Posted on May 22, 2018 by in Lighthouse Yarns, Novel Excerpts

A portrait of Michael Mohammed AhmadInterview by Samuel Elliot
(edited by Angelina Tsinganos)

Michael Mohammed Ahmad is a Western-Sydney-based, Arab-Australian writer, teacher and editor. He is also co-founder of the autonomous literary organisation SweatShop, which prides itself on providing a platform for writers from marginalised and minority groups. Over the past two decades Ahmad’s writing has appeared in many prestigious publications such as The Guardian, The Australian, Seizure and The Lifted Brow, and his debut novel, The Tribe, won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award. His most recent novel, The Lebs (Hachette Australia, 2018), is the second in what Ahmad plans to be a trilogy of related works.


Even before its release, it seemed The Lebs had garnered a controversial reputation and would be approached by readers with preconceived notions. Did it feel this way to you?


Yes. It’s unfortunate for me as a writer that very few people wanted to talk about the writing. They wanted to talk about what they thought the novel would feature — gang rapes, terrorism and shootings. Still, you have to write what you write regardless, and let the reader determine how they feel. If subject matter is the reason someone’s gone and bought the novel, fine, but it’s during the reading that I have my opportunity to show readers what the literature and message are truly about.


So you expected readers to approach the novel this way?


Somewhat. There’s a whole bunch of factors that define a reader and their opinion. You might’ve been told preemptively that the book was going to be bad. As a male you might read it differently to the way a woman would, with the misogyny and locker room talk. I think women will read it a certain way and know that men talk like this, regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic background. I think it’s not shocking to find out that misogynist attitudes happen in all spaces, but being given access to these men’s spaces in the novel can be quite confronting.

You might notice that I go to great lengths to parallel the patriarchal misogynist goings-on of white men within the novel with those of the Middle-Eastern Western Suburbs community. There’s one scene in particular that involves Bani (the novel’s main character) going to the movies with his friends and a girl. Now, ostensibly all they are doing is watching American Pie, but this is undeniably a film that raised a whole generation of young men, especially in regards to the way they behaved towards women. Within the context of my novel, there was a generation of Lebanese-Australians largely branded as being gang-rapists because of their — our — culture, yet here is American Pie, which is a film from the mainstream acceptable culture, promoting these incorrect, misogynistic ideals of women. That was what I wanted to depict and explore — I was trying to have discussions about male culture across all ethnicities.


What were the origins of the novel? Is there a semi-autobiographical element to it?


The Lebs, for me, is a fictional book, but was shaped by my growing up. As an Arab-Australian male growing up in Western Sydney, I regularly saw my friends getting stabbed, saw them on the news in relation to crime, or associated with gangs and rape. I think people want to know who these people calling themselves ‘young Lebs’ are; I think that after 9/11 and after the gang rapes, there was a lot of mystery surrounding these young men. But most of the narrative and rhetoric from that time came from journalists and politicians, from outsiders, who had never really set foot within Western Sydney. If you want to know us, you have to come to us, you have to know from a Leb, you can’t know us from a second or third-hand source. I wanted to use my voice – an authentic voice – to subvert and challenge the fake and inaccurate ones.


Did you have any reservations about depicting certain events or elements of the story?


I did find it terrifying a lot of the time. I mean, there isn’t one person I think I haven’t gone after in this book. The reason I set it in Punchbowl Boys was because I wanted it to be truthful and based on my own experience of going to school there.

I was also conflicted about how to represent some of the misogynistic attitudes and expressions, violence, and criminal activities in the book. I wanted to write about them but I didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes given to us by the white community. I think a lot of white readers in particular look for excuses to reinforce their racism and I didn’t want the book used as a platform for that. So there was fear of giving white racists more fuel, but then in addition to that, I was concerned about how the white leftist arts community was going to respond because they have a history of appearing to be aligned with marginalised artists, but then acting against their interests.

The last third of the book is actually a very long, painful critique of white leftist communities and how they engage with people of colour. I know that a lot of white middle-class artists have built their careers on this, on normalising this discourse; I think the book is going to ruffle their feathers and I expect a lot of backlash for that. Some white artists, white writers, white whatever, actively take minorities’ stories, and it doesn’t help their situation, or the situation of asylum seekers on Nauru, or refugees fleeing Syria. This isn’t just rhetoric for me, this is me saying to the country that we are tired of white writers and artists stealing our stories to win awards. It’s such destructive and painful behaviour.


Bani’s unabashed love of literature and sense of superiority over his peers often makes him appear to be an outsider. Did that sharp contrast between Bani and his friends make it easier, or more difficult, to explore the identity and issues of young Lebanese Australian men?


More difficult. Readers have said that he is contradictory, but the people making those claims are acting as if I don’t know that, like I don’t know he has contradictory thoughts or feelings. At times we’ll subvert expectations of Lebanese Australian men, and at other times we’ll play into them.

Some people will have difficulty separating fact from fiction and my writing from me. I write consciously as a creative writer. Bani, to me, is a boy that is complex and has contradictory feelings and is a critical thinker: he’ll be quoting Lolita in one sentence and then he’ll quote the Quran and then, just as quickly, say something utterly bigoted. He’s still a boy in many respects, and quite often I think it’s difficult for people to realise that he’s just trying to make sense of who he is and of his position.

For me, as a young Arab-Muslim man, it wasn’t like I wanted to throw my heritage and religion away, and ultimately neither does Bani. There were so many things about being a Leb that I wanted to escape from when I was young, but by the same token there were so many elements of my culture and religion that I wanted to hang onto — and those are the qualities I wanted to give to Bani. Complex character or not, contradictory or not, outsider or not, he is real in this regard.


Bani is shown to be terribly self-conscious. Do you think all young men battle with this vulnerability and self-doubt in regards to their identity?


Aside from Bani, I don’t think we give most young men enough credit. If you read the novel at face value and just label the characters as misogynists, you miss seeing them as people, people that usually pretend to be tougher and more ‘gangster’ than they really are. There are times when there’s extreme violence, but quite often that’s just the elaborate performance of hyper-violence and hyper-masculinity.

When the media tells you that you’re a beast, it can be empowering to agree, ‘Yeah, I’m a beast’. You feel like an enigma in your community and it seems attractive to behave and perform as the monster you’ve been made out to be. I’d argue that those boys in the book are in many ways smarter than Bani, because he thinks it’s better not to be a Leb, that it’s better to embrace white culture. But they have worked out that’s not true, and in the end Bani works that out as well. When we talk about intelligence, we don’t give those young men enough credit; true, they might not pass the HSC, but their understanding of foreign policy is beyond what most white adult Australian males know.

Bear in mind that when I use the term ‘Leb’, it’s not just shorthand for Lebanese. There are many races — Pakistanis, Iranians, Jordanians, Iraqis, etc., — that have identified with, or been pigeonholed into this definition. I use it as a totally brand-new, hybrid Australian term that emerged around the time of 9/11. If you look at the character’s behaviour, much of it is nothing like traditional Lebanese behaviour, much of it appropriates African American culture, and that is because African Americans do a great job of pointing out white patriarchy. This again ties into the self-awareness of these young men.


In the latter half of the novel, in Bani’s post-Punchbowl Boys days when he is working at the fictional BAS (Bankstown Arts Service), other performers — particularly women in the group — challenge his belief systems. Do you think our identities are challenged and changed, even after we’ve reached adulthood?


A cover image of the book, The LebsI think that that last story is the most challenging one, it’s definitely the one that white Australians are struggling with. They argue that it makes no sense that Bani is hanging out with white artists. I find that a little bit ironic, this perception that the least necessary thing for a Lebanese Australian author to do is to comment on interaction with white Australians. For me, that story is intersectional. That might be one of the best ways to look at what I’m trying to do here — I’m trying to understand the intersectional situation of coming into contact with other cultural groups.

That last story and the white characters featured in it are a commentary on the arts scene in Western Sydney. Although I wrote it about a fictional place, there are real places in Bankstown similar to that organisation. It wasn’t a comment on one particular arts group, but on all of them, and particularly on those old patriarchal ones run by white people. That is an old model and if you talk to artists or writers of colour, if you look at the way that model works, it’s built on themes of supposed multiculturalism, but actually it’s founded by white men and built around furthering their agendas. What these artists will tell you about white-run places is that they are often abusive and exploitative, and most of them will usually end up empowering white people at the expense of people of colour.

What I set out to do — and I might be the first minority writer in Australia to do this — was to expose that often overlooked and systemic world. To say, let’s explore the way this sort of institution is extremely destructive for artists and writers of colour. Bani is an example of someone who is physically attacked and exploited for wanting to participate in their art. I have also experienced being pigeon-holed and stereotyped. This sort of treatment served as the inspiration for the foundation of SweatShop, which is run entirely by those of culturally diverse backgrounds. It’s a direct response to the trauma experienced by so many artists who tried to enter white-run institutions and who’ve been treated this way.


How did your personal experience as a community arts worker serve to shape the fictional BAS organisation featured in The Lebs?


As a Leb growing up in Punchbowl, I thought the way to escape my situation and the way to compensate for my own self-hate was to enter into a white middle-class institution; like that would make me feel bigger and better and more civilised. There isn’t a shortage of places that will cater to those sort of beliefs, or a shortage of pretentious white artists you can go and hang out with. They need us, these artists — it’s their job to get as many of us as possible, to get us into as many of their arty-farty creative spaces as possible. So I went into that to try and distance myself from Lebs, to outgrow Lebs.

But the whole time I did that, I felt like I was pigeon-holed and exploited and abused. I also learned from watching other minorities go through a similar process that there was something inherently exploitative about the white-artist model of institution. My sense of identity has been moulded by the trauma and pain I experienced during this process of trying to enter into a space that was actively designed to suck the soul out of me; I learned a valuable lesson.


Do you think SweatShop is an effective springboard for culturally diverse authors to get their work noticed?


I would say that in the fifteen years I’ve been working in community arts, there’s never been such a tremendous force of young people from minorities stepping forward and claiming their narratives. SweatShop has provided a safe space for these young people, and we are now seeing a generation of culturally diverse young artists correcting the older model.

A young woman named Winnie Dunn, who has grown up in Mt Druitt, one of the most marginalised communities in Australia, has effectively established a women’s writing initiative in her own right. What we are seeing from Winnie, and what she has been very vocal about, is reclaiming the narrative that has been hijacked by people like Chris Lilley. As a young woman, she has developed the resources needed to take on that fight. Peter Polites, from the first generation of SweatShop, has also set an excellent example and the trajectory of his success shows Winnie and others like her how far they can go.


Who are some of your literary influences?


American author bell hooks, and Malcolm X, his autobiography, were huge influences on me. I used his autobiography as the main text in my university thesis. The great Arab scholar Edward Said, particularly his book, Orientalism. Ghassan Hajj, from the University of Melbourne. But also local writers, definitely them. The most exciting local writers who inspire me are Peter Polites, Ellen van Neerven, Omar Sakr, and so many others from SweatShop.


What are you currently working on?


I’m working on the third book in my trilogy. There’s a conclusion to all this – it’s going somewhere. In The Tribe we saw Bani as a boy; in The Lebs we see Bani as a teenager. I think the trajectory of these books is moving towards what it takes for Bani to be a man – a relationship, an arranged marriage, and a war of sorts that he has to go through and escape from in order to be with someone he loves.


An extract from The Lebs

In the same block as the Science rooms are three Woodwork labs. Only the dumbest cunts enrol in carpentry and only the least literate teachers teach it, like Mr Ibrahim, who doesn’t even know the English alphabet. Most days I find Mr Ibrahim up in the Arabic staffroom, hanging out with the other non-English-speaking Arab teachers. He says he’s a carpenter just like Jesus. He’s poetic like Jesus too. He leaves the boys for ten minutes and when he comes back the room has been trashed.

From the corridor that joins the Science rooms to the Woodwork labs we hear him hollering like a Bedouin storyteller, ‘This classroom is my plate and when you shit on my plate you shit on my food.’ His voice is deep, all lungs and belly, and he has a fat tongue like Aladdin’s genie.

Nothing ever comes out of the Woodwork labs except desk organisers and keyrings and boys who cut themselves on Stanley knives. About five minutes into recess I see Jihad walk out of the Science block with a pocketknife stuck in his thigh. Blood has soaked his entire pants leg and is leaving a trail across the quadrangle. All the boys gather around as he walks towards the front office with a grin on his olive-oil face. ‘It’s all good, boys. Accident, just accident.’

‘What happened?’ asks Osama, the Indonesian.

‘Antony stabbed me.’

Antony Malouf is the only Lebanese Christian at our school. He’s not related to that big-time drug dealer called Danny Malouf, but no one fucks with him because Antony’s older brothers are dealers anyway. Antony asserts his dominion over us on the basketball courts, where he takes six steps without dribbling, throws the ball into the hoop and says, ‘Fuck you, ye spiks!’ That’s what Lebanese Christians call Muslims in Punchbowl, spiks.

Sheik Solomon raises his arms over his head like a weightlifter and spits back, ‘Fuck you too, ye khashby!’ That’s what we call Lebanese Christians, khashby, which means wood – because they worship the cross, which to us is nothing but a piece of timber. Solomon is the only Muslim in our school brave enough to call Antony a khashby to his face. He’s not afraid of dying for Islam; he believes jannah is waiting for him on the other side.

The basketball court becomes the closest landscape to an Arabian desert the Lebs of Punchbowl Boys have ever known, the hot air bouncing off the brick walls of the Science block, searing the tar until the ground becomes sandpaper.

Antony the khashby and Sheik Solomon the spik agree to sort out their religious differences as warriors, standing before one another on the courts like Richard the Lionheart and Salahuddin. They collide and swing wildly at each other until the Boys of Punchbowl collectively decide it’s enough and pull them apart. By the end of the fight Solomon has a black eye and a cut lip and Antony is unscathed – which is a relief. Had the fight tilted in Solomon’s favour, we all know he’d be shot at the train station in the afternoon. That’s the problem at Punchbowl Boys: even if you win, you lose.

The tension rises within these nine-foot fences and brick walls each day, after a Fob stabs a Leb or a khashby bleeds a spik, to the point where I become fully aware and fully sedated all at once, always on the lookout for a blade or bullet to penetrate my flesh but as ready for it as losing my virginity. Every Punchbowl Boy knows his limits within the school, every Punchbowl Boy knows how hard he is, and who to not fuck with, who to not even look at. I walk past drive by drug-dealer gangstas like Usuf Harris in Year 12 – a guy who doesn’t know shit about me  and he says out loud to all his hard-cunt Lebo mates, ‘I fucked this guy’s mum yesterday.’ Even if I took him on and won, I’d get my head shanked at the station after school, so I keep walking without the slightest reaction, straight towards my next class. In this way my spirit is broken and reconstructed, elevated to a point so high that my effort turns to weakness. Reading means I care too much. Pulling out an exercise book means I care too much. To stop walking means I care too much. There are no bullies at Punchbowl Boys. The school captain, Jamal, screams it out at assembly like it’s thug life. ‘What kind of a sad fuck is bothered to pick on some other sad fuck?’ We are beyond this. We are the children of the desert.

We enter through the basketball courts and there it is, the oval, sprawling out before us like a prison yard. From this end there is nothing but a windowless brick wall with three cameras perched up top. They’re too high to bring down with rocks and they can see to the far end of the fence. It is here, where binding oaths are made between lions and Lebs, that The Iliad makes sense to me. I slam Usuf Harris into the dirt but the drug dealer doesn’t cap me; Sheik Solomon pins Antony but the khashby doesn’t give him a black eye; and ten Lebos surround Banjo but the Fob doesn’t pull out a kitchen knife. On this oval we are free to glare at one another, free to break each other’s noses and shoulders and ribs and ankles; free to snap back each other’s thumbs and toenails. ‘Pass! Fucken pass!’ the Boys of Punchbowl scream at me as we go at it again and again and again. There is no revenge on the oval; there is only a football.

We are fast and united because of that ball, but we are our fastest, we are most united, when we sprint across the oval not to score a try but to break out. We head for the corner of the fence, nothing to hide behind, just an open plain and three cameras staring at us from the school wall. We have ten seconds to cross before a teacher might catch us on the monitor in the front office and send for the police to find us. When I am bolting, beside Kadar Kareem, who ripped off my beret, and Samson, the Fob who nearly killed him, and Harris, the drug dealer, and Antony, the khashby, my heart pounds like iron on iron and the splints in my shins become shockwaves of fried chicken each time I hit the grass. I hurl towards the corner of the school oval where the barbed wires of Punchbowl Boys meet the clean fence of the train line. On that cross-section we scramble like rodents, up and over the railway fence and down onto the train tracks. For the rest of the afternoon I abandon any aspirations to greatness and Whiteness. I reign over the western suburbs as a sand nigger, hassling girls and picking fights with Skips and Nips and Curry-munchers. But tomorrow I will walk through the front office and once again Mr Whitechurch and Ms Aboud will be standing in the doorway. They will each have a smirk on their anaemic face, and as I casually step past they will say to me at the same time, like two coppers, ‘Young man, what makes you think you are free?’

The Lebs can be purchased from Hachette Australia (RRP $27.99). 


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.





Spirit Maps: Cycles of Renewal (Juno Gemes & Robert Adamson)

Posted on May 8, 2018 by in Arrests of Attention, Heightened Talk

Juno Gemes:

I searched for a printer in photogravure for over twenty years before finding master printer Lothar Ostenberg. The photogravure process, which sees photographs etched into copper and printed traditionally with ink, has a long history stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Lothar still uses the Talbot-Klíc Dust Grain Photogravure Process, dating back to 1879.

COUNTRYMEN: Lawmen from Mornington Island and Aurukun greeting each other before Ceremony. Mornington Island,1978, silver gelatin print

I sent Lothar two of my most iconic  photographic images — ‘Countrymen’ and ‘One with the Land’ — created during Ceremony when I worked with Woomera-Mornington Island Culture Collective on Mornington Island, Queensland (1978-1979). These images have deep, enduring cultural resonances. Silver gelatin prints of both are held in the The National Gallery of Australia and The National Portrait Gallery.

ONE WITH THE LAND: Where the sacred fish the Dunya & Wanra come in. Mornington Island, 1978, silver gelatin print

When we met, Lothar had a collection of handmade papers in his flat-liner drawer which had been waiting for years for a special project. Using these, he prepared two dust grain copper plate negatives from my digital files  this, he assured me, was a most difficult process.

I went through my collection of papers — samples of rare  Gampi and Kozo I had on hand for proofing and unique, old handmade papers that had been waiting in my flat-files for years for a deserving project. In Juno Gemes’ prints they found their perfect destiny. (Lothar Ostenburg)

We reached across the waters to one another — from Brooklyn in NSW to Brooklyn, New York City — to give these two images new expressions as photogravures which I call Spirit Maps.

COUNTRYMEN: Lawmen from Mornington Island and Aurukun greeting each other before Ceremony. Mornington Island,1978, copperplate negative with etched image

Meshing Bends in the Light
(Robert Adamson)

Just under the surface
mullet roll in the current;
their pale bellies catch
the sunken light, the skin
of the river erupts
above purling. The sky
hangs over the boat a wall
of shuddering light
smudging the wings
of a whistling-kite,
mudflats glow
in the developing chemicals,
black crabs hold their
claws up into the light
of the enlarger, yabbies
ping in the drain. A westerly
howls through the
darkroom. The tide
is always working
at the base of the brain.
The turning moon is
up-ended, setting on the silver
gelatin page: a hook
stopped spinning in space.
Owls shuffle their silent wings
and dissolve in the fixer.
Shape words over what you see.
The river flows from your
eyes into the sink, bulrushes
hum with mosquitoes
that speckle the print.
The last riverboat mail-run
scatters letters across
the surface, the ink
runs into the brackish tide.

ONE WITH THE LAND: Where the sacred fish the Dunya & Wanra come in. Mornington Island, 1978 Photogravure, 12/U

I had asked the Lardil Elders on Mornington Island in 1978, ‘What images should I make — what  do you want your fellow Australians to see?’ Their instruction to me was: ‘Show them that we are still here, we been here all along. Show them that our culture is still strong. Show them that my girl’.

COUNTRYMEN: Lawmen from Mornington Island and Aurukun greeting each other before Ceremony. Mornington Island,1978, Photogravure 3/U

Canticle For The Bicentennial Dead
(Robert Adamson)

They are talking, in their cedar-benched rooms
on French-polished chairs, and they talk
in reasonable tones, in the great stone buildings
they are talking firmly, in the half-light
and they mention at times the drinking of alcohol,
the sweet blood-coloured wine the young drink,
the beer they share in the riverless river-beds
and the back-streets, and in the main street—
in government-coloured parks, drinking
the sweet blood in recreation patches, campsites.
They talk, the clean-handed ones, as they gather
strange facts; and as they talk
collecting words, they sweat under nylon wigs.
Men in blue uniforms are finding the bodies,
the uniforms are finding the dead: young hunters
who have lost their hunting, singers who
would sing of fish are now found hung—
crumpled in night-rags in the public’s corners;
discovered there broken, lit by stripes
of regulated sunlight beneath the whispering
rolling cell window bars. Their bodies
found in postures of human-shaped effigies,
hunched in the dank sour urinated atmosphere
near the bed-board, beside cracked lavatory bowls,
slumped on the thousand grooved, fingernailed walls
of your local Police Station’s cell—
bodies of the street’s larrikin koories
suspended above concrete in the phenyl-thick air.
Meanwhile outside, the count continues: on radio,
on TV, the news—like Vietnam again, the faces
of mothers torn across the screens—
and the poets write no elegies, our artists
cannot describe their grief, though
the clean-handed ones paginate dossiers
and court reporters’ hands move over the papers.

ONE WITH THE LAND: Where the sacred fish the Dunya & Wanra come in. Mornington Island, 1978 Photogravure, 11/U

During Ceremony, I watched the same dance movements repeated again and again, the dancers feet making ever deeper grooves in the soft earth, illuminated by firelight. The women danced all through the night to make the young men strong for the demands of the Ceremony ahead of them. Repeating and remembering, making strong…These images are etched into my memory for a lifetime.

ONE WITH THE LAND: Where the sacred fish the Dunya & Wanra come in. Mornington Island, 1978 Photogravure, 8/U

Reflecting on these experiences, Lothar and I decided to make each photogravure print both a repetition and a unique work, repeating the two images with diverse ‘chine collé’ for each, utilizing a mounting technique in which japanese paper (washi) is glued onto backing papers, adding different tonings to each image. Thus, we were echoing one ancient cycle with another, one ancient process with another…

COUNTRYMEN: Lawmen from Mornington Island and Aurukun greeting each other before Ceremony. Mornington Island,1978, Photogravure 5/U

Working as one – remembering and repeating, as in the process of Ceremony – each unique photogravure is an act of making culture strong.

COUNTRYMEN: Lawmen from Mornington Island and Aurukun greeting each other before Ceremony. Mornington Island, 1978 Photogravure, 2/U

Over the years, my work has been a continuous act of advocacy and reciprocity to the Elder’s instructions. I feel honoured and blessed to be entrusted to take this important story of truth, endurance and cultural survival forward. Even during these challenging times for our nation.

(Robert Adamson)

It came into being from the splintered limbs
swam out and flowered into being

from chopped saplings and wood-chips
its pages glowing and telling their numbers

this a numbat’s fragile skeleton
this the imprint of the last chalk-moth

Members of court in the old languages
mumbled as wings of ground parrots flicke

At night we discovered new seeds
in an old gum’s stump as shoals of insect memory

floated out from a bee-eater’s nest
then the rasping call of an adder

We looked into the white-rimmed eyes of the elders
and wanted to turn away

until pages began stroking air
that carried back doves from the black bamboo

Australia the goshawk circled a lake
we croaked amphibian prayers to reflected skies

then stumbled off through the spinifex
Mornings threaded the whale bones with flame

as poetry baked like a rock
on the final page of dense black marble

of slate-thought that shone
until the eyes of a hunstman took us

into morning’s spokes a white trap-work
where caught finches hung their hearts drumming

Australia we sobbed through the paperbarks’ songs
to birds and the gentle animals

and to the soft-stepping people of its river-banks

Lyndsey Spider, Roughsey Lawman with his family and clan on the Bora Ground. Mornington Island, 1978, silver gelatin print

Robert Adamson’s poems have been reprinted from The Golden Bird, New and Selected Poems (Black Inc., 2008) with kind permission of the author.

Juno Gemes photographs are currently showing in Diversity, a celebration of cultural diversity by renowned Australian photographers (also featuring Pat Brassington, Blak Douglas, Nasim Nasr & William Yang). The exhibition opens tonight, Tuesday 8 May, 7.00 – 9.00 pm at Art Atrium. The artists will also be in conversation with Sandy Edwards on Thursday 10 May, 6.00 – 8.00 pm. For details visit Art Atrium.


Juno Gemes is one of Australia’s renowned social justice photographers. In images and words she has dedicated forty years of her photographic work to advocating for justice and change in the social and political landscape of Australia, in particular creating understanding and respect for the lives and struggles of Aboriginal Australians, a process that culminated in her being one of the ten photographers invited to document the National Apology in The Federal Parliament in 2008. Her landmark exhibition, Proof — Portraits from the Movement 1978-2003, was exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery in 2003 before touring Australian Museums for five years. Gemes has exhibited regularly in London, Paris and Budapest, and has had twenty solo shows and contributed to many significant group exhibitions in Australia. She has been a partner to the renowned Australian poet Robert Adamson for 30 years.

Born in 1943, Robert Adamson grew up in Neutral Bay, Australia, a harbourside suburb of Sydney. As a juvenile delinquent, he often sought refuge on the Hawkesbury River at the home of his paternal grandfather, who fished its waters for over four decades. He found his way to poetry, and over the past five decades he has produced twenty books of poetry and three books of prose. From 1970 to 1985 he was the driving force behind New Poetry, Australia’s cutting-edge poetry magazine, and in 1987, with his partner Juno Gemes, he established Paper Bark Press. He has won all the major Australian poetry awards, including the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and the Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions, 2006). His most recent book is Net Needle (Flood Editions, 2015). He currently holds the Chair in Poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney, and lives with Gemes on the Hawkesbury River.

A LIFE’S JOURNEY: Noel Tovey’s And then I found me

Posted on April 27, 2018 by in Verity La Reviews

The cover of And Then I Found Me

The cover of And Then I Found MeReview by Brenda Saunders
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

And then I found me is the story of a creative and talented artist fulfilling his dream. Noel Tovey traces the challenges, mishaps, dangers and tragedies of his life and loves in the theatre during the swinging sixties, and his travels overseas until his return to Australia aged seventy-three.

Noel Tovey (who as a child went by his father’s surname, Morton) was born in 1934, the third of five children, at a time when the hardships of the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment in Melbourne. We read of the extreme poverty and neglect Noel and his siblings experienced at the hands of their alcoholic parents. His father, Frederick J Morton, was generally unemployed and worked the streets as a busker.

Noel’s early years were previously detailed in his acclaimed first autobiography, Little Black Bastard (Hachette Australia, 2005), which was later developed into a successful one-man theatre performance. His older sister, Mag, is the only family member to prominently feature in this new account of his later life — Noel describes how Mag watched out for him when they were taken into foster care, suffering from neglect.

Noel traces his own musical abilities back to his fraternal grandfather and uncle who were musicians of African descent. They formed a duo called the Royal Bohee Bros which toured to England and played for King Edward VII. Sadly, he found his mother’s story more difficult to trace because of the dislocation experienced by Aboriginal people as a consequence of the Stolen Generations.

Noel recounts how one evening a work colleague took him to see a performance of Les Sylphides. It was a pivotal moment for him as it was then that he realised he wanted to dance, and enrolled in The National Ballet School — and later — the Boravansky School. He writes of this time: ‘Life was exciting…and I was in love with a boy in my ballet class’.

Yet it was only after he reverted to his legal birth name — his mother’s surname, Tovey — that Noel found he could leave his old life behind and escape the bad associations of his past. As Noel Morton he was subject to racist and homophobic slurs, and labelled ‘Abo’ and ‘homosexual’ by fellow artists: but a new name meant a new life for Noel Christian Tovey. From 1952 he spent his free time studying singing and ballet, and gave his first professional performance in the musical Paint your Wagon at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1954.

Noel’s dream, however, was to perform in the London theatre. After gaining experience in musicals and plays in Australia, he left for England in September 1960. With him was his friend and bride, Barbara. Both she and Noel shared a desire to escape and leave their old life behind, but neither had considered Noel’s sexuality. After the birth of their daughter, Felicity, the couple separated and Barbara returned to Melbourne. With stark honesty, Noel explores the reasons for the failure of his first marriage:

I had learned my lesson. Friendship was not the basis for a marriage, particularly if the husband is homosexual. I really tried to make it work but by repressing my natural desires and emotions I had contributed to the environment which enabled Barb to fall in love with someone else. (70-71)

Later, Tovey describes his many attempts to form a relationship with his estranged daughter, who was living back in Australia with her mother and stepfather, but tragically, Felicity died in 2005.

In Noel’s account of the following years, the reader is led on a wild ride through years of momentous opportunity and travel. He shares stories of exciting chance encounters and of the many friendships he formed among the close network of theatre people. These lively years in London are well documented by Tovey, who recounts incidents and events in intricate detail. At times though there seems to be too much information, and the speed of narrative and shift of focus can feel overwhelming and chaotic. At these points it was necessary to read back to confirm particulars of time and place; some date references would have been helpful along the way.

However this style of writing also serves to reinforce the moveable feast of a life dedicated to the stage. After years  building a repertoire in musicals, ballet, drama and television, Noel’s big break came when he was asked to choreograph  Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boy Friend in the West End, which was reviewed to great acclaim. The show toured the UK and South Africa, and in 1971 Noel returned home to tour the show in Australia. It was this visit to South Africa during the first days of apartheid that challenged Noel to confront racism up close. He visited African townships and was shocked at the discrimination and degradation of the black majority:

In 1968, the reality of who I was came to fruition the night I saw on television that Martin Luther King had been assassinated…his speech played a significant role in my eventual coming to terms with my own black inheritance and understanding the suffering my ancestors had endured…I felt guilty and ashamed because I had denied my Aboriginality for so many years. (106-7)

Another breakthrough for Noel occured during his visit to New York, where he went to study innovations in dance and became aware of ‘gay power’, joining in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Movement. ‘Gay power’ became popular in the UK too, and back in London he was asked to choreograph and develop the new musical Oh! Calcutta, a staging of eroticism and sex. Tovey describes the development of the work in detail: the rehearsals, the personal challenges and explorations, and the trust necessary for each member of the cast to present the production. He regarded it as a statement of ‘gay power’.

On the morning after the opening night, The Sun described the musical as ‘the most remarkable first night in British theatre…a turning point battle in the war of the puritans and the permissives’ (135). After a long run in London the show went to Paris.

This was a very successful period for Tovey, but after Oh! Calcutta he was looking for something new. In 1971, despite his earlier recognition that his sexuality meant friendship was not a strong enough basis for marriage, Noel became engaged to Trish, a fellow artist and friend. Yet it wasn’t until Noel met Dave, a Yorkshire accountant, while in London for a job interview, that he realised he had met the love of his life. Tovey and Trish later separated as friends.

Noel and Dave went on to establish L’Odeon, a successful decorative arts gallery in London. Tovey recounts his long-term relationship with Dave, and how he cared for him during his tragic illness and death. We are given personal insights into the early years of the AIDS epidemic in London, the fear and superstitions that abounded in the 80s, and the tragic consequences for the gay community.

This biography covers the years from 1957 to 1991. The personal photographs of the artist in costume, as well as the inclusion of show programs, embellish Tovey’s story and centre him in the life of British theatre during this time. After returning to live in Melbourne in 1991, Tovey went back to Britain to research And then I found me with the help of a 2007 Literature Board Grant from the Australia Council. The Epilogue tells of him coming to terms with his life and heritage while he explores material for the book. As he states: ‘Finally, after seventy three years, on a hot afternoon in a church in London, I found me’ (238).

And then I found me is a must-read for anyone interested in the London theatre during this exciting period. It is also a revealing account of the dedication necessary to succeed in the competitive world of the arts. In recounting his personal life, Noel Tovey writes with frank honesty of the dramas and mistakes he made as he struggled to come to terms with his race and sexuality. We see a strong determination to survive despite setbacks and tragedies, a strength formed despite — or perhaps forged in — the deprivation suffered in his early years. As we share Noel’s journey we can only marvel at the strong sense of optimism and self belief that rise from these pages.


And Then I Found Me
Noel Tovey
Magabala Books, 2017
242 pages $33.00


Brenda Saunders is a Sydney writer of Wiradjuri and British descent. She has written three collections of poetry and her work has appears in major anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Quadrant, Overland, Southerly and Best Australian Poems 2013 and 2015 (Black Inc). Brenda is a mentor for Black Wallaby, the Verity La Emerging Indigenous Poets Project. Brenda also reviews for Westerly, Mascara and Plumwood Mountain.


(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.