcus Clarke, For the Term
of His Natural Life. Vernay gives a
succinct summary of the plot and
notes the representative status par
excellence it has in penal literature
that portrays the harsh life of
English convicts transported to
the other side of the world to serve
out their punishment for crimes
committed in the Motherland. The
fictional protagonist, Rufus Dawes,
was meant to be “the embodiment
of humanistic convictions held by
[Clarke] who thought that mankind
could survive independently from the
Divine.” And we discover that when
it first appeared in serial form, the
ending was less tragic than that of the
published novel a couple of years later
in 1874.
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Volume 36, 2009
There is a panoramic view of Miles
Franklin that gives details of her
birth and writing achievements. The
Miles Franklin Prize — Australia’s
m o s t p re s t i g i o u s , s o m e t i m e s
controversial, literary award —
was set up from money she left
for that purpose. Its first recipient
was “a man flayed alive” by his
own countrymen, Patrick White
who used his Nobel Prize money
to establish a prize that recognises
writers whose quality work goes
unrecognised in their lifetime. “We
can see here,” Vernay adds, “a wink
to Miles Franklin...” (There is also
a low-angle shot of the Award and a
panoramic view of White.)
Vernay begins his Prologue with
the question: “So what is Australian
literature?” and successive questions
follow. These are questions that are
used to direct an investigation into
the nature of Australian literature
— if indeed there is such a thing. To
these questions, he does not hesitate
to supply his own answers. He then
expands these points by discussing
in explanatory mode ten defining
characteristics. For example, under
the theme of Isolation, he writes:
... there exists in Australia what can
be called the Southern Hemisphere
complex ... detected in particular
in language where according to a
popular vulgar expression some
are not ashamed to describe their
country as being “the arsehole of
the world”. Using more moderate
language, Thomas Keneally ...
situates Australia ... at “the world’s
worst end.”
A recent writer shortlisted for this
year’s Miles Franklin, Christos
Tsioklas warrants a close-up
entry for his contribution to
modern literature. He “is known
as the ‘enfant terrible’ of Australian
literature” for the subjects he treats
in his works. And there is also a
close-up of Tsiolkas’s work Loaded
(the final insert) that is, along
with two subsequent works, an
introspective study of homosexuality
as part of the human condition.
A conversational style marks this
book from the start. Like a silver
screen narrator, Vernay speaks
directly to the reader — the “I” soon
becomes “we.” And this seemingly
casual approach continues in the
Prologue and onwards, in a freeflowing narrative that is not just
concerned with giving cold, hard
disjointed facts (although facts there
are), but with involving the reader
intellectually — and emotionally.
One can imagine the reader as part
of an audience in a darkened cinema
absorbed in exciting action on the
silver screen. The French critic,
Sylviane Soulard, goes so far as to
The film metaphor continues
throughout the text with six
chapters as the major sequences in
the narrated evolution of the genre.
These are followed by an epilogue,
a documentary essay and various
appendices as Bonus items (as often
offered in DVD productions), such
as a bibliography and an index (the
cinematic Credits).
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write that Panorama reads “like a
novel.” 3 Vernay himself has stated
that he wanted to avoid using
critical jargon and to create a work
that would appeal, “surprise” and
awaken a desire in the reader to
read Australian books — clearly a
didactic purpose. However, literary
terminology and the occasional
obscure phrase do crop up (a natural
tendency for any scholar or expert
in their field), causing the reader to
search a little deeper for the intended
meaning. For example, there is Brian
Castro who “even goes as far as to
scoff at psychoanalysis in his way
by devising language games about
associated ideas with the use of
collocation and paronomasia.” To
highlight his personal perspective,
Vernay peppers his essay with his
own imaginative turn of phrase
or image, often with a touch of
humour. In speaking of Colin
Johnson’s contribution to Australian
literature, he writes:
different chronological periods.
Interconnections are made
between the countr y’s histor y
and its development into a nation
and these six major stages in the
creative output of its novelists.
Each stage is expounded concisely
and effectively. Convict literature
and colonial romance writing began
with the “first” Australian novel,
Quintus Ser vinton (1832) that
denounced “an emerging society
based on a system of bondage and
controlled by an imperial power.”
In this section, Vernay unearths
the early works, recognised or not,
in Australia’s literary history written
by men and women alike. Women
writers return in force in the 1970s
with the “feminisation of the
novel” and sexual liberation. Bush
mythology, the adventure novel,
and “writing realism which rhymes
with nationalism,” indicates the
beginnings of a national conscience;
historical and political novels; war
novels, popular writing and realism
supplanted by modernism; aspects of
literary multiculturalism that add to
the richness and breadth of Australian
l i t e r a t u re ; a n d p o s t m o d e r n i s t
novels and new approaches to
literary creation. There was also the
affirmation of the Aboriginal novel
in this period of renewal and fruitful
creativity begun the 1980s. Two
waves of expatriation amongst writers
are dealt with. Hoaxes, debates,
debacles, conflicts, dilemmas, identity
litigation, political issues, national
and international recognition, paraliterature are among the many issues
covered in this book.
It is true that Johnson’s writing
can be read as a remedy against the
suffering of the Aborigines and the
spread of Western evils. By putting
together the pieces, Johnson acts as
a healing shaman. Because Doctor
Wooreddy’s Prescription For Enduring
The Ending of The World belongs to
political literature, this novel — in
spite of Colin Johnson’s usurped
identity — is not as much use as a
poultice on a wooden leg.
The analysis of the evolution of
the Australian novel is presented
i n s i x c h a p t e r s c ove r i n g s i x
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Volume 36, 2009
As this text ably demonstrates,
Australian literature is varied
and prolific — treating universal
themes as well as specifically
Australian ones. While Vernay
concentrates on the literary
genre most popular with readers,
publishers and filmmakers — the
novel — since he considers it best
in revealing the emergence and
development of what is considered
“Australian literature,” references
are made to other literary genres
(such as poetry, the short story,
memoir and so on) and cinema
when appropriate.
present with a clear explanation
of the way in which publishing
has changed and now operates. It
points out that even highly talented
authors find it increasingly difficult
to get their works accepted by the
top Australian publishing houses
and resort to self-publishing. This is
seen as a blight on how literature is
currently perceived in Australia.
An artist’s life is not a long tranquil
river. Far from it! (Trailer)
With a Masters’ thesis on Peter
Carey, a doctorate analysing the
work of Christopher Koch and
several articles published in academic
journals, Jean-François Vernay has
devoted himself for more than ten
years to Australian contemporary
literature and culture. As an
experienced teacher of English to
senior high school students in
Noumea, he has had the opportunity
to introduce them to Australian
literature and registered their
reactions.
The author has also succeeded in
finding a “new prism” or “another
vision” to discuss works by many
of the writers he deals with.
His interests are many, especially
p s y c h o a n a l y s i s , p h i l o s o p h y,
contemporary literary theory, and
the relationship between fictional
content and contemporary life. This
is obvious from the well-structured
and lengthy Chapter 6 that deals
with the resurgence and variety of
literary output from the 1980s to
the present. The reader is made
aware of the author’s personal
attitude throughout, but this in no
way detracts from the overall impact
of the central thesis presented that
unites the various sections of the
book. Vernay draws all the themes
together succinctly in his Epilogue.
As the founding editor of an
innovative interdisciplinary New
Caledonian journal, Correspondances
Océaniennes, he ensured that some
aspect of Australian culture — be
it art, literature, history, Aboriginal
issues, film, politics, and so on —
was a feature in each edition.
Panorama is an ambitious, even
daring undertaking. And, despite
some infelicities in the text, it is one
that succeeds in its aim as expressed
by the author — a devoted scholar of
Australian literature. With Panorama
The documentary essay entitled
L’essor et le sort de l’édition presents
a concise overview of the trends in
publishing in Australia up to the
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du roman australien, Jean-François
Vernay has demonstrated with the
novel genre that Australian literature
cannot and should not be minimised
and deserves its rightful place on the
international literary scene.
Kim Cheng Boey is a Singaporeborn poet, essayist, and academic
currently teaching at the University of
Newcastle and Between Stations brings
into play all these facets of his self.
A collection of eleven essays united
by a focus on travel, dislocation, and
identity, Between Stations offers a
complex meditation on family and
memory, place and placelessness. At
its core is a year-long journey that will
clarify for Boey whether the decision
to leave his homeland, Singapore, for
a new life in Australia is the right one.
As he writes, coincidentally halfway
through the book, “[t]hree months
into this yearlong trip, I am waiting
for signs to tell me if my decision
to emigrate is right” (159). Echoing
concerns explored in another wellknown work focused on the Chinese
diaspora, Clara Law’s A Floating Life
(1996), Boey is torn between the
desire to leave Singapore for personal
reasons and “the Confucian values
... [that] argue against leaving”
behind parents and siblings and
failing to discharge correct cultural
and familial duties. For the past he
leaves behind is more than a place or
a culture; it is above all a self formed
in densely textured and often painful
relationships with family, friends, and
even complete strangers.
Endnotes
1 Review of Vernay’s Water from the
Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works
of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch,
Cambria Press, 2007, by Paul Genoni,
Australian Literary Studies 23: 4, October
2008, 493–6.
2 Simon Caterson, <http://www.
theage.com.au/news/entertainment/
books/french-take-on-the-australiannovel/2009/02/13/1234028266764.
html>, accessed 21.6.2009.
3 Sylviane Soulard, ‘Parution de
Panorama du roman australien des origines
à nos jours de Jean-François Vernay’,
Episodes Nouvelle Calédonie, p.57.
g
Tony Simoes da Silva
Between Stations is dominated
by the parallel realities of loss and
possibility, a life already lived and
one yet to unravel. These constitute
the central themes of a book that is
otherwise a series of fragments of
more or less focused memories that
account in large part also for the
BORDER CROSSING
Kim Cheng Boey. Between Stations.
Sydney: Giramondo, 2009. ISBN
9781920882501. RRP $27.99.
pp.313 + Glossary and Sources.
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Volume 36, 2009
making of Boey as an artist. Writing
as an adult, he recalls the world of
his childhood and the problematic
relationship with a charismatic
father who disappeared often and
for long periods, a loving and
patient mother, and a formidable
grandmother. In different ways,
all played important roles in his
childhood and all in some way
retain their hold over Boey’s adult
self. However, it is to the figure of
the father that most of the essays are
devoted, directly or otherwise. Time
and again Boey writes of a father
whom he remembers for his good
looks, the unconventional nature of
his love for his family, and random
acts of kindness and violence.
the evocation of smells, sounds, and
sights they shared and bring Boey
closer to an idea of his father whom
he recalls warts and all.
But Boey’s quest for his father serves
another important function in the
book, for it parallels the author’s
act of farewell to a Singapore he
now prepares to leave for good. In
“Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,”
he speaks of “that lost Singapore
which was starting to disappear at
the same time that [my father] did.”
Preparing to immigrate to Australia,
the Singapore he will leave behind
is a faint and almost repulsive copy
of the Singapore of his childhood, a
place and time made all the more real
for the close association with family
and friends. In his words: “Perhaps
all my wanderings and amblings
abroad are attempts to recapture
the intensity of the first walks with
my father…. In the walks abroad, I
have come to realise that is there is a
centre to all my walking, it is the grid
of vanished places of childhood and
youth” (55).
For the reader familiar with the
genre of life writing, increasingly
associated with the graphic and
often exaggerated portrayal of
familial trauma and personal
loss, Boey’s memoir-travelogue
will impress for its understated
treatment of these issues. If trauma
there is, and the looping narrative
of nostalgia, loneliness, fear and
unrequited love show how deep
the impact of the past remains in
Boey’s adult self, there is throughout
Between Stations a real sense of
the trepidation and sensitivity
with which the author addresses
the unknowability of an Other,
especially poignant when in the case
of one’s own father. Looking back,
Boey grows increasingly aware of
his father’s fraught personality but
simultaneously of how little he will
ever know him. Photographs trigger
Boey does not mask his disdain for
modern, contemporary Singapore,
for its bland uniformity bears
little resemblance to a city of real
people, real lives, real memories.
The fetish-like Calcutta depicted in
the collection’s opening essay sets
the scene for this moment, later in
the book, of an unreal Singapore,
a simulacrum that resonates with
T.S. Eliot’s own nostalgic paean
to the dying city, overwhelmed
by modernity and change. Not
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uncommonly in the kind of
childhood narrative Boey writes in
some of the essays that constitute
Between Stations, contemporary
Singapore entombs a childhood
lived in another time, another
place. It is almost the same but
not quite: “I point to a laminated
reproduction of the Collyer Quay
in the window and say wistfully,
‘Old Singapore. Very beautiful.’”
And then, a few pages on, he offers
the kind of coda that resonates
throughout the book, the ghostly
voice of famous writers echoing
his own: “Then, to quote Gerard
Manley Hopkins, ‘After-comers
cannot guess the beauty been.’”
intense affection and contempt for
one’s own birthplace. From Kincaid
Boey borrows an angry melancholia
of dislocation that borders on overindulgent ennui; to emigrate is always
to experience profound loss but it is
also to benefit immeasurably from the
encounter with other places and other
peoples. As a would-be-migrant, in
Between Stations, Kim Cheng Boey
adopts the viewpoint and persona of
a wandering Chinese to rehearse old
ways of being for the insight they
might offer into the world of the
present and the life he anticipates
in Australia. In the collection’s
concluding essay, the eponymous
“Between Stations,” Boey travels back
from Australia to Singapore, now
no longer alone but with his young
family, himself a father.
As autobiography, the essays speak
of a postcolonial personal and
artistic sensibility that is a product
of East and West, and Boey’s erudite
disquisition about exile and longing
draws as easily on Chinese classic
poetry as he does on the English
Romantics or on famous names
in travel writing, Bruce Chatwin
in particular. In a telling moment,
Boey recalls reading Keats as a
child and then searching frantically
through Singapore bookshops for
his personal copy of a poetry that
would mark him for life, as a person
and as a writer. There are echoes
here too of Michael Ondatjie’s zany
Running in the Family, the story
of the dying glory of colonial Sri
Lanka entwined with Ondatjie’s
family’s own experiences. Reading
Boey I thought also of V.S. Naipaul
and Jamaica Kincaid. Like the
former he oscillates between equally
g
Eileen Spencer
EMERGING WRITING
FROM UNDER
THE RAINSHADOW
The Tropical Writers of Far North
Queensland, Raining on the Sun:
An Antholog y of Writing. ISBN
9780980420715. RRP: $24.95. pp.154
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Raining on the Sun is an anthology
of writing by the Tropical Writers, a
group of emerging poets and short
story writers who are based mainly
in Cairns, North Queensland. My
first reading of Raining on the Sun
was as a visitor to Queensland, who
knew very little of the land and
the climate or even the people. I
came from Canada, a country that
could not be more different fromthe
Australia of Queensland, to visit
my family, recently settled in the
tropics. I was still unaware of the
cultural divide and as I settled by
the pool for a good read, I gradually
realised what I was in for. The
Tropical Writers certainly whet my
appetite for life in the tropics.
describes a Queensland monsoon
and its aftermath — “All that is
left are stumps and the fallen trees,
already browning with death,” and
“[p]ieces of timber and steel balance
on each other like a giant game of
fiddlesticks.” Another sad tale of loss
in the Wet is “A Crying Kind of Day”
which is a short but punchy tribute
to a teacher who loses her life in the
flood in order to save her students.
“Taim Bilong Ren” describes a
monsoon wedding in Papua and
highlights the way that life goes on in
spite of the severe weather.
Some of the poems are particularly
effective in conjuring up the brooding
humidity and the stultifying suspense
when life appears to stop and wait
for the rains to arrive. “The Storm”
by David J. Delaney begins with the
onset of the rainstorm,
Because of my circumstances, I
was drawn naturally to the stories
and poems in the collection that
described the Wet and the ones
that entranced me were those that
evoked the mood and developed
the tension around oppressive and
explosive weather events. Stories like
Diane Finlay’s “Another Unmade
Bed” that vividly pictured the effect
of a terrible cyclone on a stunned
woman who can think of nothing
but making the beds to restore order,
and Hazel Menehira’s “Contrasts”
in which she juxtaposes the Indian
and Queensland experience of a
tragically destructive monsoon
in a photo exhibit into which she
cleverly weaves the story of the
photographer, plucked from the
storm as a small child whose parents
are destroyed by it. “Monsoon Two”
is an equally evocative piece that
“Light rain now falling
This heat so oppressive”
and builds to the height of the storm —
“Trees bending almost breaking
Leaves shredded in stinging rain”
And “Cyclic Dance” by Hazel
Menehira captures the movement of
the storm from a still, breath-holding
stupor —
“The skin of the town is sticky,
damp.
Close sultry air hangs on its
shoulders
Like a drowning man
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to the beginning of the rain —
a life of voluntary exile in the tropics,
“We have lingered too long, I think
to myself, haunted by guilt. We had
planned on taking the children to
visit their grandparents, but never
found the time.” Daly’s language
vividly conjures up the mixed feelings
of regret and resignation inevitable to
most emigrants’ experience.
“Three plops – another dance
begins,”
which is a relief at first —
“At last it’s here.”
but soon becomes terrifying —
Isolation from family, dislocated
family, and the quest for lost family
come up in several stories. In Oonagh
Prettejohn’s story “A Matter of
Relevance” Tif is rescued by a salty
midget who offers to lead her to
her father, whom she had assumed
was dead. She chooses to remain a
free spirit and not to reconcile with
him — a choice, one suspects, that
might be a common one among the
backpacking and wandering spirits
of the North. “Jacaranda” also deals
with a family reunited but less than
comfortable with each other just as
in “The Accident” the author deals
with regret after a family fight which
causes a car crash killing the husband.
And “Key-Change” shows a daughter
unwilling to travel and visit her sick
mother because she still harbors
bitterness towards her. The poignancy
and loneliness of old age are touched
on in “Angus” and also “Behind the
Gossamer” which is an imaginative
encounter with the ghost of a soldier
who reminisces proudly about the
Great War.
“macabre dance out of control.”
And Glenis Francis suggests for me in
the following lines from “Monsoon
Pisces” that tropical paradise with
blue skies and brilliant sun has a
hidden ferocity hardly imagined by
the unsuspecting visitor —
“Dance little Lady
Flow in feathers high.
Black Jack will burn your skin,
now pale as Summer sky.”
Another theme thoroughly explored
in this collection is that of loss
and exile from home which must
often be felt by those who venture
to such an isolated land far away
from the dense metropolis. Bhama
Daly’s story “Silverfish Dreaming”
hearkens back to Malaysia as
the writer returns in memory to
her childhood and her decision
to leave her family and study in
London leading her eventually to
a life in Queensland, “so very like
the Malaysia of my youth and so
different.” Another story by Daly,
“Time is a Thief ” is a haunting and
lyrical tale of a return home for the
terminal illness of a dear father after
Many of the more humorous and
quirky stories deal with animals
and it is not always easy to see how
they fit into the thematic categories
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of the collection. However, they
do provide light relief from the
intensity of much of the material
and as such, enhance the rhythm of
the work.
few of the writers show special talent.
Hazel Menehira’s story “Contrasts”
is an interesting narrative from the
very first sentence which piques the
curiosity. I am impressed by the
natural flow of the conversation
between interviewer and artist, the
hint of mystery at the artist’s origins,
the subtle revelation of back-story
through the reporter’s jottings on the
photographs and finally the solving
of the mystery and the interviewer’s
learning from the experience. The
weaving of story and commentary
with conversation, and the interplay
of past and present cleverly and
naturally deliver both reader and
reporter from mystery to revelation.
“Bokjoy,” the first story in the
collection, by Susan Ascott-Evans,
is the winner of the Cairns Post
Short Story Contest. We are led
up the garden path by a chicken
whose identity we have to guess as
the story is told from the chook’s
point of view. The intermittent pain
caused by the passing of the egg is
the give-away for me (although I
really hope the agony of birth is
not as severe for the chicken as it is
described here). The poetry winner
of the same contest is another
fun piece called “George W Puss”
by the same writer. The piece
alternates points of view between
master and cat, and is hilarious in
the disconnect. “The Dog” by Nell
Hillard is an entertaining account of
the love-hate relationship between
owner and pet. “Moussaka,” on the
other hand, is a geriatric mouse
loved so dearly by his mistress in
Nell Hillard’s “Julie’s Geriatric
Moussaka” that she revives him with
CPR on a daily basis.
“Five Greek Gods” a story by Chris
Campbell-Thomson is cleverly
devised with a shapely development.
The dream at the beginning of
winning at the Pokies is echoed
by the reality of losing at the end
and both are tied neatly together
by the foreboding of the squeaking
train wheels and Valhalla the dog’s
howling. The exultation of the dream
(in which our hero wins gloriously)
is counterbalanced by the despair at
losing in real life, and the twist of the
knife is in the way the poor fellow
loses. (Read it to find out.)
The stories in this collection
represent the writing talent of
twenty-four writers who live in the
far north, from Babinda to Port
Douglas. It is the third anthology
produced by the Tropical Writers
Group of Far North Queensland.
The styles and quality of writing are
as varied as are the subjects but a
Bhama Daly’s two stories “Time is
a Thief ” and “Silverfish Dreaming”
are both poignant and lyrical. I was
moved by the eloquent expression of
the immigrant’s dilemma. Both the
stories haunt me with subtle hints
of falling between two worlds, an
unexpressed yearning for home which
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is no longer the home of childhood
but not yet the new country either.
This is reminiscent of the kind of
emotional disconnect hinted at by
postcolonial writers like the AsianCanadian Vassanji and a powerful
expression of the negotiation
necessitated by emigration.
return–a propulsion towards
new adventures. The stories and
poems deal with family love and
family dissension, and travel that
is both a quest for origins and
for new horizons. This collection
illuminated for me the richness
of the land and hinted at its
complexity, its beauty, its ferocity
and its warmth.
Although some of the poems in the
collection suffer from awkward and
forced rhyming there are also some
bright jewels like “Crystal Clear” by
Nika-Atherton Soymonoff. This is
a prism of sheer beauty. The phrase
“the strangler-fig photocopies into
the lake” is just one example of this
poet’s eloquence. The work is like a
photograph taken from above,
mirroring every exquisite detail, vividly
capturing a moment in the rich life of
a lake abounding with life and poised
in perfection. Diane Messervy is also a
poet who uses words with great effect.
“The Long Wet” powerfully expresses
the oppressive weight of humidity and
makes the skin crawl with its vividness.
This collection, then, is a
wonderful and tantalising
introduction for this reader to
both tropical Queensland and
to its emerging writers, many of
whom represent the potential of
this region to outgrow any kind
of lingering regional or provincial
stigma that might still dog tropical
Australia. Raining on the Sun is
an anthology of writing that
showcases some best-kept secrets
of FNQ.
g
So, as I finish reading this varied
collection of stories and poetry
with what impression of Northern
Queensland am I left? It is clear first
of all that this is a land of extreme
contrasts. There is immense beauty
in the landscape (“Christmas
Decorations in the Rainforest,”
“Crystal Clear,” “Forest Fantasy”)
but there is also drama and fear in
natural events (“A Mother’s Fear”).
There is love of family and friends
and a desire to be with them and
nostalgia for old countries, but
there is also a need to escape from
family bonds and a reluctance to
Malcolm Tattersall
MASKS
John Hughes. Someone Else:
Fictional Essays. Ar tarmon:
Giramondo Publishing. ISBN
9781 920882259 ISBN-10:
1920882251. pp.184 Paperback.
RRP: $24.95.
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Volume 36, 2009
An English gentleman who has
recently been knighted for his
services to literature wrote a brief
essay explaining and lauding our
need for story. Once we had enough
to eat, he said, we started to look
for explanations — for the thunder
and lightning, for why we died and
what happened afterwards — and
when we went from explaining
the explicable to explaining the
inexplicable, we went from homo
sapiens to homo narrans, storytelling
man. By his standard, a story which
does not somehow leave us wiser is
no story.
for coherence, it may be
comprehensible to the author
but no-one else; or it may be
comprehensible to the author
and those who share his
education but no others.
1.2. At one pole is the perfectly
hermetic text, understood only
by the author; at the other is the
universally comprehensible text,
such as the road sign warning
drivers of a sharp curve ahead. An
author may freely choose where
to place himself between these
extremes but is foolish if he does
not know where his text places
him vis-a-vis his potential readers.
Art is, from any point of view, the
greatest of risks. (Jean Helion)
2. If knowledge the reader does
possess contradicts the text, and
the text seems to be unaware of its
own departure from realism, the
credibility of the text is diminished
in the eyes of that reader.
An essay is by one definition an
attempt. The difficult must be
attempted or nothing great will be
achieved.
*
2.1 As a musician, I can accept
the Cage and Dylan essays but
must reject the Satie piece as
having no discernible connection
with the composer or his music.
1. If knowledge the reader does not
possess is essential to the reader’s
understanding of the text, the text
is, to that extent, opaque to that
reader.
*
1.1. ‘Synaesthesia’ means a
personal set of associations
between modes of perceptions,
‘hearing’ blue and ‘smelling’ four,
for instance. Given its etymology,
it could equally well mean a
personal set of associations
between ideas.
The relation of author to model
varies. “Kafka,” “Cage,” and
“Wittgenstein” are the authors
of their essays; “Bob Dylan”
(considerably mythologised),
“Cavafy,” and “Dostoyevsky”
(displaced to contemporary Sydney)
are the protagonists of theirs. But
what, then, of “John Hughes”? He is,
surely, the author of the essays about
1.1.1. If a text depends on
this kind of synaesthesia
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other writers, but is he the author
or the “author” of the essays by
other writers?
These observations stand to Someone
Else as a conventional review stands to
a novel. What I have done to Hughes
in this review is what he has done to
his subjects. My object was to show,
not tell, the pleasures and frustrations
of his approach, an approach which
has made a pastiche of other books
that have influenced the author on
his imaginative journey. To that
end, I have deliberately failed to
give most of my references (and the
footnote is deliberately unhelpful,
too); deliberately been obscure;
deliberately mimicked a variety of
other writers. Readers equipped to
enjoy Hughes will, I hope, enjoy my
review and understand all I am saying
about the book.
The relationship between an author
and his readers is tenuous. What,
after all, do (I)* the reader know of
the author? Only what he chooses
to tell (me) through his book. If he
wears a different mask every five
pages, how can (I) know what his
face looks like? If, indeed, “Someone
Else uses the essay as a form of
autobiography,” as the back cover
asserts, the writer would seem to
have no values or opinions of his
own and only a poor grip on reality.
Perhaps he is simply lost in a library
that has become both a memorypalace and a maze.
* Thank you, Ron-the-Elder, for this
neat locution.
*
Should I say that Someone Else has
“beautiful moments but bad quarter
hours”? No, that is too harsh; but the
fact that it occurred to me may stand
as a warning. At least this book is not
so long as the works to which that
epigram originally applied.
g
Joanna McIntyre
Should I say that Someone Else is
“both good and original, but the
parts that are good are not original
and the parts that are original are
not good”? No, that also is too
harsh; but the fact that it occurred
to me may stand as a warning. Many
of the parts are very good indeed but
Someone Else is too uneven and too
dependent on others’ imaginations
to be entirely satisfying.
NOT A THING
OF THE PAST
Zillah Eisenstein. Sexual Decoys:
Gender, Race and War in Imperial
Democracy. Nor th Melbourne:
Spinifex Press. ISBN 13: 978 1 876756
63 5 paperback. pp.142 + ViiiRRP: $AU
34.95.
For many years before the 2008
US presidential election ushered
*
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in Barack Obama and a so-called
“post-race” era of equality and
liberation, the social and political
landscape in the US was marred
by deceit and discrimination,
destruction and unnecessary death.
For example: Eisenstein poses
the question of whether the fear
mongering surrounding terrorism is
a reincarnation of the once stifling
threat of communism; discussing
the apparent need for contemporary
female political leaders to adopt
masculine attributes in order to
be deemed legitimate, she cites
eighteenth century Russian ruler
Catherine the Great as a precedent;
and at one point compares US
citizens’ ignorance of atrocities carried
out at Guantanamo Bay to that
of German citizens who remained
unaware of the murder of millions of
Jews under the Nazi regime. Clearly
history has a way of repeating, and
now more than ever we need to
remain mindful of our recent past
in order to move forward. A product
of its time, Sexual Decoys provides
not only a snapshot of that epoch
but also a conscientious evaluation
of mistakes and pitfalls future
generations need to avoid.
Lest we forget.
Zillah Eisenstein’s 2007 book Sexual
Decoys: Gender, Race and War in
Imperial Democracy offers a cutting,
insightful and unapologetic feminist
critique of injustices waged during
the reign of the Bush/Cheney
administration. Her aim is to
incite change and her focus is the
gendering and racialising of western
politics. As Eisenstein states in the
preface: “I look to trace and uncover
the racialized and gendered silenced
stories of this militarized moment
of global capitalist racialized
patriarchy … It is the racializing
and gendering of politics that I wish
to see more clearly for today” (xixii). Speaking here of a ‘moment’
and “today,” it is clear the book is
specific to a particular period and
Eisenstein meant it to be so. Its
brave task at the time of publication
was to counter the very lies and
propaganda the book unpacks.
Throughout her career as an activist
and academic, Eisenstein, who
teaches in the Politics Department
at Ithaca College in New York, has
critiqued and condemned those
forces that oppose equal rights and
social justice, both in her homeland
of the US and around the world. In
Sexual Decoys, Eisenstein deploys the
concept of “sexual and racial decoys”
to expose the ways in which certain
political figures from minority groups
actually function to perpetuate the
discrimination visited upon the
very minority group/s to which
they belong. Far beyond tokenism,
these figures are a distracting front, a
Though the times have shifted and
thus the book no longer fulfills
its original purpose, Sexual Decoys
continues to be an important work.
It presents readers today with
the opportunity for a moment of
reflection, an opportunity that is
especially pertinent in light of
the book’s own consideration
of that which has come before.
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diversion — decoys — presenting a
façade of diversity within rightwing
parties that hides ingrained sexism
and racism. Eisenstein argues that
these female and/or black ‘decoys’
support the interests of white males,
and in doing so often undermine the
very aspects of affirmative action that
enabled them to rise to a position of
power in the first place.
exclusion from these spaces is not
parallel to their inclusion in them:
“inclusion and exclusion are not
simple opposites. Inclusion allows a
partial recognition of the gendering
and racing of power, but not a power
shift. Exclusion exposes the need for
a power shift” (94).
The book untangles the complexities
of the gendered and racialized
politics of “wars of/on terror” (39), to
reveal the crimes and contradictions
of what she refers to as patriarchal
imperialism and “neoliberal fascism.”
Scrutinising the sexism and racism
imbedded in a country where the
poor get poorer and the rich get
richer, Eisenstein discusses, among
other things the human rights abuses
carried out by American soldiers
(a number of them female) at Abu
Ghraib; the extreme (and at the time
largely undisclosed) human toll of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the
torture inflicted at Guantanamo Bay;
Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath;
and the large percentage of black
Americans whose options in life
are dominated by the possibility of
ending up in gaol or enlisting in the
armed forces.
Central to Eisenstein’s arguments
regarding the causes and effects
of sexual decoys is the necessary
distinction between sex and gender.
Her emphasis of post-structuralist
sex/gender fluidity is especially
important in her reconceptualisation
of who is able to occupy the position
of, and act in the interests of, the rich
white man; according to Eisenstein,
“men can be either male or female,
white or ‘other-than’” (xi) and
if someone is female and/or black
and/or gay in a politically powerful
position, the chances are that they
function as one of these “men.”
Using Condoleezza Rice as just one
example, Eisenstein asserts that
while such power brokers — who
are the exception, not the rule —
have little if anything in common
with the minorities they are seen
to “represent”; conservative parties
put their minority status to use.
Such individuals’ presence within
these realms gives an impression
of diversity and commitment to
affirmative action programs, and can
thus conceal real discrimination in
government policy and in society.
Eisenstein contends that their
Se x u a l D e c oy s i s p r ov o c a t i v e
but shies away from becoming
a polemic. Eisenstein takes an
uncompromisingly feminist stance
and while at times this seems overlyfocused, her thorough research, broad
knowledge base and sound logic
are hard to refute. Many Australian
readers will draw (often unsettling)
parallels with Australian politics of
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the time, and generally the book
will be of interest to scholars of
feminism, critical race theory,
politics and, now, history. As an
historical piece, it incorporates
some interesting primary sources,
including Eisenstein’s personal
experiences, quotes from “ordinary”
citizens, government websites
that have already disappeared, as
well as time-specific perspectives
on differing facets of popular
culture. These elements, along with
Eisenstein’s accessible and passionate
prose, make Sexual Decoys an
entirely digestible piece.
A reflection on Sexual Decoys is also
timely in light of Eisenstein’s latest
work, The Audacity of Races and
Genders: A Personal and Global Story
of the Obama Election, published in
November 2009. The Audacity of
Race and Gender contemplates the
next stage of the journey for this
world superpower, considering the
new anti-imperial possibilities for
the US and how it might affect race
and gender.
Sexual Decoys documents how things
were and how things needed to
change; although it is tempting to
believe such racism and sexism is in
the past, this book is nothing if not
testament to how insidious these
discriminations can be, reminding
us to remain vigilant.
g
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Notes on Contributors
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Rebecca Babcock is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University in Halifax,
Canada. Her fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, in Room of One’s
Own, Fait AcCompLit, and The Dalhousie Review.
Nadine Brown is currently working on two novels, and studying creative
writing at Curtin University in Western Australia. She is also working on a
collection of short stories set in a suburban street. Her stories and poetry have
been published in various literary journals, including Page Seventeen, Antipodes
and Indigo. Allison Craven is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Humanities, School
of Arts and Social Sciences at James Cook University in Townsville, where she
teaches Cinema, Communication, and Children’s Literature. Her main research
interests are in gender, culture, and fairy tale; and she has also published on
children’s literature in education, and on Australian film.
Paulo da Costa was born in Angola and raised in Portugal. He is a writer,
editor, and translator living on the West Coast of Canada. Paulo’s first book of
fiction The Scent of a Lie received the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for
the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W. O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book
Prize. His poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines around
the world and have been translated to Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Serbian,
Slovenian, and Portuguese.
David J. Delaney is a Cairns-based writer in his mid 50s who left school three
months into grade 8 at age fifteen. He possesses no formal education in writing.
In late 2006, David started writing poetry, and since then he has self-published
two books sold worldwide, with a third soon to be published in America.
Brian Edwards writes theory and criticism, poetry and fiction. His recent
books include Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction (1998); two collections of
poetry, All in Time (2003) and The Escape Sonnets (2006); a collection of short
fiction, Corresponding with Thomas Pynchon (2006); and the edited anthologies,
A Book of Evidence (2004), and Rags of Time (2005). His latest collection of
poetry is In the Real World (Papyrus Publishing, 2009).
D.C Elliott is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently studying
for his PhD in creative writing at Latrobe University, and has spent 2009
writing on a variety of subjects, from horror cinema to digital culture. He is
currently working on a novel that deals with an Australian school shooting.
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Will Fraser has had more than 200 poems published in Australia, New Zealand
and the UK and four chapbooks published by Picaro Press, NSW.
Sam Hall is an undergraduate student at James Cook University majoring in
English. His interests are travel, writing, and music.
Christopher (Kit) Kelen’s most recent volumes of poetry are Dredging the
Delta (book of Macao poems and sketches), published in 2007 by Cinnamon
Press (UK), and After Meng Jiao: Responses to the Tang Poet, published in 2008
by VAC (Chicago, IL). Kelen has taught Literature and Creative Writing for the
last eight years at the University of Macau in south China. In December 2008,
the Association of Stories in Macao (ASM) published a book entitled I Roll the
Dice, the first significant English language anthology of Macao poetry, a volume
of more than 400 pages containing the work of 117 poets and 16 translators.
Kelen co-edited the anthology with Agnes Vong.
Victoria Kuttainen is a lecturer in English at James Cook University where
she teaches postcolonial studies, reading and writing the short story, and
academic writing. Her book Unsettling Stories: Settler Postcolonialism and
the Short Story Composite was published in February 2010 with Cambridge
Scholars Press. She has published articles on trauma fiction, Tim Winton, Thea
Astley, and Olga Masters.
Russell McGregor is Associate Professor of history in the School of Arts
and Social Sciences at James Cook University, Townsville. He has published
extensively on the history of settler Australian ideas about Aborigines,
including the award-winning book Imagined Destinies, and on the history of
Australian nationalism.
Joanna McIntyre is a PhD candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at
The University of Queensland. Her thesis project examines historical and
contemporary Australian screen media representations of male-to-female
transgender. Joanna has also written on the gender and sexual politics of
temporary transvestite film, cinematic representations of queer space, and
transgender violence in Australian film.
Hazel Menehira is a Fellow of Trinity College, London, and has a lifetime
background as a journalist, tutor, theatre director, reviewer, and adjudicator. A
member of NZSA,Tropical Writers, and Book Creators Circle Hazel mentors
writers and performers whilst still writing daily across the genre. Her eighth
book an historical novel The Seer Stone and a poetry collection Beguiled were
launched recently and released in New Zealand in February, 2010.
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Notes on Contributors
Nikesh Murali’s stories have appeared in Cha, Pressed, and several other
magazines. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He is a tutor and
researcher at James Cook University and is working towards his Doctorate in
Creative Writing.
A.A. Norton is an astrophysicist who grew up in the Southwest region of
the United States. Aimee’s favourite things include modern poetry and the
sun’s magnetic fields. She is currently an astronomy lecturer at James Cook
University in Townsville.
Kate Obsborne lives in North Queensland. Her digital stories and essays aim
to reveal local identity and to deepen our connections to the rhythms of nature.
She is passionate about writing about people and events that enrich regional
culture and promote environmental sustainability. Kate is a student in James
Cook University's postgraduate writing program.
Nathanael O’Reilly is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of
Literature and Languages at The University of Texas at Tyler. He holds a PhD
in Literature from Western Michigan University. His dissertation, “Between
the City and the Bush: Suburbia in the Contemporary Australian Novel,”
examines eleven Australian novels published from the 1960s to the present,
including works by Patrick White, George Johnston, David Malouf, Gerald
Murnane, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Melissa Lucashenko, and A.L. McCann.
His criticism and poetry have been published in North America, Europe,
Australia, Asia, and the South Pacific. He serves as the Vice-President of the
American Association of Australian Literary Studies. He recently co-edited
(with Jean-Francois Vernay) a special issue of Antipodes (23.1) entitled Fear
in Australian Literature and Film, published in June 2009. His current project
is an edited collection of essays, Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature,
forthcoming from Cambria Press.
Marie Ramsland is Conjoint Lecturer in French at the University of Newcastle,
Australia.
Vaughan Rapatahana is a New Zealand citizen who has lived and worked
overseas for many years and is currently residing in Hong Kong. He has been
published in Aotearoa (NZ), the Philippines, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, and
this year was longlisted for the Proverse Prize in Literature.
Tony Simoes da Silva teaches in the English Literatures Program at the
University of Wollongong. He teaches and researches in the areas of Anglophone
and Lusophone postcolonial writing, life writing, and critical theory.
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204
Volume 36, 2009
Laura Solomon was born in New Zealand and spent nine years in London
before returning to New Zealand in 2007. She has an honours degree in English
Literature (Victoria University, NZ, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer
Science (University of London, 2003). She has published two novels in New
Zealand with Tandem Press: Black Light (1996) and Nothing Lasting (1997).
Her first play, “The Dummy Bride”, was produced as part of the Wellington
Fringe Festival, and her second, based on her short story, “Sprout”, was part
of the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her short story collection Alternative
Medicine was published in early 2008 by Flame Books, UK. Her novel An
Imitation of Life is to be published by Solidus, UK, in late 2009 and is to be
put forward for the 2009 John Llewyn Rhys prize, the 2010 Orange prize, and
the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s prize. Her new novel Instant Messages is to
be published in 2010. She has published various other poems and short stories
online and in various literary magazines.
Eileen Spencer is a school teacher in Canada. Originally educated in London,
she holds a Masters degree in Education from Simon Fraser University and
she convenes SFU’s Philosophers’ Café in White Rock, British Columbia. She
writes poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction.
Malcolm Tattersall moved from Melbourne to Townsville in 1990. He has
been writing about music for publications such as Sounds Australian, Australian
Music Teacher, and Music Forum since the early 1980s and began reviewing
books for the Townsville Bulletin in 2004.
Jean-François Vernay has already published a few articles on the novels of
Christos Tsiolkas, an author who features prominently in Vernay’s conspectus of
the Australian novel: Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours (Paris:
Hermann, 2009) (reviewed in this issue). His first monograph Water From the
Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch
(New York: Cambria Press, 2007) has been critically well received.
Kristen Weiss is a postgraduate student at James Cook University in the field of
marine conservation and management. Her research on Indigenous ecological
knowledge and community-based management has led her to many remote
areas of northern Australia and Torres Strait where she has been fortunate to
work with a variety of inspiring Indigenous leaders. Kristen hopes to pursue a
career in environmental education so that she can continue to communicate
the importance of environmental awareness through both scientific publications
and creative non-fiction literature as well as documentary film. Kristen is also a
student in JCU's postgraduate writing program.
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205

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