(Emma Fielden)

Posted on March 23, 2018 by in Arrests of Attention

A close up of a section of a drawing of small black ink spheres entirely filling the page
A black ink drawing of an irregular circle made up of numerous small spheres


A close up of a section of a black ink drawing composed of numerous small spheres


A close up section of an ink drawing of small black spheres entirely filling the page


An image of a mound of small black particles


A close up image of small black particles


A drawing of an irregular shape entirely composed of the repitition of the handwritten word, zero


A close up of an image entirely composed of the repitition of the handwritten word, zero.


A close up of a drawing entirely composed of the repitition of the handwritten word, nothing.



Gravity and Lightness II 

2018, drawing, archival ink on Arches paper, 76 x 56cm.
Photos by Document Photography.

An Infinite Line (1km)

2017, 1 kilometre of hand cut linen thread.
Photos by Document Photography.

An Infinite Line (1km) reflects upon ideas relating to the divisibility of space and matter, touching on particle physics and astronomy, Zeno’s philosophical paradoxes on infinity and Georg Cantor’s mathematical infinities.

The concept of infinite divisibility proposes that any matter can be divided into an infinite number of infinitesimal parts. To clarify this, think of dividing a line in half, then divide each of those halves in half again, and so on endlessly; the line segments become infinitely many and their size becomes infinitesimal as they move toward, but never actually reach, zero.

In the case of this artwork, the given line is 1 kilometre in length. The artist cut this line of thread by hand into particles as small as she could physically manage, moving toward the infinitesimal. By doing so, the kilometre is reconfigured into a small mound of tiny particles and we see an alternative perception of its monolithic scale. As its large scale is subverted, the infinite nature of the line is revealed, and we see how the small scale too can be infinite.

Zero and Nothing

2016, two text drawings, archival ink on Arches paper, 76 x5 6cm.
Photos by Document Photography.

Fielden’s handwritten text drawings are durational repetitive acts that engage with thoughts relating to prayer, devotional acts, indoctrination, obsession, longing and awe. The artist writes words or numbers by hand in miniscule detail so that, at first glance, the scribed characters appear abstracted as a wash of ink or a nonsensical text.

Zero and Nothing are two drawings that are part of Fielden’s ongoing exploration of the infinite. Zero and infinity are twins, sitting at either end of an endless number line.  Both have no boundaries and are more precisely defined as concepts rather than numbers. Throughout history, both have created conflict, having even been rejected as heretical by the church. These drawings contemplate zero and nothing, an empty number and its philosophical counterpart.


A photo of artist Emma Fielden in her studio

Emma Fielden in her studio at Parramatta Artist Studios, 2018.
Courtesy Parramatta Artists Studio. Photo: Jacquie Manning

Emma Fielden makes artworks to explore ideas spanning the infinite and the infinitesimal, the largest astronomical structures and the smallest constituents of matter, the unseen forces of the universe and our place in it. Initially trained in the discipline of classical music, then jewellery and hand engraving, Emma’s background instilled in her a fixation on minute details and repetitive processes, traits that remain constant for Emma in her multidisciplinary visual arts practice today.

Emma is represented by Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney, where you can now see her Gravity and Lightness drawings as part of the Summer Group Show until 4 April. Her work is exhibited regularly in Australia, and she has been a finalist and winner of numerous awards and grants. Fielden is currently in residence at Parramatta Artists Studios, and her next solo exhibition will be held at Dominik Mersch Gallery in November 2018.

Video credit: Tom Compagnoni

Parentheses (Shastra Deo)

Posted on February 13, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

stitch our disunion into the gutshot
—split my belly, suture. spare me
your hand and bandage. kneel:

your thighs bracket my hips
as you etymologise me. anatomy
of my father in the skin

around my eyes. night-bathed
I want no light but stars and fire;
bloodletter, you only take me

after dark. needle your semantics
into my sartorius—trace the morphology,
the muscle with your mouth.

what tender masonry you build
in my limbs. carve your decree in
the milk light, mark me

with sweet relief. doctor and polemic
you craft me: a lexicon of want
awaiting your translation.

Image: portrait of Shastra Deo


Shastra Deo was born in Fiji, raised in Melbourne, and lives in Brisbane. Her work deals with the intersection of trauma, memory, and selfhood, with a particular focus on corporeality and embodiment. She is currently investigating the linguistic representations of phantom limb sensation in war literature, and the relationship between war bodies, pain, and haunting. Her first book, The Agonist (UQP 2017), won the 2016 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize.

Shop girl

Posted on February 6, 2018 by in Heightened Talk

Image: male and female headless mannequins in a storeroom

if you are waiting for the right girl
the really truly special one who blows
your mind and cock and the girl shop
doesn’t have her in yet you can take
a loan girl until the right one comes
and then you can return the other one
since they mostly dust off fine
you might just have to wait a long time
to buy the girl you’re looking for
and even then she may not be available
straight away but thankfully
there are women who will let you
take them home with nothing sparkly
you can drive them round and round
for free while looking for a better one
there are women who will wait
in the passenger seat


Bronwyn Lovell is a writer living in Adelaide, Australia. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, Antipodes, Cordite, Australian Love Poems, Australian Poetry Journal and Strange Horizons. Her poetry has won the Val Vallis Award and the Adrien Abbott Poetry Prize; been shortlisted for the Fair Australia, Newcastle, Bridport and Montreal prizes; and nominated for a Rhysling Award by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She is a PhD candidate at Flinders University, where she is researching depictions of women in space in real life and science fiction stories, while composing a verse novel about a female astronaut on a mission to Mars. Her essay ‘Science Fiction’s Women Problem’ gained international attention and was a finalist for the CHASS Australia Prize for a Student. You can find her online at or follow her on Twitter @lovellybronwyn.

ONWARDS! Plans for 2018 and Christmas Wishes from Manus

Posted on December 21, 2017 by in An editorial-shaped box

Dear Readers,

As we hurtle towards the vortex otherwise known as Christmas, we at Verity La would like to thank YOU for journeying with us this year.

2017 has been momentous in Verity La Land — it’s the first year we’ve been able to pay writers (thanks to our amazing private supporters) and the first in which we’ve been granted funding from Australia Council for the Arts to pay writers again in 2018. Woohoo!!!

While our fifteen editors will continue to work in a voluntary capacity, we’re over the moon to be able to offer each piece accepted for publication next year the princely (in literary circles at least!) sum of $100. Our next reading period will be in February and we can’t wait to see what treasures lie in store. So get scribbling if you scribble, and keep an eye out for our first post on February 6. We might even have our shiny new website up and running (no promises, but our elves are working hard) and our inaugural Verity La ebook, The Hunger, will be released early in 2018. So there’s much to look forward to!

On a more sobering note, our good friend from Manus Island, Iranian poet Mohammad Ali Maleki, has left a note under our tree for you to read. As is the case with his poetry, Mohammad’s letter is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming.

May he, and all other refugees unlawfully detained in Australian immigration camps, have a peaceful Christmas, and may they look forward to the priceless gift of freedom in the new year.

Michele Seminara
Managing Editor
On behalf of Verity La


Dear Australians,

From detention on Manus Island, we — who came seeking asylum — wish you a peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Just as in the last four years, we are about to embark upon our fifth of pain, sorrow, torture, and the endless nightmare of detention.

We don’t know why we are in this prison. What illegality have we committed? What logic does the Australian Government use to decide upon our lives?

We light candles for our lost friends instead of celebrating New Year. We hope next year will be our last of such miserable times. We can’t go on under the torture of detention very much longer. We pray to be set free from this prison someday.

I wish Merry Christmas to all the Christian and Catholic people, especially to the good and wise people of Australia who’ve given us help in the past four years. I hope they are happy and healthy with their families.

I also wish a special Happy New Year to those Australians who do not like us; I love them too, from the bottom of my heart.

It is true that these dear people insulted us by swearing and sending rude comments, and that their words broke our hearts and made us feel ashamed. In fact, their comments hurt us much more than even the harsh difficulties of detention; their comments made our situation harder to bear. These dear people made us cry, and cry again.

But I respect their views and read their comments. Then I offer their words to the clean clear waters of the ocean to carry to its farthest point so I don’t have to see them anymore. And I forgive them with all my heart, and wish them a Merry Christmas.

Mohammad Ali Maleki
Manus Island, PNG

Burning the donkey (PS Cottier)

Posted on December 19, 2017 by in Heightened Talk

Burning the donkey

We were suspicious from the start.
What decent man brings a wife
pregnant as a pudding
into a new country, unless
he wants the child to be
a kind of hidden penny,
a nice little earner?

She was obviously mad,
whispering something about
a visitation, from behind
an annoying, coy blue veil.
We weren’t sure if she meant
secret police (who are unbelievably
common, in the places these people
supposedly come from,
breeding like cane-toads
in their vivid crops of lies).
She mentioned flashes and wings.
As I said, a few bats short of an attic.

He even admitted that he wasn’t sure
if the kid was his, or at least
that’s what we think he said.
It was hard to source a proper interpreter,
if, indeed, the language was real,
rather than a melange of all things foreign,
stirred like another pudding,
to be tongued off a soon-to-be silver spoon.
Mike said he thought Aramaic
was a perfume for men,
and we all had a good laugh,
but there was absolutely no whiff of that,
I can assure you.

It turned out to be a boy,
born in necessary seclusion,
though Mike said all the lights
turned themselves on
the moment the kid drew breath.
That was undeniably weird,
and a further example
of their lack of thanks
expressed in clever sabotage.
Lawyers even brought in presents,
breaching clear regulations.

Their poor excuse for a boat,
which had evaded all detection
and wound its feral ways to Darwin
despite navy, barnacles, tides and policy,
overladen with stink and sick and
God knows what else,
was towed back out and burnt.

All in all it was nothing remarkable,
although my skin is itching,
itching like an alien.
A nice little souvenir, no doubt about it.

The press should really leave it alone,
and focus on some bigger issues -
a Test begins tomorrow.



Slashed into the sea,
it smiles between Gladstone
and the Cape York tip.

Whiter than a ghost’s teeth,
it still grins and beckons
and whispers of what was.

Such colours grew there,
opalescent and alive,
and the flutter of fins

cruised the coral jungle;
parrots and striped teams
scrummed over living rock.

Now there are these teeth,
whitened into brilliance
by industrial stupidity.

The reef a skeleton —
or a jaw stuck forever
in a bleached rictus.

And what burnt Hamlet
to soliloquise on death
bracketing our shore?

Two thousand kilometres
grinning white forever,
and rumours of fish

corralled into memory’s shoals.



PS Cottier
lives in Canberra, where she rides poetry and writes bikes. Some of this appears at

of home and other closely guarded things (Justine Poon)

Posted on December 15, 2017 by in Heightened Talk


dawn begins a golden thread
circling the dark earth
and coils us back from dreams
like deep sea divers
inside diving bells

                                                breaching surface, breath-fog
                                                                        clearing from the glass,
                                                                            dripping off
                                                        water and sense memory –

my sticky skin in summer, the fan
moving teeming currents of odour –
food, motors, hot and desperate prayers
for money and more of it and now,
damp wooden walls and bleach for the mould,
sour milky grief, soap suds and cotton
on the bloody birthing bed –

up, out of bed and up the stairs
into the dry, winter morning air
to feed the birds already waiting
on the balcony.
everything smells clean here
and the kitchen has been freshly
done and varnished. there are
few soft surfaces in which the
old world can hide but still
I find them sometimes. I leave
crumbs on the faux-granite
getting bread for birds and I
know this will annoy my daughter-in-law
when she wakes. beyond the
kitchen window, the dark blue
dawn is changing, like a blush endlessly
drawing across a face: the clouds go
lilac and pink and apricot, not unlike

                the muted hues of mountain watercolours, although
                   in some temples of Guangdong, the gods and their cavalcade
                     of semi-enlightened consorts, animals and minor mischief-makers
                       lined the walls in murals of such colours –
                         you would not believe that human hands could mix pigments so bold.
                           every day firecrackers stained the ground scarlet, the acrid smoke
                             making your eyes water, and my cheeks felt feverish
                               as I scrawled our names on paper, wrapped it around the
                                stem of a grapefruit and flung it over a sprawling tree, dangerously
laden with love.

the gunpowder smell fades.
looking at the sky, now an opaque nuclear blue, cloudless and
unveiled, bare,
and yet not endless but a domed ceiling
of painted plaster which the eye hits and then
stops –
how can this be natural? this flatness holds no
promise and resists the murky imprint of
life boiling over in excess. my daughter-in-law
tells me that everything here is natural, better,
and she takes
the pouch of powdered dye out of my hand before
I can dump it into a pot
of brined and boiled eggs,
the eggs are fine, she says, and anyway the kids won’t eat them,
she fishes one out of the speckled ceramic pot and takes a bite,
just like ma-ma used to make. they’re going through a phase and
only want to eat pancakes and eggs Benedict.
too rich for breakfast.
I made these for their birthday.
they won’t eat. trust me, I’ve tried.
have you?
she takes out a Teflon pan and bagels and
bottles of sauce from the fridge and slides
out the slimy fish that looks raw to me
from a packet,
and this is the first
of a thousand dismissals
of the day. the little granddaughter,
almost grown now, walks in, sees the bobbing eggs
in my pot and beams, thank you por por! and
I feel my life expand a little again.

* * *


gaps widen in my bones,
fill with sea water,
                          I am swimming to her,
                              her letter and her face,
                                  held every night in my hand
                                      as we were apart,
                                          she has been written into my palm,
                                              the lifeline, the headline, the heartline; all,
smuggling myself, they might call it now,
with my body as the boat
and my hands and legs the captain,

he wakes, limbs achingly curled around
her absent body.
was it years? yes, it was years
between the four years they had known
each other first and then swimming to her
with a ring tucked behind his teeth.
that time seems both a snap and unimaginably
long, filled with days of hauling bok choy
out of water at dawn, taking them to market,
eating one meal in the evening with his mother
and then again the next day and the next, even
the soldiers he heard were getting sleepier
in their patrols, which was when he took his chance
to find her. the real life of wartime occupation is now
the fodder for soap operas where flash forwards
and some powder in hair suffices for endurance.

when he arrived in Hong Kong and married her,
he was told to leave those country manners behind, so he did,
and for another thirty years they lived in wooden houses
built from scrap that clung to the umber foliage of Lion Mountain.
when the whole town burned to cinder she saved the children
and their doonas and they were warm that night, at least.
they were glad, he saw, that their home was ash and that
they would be migrating into the high rises;
they wanted to be millionaires, not refugees.

he didn’t talk; he never talked much, which was why
instead of replying to her letter, he had swum
to her instead. when his arms opened in the
water he had felt the breadth of the sea and that measure
of his body making a clear path to her
was all that he could offer. now, their children
snap and shut their ears up when she talks
of what they call old times. he will be her witness
always but he says nothing to make them see
what life was like. it wasn’t good to be
the youngest son of a man with eighteen other
children and three mothers under one
roof in a peasant’s house. they don’t want
to know about those things, he knows, and so
he lets it all be erased.

it has been years again now,
since she flew to their child’s child
and was captured there.
he will swim again, he thinks,
foot on the metal step of the plane,
into the air;
outside the window, clouds bob in half formed shapes –
                         I sifted mud through my lungs for love,
                              and that was most dangerous;
                                  my blood rang strong in the saltwater
                                      and was loud to sharks and snipers,
                                          but the earth-god I carried with me kept me
                                             safe and steady and has done so ever since.
                                              I will show up wet and bleeding and propose again,
                                                  start this new life like the last.

this time is nothing, mere hours,
they bring cards around and nearly
everything in his suitcase
is forbidden. who is guarding
                                                  the shoreline this time?
she and I will have to hold the soil in us close –
for as long as it will take
the both of us to find the scraps
to build this new place
into home.


Justine Poon writes poetry, fiction, and law and humanities scholarship. She has been published in Going Down Swinging, the UTS Writers’ AnthologyLip Magazine and Demos Journal. In 2017, Justine’s writing was commissioned to feature in the Greater Together exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She is completing a PhD at the Australian National University on refugee law and critical theory.

Unearthing Hidden Histories: an interview with Claire G Coleman

Posted on December 12, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns, Novel Excerpts

Born in Western Australia, Indigenous author Claire G Coleman was raised in a Forestry’s settlement outside of Perth and identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, as well as having family ties to the Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe areas. Coleman rose to prominence after winning the Queensland State Library’s prestigious black&write! Fellowship for the bold and unique manuscript that would eventually become Terra Nullius. Written on the road as she travelled across the country, Terra Nullius is Coleman’s debut novel.

Interviewer: Samuel Elliott


The origins of Terra Nullius are embedded in the real-life massacres of First Nations people in colonial Australia which have largely been omitted from white historical accounts. Did you research these massacres in addition to drawing upon your own family history?


I was already largely aware of the history of massacres, most Aboriginal people are. I did do some research during the writing of Terra Nullius, while I was travelling around. A lot of my research was reading, and a lot of that reading was fiction: that is often how the truth of our history has been encoded.  I also just talked to people — many Indigenous people hold family history stories of massacres. The stories of massacres are everywhere: in history books, in artist’s statements inside visual art galleries, at information bays, and thinly disguised on historical plaques.  All you have to do is pay attention and look everywhere, and you can learn much of the hidden or ignored history of Australia.

I was careful to not directly reference anyone else’s family history because I have no right to those stories.  The closest I got to anyone’s stories were the stories I grew up with, mostly stories of my Country and the massacres there.  There were stories of massacres from my childhood and youth, stories my dad told me, that were horrific.  Many years later I discovered those stories were about my Country, my family.


Was examining such horrific cases of genocide what first drew you to writing Terra Nullius? How did your family history shape your writing?


My grandfather was born in Ravensthorpe, Western Australia, in our ancestral Country.  It was when visiting there for my birthday, with my parents, that I was invited to the opening of a memorial park for the victims of the massacre twenty or so kilometres out of town.  It was there, right then, that the idea that was to become Terra Nullius dropped, almost complete, into my brain.  So, a massacre that almost certainly included my own extended family, the family of my ancestors, was the story that inspired Terra Nullius. The work would not have existed, I believe, without my family history.


Despite writing a novel detailing much of Australia’s barbaric past, you remain even and impartial in your telling throughout, not uniformly demonising all white people collectively — was that difficult to maintain at times?


Sometimes it was very difficult but it was necessary to maintain that balance as I wanted the white reader to see themselves in the Settlers in my novel.  If those Settlers were too sinister, too evil, it would never work.   I loved my characters and discovered motivations in their behaviour that made them more complicated.  I do not believe that evil characters enjoy being evil or set out to be evil.  I believe solidly that everyone who does something evil holds a conviction that what they are doing is the right thing to do.  In the mind of every villain is the belief that they are the hero.

Once it is understood that every evil character believes they are good it’s imperative to treat them with respect and an even hand.

It also helped me to understand something that I knew intellectually but didn’t feel.  Despite all the evil done by white people when they colonised the world, not one of those people was evil.  Those people thought they were heroes, good-guys, they thought they were doing the ‘right thing’.  They seem to have genuinely believed they were bringing civilisation to the savages, they were taming a wilderness, they were protecting their civilisation from uncivilised outsiders.


Do you feel that Australia is starting to acknowledge its horrific past, filled with countless acts of genocide and massacres? Or do you feel that this is still hidden in shame?


Much of it, too much of it, is still hidden in shame.  Other parts are coming to light.  For example, The Ravensthorpe Historical Society built a memorial to the massacre at Coconarup, just out of town, a pretty strong acknowledgement of the massacre.  In other cases acceptance that these massacres happened is still forthcoming.  I do believe though that times are changing; maybe soon Australia will be ready to accept the truth about the invasion of this continent.

That was part of the motivation behind the writing of Terra Nullius.  I wanted to provoke empathy for my people in the hearts and minds of non-indigenous people.  If I succeeded in that mission it would also change how people view the massacres, how they view the entire history of the nation of Australia.


Still related to that, do you feel that contemporary Australian fiction continues to white-wash history?


To be honest, I don’t read a whole lot of historical fiction written by white people.  I do believe there was a higher tendency to white-wash history in the past than there is now.  Writers of historical fiction do seem to be more aware, now, that there was a brutal history in Australia, that the past was an ugly place, that their people massacred and tormented my people.

Rather than white-washing the past there is a tendency to white-wash the present, a tendency to ignore the existence of non-white characters despite the fact that we clearly exist.


Were there any earlier novels or authors that inspired your writing of Terra Nullius?


There are many earlier works I find inspiring.  War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender.  In fact, War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation.

I also read a lot of indigenous fiction. Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara is awesome; that, and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, were influences for my character Jacky.  The works of Kim Scott, set in my ancestral Country, helped me understand how to talk about those environments.  Kim also taught me to be fearless with language; his writing is fiercely powerful.  That’s just the start: I am a compulsive reader and there are doubtlessly many works that influenced me, so many that I could never name them all.


Much of your prose reads like poetry and you have cited poetry as an influence. What is it about poetry that resonates and inspires you to write? What’s different about it to say, more standard long-form prose?


I’m glad you think my novel reads like poetry, I wanted it to read like that.  I’m a fan of verse novels and they were an influence on my language.

Poetry, to me, is all about finding a way to express emotions in as elegant a way as possible.  However, poetry is usually a lot shorter than prose. Even verse novels, those niche minority works, are not as dense as prose, although they have their own soaring elegance.

Writing Terra Nullius was hard because I wanted it to have that poetic feel yet also retain the density of prose, without bogging it down. It sometimes seemed impossible to balance elegance, density and simplicity, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.


Are there any poets, contemporary or otherwise, Australian or international, that particularly inspire you? What is it about them that inspires you so much?


I’ve been a fan of Dorothy Porter for a very long time.  A lot of my obsession with elegance and beauty in language comes from my love of her sparse minimalist works. There are many contemporary poets in Australia, many of whom are my friends, who are a constant source of inspiration.  I write poetry but I am constantly surprised by how prolific some of my friends are and how powerful their verse can be.

Poetry, more than any other form of literature, is all about words, the beauty of words, and their ability to express feelings.  That is the power of poetry: it’s beautiful and expressive in a way that other forms are not.  Writing poetry, reading poetry, both have made me a better writer.


Considering how much you love poetry, how difficult was it for you to write Terra Nullius in novel form? Did you encounter any particular challenges?


Although I always intended to use poetic language, I had also always intended Terra Nullius to be a novel.  It was easier to write a novel than I thought it would be; in a way, I find writing poetry much more difficult, as much as I love it.  I have enough poetry stored away in boxes and computer files for more than one collection, and I’ve even had a couple of poems published in a journal.  I would love to publish a full collection of poetry one day but at the moment I acknowledge that I have been doing better at prose.  I have to admit I am surprised at that.


Could you tell us a bit more about your process? Did you find that the story of Terra Nullius changed much during the editing stage?


I wrote in a frenzy, almost in a fever. The story almost wrote itself, but it was my first novel so, as you would expect, there were some problems, mostly with the punctuation, and some of my language needed to be clearer. I suppose a lot of that came down to lack of experience.  There were also a couple of minor issues in the structure and timeline, mostly caused by the interwoven stories.  However, the story changed less in the editing process than I would have expected: some scenes were moved around but not in a way that changed the overall arc.


You wrote the novel while you were travelling around Australia in a caravan — what did that involve? Was there a daily set word limit?


It wasn’t so much a daily word limit, but more a case of doing as much as I could, when I could. I was getting up at 5 every morning and writing till about 7 — that was if we were moving every day, but if we weren’t moving, I’d write more. Then we’d break camp and set up again. I found it very productive. It seemed that my brain worked best at that time of morning, my thoughts were clearer and faster.


Did you find that the story was shaped by the travelling?


I wrote Terra Nullius while travelling because I first developed the idea for the novel while travelling around the country.  I didn’t want to stop travelling just because I had this great idea, so I had to do both things, write and travel, at the same time.  Because the vision was created while travelling, I don’t think it’s possible that my travels could not have changed the story.  Certainly, many of the characters are travelling, and while that is significant it is not a departure from the idea behind the work — in fact, my travels made it easier to give my characters the sense of personal displacement they needed to make the novel work.

Travelling up the West Coast I saw amazing things and met amazing people, and they would tell me their stories. Every experience had a hand in shaping the story. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to write the same novel without the journey.


Do you think that Indigenous authors are starting to get a long-denied platform within prominent mainstream literature in Australia?


It does seem a bit that way; there seems to be an increase in the publication, and also in the recognition, of Indigenous writers.  There’s still quite a way to go though, and there are still great stories by First Nations authors that are not getting their chance to be read.  Projects like the black&write! Fellowships go some of the way towards redressing the lack of platform, the lack of opportunities for First Nations writers.

I know that things are better now but I continue to hope things will improve even more.



Chapter 1 

When I saw the squalor they lived in, without any of the conveniences that make our lives better, dirty and seemingly incapable of being clean, I was horrified. When I discovered they had intelligence I was surprised. When I was told their souls had not been saved I resolved to do something about it.



JACKY WAS RUNNING. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running. The heave of his breath, the hammering of his heart were the only sounds in his world. Through the film of tears and stinging, running sweat in his eyes there was nothing to see, only a grey, green, brown blur of woodland rushing past. Jacky was running. Other days he had felt joy at the speed, at the staccato rhythm of his feet, but not today. There was no space in his life for something as abstract — as useless — as joy. Only a sense of urgency remained. Jacky was running.


Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission in silent, solitary contemplation. She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages. An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task. The recipients of her effort seemed totally incapable of appreciating what was being done for them, even going so far as resenting her help.

No matter how much she questioned the validity of the task at hand, it mattered not. She twisted, writhed, fought like a hooked eel, trying to throw off the pointy bit of steel in its mouth, inside her head where nobody else could see. She moaned, bitched and complained behind her nearly always expressionless visage, careful to ensure nobody else would ever know about it. She would persevere, she would fulfil her duty to the best of her ability.

They may be out in the middle of nowhere, there may be nobody to see them bar the ubiquitous Natives, but that was no reason to allow decorum to slide. The walls glowed faintly; an observer would guess rightly that in daylight they were a blinding pure white. The sort of white that hurts your eyes if you are foolish enough to stare at it for too long. There would not be a speck of dirt on the walls, no sand on the floor, no scuffs, nothing to demonstrate that the building was used. An army of hands kept her halls spotless.

Her robes, her habit was too thick, too stiff, too warm for this ridiculously hot place, yet to not be dressed in the full dress of her Order was unthinkable. She would never suffer a lowering of the standards of any of the women under her command, and she was always far harder on herself than she was on them. Far better to pray, again, and then again that the weather in this godforsaken place where she had found herself would get better, get cooler, or wetter. Her role, her duty was to suffer through discomfort if needs be; her job was to be disciplined, to teach discipline, to bring the Word to the ungodly, so suffer she must.

There was no escaping the certainty that she did not belong in this place, it was too hot and too dry and the food — the quickest way to earn her ire, the easiest way to unleash her famous temper was to mention the food. Certainly, there were local plants and animals that the savages seemed to relish, but surely she could not be expected to actually eat them. Attempts were being made to grow crops from home but they were hampered by the lack of rain and lack of farming expertise.

So many people kept arriving: troopers, shopkeepers and merchants, missionaries and thieves. What they needed was just one decent farmer.

Over half the colony were still totally reliant on rations delivered by ship from home, and what arrived was barely edible after the months of transit. Most of it was barely edible before it even left home, after what they had to do to make it survive the trip. Once it arrived at the colony it still had to be transported overland in the heat to the mission. The food, don’t get her started about the food. Stopping suddenly as if startled, she listened. She could hear the susurrus of voices — no intelligible words, just the faintest of tiny noises like the scurrying of the infernal mice that infested this unlivable hellhole no matter what measures they took to eliminate them. Wrapped in the comfort of her accustomed silence she followed the faint, bare trace of sound, finally tracking it down to the correct door.

Talking after lights out, and in that jabber as well — that nonsense the Natives use instead of language. Will the little monsters never learn?

She opened the door and slipped through it, the hems of her neat pressed habit cracking like a whip with the speed; she moved so fast she was almost invisible. Two children were kneeling beside their beds whispering prayers to whatever primitive god, or gods, they worshipped. Surely they were newcomers to the mission school if they knew no better.

They would soon know, that much was certain; both would be in solitary before dawn. Why wait, why not this instant?

She dragged the little animals by their too thick, too curly hair, chastising them in a constant hissing monotone, ignoring their screamed, unintelligible complaints. They had fallen before she had dragged them through the kitchen courtyard, past the new plantings she had been eyeing earlier that day in anticipation of their future fruit. The dead weight of the children was no hindrance to Bagra in her fury, they left two uneven runnels in the gravel and dust. At the far side of the dusty red-brown courtyard, past the straggling green, yellow, brown weeds that needed pulling by the too-lazy Natives, was a neat line of three sheds. They were rough but strong, constructed of sheets of iron and local wood, barely the size of kennels. Two of them she opened, the bolts sliding with a snick like a drawing blade, and the windowless doors were yanked ajar. The screech of the doors opening was even louder than the wailing of the children as they were each in turn dumped unceremoniously in a box.


Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman is published by Hachette Australia, RRP $29.99. Purchase your copy here.


Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based freelance literary and entertainment reporter. Having previously worked for The Australia Times, Elliott now produces a broad range of work for numerous publications in both digital and print. He currently divides his time between two jobs in the television industry and readying his next novel for publication. Find more of his work here.

Glossopteris (Sophie Finlay)

Posted on December 4, 2017 by in Arrests of Attention, Heightened Talk

bands of earth
etch the transantarctic ranges
cold geological burials

we are linked through the exoskeletal —
cambrian shells coil, mineralised bodies, the trilobite

and then there is glossopteris —

the unremarkable permian tongue — (found on dead explorers)
that mapped the world’s temporality
when deciduous forests spanned continents

now dredged
fossilised sunlight fuels consumption

antarctica pours
its skin off
whorls the oceans

in the tendency of all things
to decay
to turn to disorder,
entropy feeds the system

the crust furls
rivulets reach into liquid
and with nascent strands,
find pathways to collapse

‘Antarctica, Entropy and Fragility’ by Sophie Finlay


Sophie Finlay
is a visual artist and poet from Melbourne. She has been a finalist in the John Leslie Art Prize, the Mt Buller Art Prize, and winner of the ‘She Who Inspires’ Art Prize, Walker Street Gallery. She has received a highly commended certificate in the WB Yeats Poetry Prize and her poetry is published in the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self, UWAP, Cordite and Meanjin.







SPEAKING THE UNNAMEABLE & UNKNOWABLE: Meera Atkinson’s The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma

Posted on November 28, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Reviewed by Amanda Hickey
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

In her timely book, Meera Atkinson opens with a few unpalatable facts about our society and the world we live in. Fact one: in Australia not a week goes by without a woman being murdered by her partner or ex-partner. Fact two: suicide among young women is now the leading cause of death the world over.

Why then, asks Atkinson, can so much political muscle and funding be found to combat terrorism but not the domestic and familial violence that is, in truth, another battleground largely ignored by media and society?

The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma takes a wide-angle lens view at the pain, suffering, violence and trauma that is embedded within our world, but explores it through contemporary writings around trauma studies and ‘affect theory’. This theory explains how emotional feelings, those that motivate thought and action, are biologically hardwired into us. Although the theory was initiated by Spinoza, by the 1960s psychologists were starting to recognise the transgenerational transmission of parents’ traumatic experiences, such as those who were in the Holocaust, to their children. As Atkinson points out, last century’s horrors of world wars, Depression and colonialism have not necessarily lessened in this century.

Troubling and daunting social realities have beset the first decades of the twenty first century: legally dubious warfare, global terrorism, financial crisis, human induced climate change, new addictions (internet, gaming etc.), neo-colonialism and increased family and intimate partner violence. (p 3)

If we are not directly experiencing such social realities, we are certainly aware of them — just turn on the nightly news or fire up the Internet. But what role can authors, philosophers and scholars play? As transgenerational trauma is rooted in patriarchy, Atkinson maintains that literature, particularly that written by women, plays a vital role in not only exposing the trauma that all kinds of violence creates, but also in calling to attention the open wounds that are still raw. ‘Traumatic affect rumbles, spills, bursts forth, erupts, leaks, emits, fumes, whispers, screams, and acts from its restless grave, because at the deepest level it seeks recognition,’ she writes. ‘It demands witnessing and memorial and it haunts until it gets it’ (p 131).

It’s not just the individual testimony explored by poets and writers that Atkinson examines; what is of particular interest to her is the cyclical way trauma repeats or recurs at a social and political level. She explores a range of literary texts and genres including fiction, Indigenous writing, graphic memoir and l’ecriture feminine, that expound (but not always consciously) the poetics of transgenerational trauma. She outlines how this particular niche of writing is complex, multi-faceted and penetratingly deep in its exploration of traumatised characters and their narratives. In The Lover by Marguerite Duras, the narrative hinges on a scandalous love affair between a teenage girl and her Chinese lover. Yet Atkinson points out the real story is not so much the restrictions of gender at that time, but the ‘conditions of colonial patriarchy’ (p 36). In the shadow of French colonialism Duras’ protagonist is as much traumatised by her dysfunctional family — the cruel brother and deranged mother — as the illicit affair. ‘The shame-bound traumatic transmissions of colonial culture become her mother’s shame-bound traumatic transmissions, which in turn become the narrator’s — a spiraling circle of transmission’ (p 37). For Atkinson, The Lover is not just a tale of gendered experience via an erotic, cross-cultural affair, but an exploration of how traumatic memory relates to nontraditional positions regarding gender and sexuality.

Atkinson shows how the permutations of gender roles and familial trauma are taken up another notch in the darkly humorous work of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. Finely-drawn illustrations, accompanied by captions that are ‘poignant, clever and reflective’ (p 60) recount the narrative of the author’s father, an obsessive and closeted homosexual, and his premature death by possible suicide — an event that occurred just as the author, then in college, was coming out as a lesbian.

At the heart of transgenerational trauma narratives are shame, fear, anxiety and grief (including sadness and melancholy) and often these emotions are entwined with others such as anger which, for example, usually binds to shame. This kind of writing is similar to Holocaust writing because both involve ‘significant traumatic experience and history beyond the individual’ (p 56). The other feature here is that children become the caregivers or carriers of their parents’ secret histories, and that those histories end up being transmitted along with the previous generation’s trauma. When drawing on stories of family members and their secrets, ethics also come into play. For example, Bechdel wonders out loud if she ‘might be constructing her father’s repressed homosexuality as inappropriately heroic’[1]. For Atkinson, the ability of writers to interrogate their own agendas takes this writing well away from the genre of ‘misery-literature’, or memoirs that explore child abuse in an almost sensational way.

Atkinson goes deeper, examining the dark space that lies between the poetic word and affective silence, quoting the German poet Rilke, for whom poetry alone can get up to ‘the edge/of the Unsayable’ (p 85). The Unsayable can encompass many things including psychic trauma, ancestral pain, rumour and even folklore — so that the writing, according to Atkinson, becomes a ‘spooked text’ (p 81), with phantoms moving through it that affect not only the writer but every reader who comes across it. So the efficacy of the poetics of transgenerational trauma ‘speaks of, out of, and to, that which hovers between presence and absence, unnameable, and unknowable in the usual sense. Such literature is able to do this by way of a kind of channeling’ (p 86). As an example of this haunted writing, Atkinson cites the novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book, by Aboriginal Australian author, Alexis Wright. ‘The ghostliness of Carpentaria has to do with the specters of Anglo invasion and colonialism, but also with the Dreaming itself, with its open-ended quality of forever time …’ (p 97). The author has the ability to tap into the stories of her ancestors and tell the stories of what really took place. Atkinson describes as a powerful example of ancestral haunting in Indigenous storytelling a scene filmed in the ABC documentary First Footprints. An elder of the Wunambal Gaambera people, Sylvester Mangolamara, approaches a rock art figure called Gwion that was painted 12,000 years ago and speaks to it directly: ‘Gwion it’s me, Mamajii … Gwion, do you know who I am?’ (p 159). He does not pause, but opens up a conversation with this ancient figure written in humanity’s first storybook — rock paintings.

Conflicts of all kinds, past and present, have left millions of people damaged and shaped by the traumas they have experienced. When trauma is no longer hinged on a single event but becomes a destructive movement that goes on and on, it becomes ‘cyclical trauma’. In this way, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) turns into Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and those who have lived or continue to live in horrific wars like the Syrian civil war have had their brains rewired by chronic shock and misery. Atkinson explains that Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is a literary classic in its ‘vital rendering of the trauma of the Great War’ (p 116) and a fine example of the workings of cyclical trauma. Moving back and forth across time, ‘The novels testify to the trauma of masculinity on a number of levels: masculinity as traumatized, masculinity as traumatic and masculinity as traumatizing’ (p 122). One character in the trilogy, Rivers, must heal his patients so that they can be returned to the trenches for more traumatisation. Those who happen to survive the war go home to traumatise their families as they relive their own trauma in a kind of toxic feed-back loop.

Hostilities arising from the increasing stress of climate change and global environmental devastation also have their own traumatic legacies. There is also an intersection between justice and trauma in relation to gender, age, race and the treatment of animals and the natural world around us, writes Atkinson. ‘Even so, it may not be too far-fetched to suggest the earth could be experiencing something similar to the subjective shock and disturbance that occurs in the experience of trauma of sentient life forms, a kind of PTSD if you will’ (p 186).

Atkinson argues that in order for human beings to adopt more ethical action they must have, as the philosopher Spinoza advised, more internal power, and also the kind of reason that operates for the greater good. Writers are indispensable in the way forward by not only testifying to the trauma within their families and culture, but also by negotiating its consequences so that it can be transformed and ultimately healed. In the book’s foreword, Professor Gregory J. Seigworth sums up Meera Atkinson’s contribution to trauma studies: ‘There is much to gain in discovering how distinctive literary genres wrestle with their unique tellings of transgenerational trauma, and Atkinson has gifted us with a capacious critical methodology for unfolding these lessons into the everyday’ (ix).


[1] Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma
Meera Atkinson
Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
199 pages


Amanda Hickey has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums – documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and creative writing. She is also a teacher and gives Storytelling workshops to Not-for-Profits. Her first documentary (Writer & Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Producer, second unit Director) – We Are Many – was long listed for an Academy Award and is currently available on I-Tunes.

Amanda writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La, and is currently finishing a nonfiction book on a WW2 Australian soldier that will be published later this year.  She is also working on a memoir, an extract of which appeared in Verity La.

an interview with Sara Dowse

Posted on November 21, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Sara Dowse is a prize-winning Australian novelist and reviewer. Born in Chicago, Dowse grew up in Hollywood, the daughter of an actor mother and celebrity lawyer father. After experiencing anti-Semitism, she left for Australia in 1958 at the age of nineteen. After studying arts at the University of Sydney, she arrived in Canberra in 1968 and worked as a journalist and also as a tutor and publishing assistant at the College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra. Dowse became the inaugural head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for the Whitlam government.

After resigning from the public service, Dowse worked as a teacher at the Australian National University, a reviewer for newspapers and journals, and became a writer of novels and short stories. She was forty-five when her first novel, West Block: The Hidden World of Canberra’s Mandarins, based on her experiences in the Prime Minister’s department, was published by Penguin in 1984.

Dowse has also been awarded many prizes, including the ACT Book of the Year (in 1997 with Marion Halligan), and was short-listed for the Steele Rudd Award (1995) and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Prize (1996). She has also been the recipient of an Australia Council fellowship and a Harold White fellowship (1991).

Dowse is known to be someone of considerable warmth and generosity, along with a great political drive. Interviewer Nigel Featherstone spoke with her in the context of the publication of her most recent novel, As The Lonely Fly, about three Jewish women and their worldwide quest to find answers to reconcile with their complicated past.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone


Congratulations on the publication of As the Lonely Fly – it’s a grand and multi-layered novel. Can you talk a little about the work’s gestation?


Well, for one thing, it was a long one – more on the order of an elephant’s, some might say. Yet the ‘25 years in research and writing’ on the flap of the cover conjures up a misleading picture of steadfast application. There were many stumbles, distractions, disruptions and obstacles along the way. That said, the mere fact of 21 years between my last novel and this one has begged an explanation.

In 1989, on a Harold White Fellowship, I started research on what evolved into As the Lonely Fly. It was meant to be a biography. Not of a famous person, but of a little-known woman whose existence I hadn’t the slightest notion of until 1974. That was when my mother told me that her father’s sister had been a Soviet apparatchik. I was still working in the prime minister’s department then so I put what my mother told me on the backburner and there it stayed, simmering along until I was ready to do something about it. At that point I had published four novels, but fiction being such hard work, as you know, I somehow got it in my head that nonfiction would be less demanding. (Can you hear the gods laughing here?)

My work on the fellowship gave me the background. I submerged myself in Jewish and Russian history. By then I had learned that much of what my mother had said about her aunt was wrong, but much else of what I heard was wrong as well. Finally, I was able to establish, through a complex network of kin in the US and Israel, that my great aunt Lisa, like my grandfather, came from Bessarabia, a province of tsarist Russia that is now Moldova. I learned that before she became a Soviet functionary she had been a Zionist in British Mandate Palestine, that she became disillusioned with the Zionist project and joined the local communist party owing to its concern for what was happening to Arab labour. After supporting the Arab riot of 1929, she and some of the other members were jailed and sent back to Russia. But these were just the bones of the story. To assemble them into a valid narrative I needed documentation, and for that I needed to travel.

I went to Israel to search for any mention of my great aunt in the Central Zionist Archives, but when I got there they were closed for renovations. In Moscow I was given a bum steer by a fixer so missed out connecting with Memorial, the organisation set up to search for relatives’ papers in the archives. I went to Moldova and found the village she and my grandfather came from. I expected to return to these places, but then my relationship of 19 years broke up. For the second time in my life I found myself a single parent, so travel of this magnitude was out of the question. I wrote Digging, a therapy novel you could say, about the breakup instead.

Two years later I left for Canada with my new partner, hoping to finish the manuscript. I still had the contract with Penguin but other developments put the kibosh on it. The widespread restructuring of publishing in the late 1990s created the landscape of multinational conglomerates we’re familiar with today. To put it bluntly, the bean counters prevailed. Books were now entertainment, to be marketed as such.  Having grown up in Hollywood, I knew the model well. You were only as good as your last book – the halcyon days when publishers backed writers they believed in through to maturity were over. Literary ‘stars’ were picked, literary fiction got a body blow, and readily identifiable and marketed genres were born.

The manuscript I presented was a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, and was immediately rejected. Not only did it not meet the new requirements, the personnel at Penguin had changed. Gone were the publisher and editor who had worked on my previous books. While other publishers showed interest, the manuscript was too long and would need a good edit, and budgets for editing had been cut. Even established writers began to pay for editing before offering manuscripts to publishers. Yet paradoxically, agents and publishers alike were on the hunt for new talent. The day of the exciting ‘debut’ novel had arrived.

At some stage I decided that, without the documentation, I might as well turn the manuscript into a novel. But in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, there was zilch interest in a communist central character. Nor was there much sympathy for any book that questioned the premise of Zionism or the wisdom of a Jewish-privileged state. For my sanity I took up painting, and more or less resigned myself to this novel never seeing the light of day unless I published it myself. So it would have stood had I not been led by the hand to Jen McDonald, who had just embarked on her own publishing venture. And times have changed.


How did you approach the task of developing a manuscript that was, as you say, a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction?


I had a model, a book that not only touched on a familiar subject but offered a way of dealing with it. This was Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House, first published in 1983, but I read the Virago edition that came out in 1994, just after I’d returned from Russia and was looking for a way to assemble all the material I’d gained from my travels and the interviews I’d had. (Virago has re-released it, I see, in a twentieth anniversary edition.) Anyway, this was Chernin’s story of her mother, Rose Chernin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who was a Communist Party organiser in New York and later in Los Angeles. So there were a number of parallels between her mother’s story and the one I was trying to write, as well as the parallels with Chernin’s story and my own.  There’s the female communist relative, the sparseness of the written record, and the locale, Los Angeles, at a time when I was living there too. We are almost exact contemporaries: Chernin is two years younger than me. She had a solid reputation as a poet when the book was first published, but she’s written in a range of modes since and has branched out into psychotherapy, or what she calls ‘listening therapy’. But unlike my great aunt, whom I came to believe died the year I was born, Chernin’s mother was a powerful presence in her childhood, yet politics took her away from her daughter – so much so that Chernin’s aim in writing the book was to find what she could about the mother she really never knew. And because Rose Chernin had died and it was too late to discover everything, Chernin interspersed what she had with fictional accounts as well as autobiographical chapters, recounting what it was like to be a politico’s daughter.

Out of interest I’ve gone back to have a look at that early, mongrelised manuscript of mine, and here are a couple of excerpts that go some way towards illustrating the method, not to mention my preoccupations at the time:

My search began, of all places, in Paris, in the summer of 1989, in the middle of the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution. With hindsight, I see how significant this was, that time and that place. The French Revolution marks the birth of modernity and, for Jews, the first step towards citizenship in the modern world. At the time I thought my going to Paris resulted merely from a happy convergence of a number of factors in my personal life. My partner, a molecular biologist, had chosen the Pasteur Institute for his sabbatical. As a rule, I didn’t accompany him on his sabbaticals but this, after all, was Paris. I had never been to Paris, had never been to Europe in fact. My one great feat of travel had been to migrate to Australia in the 1950s, and I was limited thereafter to trips back to America. My mother, however, went to Paris often. It seemed an excellent opportunity to see more of the world and more of her too, and I wanted to question her further about my grandfather’s sister.

How much of the world that summer would that Soviet commissar have recognised? It was barely recognisable to me. I had grown up myself (if that is what you could call it) with two giant wars loping beside me. Born two nights after Kristallnacht, I had lived less than a year before World War Two was declared, and was only six when the Cold War overtook it, when ‘Communist’ became an ugly word again and my mother and stepfather were unable to get work because for a brief spell years before my mother had become one. Then, I was an adult, and the Left emerged as a credible force again, as it had been at the height of the Depression when my mother was a bristling young woman fired with a passion for justice, and in the forties when the United States and Russia were allies. The new credibility came with the swell of protest against the war in Vietnam and I let my hair frizz and marched in my bell-bottomed jeans and, overcoming my shyness, shouted myself hoarse with hundreds of thousands of others, and whole societies – American, Australian – had turned radical, as I had. But in the eighties all that had faded, a distant, melancholy, vaguely embarrassing tune. We were conservatives again, consuming with a vengeance and making new families, and the Right had risen as it had in the fifties. Right-wing governments ruled in almost all the Western democracies and even in countries like France or Australia, with socialist or labour governments, right-wing policies – smaller governments, freer markets – prevailed. Indeed it had become unfashionable even to call them such; in the changed political climate the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ were said to have no meaning.

In Germany that summer, the eastern, Communist half was disintegrating. By the end of the year the wall that had separated it from the West for twenty-eight years had come down, and Germany was on its way towards reuniting. Indeed, Europe itself was uniting, though we could scarcely have believed it even then. All the countries of Eastern Europe were shedding their Communism; the puppet regimes were toppling because Moscow was bankrupt and was withdrawing its support. One by one they went, almost without resistance, not a thaw this time but an avalanche: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Yugoslovia, Albania. Even Ceausescu’s Romania fell with only a hiccup of a struggle. In France, where it had all begun two hundred years before, where the streets were awash with signs and symbols of the Revolution – the mobcaps and toy guillotine – we were moving through a kind of docu-drama. ‘Robespierre: Est-il Coupable?’ shrieked the Express placards at the corner kiosks. Revolution was in the air, but it was another revolution. The Cold War, that chilling bipolar disorder that had dominated the globe and my own puny life for five decades, was ending.

Soon Francis Fukiyama would publish his End of History, contending that the world had rejected ideology. The West had won. Capitalism had won.  Consumptor victor, consumer triumphant. But though the signs were there that muggy July of 1989, this new revolution was not yet accomplished. The Warsaw Pact was crumbling, but few could have imagined that in two years’ time the Soviet Union itself would collapse, or that the socialist fervour that galvanised so many for so long would prove so totally moribund.

And then, a few chapters later, my great aunt’s response:

LISTEN to her, if you please. It has been my good fortune to witness these excursions of hers for more than a decade, if fortune is what you would call it. Well, perhaps it is. But why do I speak in years, when time, that sly trickster, no longer has meaning for me? As a matter of fact, not much that I once knew has any meaning for me. I suppose I should find this amusing. Not time, not work, not struggle, not pleasure, not pain. No pain as I once experienced it. No, I would sigh, if my sighing were to serve any purpose, no pain. Not even memory, because memory brings with it the notion of time, and there is no time where I’m speaking from. Time as a system, place as a map: these things exist, but in no material sense – at least for me. There is, as it happens, great freedom in this, a freedom, yes, that I longed for, yet a freedom for which I was wholly unprepared and was the last to have expected. But knowing this, this unshakeable, awe-inducing knowing, is fraught with consequence, and danger – a problem we’ll face again and again in the course of my story.  Or whatever story she makes of it. It is all in her hands. Don’t imagine that I don’t see the irony in this. But for now, assuming for the sake of our communication that there is a now, I am watching, watching, I’ll admit, from a vantage of unique perspective and privilege. I watch, bemused, amused, saddened, frustrated, delighted, chagrined. This woman who goes looking – what will she say when whatever it is that she is looking for she finds? Not that this frightens me – you will understand by now that it is part of this privilege I enjoy that I am no longer prey to fear. It is more a sensitivity to the inordinate complexity of the facts, the complications piled upon complications, an endlessly pebbly, jumbled moraine of gross confusion and disorder, all so unnecessary from where I stand, and all of it conspiring to obscure. I put my trust in simple things now, and if she were to stay still long enough to listen I would tell her, for these – for all time, that time that is no longer time – are the keys: a cool glass of cordial, ruby red; a piece of light cake, delicate and resilient as an angel’s wing; the warm aroma and sour-sweet taste of bread.

Perhaps it is only when one is lost in abstraction that the tangible becomes real. I see that she has an inkling of this but still she has a longing for broad themes. Perhaps it has something to do with the sky. To hear her tell it, she is a city person. It accords with her image of herself as a cosmopolitan, with no particular attachments to places, but rather to ideas and, more importantly, she would argue, to people. But I observe something different and the difference, I think, is significant. I watch, and I see that she deceives herself. Yes, it has to do with the sky. And let us make it a very particular sky, a broad sky, a low sky, a swirling, cloud-tilting sky, tipsy with latitude and depth and a blueness so pure you feel you could reach up and run your fingers through the clouds.

And so it went, as my great aunt launched into her story, with intermittent squeaks from me. I had a lot of fun with it, but it wasn’t acceptable in 2001 when I presented the manuscript, and was even less so three months later when the US was attacked on 9/11. Not only that, it was far too long. But for me it was an education, not the least for using what I could as scaffolding for the novel I came up with in the end. Most of all, I slimmed down the narrative, cutting out quite a few characters (including myself), episodes and scenes. Killing my darlings? More a massacre, you could say. Though bits of it I did use almost verbatim as I folded them into the novel.


At its core, As the Lonely Fly is about social justice, perhaps even more so than about finding home or a sense of belonging. Do you agree?


Absolutely. I was drawn to my great aunt’s story (once the many misconceptions about her had been scraped away) because of what it had to say about being a Jew. At some stage in the process of uncovering her story I was forced to ask myself what my experience of being Jewish had given me. And the answer came straightaway: a passion for justice. For most of my life I have not been an observant Jew, but I treasure to this day that central tenet of Judaism. The character of Clara/Chava embodies that.  Even her name – Tsedeska, Tsedek, is a play on the Hebrew word for justice – tsedaka. And there is absolutely no justice in what the Palestinians have suffered through the Zionism she once embraced and then came to reject. This, remember, was in the 1920s, when she and some of her comrades woke up to what the consequence of their arrival in Palestine actually was. There’s a passage in As the Lonely Fly where she articulates this to her employer – ‘Not the kind of place we dreamt of,’ she says, ‘where Jews do the excluding.’ Of course this passion of hers, based as it is on compassion, gets her in a whole lot of trouble. But at the same time, it’s what ennobles her. The other thing to note is that hers is a voice that was silenced. It has taken many decades for others to comprehend that the creation of a Jewish-privileged state has become a betrayal not only of the Palestinian people, but of Jewish tradition itself.

It’s of no small significance then that the novel begins and ends in 1967, three months after Israel became an occupying power. By this time Clara has been missing for a number of years, and this is when her American sister Marion visits their niece Zipporah in Israel. Though neither Marion nor Zipporah can be sure of what has become of Clara (other than she may or may not be alive somewhere in the Soviet Union), each finds it difficult to shake off Clara’s influence. The novel ends with Marion coming to understand what her older sister had taught her: ‘Because there was Clara, and this had been her tradition … If she could convince herself – and she couldn’t – that it was in their blood, their genes, this passion for justice, it would add nothing to the explanation. The history was enough – more than enough. Of persecution, of wandering, of false messiahs and uneasy bargains. But, more, a yearning for justice …’

Of course, not all Jews come away with that. Centuries of persecution ending in the Holocaust have made many put tribal loyalty above all other considerations, and I can understand that. But that doesn’t mean I can accept it. And there are many Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora who feel as I do. As with my great aunt and the character Clara based on her, for decades their voices have been silenced, but that is changing, and changing very rapidly now. If only our politicians would keep up with this.


For you, is writing fiction always a political act?


Not consciously. There are some who argue that everything in life is political, so perhaps writing for me is too. What I can say is that I’ve often been drawn to political subjects in my reading and that’s why history interests me so. And politics have had an immediate impact on my life. But from childhood I’ve been intrigued by consciousness as well. As far as I can tell it remains a mystery. So that is why in some of my books, most of them actually, I find myself flirting with the mystical, the mythical or paranormal. It’s there in Sapphires and Schemetime and As the Lonely Fly, a little less so in Digging. But because I think I’m seen more as a political writer, this element in my books is usually overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that, if I’m noticed at all, it’s because I have written on political themes – there aren’t that many fiction writers who till that field and I think it’s important. Although nowadays, given what our world has become, it’s hard to imagine any writer not getting tangled up with politics, whether she wants to or not.

But I do get a kick out of knowing that if any of my readers do pick up that other, mystical strand in my writing, there’s always something extra in there for them.  Because even if social life is political (we humans are herd animals and there’s no getting away from that), for the individual human it’s ultimately something else, her consciousness or, if you will, her soul. And when I say consciousness I mean the unconscious too. I guess when it comes down to it, that’s the difference between novelists and historians, and it’s occurred to me while addressing your question, that that may be the real reason I’m a novelist and not an historian and why I never published that biography.

Take my novel Sapphires. This is saturated with Kabbalistic mysticism, particularly its numerological system gematria, in which every Hebrew letter has its numerical equivalent. It gave me a template for the narrative, along with another numerical phenomenon, the Fibonacci Sequence. I’m not saying you need to know these things in order to enjoy the stories, but it may enhance the reading experience while providing the glue for holding the disparate fragments together. It’s what writers do in layering. I adopted a similar approach with Schemetime, a novel about filmmaking and its magical elements. And the Kabbala makes its appearance in As the Lonely Fly in the person of the cobbler Yehudi Ha-Kohen, the man who makes Clara/Chava a pair of sandals ‘should you ever need to fly’. He’s there years later in the novel’s very first scene when Marion visits the cemetery. And Digging opens with the ghost of the narrator’s dog. The only books that don’t have this in them are Silver City, which was Penguin’s experiment with a film novelisation, and West Block, arguably the most political book of all. The inspiration for West Block’s structure, apart from the building itself, came from John Dos Passos’s USA and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As each of Ulysses’s chapters has an art as its theme, so does West Block. So it’s not that I ‘believe’ in mysticism in any straightforward way; it’s more that when I’m writing I’m drawn to the aesthetic possibilities, it’s a conduit, if you like, to my art, a way of expanding its symbolic import, the essence of art to me, even political fiction. All fiction, I think, is composed of ‘what-ifs’ and you need to maintain an open, inquisitive mind for that, and I do think fiction is an art.


Might fiction, especially the novel form, best have its impact on the reader at the unconscious level? Perhaps that is how a work like As the Lonely Fly can bring about change?


I hope this novel can contribute to change. But I can never be confident about that. Readers read different books. And by this I don’t mean physically different books, or even different genres. I mean that they read the same book differently. Sometimes radically so. As a writer I wish I had more control over this, but that isn’t the contract we metaphorically sign. For a long time a novel like As the Lonely Fly was difficult to publish, for reasons I mentioned earlier. But now as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British foreign secretary promised the Jews ‘a national home’ in Palestine, the profound injustice to the Palestinian people resulting from this is far better recognised than it was when I embarked on the book. Now the imperial implications of Balfour are so patently evident that the novel’s critique may even be too mild for some. But it’s not enough to preach to the converted. The novel would never succeed as a novel if it didn’t transcend polemic.

If the aim is to illuminate the dilemma (the two ‘wrongs’ Amos Oz once wrote about) and through the ‘lived experience’ that fiction offers draw out the essential questions that need to be asked, then the novel is a marvellous form. Like all art it deploys the unconscious as well as the conscious. But that will always ask a lot of the reader, I think, for the novel, like opera or film, contains so many elements – its power and its weakness perhaps. There’s the story and the structure in which it unfolds; then the music, if you like, of the prose; and the symbolism of the leitmotifs; the visual effects, the imagery, of the setting; and last but certainly not least, the characters that people it and the emotions they arouse. And as readers read different books, so they pick up on different things. By that time, it’s out of your hands, though publicity and critical interpretation can help. If you’re really lucky you will have dipped into the well of the current zeitgeist, that collective unconscious of Jung’s, and everything will click.

Yet I’ve come to rely on the unconscious to do the initial work. It’s only after a draft or two that motifs and symbols begin to emerge. It’s then up to me to sculpt them, a bit like you would for high relief. That’s how I came to have the storks flying through As the Lonely Fly. The stork is a Bessarabian (now Moldovan) symbol. You see it everywhere there, on murals, as decorations. The birds nest there, then every year flocks of them fly over Israel-Palestine on their way to Africa, and take the same route back. You can draw this migration of theirs as a straight line on a map, from Moldova through to Africa. But like most symbols, storks are replete with more than one meaning. As they came to me, they represented all kinds of things: migration, of course, but a very particular one, because of that route; freedom, but freedom with its limits; birth, death, and release of the soul. There’s the theatre motif: history as theatre, as one Australian historian, Greg Dening, described it. There’s the ambiguity inherent in the concept of a Jewish nation, as evidenced in the illness of Talli, Zipporah’s stepdaughter. It may not matter if readers don’t consciously respond to all or any of these, yet I always hope that on some subliminal level they will.


Speaking of hope, As the Lonely Fly is your sixth novel over a 33-year period. Have your hopes for your work changed?


Hope. Interesting that you should ask that. I often think of myself as a pessimist, but when I examine that, as I’m wont to do at this stage in life, I think I may be wrong about that. When it boils right down to it, I’m an optimist. How else could one be a writer? I mean to closet yourself away for long periods of a time, searching for words and images to convey something you want to say, with no real idea what that something may be until you scratch that itch with a pen, and with no assurance of reward of any kind at the end? I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who said that she wrote because she wanted to be loved, but I’m not sure about that. Like anyone else I appreciate praise, and get mad when I think I’ve been criticised unfairly, or misunderstood, or overlooked. But mostly I’m incredibly grateful to be writing. I love language and words and stories. And I do believe that deep down inside I have something to say.

But fame. That’s another matter. When I cast my eye over the long chain of events behind me I realise that I’ve always been a little afraid of that. That’s the Hollywood influence. That may surprise some, especially here in Oz. Australians I think are especially susceptible to the blandishments of ‘success’ – the premium marker is to make a splash overseas. It used to be England, for the past thirty years or so it’s been America. But I saw Gatsby up close, so to speak. I saw the ugly side of fame, on both sides of my family. I saw that neither fame nor wealth brought happiness. I learned that early. I’ll do the publicity stuff because I owe it to my publisher and all the people who have supported me. And having had an actor for a mother I can perform when called on. But none of that can replace the sheer slog and satisfaction, indeed joy, of working creatively.

Yet for all that there’s a little tree of hope growing shoots inside me. I’ve written five books, all different, each succeeding I think on its own terms. And that bumptious little tree with its irrepressible shoots makes me hope, in spite of myself, that one day that will be recognised. (I don’t count Silver City because it was someone’s else’s story, although my contract gave me carte blanche to do what I thought it needed to make a novel.) In each of them I’ve taken on themes that were challenging for me and difficult perhaps for some to warm to. I mean, who would be mad enough to write a book about the public service, set in, of all places, Canberra? Or a book about an Australian filmmaker leaving for Hollywood that’s structured like a film and has all kinds of cinematic resonances? Or a book about Jews who eschewed the Jewish state? You have to have a crazy kind of quixotic hope for that.

After I’d finished the final draft of As the Lonely Fly I started work in earnest on a series of thrillers. I thought it would be fun, and it has been. Will I finish it before I go? I can’t guarantee that. But I do know that I’ve been extremely lucky, for all the chances I’ve taken. I have five kids I’m terribly proud of, nine super grandchildren, and I have known love. Love and creative work – who could want more than that?


Note: the introduction to this interview is based on information sourced from Trove.

As the Lonely Fly can be purchased from For Pity Sake Publishing.


Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian FictionMeanjinIsland, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian Book ReviewBMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Visit Nigel’s website here.