The Journey Back
(Gayle Kennedy)

Posted on March 30, 2018 by in Being Sure, Disrupt

One of my earliest memories (and one verified by mother and various relatives) is of me standing on a table surrounded by smiling people as I sang the old country song ‘I Want a Pardon for Daddy’. The faces are beaming, encouraging. The faces are black. My next memory is being trapped inside an iron lung that segues into a leafy garden and a little boy called Brian. Both of us are victims of polio. Neither of us can walk. We call each other Mummy and Daddy. We have created our own little world. We swim each day in a hydrotherapy pool filled with soothing emollients for the benefit of another little girl who has been burnt from head to toe. The little girl is allowed into our domain during those sessions. We are three little children who have no idea there are others in the world that are strong and able, with smooth skin undamaged by savage flames and limbs that obey the commands of their brains. We are spoilt and cosseted by the nurses, the orderlies, and the cook, Linda. The rehab hospital is our castle and we the rulers and already acquiring the mind skills we will need if we are to survive all that life has in store for the different, the damaged. We pay no heed to how others see us. All that matters is how we see us.

I see no other black faces over the 3 years I am in the rehab hospital. Everyone around me is white. There are no mirrors.  I am reflected solely in the faces of those around me. I never take the time to observe the colour of my skin. It is of no consequence in my world. I am for all intents and purposes the same colour as everyone else around me.

I sleep very little. My overactive imagination turns the shadows into monsters and the breathing of the children around me in the ward seems loud and threatening. I always end up whimpering and am soon gathered into the arms of a nurse who dries my tears and carries me to the nurses’ stations. I am fed buttered arrowroot biscuits and cold milk and entertain them with childish stories and remembered songs. I feel loved and safe.

After countless hours of physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and sheer bullying, Brian and I gradually learn to walk and are fitted with our callipers together. Little do we realise that this will mean that we will soon be separated, never to see each other again.

The day my life changed is deeply ingrained in my memory. I was up early as usual, breakfast, and then bath. But there was something different today. There seemed to be tears in the eyes of the nurses as they collected me for my bath. Today I was dressed in special new clothes. A little fawn coloured pinafore, pretty little blue jumper, new socks, my callipers polished, a ribbon for my hair. I was excited at the new clothes but also suspicious. Why the new clothes? Why the tears?  Why was Linda the cook fussing over me at this hour? I usually didn’t see her until later in the day. She grabbed me and held me as tight as she could. Her tears wet my face. I began to become alarmed. The head sister then told me that I was to meet my mummy and daddy today. Mummy & Daddy? What did they mean by that? Brian and I were Mummy and Daddy and I told them so in no uncertain terms. But they insisted that I was to meet my real mummy and daddy and they were taking me on a long journey. I was going home, they said.

‘But I’m already home,’ I said.

‘This is a hospital. You came here when you got sick. Your mummy and daddy are taking you back to your real home, the home you came from before you got sick,’ she said.

Eventually, confused and scared, I was taken into a room where there stood two people who seemed to be from another planet. They were introduced to me as my mummy and my daddy. I remember recoiling in horror as they handed me to the strange dark lady.

‘This is your real mummy,’ the nurse said in her most soothing voice. But I would have none of it.

I screamed, ‘She’s not my mummy! He’s not my daddy! They’re black!’

I remember tears streaming down their faces. How they must have hurt. I know now that it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t visit me. They were two people with no money, living in a society where if you were Aboriginal, you had to have permits to work and to travel. There was no independence for Aboriginal people back then. You had to have permission from the powers to be to do anything at all really. The circumstances back then meant there were no gentle introductions, no orientation days. There was no time for us to get to know each other. I was thrust into the arms of strangers with no warning and they in turn had no idea what to do with this screaming child who looked at them as though they were monsters. I was allowed to say goodbye to Brian who wept and screamed as much as I did when they finally managed to prise us apart. I still to this day think about Brian, Linda the Cook, and the little girl with the badly burnt body and wonder what became of them.

The strange couple carried me, still screaming, into a bustling, noisy, crowded Central Railway Station, desperately trying to ignore the suspicious stares of the strangers around them. All their soothing and stroking was to no avail. I continued to weep as we boarded the train. Eventually, with a shudder, it pulled out. We were passing through suburbs of poky backyards with thin, waving children and grey washing flapping on clotheslines that stood like drab sentinels in the yards that backed onto the train tracks in a late 1950’s Sydney.

Then we were in the countryside and my childish interest was piqued. Cows, sheep and horses grazed in green paddocks. I had only seen them in books before. I stopped crying long enough to ask if they were real. The two strange people grasped the chance to connect with me at last. Each animal was pointed out, given names. I calmed down and started to relax into the warmth of the dark-skinned lady who, now that I was not struggling and screaming, seemed so soft. Her eyes were big and brown and filled with tears. She stroked my hair and whispered, ‘we’re going home now baby girl’.

‘Back to the ward?’ I asked.

‘No baby girl, home to your real home. You have a baby brother and sister. They’re called Buddy and Lulla. You have a grandma and grandpa and cousins. There are horses and dogs. You’ll see. We’ll take good care of you.’

The journey seemed to take forever but the kind gentle lady held me. I became sleepy and nestled my head into her breast. Her blouse was damp from our intermingled tears. I finally slept.

The next morning the train pulled up at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. There were a few ramshackle houses and what seemed to be vast expanses of red dirt. There were no trees, just scrub. I remember Connie Francis singing ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, blaring out from the stationmaster’s radio. We walked away from the station and into an eerie silence. I began to think that these people really were aliens. They had taken me to some far-off planet and I whimpered in fear. Dad could see my distress and took me from Mum’s arms and hoisted me onto his shoulders. We continued across the red earth with its strange little trees. An emu darted past us and lying in the shade of the saltbush was a goanna. It was so hot and we seemed to walk for miles. Then all of a sudden, the sound of laughter and children’s voices seemed to float across on the wind. I could hear someone playing a guitar and singing ‘Mona Lisa’ as we walked into a clearing where stood huts made from scrap, tents and a caravan. Dogs and kids were running about, and all of those children and the adults were the same colour as the people who had brought me here: and, I soon realised, the same colour as me.

These people soon surrounded me. An old man with silver hair, a dark face and twinkling blue eyes took me from Mother’s arms and held me tight as he whispered, ‘My little Topsy is home at last’.

I was passed to Grandmother Edie, then uncles, aunts, cousins and finally introduced to little people who were my brother Buddy and sister Lulla.

My new home was a far cry from the huge, sterile, quiet hospital I was used to. A new caravan had been bought especially for my homecoming, and Dad had built me my own little toilet that he’d painted blue and pasted pink cabbage roses he’d cut from a magazine on the side. Somewhere between the hospital and my new home, something had shifted in my mind. I lapped up the love that was showered on me and soon forgot about the hospital. I came to love my family and later we moved to a bigger town with a river and paved streets. Dad bought a block of land and worked for the Department of Main Roads. I settled into my new life, but little did I realise that this was not the end of my treatment. This was not the end of tumult and upheaval. In a way it had only just begun.

For the next ten years, twice a year I was taken kicking and screaming from my mother’s arms for the seventeen-hour train journey to Sydney to a place called the Far West Children’s Home, for further treatment. The Far West Home in those days was a cold and forbidding place. The playground was all green concrete with high fences. No trees, no flowers, no grass, just a solitary hurdy gurdy. What was particularly sad was that it was directly across the road from Manly Beach.  You could smell the sea, the fairy floss, the toffee apples. You could watch the people laughing and having fun on their big day out. We soon learnt that if you pressed your nose against the wire people would sometimes take pity and slip bags of lollies to you. It wasn’t all dreadful. There were outings and visiting stars of the day to break up the monotony, but mostly we were all subjected to the same dreary routine every day. I think that’s why I have such a hatred of routine and why I’ve never really fitted into a conventional workforce with all its rules and its nine to five mentality. It was so different from home, with all the chaos of a big family. At home there was noise, animals, a river, grass, trees and when it rained the unbelievably beautiful smell of water on dry earth. At home I was black and went barefoot except for school and outings.  At the Far West I was unsure of just what colour I was and I wore those blasted callipers from six in the morning until seven at night.

My family still didn’t have the money to come and see me, and in a way I was grateful for that, because while I was there, I was able to adjust to my life as it was without the distraction and upheaval seeing them would have brought. I developed a rich and wonderful gift. I learnt how to block out pain with my mind and to adjust to my new circumstances. I developed the ability to be in the moment: where I was, was where I was. I became a chameleon. I developed a deeply rich inner life. I learnt to treasure solitude because alone I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could be anywhere I wanted to be. My legs may have been encased in callipers but in my mind they were strong and muscular. On my feet I wore delicate, silken, butter soft slippers and danced like the ballerinas I had seen in films and on the stage. Or I was barefoot and ran like the wind across vast expanses of beach and desert. I wasn’t tethered to the earth. Oh no! I flew like a bird and rode on magic carpets and looked with pity at the people below as they scurried across the earth, harried and worried and unable to see me smiling down on them. I leapt on strong stallions and rode bareback beside princes and warriors. I never saw myself as disabled. I was unaware of the pronounced limp. I was always so surprised when a child or a cruel adult pointed it out. I always looked around to see whom they were talking about. I may have been momentarily hurt, but never for long. There were too many adventures, romance and magic to conjure.

I remember lying on the ground cloud watching, seeing the vapour trails the jets left as they streaked across the deep blue sky. I would imagine the people in those planes, wonder at the places they’d been or where they were going. I wondered if I would ever be in one of those planes. I could not countenance a life where this was not possible. There were others who did not share my confidence. I remember my mother taking me to see the local doctor for my dreadful migraines. I was twelve. He said to my mother that they should start looking at getting me on a pension before I finished school. My mother said I went into a fury and shouted, ‘I don’t need a pension. I have a brain!’ She knew I would be all right from then on. Her and Dad did everything they could to see that I had the best possible education for they knew that would help me achieve any dreams I had. A scholarship to a prestigious girls’ school in Sydney gave me an entrée to a society with people who understood me. I made lifelong friends there and on leaving, found work easily.

It came as a wonderful surprise when I was a young adult that I too could have boyfriends and know the loving touch and embrace of men; that I could give and receive sexual pleasure. Men loved me, it didn’t seem to matter to them that I limped and they always seemed so surprised when I mentioned it and often looked puzzled at the very idea of me bringing it up. They saw the inner me. I lived a gloriously happy life for many years full of music, laughter, food and a myriad of friends, but a decision to go home to the country to live would change me. It was wonderful to be with my family and back in my country, where I met a man whom I thought was wonderful and got married. But I had married an allusion, for no sooner had the ring been slipped on my finger than he turned into a drunken, violent monster that stole my joy. I eventually gathered my resources and returned to Sydney but I was flat, emotionally denuded. People said I’d lost my glow. I kept up a front for a while, but the deep hurt and anger I felt about my dreadful marriage was suppressed as I dealt with Post-Polio Syndrome and the loss of mobility that finally put me in a wheelchair.

I stopped wearing lipstick and started going out in trackie daks and t-shirts. I gave up my beloved Chanel No 5, lost interest in flirting and couldn’t pick up on the signals from interested men anymore. Eventually I took to sleeping incredibly long hours and sometimes felt so weighed down by life that the simple act of rolling over in bed became such a chore, I would lay there with my ear hurting but lacking the will to simply turn onto my other side. My mind with its infinite capacity for imagination and pleasure was failing me and became clouded in a miasmic fog that I couldn’t imagine my way out of. For the first time I could remember, I was tethered to the earth and became merely physical. It was a scary place to be. I sought help but could not relate to white psychology. The drugs I was prescribed didn’t help and drinking only exacerbated the intensely blue feelings I had. I knew I had to find my way back. The alternative was too devastating to contemplate. I needed to look deep inside and reclaim the once wild and free mind with its infinite capacity to find joy. I needed my emotional flying carpet again. I needed my silken, butter soft dancing shoes. They were still there: I was sure of that. I just had to dig through the wreckage to find them.

I started by dredging up all the anger and hatred I felt towards my husband. Although they were dark and murderous and filled with rage, I actually revelled in these intense feelings because they made me feel alive again. I then started to let them go, one by one. Each day I became lighter as I discarded the emotional detritus. Those feelings turned to pity and soon he became a feather-light, desiccated husk that I simply sent away upon the lightest of breezes. He could no longer hurt me.

I also had to deal with my feelings about the loss of my mobility, and come to terms with using a wheelchair. I could no longer sustain a full-time job, with the constant toil. I had to find new ways of making a living and of living in general. I decided to become a writer and stated my intentions out loud to my friends. I would not be able to hide. I entered competitions, pitting myself against other would-be writers and to my utter amazement I started winning. I submitted articles to various newspapers and journals, and they published them. I wrote a book and it was published and this took me all over Australia. I have since written five children’s books as well as many articles and short stories. I speak at conferences, I give writing workshops, and I teach children. My life is organised to suit my needs now and not the needs of others. I have a five-second commute from bed to my desk. I can wear my nightie to work if I so choose and my natural nocturnal ways rule. My friends say I keep rockstar hours and know never to call before noon.

I have my magic carpet and dancing shoes back. I can go anywhere I want. I am no longer anchored to earth by the past. I have my lipstick, Chanel No 5 and pretty dresses back. I have my blokes back. I have my life back.

The journey back to myself was complete when I flew to Europe and visited all the places I’d dreamed of as a child. Flying home after a wild and wonderful trip, mid-morning and a mere hour away from Sydney, the plane tracked over my hometown. I looked out the window and smiled. I was finally in the plane leaving vapour trails in the sky. I was the one returning from faraway lands. As I looked down at the rapidly disappearing speck of my childhood home, I wondered if there was another little girl looking up and dreaming of one day travelling on a plane that briefly left their ethereal signatures in the sky. I hoped there was.


Gayle Kennedy is a member of the Wongaiibon clan of South West NSW. She was Indigenous Issues Editor/Writer for Streetwize Comics from 1995-1998. In 2005 her book of poetry Koori Girl Goes Shoppin was shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award. Gayle went on to win the award in 2006 with her book Me, Antman & Fleabag, which was shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Deadly Award, and was also commended in the Kate Challis RAKA Award. Her children’s books for the Yarning Strong series were nominated for 2011 Deadly Award for Achievement in Literature. Gayle has presented at various writers festivals and NAIDOC events as well as speaking both nationally and internationally on her experience with polio and disability.

Calling Out Misogyny in the Auslit Scene (Kathryn Hummel)

Posted on March 6, 2018 by in Being Sure

I have the fortune and/or misfortune to be a cisgender woman, citizen of Australia and a writer. Variously combined, these elements have yielded some noteworthy experiences; made me a party to some singular conversations. Take, for example, the friendly lunchtime chat a few months ago, in which one writer friend refuted the criticism that our national poetry community was overly ‘white’, rattling off a list of leading contemporary poets that included Michelle Cahill, Eileen Chong and Samuel Wagan Watson. Taken aback, I had thought it self-evident to anyone participating that the Australian literary scene has, since Anglo-European colonisation, been dominated by a white male voice and gaze. The success of creative writing diverging from this prevalent discourse has been both exceptional and relatively recent, given the ‘decades of systematic exclusion’.

Gender, race, class, ability, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation all differently intersect and inform the focus of this article: Australian women writers encountering sexism and misogyny within their professional domain. No doubt my discussion has been influenced by last year’s revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein et al., though any conscious comparison is loose, with sexual harassment only one weft in the often less tangible warp of a wider functioning misogyny. ‘It’s tempting to think,’ muses James Poniewozik over the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, ‘of this series…as especially timely, with today’s revelations of sexual abuse in places of power. But to say that would suggest that there have been moments when these ideas would not be timely’. Writing this article coincides with an evaluation of my annual dip into the Auslit scene as I leave, once again, for more open, variegated landscapes where my job isn’t as value-laden, or is differently value-laden. In the purest, rarest scenario, this involves moving through places with such well-timed velocity that you’re accepted as a creative practitioner before the name of your agent, current publisher, latest publication, history of accolades—or indeed, demographic categories—registers or matters.

The ‘underrepresentation of women is real, and has continued over time,’ states Julianne Lamond in her examination of the historic and contemporary literary value of Australian women writers. Echoing Cunningham’s ‘brisk [statistical] jog through’ of the gender-based distribution of major Australian fiction prizes up to 2011, Lamond concludes that there ‘is a bias at work here, but it is a bias that is embedded in the structure of our thinking about literary value, seriousness, importance, about gender difference, reading and writing’. It is a bias that intersects the concerns of different groups within Australian literature, such as Michelle Cahill’s observation of the ‘naming and labels’ applied to CALD women writers and their work:

Whether women writers are Aboriginal, Anglo-Indian, Burghers, Eurasians, Malaysian-Singaporean or Afro-Caribbean Australians, their genetic complexities seem to require naming only if they are different from ‘whiteness.’

While not specifically addressing gender, Evelyn Araluen expands on the burdens related to such labels, explaining that CALD writers ‘are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language’.

If Cunningham, Lamond, Anne Jamison and Jane Sullivan do not explore the bias they identify by offering up subjective examples of its impact and the playing out of its underlying power structure, others do. Cahill intertwines her identification as a woman of ‘multiple heritage’ in her writing on gender and race; Benjamin Law, examining the debate over gender differentials in literary prizes, recounts that

In the book world, I’ve…heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the ‘big picture’ enough, as [if] families or interior lives aren’t part of something panoramic and worldly.

In her discussion of sexual harassment in Australian theatre, Alison Croggan points out the insidiousness of this behaviour across other sectors of the arts—including literature:

Being a young poet…I can’t even remember how many sleazy men I encountered, although the prominent poet and editor who wanted to meet me in his hotel room and made a pass at me after he published a poem of mine when I was sixteen (sixteen!) stands out. I heard, many years later, that this was a regular occurrence with this man.

Elsewhere, Natalie Kon-Yu and Enza Gandolfo describe one example of ‘embedded misogyny’ at the juncture of creative writing and academia, noting the ‘most disturbing’ outcome was that so many conference attendees ‘just sat there, mute, polite, civil’ while a male plenary speaker addressed ‘three artistic fields in such a way to erase women’s contributions entirely’. Describing her experiences as a ‘biracial, bisexual’ poet within the Australian slam scene, Eleanor Jackson writes

…my softer feminine voice never seemed as authoritative; sometimes I was the only woman on a bill; sometimes I felt shouted down by louder, typically, male voices; and even I wasn’t naïve enough to ignore that audiences (both men and women) preferred work that was less political, less ranty, less mouthy from women. Perhaps most distressing for me personally, was that I still felt acutely aware…that my attractiveness (or otherwise) as a woman could, in fact, be a key determinant of whether or not people thought the writing was good.

Melody Paloma’s ‘call to action’ for establishing arts community-based procedures to deal with sexual harassment and assault connects to her involvement in ‘a process that detailed three incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by a fellow poet’ and the ‘exhausting’ effort of jointly reporting the man to ‘his employer…individual publications, publishers, festivals and organisations’ without guidance from existent policy.

Nothing much surprises me about the content of these articles: whenever I return to Australia with the refreshed perspective significant absence affords, what stands out most is this country’s conservatism, as well as its high ratio of blondes. After reading, I made a rapid list of times I have witnessed or experienced instances of sexism and misogyny in the Auslit scene, ranging from male colleagues’ diminishment of women’s writing to defining the role women writers should occupy. Upon hearing that an essay of mine was forthcoming in a particular journal, two separate male writers immediately put down its reputation; another, unable to grasp my name despite numerous encounters, once desperately introduced me as ‘a very fine poet’; yet another, who evidently does not consider me anything like, asked me how I made a living. A male reviewer described my first poetry collection as repeatedly exploring ‘the frustration of unresolved relationships’—I’m not sure on what basis, but it seems an apt enough theme for women’s poetry. When I was offered a slot in a high-brow literary reading following the publication of this book, a writer friend commented that if he was a ‘young, attractive woman’, he might be put on the bill too. As said young, attractive woman (now somewhat older and altered—whither my career?) I have been the target of too much of what Rosamond Lehmann memorably describes as ‘feeble pawing’ from men in the Auslit community to recount. Most recently, amid a bustling literary event crowd, a male writer friend advised that I ‘should be nicer to people’, which I took as being akin to telling me to smile.

There are, of course, a number of possible rebuttals to all these examples; myriad excuses to be made for these men, their comments and actions. Some examples of dismissal, exclusion, condescension and sheer blundering wrong-footedness by men in the literary community were not, I decided on revision of my list, demonstrably sexist or misogynistic. And, of course, I am only too aware that by articulating these incidents, I leave myself open to accusations of humourless whining; hypersensitivity; victimisation; misandry; biased misinterpretation; overreaction; ingratitude; hard-faced bitchiness, and an inability to handle just criticism. Yet I am also aware that this positioning is another outcome of the sexism towards and subjugation of those identifying as women, working to undermine our self-confidence and our claims to legitimate experiences and reasonable perspectives. Striving for conciliatory abstracts like ‘second-guessing’, ‘benefit of doubt’ and ‘fair-mindedness’ is part of fulfilling an expectation to be ‘the better person’—or perhaps adhering to an upbringing as a ‘nice girl’: never challenging; always demurring. All too often, women remain silent about needle pricks that, throughout a career or lifetime, have the accumulatively damaging effect of being stabbed with a butcher’s knife.

I regularly choose to leave Australia and its literary scene to inhabit countries and experience cultures where misogyny and patriarchy are supposedly more deeply entrenched. This helps to keep my perspective around issues like sexism sharp when confronted by its different forms at home and overseas; allows me to take advantage of my short-lived awareness before it becomes dimmed by complacency, and try, through interrogation, to become less immured and immune. There is a reason why a friend describes me as an ‘escape artist’—privileged in my mobility, I nevertheless find I need the distance to be able to keep returning, and keep writing. Although detrimental and fragmenting in other ways, my itinerant habit may even be an instinctual search for a way to become genderless, perhaps even category-less.

If this is what my intermittent experience of the Auslit scene has yielded, what is it like for those who are more prominent, deeply engaged, or spend much of their time in it? I sent an ad hoc email to fifteen female colleagues of various backgrounds, identities and ages to ask what, if any, instances of sexism and misogyny they’d witnessed or experienced within the Australian literary community. Some didn’t reply. Others couldn’t recall any circumstances they had come across or that had personally affected them. One respondent, describing herself as ‘remarkably lucky’ in avoiding sexism and ‘abuse’, added that she knew of women colleagues who hadn’t been so fortunate, but could not ethically relay their experiences second-hand. Another replied that while she had heard ‘a great deal of anecdotal evidence’ about misogyny in the Auslit scene, she had no personal experiences to relate—ending with the resonant point that

sexism and misogyny are so ubiquitous that much of it flows past me unnoticed as a survival tactic. If I let it penetrate I’d be in a permanent state of incendiary rage.

Similarly, another writer replied that since she had ‘certainly’ seen and been subjected to sexism in other contexts ‘(well, yes, I’m a woman…)’, it seemed ‘hard to believe that I haven’t even witnessed any misogynous events’ within the writing community.

Other writers did have incidents to relate. One described hearing a recent research paper examining the sexism of elite writer’s residencies that do not offer child care facilities, thereby deterring (predominantly female) applicants with children. Another recalled offering her services as a reviewer to the male editor of a leading Australian literary journal, pointing out that ‘he had approximately 99% male reviewers’ in the latest issue (statistics that are not uncommon in the Auslit scene). The editor’s reply? ‘He said he would like to publish more women but “it takes time,” which I thought was pretty extraordinary. Do we have to wait for all the male reviewers to die?’ The same writer, sitting on the judging panel of a literary prize not long ago, revealed that she ‘had to argue quite hard to get women’s life-writing (which was outstanding that year) included in the shortlist’. Eventually the prize was awarded to a memoir by a female author that would not otherwise have been a contender, based on the choices of the other two ‘(one male, one female)’ judges. Following another literary award ceremony, where the major prize was won by the female author of a young adult book, one respondent related a conversation shared with male writer colleagues:

…the male author said, ‘I mean she looked real nice in her little pink dress,’ and raised his eyes, smiling, and then the other man did too and they shared a little laugh. ‘But come on, she’s going to beat Robert Dessaix?’ That pissed me off. I didn’t say anything. I felt insignificant.

With specific reference to the Australian poetry scene, a woman who has escaped much of its ‘pervasive (& racially inflected) sexism’ was nevertheless one of three women writers sexually harassed in similar ways by the same male poet during the same evening at a recent literary event. Another writer confided that she has been ‘hit on pretty strongly’ and made to ‘feel uncomfortable’ within her writing community: after a poetry performance one night, a male poet who ‘didn’t want to take no for an answer’ managed to ‘force himself into my home and touch my leg’ before backing down ‘in the end’. Deeming the experience ‘quite traumatic’ in retrospect, the writer added: ‘I just feel like the general pattern is the problem’.

What I notice about these replies is the overwhelmingly matter-of-fact tone—with the odd twinge of wit or archness or deflation—in which they are related, as well as the doubt many respondents expressed over whether their narratives could be counted as ‘relevant’ examples. Since misogyny is so variously defined, it’s of little surprise that it can be difficult to discern, particularly when internalised across genders and bound up with other forms of discrimination. When I discussed the topic of this article with a male writer friend, he reflected that the quantitative presence of women in the Auslit scene served to counter, in his eyes, incidents of sexist and misogynistic behaviour—though Cunningham’s article, as well as subsequent studies, suggest that the visibility of women doesn’t necessarily signify they are the ones in the inner sanctum, making decisions and holding power. Women, including myself with my long-running shtick about the multifaceted charms of a certain unattainable female poetry editor, also demonstrate this insidious, internalised misogyny. My literary prize-judging email respondent, discussing a non-fiction contender who had written ‘a brilliant book…about a normal woman having a normal baby’, confessed the ‘rather chilling thing’ was that she too thought reductively of the subject matter until she ‘woke up to what was happening’. Another email respondent wrote that when she used to facilitate writing classes,

there were always more women in courses than men because women felt they needed to learn and men felt they didn’t need help…[A]lways women would underestimate their ability and put themselves in the beginners level when they were more advanced and men would overestimate their ability and put themselves in masterclasses when they were actually complete beginners. It was infuriating.

At a poetry event in the middle of last year, a woman I’d never met before commented that she had first seen me in the university bar wearing a short skirt and talking with two men. Overhearing this, a female friend, also a writer, remarked: ‘That sounds like our Kat!’ I laughed; we all laughed.

More than mere anecdotes, different women’s experiences of misogyny and sexism in the Australian literary scene exist. What, then, do we do with them? Particularly as writers, the pen (for what it’s worth) is in our hands. Do we employ it—and to what end? Are articles like this one, where data is less than stringently gathered and those involved remain (deliberately) unidentified, just one instalment of a perpetual, toothless illustration? Croggan insists that ‘we do have a language. We can name this behaviour. And people have been working…on actions to combat this problem’. I wonder if one of the ‘tools’ of recognition Croggan alludes to will take the form of an unofficial verbal initiation for every writer new to the Auslit scene, wherein senior colleagues whisper warnings that, unless you fancy getting groped, not to stand too close to [insert name of one of several male writers here]. This seems more efficient than a trial and error approach with outcomes isolated to the individual. Accordingly, Cahill promotes interceptionality, in the form of widespread social media and other written communication, to ‘unmask entitlement and inaugurate dialogue’ around institutional racism and to demarcate the spaces of ‘absence’ and ‘resistance’ CALD writers of any gender do/not inhabit. Jackson describes her ‘queer approach’ to resistance as persistently ‘taking up space’ as a ‘woman with a sexuality and an ethnicity’ in order to contribute to ‘erasing the kind of shame that has been appended’ to certain minority categories. Paloma, pondering ‘what might change actually look like?’, is in the process of formulating ‘with fellow female artists and arts workers’ a set of guidelines for arts organisations to follow when called upon to respond to ‘incidences of sexual harassment and assault’.

Yet I am doubtful of the unfettered success of praxis, whether it concerns the implementation of policy or of theory, given Paul Mitchell’s comment that ‘a friend who’d served at a high political level told me…he’d never seen any group whose decisions were as political as the Australian poetry community’. More than that, I suspect the purging of issues like misogyny from the Auslit scene will be complex, not only given its patriarchal foundations but its self-aggrandizing view of intellectual-artistic enlightenment; its reluctance to acknowledge the undesirable influences that pervade it—favouring instead, in the words of Sunil Badami, ‘assimilative myths in which differences are smothered or repressed’. Those problems, we writers declare from the pinnacle of our idealised liberal conceit, are for other people.

More and more I am drawn to what a radical feminist bisexual brown migrant psychologist-lawyer friend of mine believes will solve most of world’s conundrums: ‘Destroy the categories’. This is because, despite the length of my skirts and the expiry date of my passport, I am growing more serious and even more tired. Not even tired: I’m post-fatigued by reactionary ideology to do with gender and other inherited or acquired aspects of identity, and I know I’m not the only one. Sexism and misogyny are among many facets of identity politics that aren’t just passé, but damaging—to individuals and to their overlapping communities. Instead of participating in and perpetuating this damage, I’d prefer to know, not just believe, that the work writers do, the research we engage in, the poems and essays and stories we write and read aloud with appropriate feeling, are flowing into a community that shows them the respect of being the product of someone’s creativity, intellect and critical analysis. I would like to know that Australian writers are contributing to a literature that doesn’t just belong to an exclusive few—figurative descendants of those who long ago established a structure and are so busy keeping it mainstreamed that new voices, alternative voices, challenging and uncomfortable and unwanted voices, are being raised but unheard, or quickly suppressed.

It is an ideal tentatively grasped and almost embarrassing in its earnestness that writing, as with any art form, exists to comment on our social and political contexts but also to illuminate and express ideas to which humanity might collectively aspire. In her acceptance speech of the 2016 Stella Prize, Charlotte Wood admitted:

It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age—an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies. I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness.

At other times, I am not convinced that even art can dispel the gloom. Too many narratives, no less important than those widely distributed, go unacknowledged simply because they or their authors are not of a marketable literary/political/linguistic/social category. ‘Consider,’ muses Cahill, ‘how many CALD women writers with vibrant, intelligent voices have suffered from stifling stereotypes and restricted readings of their work, if they are lucky enough to be published!’ But then, Australian literature is not a meritocracy, as we all pretend not to know.

The danger of relying on anonymous readings—on meritocracy—writes Law, ‘is assuming one actually exists’. Rather than assume any longer, I’d rather consider that, as writers evoking the very best of our vocation, our education is ongoing: that it is as important to be consciously thoughtful of different positionings within our community as it is to display a flamboyant command of language. ‘Encouraging and applauding the success of women might become an elegant and subversive act of cultural freedom,’ said 2017 Stella Prize winner Heather Rose.

This, it seems to me, is an ingeniously-framed challenge.

I gratefully acknowledge the contribution of friends and colleagues who spent time discussing ‘misogyny in the Auslit scene’ in person and via phone and email; who read drafts and gave feedback, and who allowed me to cite their stories in this article.


Dr Kathryn Hummel is the author of Poems from Here (Hobart: Walleah Press), The Bangalore Set (Bangalore: Kena Artists’ Initiative), The Body That Holds (Adelaide: Little Windows Press), splashback (Sydney: Stale Objects dePress) and the forthcoming Lamentville (Singapore: Math Paper Press). Uncollected, her digital media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide. Winner of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Dorothy Porter Award for poetry (2013), Kathryn’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2013), The Atlas Review’s Open Non-Fiction Chapbook competition (2016) and was shortlisted for the 2017 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @

Breathing Machine: a memoir stopped here (Carol Major)

Posted on October 20, 2017 by in Being Sure

In December 1999 the earth spun toward a great shadow marking the end of a millennium and those who relied on mechanical timekeeping began to stack tinned goods into cupboards, terrified the world as we knew it might end. But I have never been concerned about storing food. Instead I helped my disabled daughter move into her own flat. I painted the floor with Grip Guard, organised a handyman to attach a steel bar to the door. My daughter would be able to hit the bar with her electric wheelchair and get in all by herself. A wet Christmas followed, a wet Boxing Day and then we watched the old millennium clap shut on TV. The world didn’t end as the clock struck twelve. Chaos waited, moved at its own speed.

January 5th

Beside a respirator, steel blue, my daughter fights to breathe. There are iodine smears on her skin. She is unconscious. Time has stopped.

I should have taken better care of her but I was tired. Tired from Christmas, tired from the university course I’d started, tired of caring for her two younger brothers, and looking forward to an adult party where someone else could do the work. Yet I had felt this coming all through the windy day, cool enough to wear a jacket in the Australian summer, the ocean breeze too strong.

Earlier, when I took my youngest son to the rock pool, there had been so many crabs, some as big as my hand. They scuttled, waving crab eyes on thin crab stalks. And then when I was gathering laundry I saw a huge spider clinging to a sheet, a spider as big as a frog. It dropped to the ground and waddled away as the phone began to ring. My daughter was on the end of the line. She’d spilled a cup of tea in her bed. And then suddenly she was crying—about life closing in, about not having children, about wanting to dance just one night until her feet hurt. My mermaid. Knives through her soles.

I wanted to know if her flatmate and part time carer was there. ‘Can I come?’

Yes, the flatmate was in the next room. But no, don’t come.

‘But perhaps this living independently is too much. Perhaps you are ill. I’ll call a doctor.’

No. She wasn’t ill. She hated doctors, said all they did was point a bone at you, tell you which muscles were going to get weaker. She believed if she didn’t look at this disease, didn’t pay it attention, that nothing would change, nothing would get worse.

I rang the wheelchair company to complain about the new footrests for her wheel chair. Hadn’t they arrived yet? This was something that could be fixed. I snapped at the receptionist to find the order and ring me back with a date.

Ten minutes later the phone rang but it wasn’t the wheelchair company; it was my daughter’s flatmate. My daughter had pushed her emergency Vitacall button. An ambulance was on its way.

January 7th

My daughter is a minnow caught on the end of a line, her mouth bleached and gasping. Nurses are monitoring the oxygen in her blood. There is a tube wedged in her throat. The nurses pat her ribcage until green mucous coughs out. Algae, seaweed. You’d expect that in a fish out of water.

I sing into my daughter’s ear: You’re not sick; you’re just in love and Fly Me to the Moon. Her hands are beautiful. Slim pencil lines. Bars of music, harp strings. She curves them into an angelfish tail.

January 8th

There are boy’s running shoes scattered in the hall. There are dirty dishes on the table, underwear in the bathroom. I had mowed the lawn before this happened—trimmed the edges around the footpath in a neat straight line. I had unloaded the dishwasher, and in the half hour before my daughter’s flatmate rang, I had been ironing shirts. My husband at the time was starting a new job. I wanted to clear the decks and give him a clear run—fair weather for the ship setting sail. But there is no clear weather. There is only weather rumbling and rolling over the horizon. Clouds and sun, rain and wind. The weather doesn’t know about day or night. Sometimes the sunny day in the forecast falls after daylight is gone.

It always feels as if it is night in ICU. I glance at the boy in the next bed. He leaned too far out on a railway platform and the train breathed him in. Now he can’t breathe any more. But my daughter is still breathing. She rises with the wind as delicately as a leaf. In her dreams she is travelling east to Persia, to China, rising with the sun.

January 9th

They have brought in a machine to monitor her heart—a gulping noise inside an ocean. I am going down in a submarine, down, down down, surrounded by the strange wind noise of deep waves. Plunging. The bells sound at each depth.

I might need to put on a frogman’s suit. We are so deep. The water is so heavy. It could crush my bones. Sometimes I think even air might crush my daughter’s bones, bird bones, lighter than toothpicks, lighter, lighter, lighter. She is floating above me, nearer the surface. I have been looking in the wrong place, plodding down here on the ocean floor in my frogman’s suit, breathing through a tube. I have been breathing through her tube and listening to submarine gongs.

January 10th

I am closing up, reserving my energy, turning into a solid rock, holding against the wind, gathering strength for my daughter. I do not want to leave the hospital but I must go home.

I cry when I see the backyard, the grass, the clothesline—the sheets still in the washing machine. The screen door blinks in the afternoon sun. During my absence, rose petals have opened and rusted at their edges and a spider has matted a web into the bougainvillea. I am like the landscape holding still, watching. I am watching my daughter get well. I am willing my daughter to get well.

January 11th

There is a man in another bed from the Pacific Islands. His family tell a story of how they took him to casualty at Liverpool Hospital. The staff sent him back home. He got sicker so they returned. Within minutes of his second arrival he stopped breathing and would have died if his family had not brought him back.

Now all of this will become a story told at gatherings. Do you remember? And he almost died. They flew him by helicopter to the RPA. We slept in the waiting room.

We sit in the area outside the wards, wishing we could flip to the later pages in the story where the crisis is over—that quieter time when we can laugh again and drink proper coffee and have something amazing to say to each other. Do you remember last year? When you almost died? We were just in time.

We expect that resolution to the story. It’s just our turn to be on this page. But sometimes the turn never ends.

January 14th

They have taken my daughter off the ventilator and put her on an oxygen mask. Now her face is squashed like a little girl pressed against a shop window. The oxygen machine whistles like a tiny hurricane. She coughs and coughs and they vacuum her lungs.

She is angry with the nurses. She is angry with me. She is not happy getting better. It hurts to surface.

January 18th

My daughter is scuba diving among fluorescent fish. She comes up for air and coughs once more. The doctors say she will aspirate one day if they don’t put a hole in her throat and seal off the opening to her mouth. If they do this she will be mute and unable to eat. If they do this they can’t guarantee she will be able to survive the operation.

I refuse to float in an imagined nightmare. Today is today is today. I want to gather my daughter into my arms but I’ve never been able to do it properly. Too many bony bits, not enough muscle. There are too many sharp angles with this disease.

She is coming up for air again. They take off the mask, place a thin tube in each nostril. Her mouth is free.

A doctor wants to know if I have told her everything. Have I asked her if anything went wrong would she want to be revived again?

‘You do realise this is a degenerative condition.’

I reply, ‘Life is a degenerative condition. But we’re not dead yet.’

January 19th

My sister has arrived. My daughter is out of ICU and in a hospital room of her own. We try to lift her to the shower. My sister holds her head. My husband carries her body. I hold the plastic fluid bags and tubes. We joke about being the three stooges nursing her. Still, I long for a normal day. One normal day.

January 25th

My daughter has an Australian flag tooth-picked into her toast. She is dozing. Simon and Garfunkel are playing on the CD. There are plastic fluid bags that look like jellyfish, a thermometer in a dish, a postcard of the Virgin Mary, a Mount Franklin bottle of holy water with pink plastic tied around the top so we won’t drink it by mistake. Yesterday my sister and I walked from the hospital towards the university grounds. I showed her where I took classes. At the beginning of that course, I had been setting up my daughter’s flat, painting her floor with Grip Guard, sharing tea with her flatmate. Those days when I didn’t know I was happy.

January 31st

The early morning is not as bright anymore. We have missed the peak of summer. My sister has gone home. The boys are starting school. People have to get back to work.

I am dressed in yellow plastic and white gloves. I crackle when I move. My daughter has golden staph. It came through one of the intravenous lines in her neck. She aches all over and cannot sleep. Neither can I. I find it easiest when I am doing something, settling her feet, knees, hips, arms, shoulders. The hard part is when I relax, drop into a doze, wait for the moan that will drag me back to my feet. Not being able to rest at all would be better.

When she was a baby she never slept. Night after night dipping the dummy into honey. My parents bought her a special rocking cradle and still she would not close her eyes. During the day I would sweep the walk while she screamed and screamed and screamed, her little head foaming. Nothing would make her stop, except me awake, picking her up.

Twenty-four years on and I still wait for the tiny hiccup, every muscle screwed into a knot. Thin fingers claw out for me like tiny crabs.

Don’t touch me any more

Touch me forever

Leave me alone.

January 21st

My youngest son and his classmate are wearing the same yellow hospital gowns and plastic gloves. They have begun Year Seven at a performing arts school. They dance a corny version of the hula. The nurses have given my daughter an alphabet board because she is unable to speak. She points to letters. She tells her brother he is very funny. Now she wants to hear a song.

My son’s classmate has a high, high sweet voice. He sings with no accompaniment, the notes sailing over the bleeps of medical machines. Young boys. Beautiful young boys.

February 9th

My eldest son has streaked his hair blonde. He says he wants to feel good again. It is too long being sad and scared. His younger brother is supposed to produce a piece of art that says something about himself. He has drawn a Warhammer figurine. He says it is the best lighting he’s ever done.

My daughter wants to get better. She has refused the surgeon’s recommendation. She will eat despite the risk. Today she pulls herself into a half-sitting position using the toilet chair and counts to thirty. ‘I will get better.’

We listen to Carole King as I wrap her hair around rollers. She asks me to buy red and yellow cellophane, and a sparkle pen. She is going to make Valentine cards.

I return home. The nurses tell me I need to sleep in my own bed. I hang out the wash, take it back down again. Fold sunlight into sheets, press T-shirts to my nose.

February 10th

The nurse rings in the dead of night. My first proper night in my bed and I am lost in brambles, pricked with thorns. ‘What? What?’ The nurse hands the receiver to my daughter. She is shrieking, squeaking into the phone.

I shout, ‘I know you are sicker than me. But there are millions sicker than me and I must sleep. I must eat. And the truth is you may need to be uncomfortable for a moment because other people are human.’

I yell. Then I soothe. I draw a fine line between both of us.

And then rub it out again.

February 20th

This has always been on the horizon. The drooping mouth when she was a toddler, the winged scapula when she was six years old. I saw the bones stick out when she was in the bathtub and then didn’t look again.

My friend Cathy says, ‘Whenever I screamed in pain my mother hit me.’ Don’t scream like that. You frighten me.

I remember falling off my bike when I was ten and my mother’s angry face. What did you do to yourself? She scrubbed the grit out of my arm with a hard face washer, her eyes filled with terror.

February 22nd

There is a sign above the cashier in the medical centre parking lot. It says, ‘Your mission today is to dazzle every customer.’

We have bought my daughter so many things to keep her grounded in this world…necklaces, teddy bears, soaps, scents, lamps, clothes…and yet she still eludes us. She is so slender, a piece of quicksilver; everything is too heavy for her to wear or carry. Yet we collect these things—as evidence that she is here.

I take a bath. My knees sink into the water like two small white islands slipping below the surface tension. That thin skin of molecules that holds a spider skating on a pond.

February 26th

I stay at the hospital for four-hour shifts. My battery will only last that long. My daughter holds hard to that last fifteen minutes, stretching them out until I become a broken toy monkey playing a drum—rat-a-tat-tat. And then she’ll want something else and I’ll try too hard to do this ONE LAST THING. And no matter how I do it—it won’t be right. I will have hurt her and she will be sore—her neck, her shoulders. I go home feeling bad.

February 28th

See, I will not forget you…

I have carved you on the palm of my hand.

Isaiah 49:15

Today I find this little card on the dressing table beside her bed. Someone has left it. There is a drawing of a hand cradling a child.

A cloud of rosellas fly by the window and then an ibis sailing. It is late summer. A young man has delivered breakfast. The trolley rolls away. Hospital sounds. Cleaners. A mop and a pail.

My daughter breathes quietly into her mask. I love to slip beside her, curl my hands through her long fingers. I love it when she squeezes back. Happy to see me. I am happy to see her.

March 12th

Some wish to frame their lives in inevitable death. My daughter was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy when she was five. That spiralling story towards her demise. This is where she is headed—why fool anyone with the in-between stage? Yet in doing so they would fool the very nature of life.

Genetic specialists want to take my blood. They want me to ring my parents in Canada and request they have their blood tested as well.

I stare at a picture of my daughter’s senior high school class. A special school. There is the clumsy giant boy and the student with no bones flopped in a chair. Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

I am a wingless, soundless moth holding my breath, my heart barely shivering. I am shaking forever without moving a muscle—a blurry hush in the dark.

April 7th

Autumn. My daughter is going home. There is no more to be done. She can talk again but still she cannot sit up, even with a body brace. She has come up with an idea to modify her wheelchair. The backrest is lowered. The arm rests reversed. She lies over the seat prone, her arms stretched to reach the remote control. She says she will pretend that she is an actress who has had a skiing accident. She asks me to paint her fingernails. She wants to go shopping again.

April 15th

Big brown leaves scatter over the road. My daughter has found a shop in the city that sells dark chocolate and ginger. She takes me there, wearing her dark blue scarf and black gloves. We manoeuvre the wheelchair through crowded streets and come to a crossing that is gridlocked with traffic. When the light turns green people squeeze between cars but there is no room for a wheelchair.

A young man comes to our rescue, almost challenging drivers to a duel. ‘See what you’ve done!’ he screams, as if they have put my daughter in the wheelchair, given her this disease. Cars inch out of our way.

Another boy saves her when the lock is jammed on a disabled toilet. He bangs on the centre management’s door and comes back with a man carrying a drill.

My daughter’s life is full of heroes. Men bring her yellow roses in the street. They can’t bear her being so beautiful.

April 20th

The cooler ocean water is the colour of opal. The crabs now huddle in cracks, some green—some almost black. I float like a flat frog skimming the surface. I used to be scared of cold water. My breath would come too fast. I might die.

I am not scared of dying. Sometimes I walk out in to the road without looking.

The results of my blood tests have come back conclusive. I have deletions in my genes, a mutation that occurred at my conception. My mother is silent on the telephone. My sister reads up on the science. In a white office the researchers show me sheets of paper, the rows like bar codes on the side of a jar of jam. They point at the missing dots. I imagine rows of teeth falling out, a pearl necklace with missing beads, a chewed string at the bottom of a jewellery box.

My daughter is none of these things. She draws wonderful designs lying on her stomach, and I continue with my university course. I am learning about post-modernism, the end of grand narratives. Was ours a grand narrative? I only know that I have muscular dystrophy too—ever so slightly—and that this is my beloved daughter. We go to cafes and the Art Gallery, visit designer shops. We are truly adaptable, mutating, deconstructing, falling apart into something else. The deletions widen. We laugh at people who stare.

There will be more to come. My husband will find this all too relentless and leave. The muscular dystrophy will progress. But my daughter would agree that this is the best place to end this particular story. Time stopped here. This sweet memory that is at the truth of things.



Carol Major
was born in Scotland, immigrated to Canada as a schoolgirl and now lives in the Blue Mountains, Australia, a place that captures three landscapes in one. The heart in geography is one of her passions and in addition to writing short stories and novels, she consults on the importance of retaining a sense of place within urban design. Carol holds a master and doctorate degree in creative writing from the University of Technology, Sydney and her work has been published in a variety of formats in Canadian and Australian literary magazines, performance pieces and anthologies.

Famous for Asparagus
(Jennifer Compton)

Posted on January 31, 2017 by in Being Sure

I had heard a great deal about the Koo Wee Rup pub, what with one thing and another, so, while I was staying with them, the daughter and her bf took me out there for a look-see. Mind, there’s nothing much at Koo Wee Rup. For instance, there’s no Opera House. There’s asparagus, and one pub. The Royal Hotel. In spite of being royal, tiaras are not mandatory. And, in spite of there being no Opera House, as it turned out, there was plenty of high drama.

We drove out through the rural fringe of Melbourne, and the daughter and her bf were giggling about how they had been going to shout me an asparagus tour. It was a big joke. But I was well pleased at the idea of an asparagus tour, as I love eating asparagus, growing asparagus, all things asparagus. So their joke fell flat. But it was the wrong season. So no tour. But we did see the fallow asparagus beds stretching out to the horizon on either side of the road. The beauty of asparagus is that there is no need to fence it in.      

Do you like rough pubs? Me, I’ve always had a penchant for a rough pub. They assured me the Koo Wee pub was really rough. So, good oh. But this was a full-on rough pub!

Fair enough. There was a purple rain cloud approaching, the drought had been biting hard, the bushfires had been outrageous. The pall of smoke across Victoria had been apocalyptic. So perhaps the boys got a bit carried away as the precious rain began to fall.

Let me try to paint the picture for you.

The front bar was heaving with very big men in very casual states of dress. Dress code! What dress code? Shorts, maybe a t-shirt. Maybe not. The daughter’s bf told me they were very big men because they only ate asparagus. But he was yanking my chain. These guys weren’t vegetarians.

The young couple went into the bistro at the back to have a parma and pot. A speciality of the region. Chicken parmigiana and a glass of beer. Called a pot in Victoria for a reason inscrutable to me. Because the blackboard menu was totally composed of what had once been a living creature — no asparagus at all — I gave the bistro a miss. So I was standing in the front bar having a smoke and a glass of a brutal white, looking out at the unforgettable sight of rain falling and giving the poor bastards on the fireground a break — WHEN — one of the very big guys fell with a mighty crash in through the swinging door onto the floor.

Then two or three other big guys fell in on top of him.

Then a few other big men indiscriminately poured their beers on top of them.

Then a guy who was just wearing shorts opened his fly and started to piss on them.

Then another guy who was just wearing shorts pulled them down and started to crap on them.

I retired to the bistro in ladylike confusion.

Which is marginally better than retiring stark mad in white satin.

A friend of the daughter’s — a cool, local chicky babe — told me the game, which is called Stacks On (as in stacks on the mill), is quite popular. It doesn’t necessarily have to rain for them to play it.

She also told me you can do anything you like at this pub — except behave.

I noticed there were no security guards. We had been to a rough pub in Pakenham the night before and there were three security guards, one of whom was from Sicily.

It seems the proprietor of the pub in Koo Wee Rup will occasionally say, as he is mopping down the bar with a damp rag — ‘Settle down, boys’ —  but that is it as far as crowd control goes.

The daughter always warns me not to be weird when she takes me to a pub. I told her that I can guarantee that I will never be weird at the Koo Wee Rup pub.

‘Too chicken, eh?’ she riposted.

I replied — ‘Cluck cluck’.



Jennifer Compton
lives in Melbourne and is a poet and playwright who also writes prose. Her stage play, The Goose In The Bottle, has been shortlisted for the Lysicrates Prize in Sydney, and will be performed on February 10 with the other two shortlisted plays, whereupon the audience will vote for the winner. In effect, a play slam.

Benefits of Anticipatory Grief (Janet Frishberg)

Posted on November 2, 2013 by in Being Sure

Benefits of Anticipatory Grief (Janet Frishberg)

Parking meter V3

I’ve forgotten my voice waiting for her to die. I came to say goodbye but I don’t believe it’s time yet and neither does she.

Six days ago in San Francisco, my friend Audra invited me over to eat chili. She stirred the soup in her narrow, steamy kitchen. I told her my grandma was sick but I didn’t have a way to get to her in LA. Saying it out loud to Audra, it didn’t feel real. It just felt like a story I was telling while we waited for the beans to soften and the spices to soak in.

‘Take my car,’ she said.

‘No…’ It was too generous, easy.

‘Yeah. If the only reason you’re not going is because of a car, you should take mine.’

‘How’ll you get to work?’

‘I’ll take the train; I’ll figure it out. This is important.’

‘Okay. How about…I’ll let you know if I can’t find anything else.’ I leaned on her countertop. ‘Thank you so much for even offering.’

‘You should take it. This is really important.’

Which is how I came to understand it was actually happening, and came to be driving Audra’s white Jetta down to West Hollywood. How I came to be standing in the doorway of my grandma’s room.

Almost all her furniture had been removed or rearranged. The master bedroom looked huge without their king-sized bed. As a child, I’d wake up in the guest room from nightmares about people trying to murder me. I’d tiptoe into their room and crawl into bed between them so I could fall asleep again among their snoring, squishy bodies.

It’s been almost three months since she’s stopped eating—claiming nausea and that nothing tastes good. Now, I sit beside her new hospital-style bed, while she drifts in and out of sleep all day. I try to stay busy while she sleeps; I knit or write or read. I catch up on This American Life.

Once it’s dark outside, she wakes up and we talk. She says things like, ‘You make my heart sing,’ and when she has the strength, she likes to yell, ‘Ah!’ and then shout, almost angrily, ‘You are so beautiful!’ She complains about which appliances in her life are breaking, and who isn’t calling her the way she wants them to, and she likes to gossip about our family.

We’re the same people as before. Nothing about her or me has gotten inherently wiser just because she’s dying.

So instead, we discuss the green and golden afghan she’s not sure she can finish. She teaches me the stitch: knit two pearl two in a row with a number of stitches that’s divisible by two but not by four. She cries and covers her face with her wrinkled-skin hands, and I lean over the bars of the bed and drape my arms over her lap and say, ‘I don’t care that we’re just sitting here. That’s all I want to do. This is all I came down here to do.’

In early morning, I sort her pills for her, rolling their smooth gel casings between my fingertips, and when I crack eggs for lunch later, wonder if traces of morphine remain, and lick my skin just in case.

After approximately sixty-three hours in the house, I stand in the bathroom. There’s a three-foot long mirror on the wall that I’ve been looking in since I was a little girl and stayed with her for weeks at a time. It’s possible I haven’t showered since I got here. I pull off my smelly gray sweatshirt, stare at my naked chest, yellow in the mirror. I’m trying to remember how to breathe fully into it.

This is not the first death. There was my namesake grandma before I was born, and the grandpas, one in high school and the other in college. There was the sudden death at 17 that sent me to the bathroom floor sobbing: a boy I loved who jumped into the water. These deaths were important and also different—they were a phone call. They were a surprise, a punch in the stomach. Sometimes they’ve taken me years to believe in—he’s actually gone. I am glad now for the slow build of her dying. Her dying has been in the background for months now, like putting the teakettle on the electric burner and listening for its steam to build to a whistle.

But, nobody instructed me: when sitting with the dying, you must be very careful not to get caught inside the land of the dying.

I walk down the wooden hallway to the kitchen, telling myself to stop sneaking slices of banana bread covered in butter. My uncle, who lives with her, or she lives with him they like to say, gets home from his girlfriend’s place. He makes me leave the house with him to pick up sushi from around the corner. We walk through the streets, along with the gays and tourists. This is part of what she loves about the neighborhood. I carry the meal home in its Russian nesting dolls of plastic inside plastic.

I sit at what we call the “real” table, drawing thick slabs of pink sashimi into my mouth. I’m afraid of concentrating too hard on this raw fish flesh. I don’t want to remember the lamp light on her emaciated cheeks three minutes ago, when I fed her a bite of hamachi, the first food she’d accepted all day.

I felt triumphant, watching her swallow, and thought, that should solve it. She used to tell me, when I untangled a necklace or fixed her phone, ‘You’re magic, Janet.’ I picked up a second bite with the chopsticks but she closed her mouth and shook her head at me, like a contrary toddler. She’s getting more beautiful in her starvation, except for the sunken places where her dentures and right-breast prosthesis should sit.

While eating, I try instead to see what’s physically real: the living room in front of me, where I sleep when visiting. White couches, masks from countries they visited all over the walls, my stuff an explosion of clothes in one corner. Not knowing what to bring, I brought too much.

I want to get farther away than the living room—for this, a car is needed. I drive down Sunset and turn left, towards the canyon, leaving the crowds behind me like an exhale. The flammable beige and green plants on each side of my car are familiar. The windows are up. I like the closed container of the car.

I connect my phone to the sound system and turn on music, try singing, just to hear my own voice. I almost lost it from all the yelling to be heard through her hearing aids, or worse, without her hearing aids.

I don’t want to think about ten minutes ago when I stood by her bedside, my shadow falling sideways in the lamp light, and told her, ‘I’m leaving for a few hours.’

‘Where? Where are you going?’ she protested.

‘I’m going to yoga with Sonia.’ She loves Sonia, my friend from college, because Sonia is beautiful and talented and listens.

‘Sonia? Now?’


She started crying, moaning, ‘I guess I have no choice do I?’

I can, in the car’s silence, scream words I gulped down—because I didn’t want a fight, because all day I checked to make sure she was still breathing, like a baby—which were: this is why it’s so hard to visit you, and: you make me want to lie to you.

I once thought this city was soulless but I know now, the green, the canyon; I was wrong. Here is just anywhere, but with more expensive cars.

I thought I should move my body into downward dog or maybe warrior one, but I got lost in the canyon’s turns, in not-thinking about what if she dies while I’m gone out of spite.

Five minutes late, they’ve locked the studio door on me. Sonia arrived on time and is inside, without her phone. I climb back into the car, waiting for the class to end so Sonia, her boyfriend, and I can have dinner. Trying to remember what else people do besides sit and watch the wheezing inhales of the person who probably loves them most.

I turn up the music, skipping through songs that feel wrong right now. Nothing too sad, or too happy. I want purgatory music. I roll the windows down. When my phone rings with an unknown number, I answer, hopefully, wishing it’s either God or an old friend calling to say, ‘I was thinking of you.’

It’s a volunteer: ‘Phone banking for the Dems, just making sure you’ll vote NO on Prop 32!’

She did things like this for the Democratic Party when she was younger, better at using the phone.

‘I already sent in my absentee ballot. I voted no. Thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing. Okay. Okay, bye.’

That twice thank you—I wanted her to like me. I wanted the phone banker to be a sage and stop her script to transmit wisdom, or maybe comfort me. To say, ‘Are you okay, Janet? You sound sad,’ and, on the phone with her, I’d be able to cry, the way I haven’t been able to by myself yet, but this isn’t a movie, so we just hung up.

It’s becoming early evening. I watch the middle-aged women taking walks around the block with their dogs, jealous of their commitment and consistency.

I drove forty-five minutes here for some spiritual guidance and all there is now are car sounds coming in through the open windows: a screech of tires, honk of horn, smell of cigarettes and flash of expired parking meter. There’s nothing for me to do but sit and wait for the yoga class to end. After a brief gap of silence in the music, I’m shuffled my dead friend’s song, recorded for me in high school—next month he will have been dead seven years—and I let it play, resting my dry hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, and I listen.

The Exclusivity of Cupcakes:
How I Cooked My Way Through Heartbreak (Erin Holmwood)

Posted on July 9, 2013 by in Being Sure

The Exclusivity of Cupcakes: <br />How I Cooked My Way Through Heartbreak (Erin Holmwood)

Cooking 3  - for VLKissing don’t last: cookery do
– George Meredith

On the day Max broke my heart, I baked a cake. While I greased and lined the spring-form cake pan I thought to myself that there had never really been a time in my life that I had sensed such an overwhelming feeling of inevitability. When I melted the chocolate I knew that we would never be together again. Mixing the dry ingredients brought me to the idea that the relationship ending seemed unavoidable, and no matter what lengths I would go to, there was nothing I could or should do to change things. I folded through all of the ingredients together and poured them into the pan, then put it in the oven. When I called my Mum, she cried.

‘Don’t ever talk to him again,’ she said. ‘He can’t do that to you, you’re my baby girl. I love you sweetheart, don’t ever forget that. I’m here for you.’

I sat down on the cold tiles, the smooth texture bringing with it a tight feeling behind my ribs that I don’t think I had ever felt before.  And for the two hours it took for the cake to cook and for me to eat the whole thing, I cried.

For a week I became fascinated with recipes and developed a new system to fill out the days. I would read a new recipe, follow it, look at Max’s Facebook profile, cry in the shower, throw out the food, and sleep. The days ran into each other and I forgot the names of the weekdays. I wore pyjamas when I wasn’t wearing my bathrobe. I didn’t go outside or open the blinds. I ate little of the food I cooked before I threw it out, preferring to drink the stores of wine I had been saving since my last birthday. After four days I weighed myself and found I had lost three kilos. This new information didn’t please or displease me.

The showers were very distinct markers throughout the day. Every time I went in to the shower I turned it on then laid down on the floor and looked directly up at the water falling on my face. I don’t recall the temperature of the water, but I do remember its weight. It felt heavy, like each droplet was a harsh truth that I didn’t want to face. I wanted to do anything but recall Max with great flowery fondness and yearn for a time in which I was increasingly more naive than I am now, but that is what I did.

At one point, I think it was in the afternoon, I had a lucid dream in which I remembered making cupcakes with my sisters. The smell of cocoa powder was dusted across my room and it became warmer. When I opened my eyes, I thought perhaps I was lying on the floor of the family kitchen. The walls were the same colour, and the light filtered in through the blinds, which reminded me of the patterns I used to see on the marble bench top, a kaleidoscope of real and imagined shapes. There was no transition between sleep and stumbling towards the kitchen, the light making me want to retreat back under the covers shrieking “It burns us!” but I persevered for culinary’s sake. As I pulled out ingredients I felt curiously numb. A lot of different colours and smells from childhood played across my mind.

It reminded me of being a lot younger than I am now, sitting at the kitchen counter with my face in my hands, watching Mum cook. It reminded me of being allowed to use the juicer; the acidity of the fruit stinging my hands and the sticky liquid dribbling from my hands to my elbows. It reminded me of breaking eggs into a bowl and picking out the bits of shell with my fingers, breaking the yolks as I tried to push the shards to the side of the bowl. It reminded me of licking chocolate off a wooden spoon, and Mum smiling as I wiped a trail of mixture off my chin.

Measuring and mixing felt detached, like I couldn’t feel my hands going through the motions; I could only see them being done. I could smell everything combine together to create something new. It made me smile. And once I pulled the cupcakes out of the oven, I saw I had done something constructive that also tasted good. Plus I didn’t want to break anything, which was a welcome change. Channelling energy away from breaking possessions seemed to be a rehabilitative outlet. I frosted them, and arranged them on a plate before placing them on the kitchen table.

A flicker of Max and I eating breakfast passed across the back of my eyelids. So I started on the next batch of cupcakes, whilst planning the ones that would follow. Vanilla. Chocolate. Blueberry. Lemon zest. Several flavours later I counted the multi-coloured assortment littering the table and surrounding bench-tops. Seventy two cupcakes later I was definitely out of dry ingredients. When my roommate walked into the room it must have been an interesting scenario.

‘Wow, what’s all this for?’ she asked once she had walked in.

‘Nothing. Just felt like cooking.’


‘You can have as many as you like.’

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah. Have a cupcake.’

She sat at the table and picked up a chocolate. I sat next to her and picked up a vanilla, and we ate them together in silence.

Lucy Saunders, author of three cookbooks on beer and food and editor of, uses cooking to mend her broken heart. ‘I’ve cooked my way through heartbreak several times,’ she explains. ‘You can start from scratch and have something fresh and new. It’s creativity with some measure of pleasure and you can enjoy the results right away.  (Somovar, 1).  Over the following weeks it became a lot harder for me to concentrate on self-pity when I was trying to follow a recipe so precisely. It was very involved, this new procedure, and was all I could concentrate on. I had cooked a lot before I met Max, but from that point he took over culinary duties, and cooked for me almost every day. On some occasions I would cook, though usually I took on the role of assistant or eager spectator. I didn’t want to be a spectator any more. Especially to the scenario of Max and the unknown woman that played over in my head like a carousel of disappointment.

For cooking, ‘One needs a good range of movements in the upper body (shoulders, neck, fingers, elbows and wrists); perfect overall balance, sensory awareness (dealing with dangerous objects and situations) as well as sufficient muscle strength in the superior limbs (for mixing, lifting, chopping, pounding, whisking, and cutting). (Mayland, 1). This concept was explored thoroughly after I saw Max being tagged on Facebook; at a café with the unknown woman. Cooking was the one form of physical activity I had performed in weeks, and venting frustration whilst making bread was one idea that proved to be very remedial. It was rather comforting knowing that punching a pile of dough was a socially acceptable way of dealing with my current situation. When my roommate walked into the kitchen to find me, tear-streaked and assaulting a blob of uncooked bread, she walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. Her eyes were wide and watery.

‘Are you ok?’

‘Yeah.’ I fiddled with a piece of dough that was stuck to my thumb.

‘Just making bread.’

‘Do you need anything?’


She rubbed my back before leaving. I went back to punching the dough. It needed to be kneaded, and since I was no longer needed, I was more than willing to oblige.

Over the following weeks I started to cook with increasing ferocity, branching out away from baked goods into hearty dinners. Angel hair pasta with chilli and lemon. Eggplant rolls dripping with cheese. Roast turkey with potato gratin and vegetables. Mushroom risotto. Beef stroganoff and homemade garlic bread. A lamb curry that took four hours to tenderise, making me glance in the oven and at my phone for the duration of the cooking, wondering if he would text me to say that he missed me. I had memorised his number. I typed it into my phone and deleted it on repetition. Check oven, check phone. Check oven, check phone. I was soon running out of room in the fridge to place all of my culinary creations, and my phone, gripped tightly in my hand, was beginning to make my palm sweaty. With my heart in my throat, I knocked on my roommate’s door.

‘Would you like to have dinner with me?’

‘Yes.’ She smiled and her eyes crinkled up at the corners. ‘That would be lovely.’

We ate, making a small dent in the assortment I had littered throughout the kitchen and in the fridge and freezer. I could often feel her eyes on me. Her head tilted down but she was looking at me through her eyelashes.

‘Would you like to come to the movies with me and my friends tomorrow night?’

‘Thanks, but that’s ok.’

‘Are you sure?’


‘Ok. Let me know if you change your mind though, you’re more than welcome to come.’

The following night I stood in the bathroom with my towel wrapped around me, looking in the mirror. I stared at my eyes reflecting back at me. I thought it was odd, how little you notice about yourself, when you spend so much time looking at another person. A knock on the door made me jump, my heart skittering around between my ribs.

‘Hey Erin, we’re leaving now, are you sure you don’t want to come?’

‘Yeah, thanks, I’m not ready or anything. Have fun.’

‘Alright. You too.’

I turned on the water, and when the front door slammed, I dropped my towel and stepped under the stream. Maybe I should cook something with cabbage, I thought, before I sat on the tile. It’s probably going to go off soon. When I closed my eyes, I was standing in Max’s kitchen doing dishes, and his arms wrapped around my waist as I stood at the sink. When I opened them, I felt a cool numbness appear between my eyes and spread down my neck and towards my limbs, and I cried.

A few days later I put reason out of my mind and sent Max a text message. I was surprised when he replied, saying we should spend some time together the following day. I wanted to know why things had gone the way they did. I woke up in the morning for once, opened my blinds, and spent most of the day sitting on the edges of seats and jigging one or both legs. An hour before I was supposed to leave, Max sent me a text to say that he was too busy, and cancelled. I sat down at my desk, my laptop screen taken up by his Facebook. My cheeks reddened. I took off my glasses and put my hands over my eyes. My face was hot, and my mouth became dry. I’m not sure how long I sat there, hiding my face, but when I opened my eyes the light was startling and crystalising. He would never change, and I would always be left waiting. I left my room and knocked on my roommate’s door. She opened it with a smile on her face and puzzlement in her eyes.

‘Do you want to have dinner with me?’ I said.

‘Sure, what are you cooking? Need help?’

‘Actually, I was thinking we could go out somewhere to eat.’

‘That sounds great.’

The next day, I didn’t cook. I didn’t have a reason to. I sat on the bench top, ad swung my legs like I used to when I was in the kitchen watching Mum cook. I breathed in as deep as I could, my chest lifted upwards, and I smiled.

The kitchen, I’ve realised, is a special place for expressing not only culinary talent, but basic gut feelings. And it can be, too, a place where we explore ourselves, our problems, and potential solutions that will improve not only what’s going on in the oven, but in our daily lives. The main challenge is to stay present. Spending time in your kitchen could be an utterly beneficial form of physical and occupational therapy. Since cooking is something one sometimes must do anyway, it could be done to maximum advantage. It’s possible to cook one’s way out of depression, and I know it is; because I’ve done it.

Heartbreak is not about nostalgia anymore. Time spent in nostalgic longing may not always behave in ways we might wish. My history of cooking largely involved the desire to link myself to other people, as some sort of gesture, some sort of connection on an emotional level. That desire is still a large part of me. I cook for my family and friends because I care about them. Though now I’ve also found a new desire. It goes against my previous desire to cook (indeed, to exist) exclusively for others. I have a desire to cook for myself. A solitary dinner does not mean I am alone.



Creek, Jennifer Occupational Therapy and Mental Health 2nd Edition, 1997. New York: Churchill, 1997

Mayland, Ros. ‘Rosa’s Musings: How Lemon Curd Saved My Life, or Cooking as Therapy’ Rosa Mayland. Web. Jan 31. 2012

Parrish, Louis Cooking As Therapy – How to Keep Your Soufflé Up and Your Depression Quotient Down. California: Hearst Corporation, 1975

Somovar, Anna ‘Cooking is Therapy: Making Meals Helps to Reduce Stress, Heal a Broken Heart, Among Other Benefits’ School California. Web. 28 August 2012

Down the Main Trunk Line
(Denise Young)

Posted on December 26, 2012 by in Being Sure

Down the Main Trunk Line <br />(Denise Young)

Overlander 4 (bridge)

It’s seven o’clock on a newly minted Auckland morning when I step on board the Overlander for the twelve-hour journey to Wellington down the Main Trunk Line. The announcements begin immediately. They still have famous railways pies. By which they mean fatty mince pies with the NZ addition of melted cheese. They have coffee in a bag. They don’t have cappuccino, macchiato, latte or mugaccino. They just have coffee in a bag; sounds like ‘beg’. The emphasis on what they don’t have reminds me of an old flatmate whose stroppy two-year-old would be asked what she wanted for breakfast, along with a reminder  of everything that was unavailable. ‘I know you love cocoa pops, Lily, but we don’t have cocoa pops’, ‘WAAAAH’, and ‘I know cornflakes are your favourite but we don’t have them either,’ ‘WAAAAHH!’ by the time the list of what we didn’t have was finished the child would be incandescent with rage and thwarted desire. It was as if her mother was directing the scene and she playing her part.

I take my seat beside a tall woman who turns sideways for me to shove my bag under the seat. I can’t pick her accent but she turns out to be Jan from Queensland. When she finds out I’m a writer she tells me she’s done a Masters in Creative Writing and loves the work of NZ writer Janet Frame. She quotes some favourite lines from Frame’s Living in the Maniototo, ‘Memory Country is a place bathed in cloud and light where the planes and ships rarely call now’, as we pull out of Auckland Station past container yards, car yards and increasingly basic housing in South Auckland. Large Mitre 10 Home Improvement stores seem to implore action which the householders are just not taking. The houses look like a child’s drawing of a house.

‘Memoir is fiction’ my neighbour tells me as we come into Papakura Station on the outskirts of town. It’s a bleak day, rain streaking the windows and the platforms are empty. Smokers are told they’ve got time for a quickie. The staff have promised to let smokers know the right time for a smoke and they’re delivering on that promise. Dave across the aisle moans, ‘Only in New Zealand would they tell them that!’

There are vast greenhouses and fields of corn south of Papakura. The volcanic soil looks rich and fertile. The announcements intrude, reminding us that the lounge area is definitely not for sleeping and we ‘have to share’. There are three large lounges at the end of our compartment and people take turns occupying them to stretch out and chat as the landscape streaks by, illuminated in the big picture windows.

Jan tells me she came from Western Queensland and used to take three trains home from her boarding school in Brisbane to Blackall. The guard would wake her in the early hours of the morning on her second train at Jericho, and she’d wait for the final steam-train ride home through the dawn light with tall red anthills beside the tracks wreathed in smoke.

Outside our window it’s low cloud and driving rain. ‘We won’t see much of the mountains today,’ I tell Jan. She says she believes the sun will come out.  ‘Not that I’m a cockeyed optimist!’

After the large town of Hamilton, we pass through Otorohanga, Maori for ‘food for a long journey’, named for a Maori chief who passing through town on his way to Taupo used magic incantations to make his food last longer. Dave says he doesn’t think incantations will help the railway food he’s forcing down. ‘You wouldn’t want it to last any longer…’

He tells  us he’s been up to the Bay of Islands to buy a property from a failed resort development. It was a steal he tells us, at $320,000 with five-star inclusions right down to sheets, towels and teapots. He’s gloating over five pages of inclusions and waiting for a message from his solicitor to confirm the deal has gone through. Every so often we hear a squawk. ‘Miele dishwasher!’ ‘Egyptian cotton! 200 thread count!’

Outside there are sharp, gorse-covered hills and a rainbow outlines a hill. We can see both ends of the rainbow. Two pots of gold? Jan snaps photos with the passion of a new traveler to this land. I’m an old traveler in this landscape but her enthusiasm is infectious. I remember many trips with our theatre group up and down this main trunk route. Often we traveled by night, which was cheaper, sitting up with the sound of the guitar breathing the night hours awake. ‘Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me. Twice on the pipe if the answer is no…’

The sun is coming out, just as Jan predicted. There are hills like frills and sheep like sleep; witches hat hills and beehives by the rail line, willow blessed creeks. Or cursed. ‘Half a dozen Bohemia crystal wine glasses,’ Dave chortles.

At Taumaranui, a local identity afflicted with some illness that makes him jerk and dance, dressed in an official hat from some unknown office and  a yellow jacket that says Intercity Coachlines, cavorts and capers as he gives long sharp whistles to send us off. He looks as if he comes to the station every day to perform this office. A family with kids have also come to see this once daily event. The only passenger train on the line.

The housing is rusty roofed and simple. Sheep scatter as the train clatters by. Autumn trees are changing colour, leaving the evidence of the season on the ground.

Next to Dave a tiny Maori man or woman, impossible to tell which, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses sits silent among us keeping his/her counsel.

Dave reveals he’s bought the property up north because he’s leaving his wife of thirty five years. He’s an atheist and she’s a fundamentalist Christian and her devotion is getting overwhelming. She’s up at 4am praying. She goes to Germany to take missionary courses. She is surrounded by her group of friends, living in a love bubble with 24/7 texting of support.

We pass a road sign that says,’Free Range Children.’ Jan repeats to me the last sentence of The Great Gatsby which she thinks one of the best ever written: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

We’re approaching our long lunch stop via Raurimu Spiral, a great engineering achievement at National Park in an area of still active volcanoes. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that the driver of a long freight train was confronted with some glowing red lights ahead and pulled his train to an emergency stop only to discover he’d caught up with his own guard’s van. Ruapehu… Ngaurahoe… the cloud still lowers stubbornly over the mountains, though, and they remain hidden. Tapu ground, they tell us, forbidden. A man behind calls his friend and asks him to move his cows one paddock forward. ‘Sorry, mate, meant to do it before I left. There’s plenty of fuel in the bike.’

In the hour till we reassemble after lunch the smokers manage two or three smokes. Another announcement as we approach Ohakune, carrot capital of New Zealand:  ‘Should there be anybody there to wave us down please remain on board till we come to a complete halt.’ Nobody waves us down and we are requested as we sidle slowly by to have a good look at the ‘heritage station,’ one of only four left on the Main Trunk Line. What they mean is any kind of station building at all. Most seem to be platforms with no infrastructure around. All gone.

The Hapuawhenua viaduct rises above a sea of ferns as we pass Tangiwai, meaning Sea of Tears in Maori. On Christmas Eve ,1953, 151 people passing by on a train were swept away by a lahar. I didn’t know what a lahar was but apparently it’s a mudslide or landfall caused by volcanic eruption. I remembered hearing about it next day on my grandparents’ radio in their lounge room at Drummoyne and everybody saying how awful at Christmas and all.

Suddenly the sun comes out and lordly Mt Ruapehu appears, finally deciding to grace us with its presence. Jan just clicks away and refrains from saying ‘I told you so’.

Taihape next. I know I couldn’t die happy in Taihape.  I go up to stand on the tiny outdoor platform.  ‘Best seat in the house,’ a man standing there says.  He tells me that as kids they always bought tea at Taihape then tried to drink it before the next viaduct, so  they could chuck their cups down into the gorge. ‘Gave you a great feeling!’

The outdoor platform is a NZ institution that all their trains have. They sum up the best of NZ. It’s fun to stand there being almost blown off your feet talking easily and naturally with other passengers because you’re in this windblown, rain-sodden, snow-spackled world together. New Zealanders have a great sense of fun. Maybe they  caught it from the Maoris. I clutch the rail as the train rushes over the high gorge where cups are to be dropped, as my neighbour tells me he’s got twin daughters but no wife now. His wife’s found a new jockey, he tells me. He’s a floor sander.

‘How do you go with those awful chemicals?’ I ask.

‘They mess you around all right,’ he acknowledges.

‘Can you protect yourself? Wear a mask?’

‘Yep, but then you don’t get the buzz!’

Back in our carriage, Dave tells me he feels lighter than he thought he would about the change in his life. Like a burden’s been rolled away. He’s told his wife she can come too, but she says God needs her to stay where she is, cocooned in the love bubble.

Toitoi fern stand to attention like the feathers in the caps of soldiers in the Light Horse Division. Blasted willows hover near fully clothed neighbours. The river, fast flowing, foaming over rocks, hurtles through the gorge below with stony edges like a grandfather’s rough lap and chalky cliffs above. There is a strange sideways movement of the water as if it’s smiling, trying to fill the width of the gorge.

Dave prepares to get out. He tells us his wife’s friends are always smiling. Only an idiot smiles all the time, the Russians say. Jan tells us the Chinese say, ‘Do not open shop if no smiley face.’

Jan and I wonder if we’ll see his wife pick him up. We press our collective noses to the window and sure enough there she is, in an indeterminate colour car. We see her get out to let him get into the driving seat. ‘Tight,’ Jan says. I nod. Everything about her. Hair. Clothes. Mouth. Set tight. Poor woman. We wonder how they’ll go on. Clearly he still loves her if he’s offering her the chance to come with him. He told us, ‘I’m the last man standing. Everybody else has given up on her.’

His stop, Fielding, is called the cleanest town on the coast. He says it should be called the prettiest. It’s modeled on Manchester in England and has a town square, unusual for NZ, where there’s normally just a main street. Unfortunately he told us the town square is surrounded by Edwardian buildings that they’re thinking of demolishing as an earthquake risk. The Christchurch earthquake, where masonry behaved badly, has set everybody’s nerves on edge.

Jan gets off shortly after. I really like her, but wonder if we’ll meet again despite exchanging emails. She is staying with friends in a rural valley near Palmerston North. That’s where my ex-in- laws, now long dead, lived. Fred and Jessie, small and round like salt and pepper shakers, were  a loving and generous couple who fostered many children once their own two were teenagers, including my former husband, Paul, and a boy who later killed someone with an axe. He’d practiced for this years earlier by chasing Paul’s foster mother and sister round the house with a similar axe. Jessie never gave up on him, still writing to him when he was locked up for good. Paul had to share a room with the boy, who stole his pocket money every day on the way to school and, more disgustingly, stored used toilet paper in their shared wardrobe. Fred and Jessie, undaunted, just carried on offering children in need a loving home.

I travel onto Wellington with a smile on my face, despite the weather closing in with the well-known Wellington gloom. It’s like Armageddon, dark, windy, squally and wet as we pull in to the station. Heritage, of course.  ‘You’ll pay for coming here!’ Wellington threatens. But I’m game. Wellington threw everything at me in the past. It can’t hurt me now.

Eulogy for a Fisherman’s Village (John Smith)

Posted on April 10, 2012 by in Being Sure

I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.

He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.

The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.

He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.

Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.

There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.

He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.

I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.


I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.


At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.

The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.

However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.

Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.

This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.


This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010).  For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.

Adventures in the Book – and Shirt – Trade (David Cohen)

Posted on March 14, 2012 by in Being Sure


People who work in small independent bookshops often find themselves going to great lengths to satisfy customers, no matter how idiosyncratic their tastes might be. But the truly dedicated bookseller must even be willing to go beyond his or her jurisdiction and tackle non-book-related requests in order to please a customer, or potential customer.

Take the following case.

Some years ago I worked in a Perth bookshop which opened late seven days a week. Around 9.45 one Friday night, the shop was empty and I was in the middle of assembling a dump bin. This was in itself something of a challenge. The dump bin comprised two cardboard trays mounted, one on top of the other, upon a cardboard base. A number of hooks folded out of the base, their purpose being to lock into corresponding perforations in the trays and thereby hold the structure together. But every time I hooked one of these hooks into its slot, a hook I’d already hooked into a slot somewhere else invariably came undone.

As I wrestled with the dump bin, I happened to look up and notice a young man patiently watching. It seemed he’d witnessed the entire performance.

‘Having a bit of trouble there?’

I stood up. ‘Stupid things. Can I help you?’

‘Yeah. Do you have any shirts?’


‘Yeah – out the back or something.’

I explained that we didn’t have any shirts, and that he might want to try Myer when it re-opened for business the following day.

‘No,’he said.‘You see, me and my mate want to get into the nightclub up the road, but the bouncers won’t let my mate in without a proper shirt.’

It turned out they’d been up and down the street, trying to buy a shirt, but, apart from the bookshop, the only places open along the strip at that time of night were cafes, restaurants, and a cinema.

‘Where’s your mate?’I said.

He called out:‘Tony! Get over here!’

Tony appeared from behind some shelves. He was wearing an All Blacks top.

‘This is Tony. I’m Lachlan.’

There were introductions all round, and then Lachlan pointed to Tony and said:‘See? He can’t get in with that.’Tony looked suitably forlorn. I said that while I sympathised, we simply had no shirts on the premises.

We stood there trying to figure out how Tony might get hold of a shirt at five past ten on a Friday night in Leederville. Then Lachlan had an idea.

‘Hang on a sec, he said to me.‘You’re wearing a shirt.’

Being in no position to deny that I was wearing a shirt, I replied:‘That’s


‘And you guys look about the same size. How about we do a swap?’

‘A swap?’

‘Just for now. We’ll bring it back tomorrow. Plus we’ll throw in half a carton of VB.’

Although it was an unusual request, I felt no attachment to that particular shirt, which I’d bought at Target for $24.95 some months earlier. Besides, maybe my good deed would inspire them to purchase a book. So we adjourned to the rear of the store and exchanged garments. Tony and Lachlan, now both suitably attired for the nightclub, were exceptionally grateful and said I was a‘top bloke’.

‘While you’re here,’I said, as we walked back out into the shop,‘how about a book?’

‘Nah, that’s okay,’said Lachlan. ‘Maybe next time. But you’ve got half a carton of VB coming your way, all right?’

‘Don’t lose that jumper now, bro,’said Tony on the way out. The All Blacks top obviously meant a lot more to him than my polyester shirt did to me.

Or perhaps not. Lachlan and Tony didn’t return to the bookshop the following day, or at any time after that. Whether I was the victim of an elaborate scam designed to rob people of cheap casual menswear, or whether they’d simply overindulged at the nightclub and Tony woke up in a strange shirt with no recollection of how or why, will never be known for certain. All I could be sure of at the time was that I now had an All Blacks top in practically mint condition. I seemed to have come out ahead on the deal.

The All Blacks top is in my wardrobe to this day. Every now and then I put it on to commemorate the night I went above and beyond the call of duty in the name of customer service – even though this didn’t actually culminate in the sale of books.

But two questions remain unanswered.

(1) Whatever happened to Lachlan and Tony?

And more importantly:

(2) Where is my half a carton of VB?

The Poet Said Fuck On Stage
(Tiggy Johnson)

Posted on January 10, 2012 by in Being Sure


The poet said fuck on stage. It doesn’t sound like anything extraordinary and nor would it have been, but for the context and the fact that her mother sat in the front row. I admit I looked over to the poet’s mother when I heard the resounding, almost yelling of ‘fuck’ on stage, and she didn’t really react. Not that I’d met her before so it would be hard for me to know. Even as I realised the mother didn’t react, I was aware that perhaps she felt so self-conscious that she was using all her energy to indeed appear to not react.

Then the poet said masturbate.

It wasn’t said with the gusto she’d said fuck, nor the clarity, but rather a touch of speed and an almost-muffle, but it was there. I heard it, others heard it, and I imagine her mother heard it.

Again, her mother failed to respond.

I know it sounds odd that I’m surprised she didn’t react, or more that I’m surprised the poet said fuck and masturbate on stage when she knew her mum was there. Even I’m a little surprised I’m surprised.

On the same stage almost two years beforehand, my own mother sat near the front as I performed my first featured poetry set, and I said fuck too. More than once.

Fuck is a word my brothers and I got into trouble for saying when we were kids. Mum used to say shit all the time and I said it once when I was starting high school. Mum wasn’t impressed and before she dished out consequences I reminded her that she said shit all the time and asked how she could expect us not to. I didn’t get into trouble that day, nor any other time I said shit.

But Mum never said fuck and it seemed, even by my own argument, fuck was off limits.

When I was planning my poetry set I knew I was going to say fuck in front of her. Of course, as an adult, I had no disillusions of any consequences, although I didn’t want to make my mum feel uncomfortable, or myself, for that matter.

When I got to the bit where I had to say fuck I chose not to look in her direction. Same the next time I had to say fuck. I tried not to imagine her reeling a little, perhaps sitting up straight all of a sudden and wondering whether she worried that people were staring at her. Though I suspect, unlike the other poet’s mother, my own did reel a little, whether or not it was because I said fuck or whether it was the context in which I said it. Though I didn’t say masturbate in front of her, nor do I think I would. (Although I realise it’s to say this when that word does not feature in any of my own poems. To date.)

Even considering this and knowing I would again say fuck in front of my mother for the sake of poetry, it still surprises me that this poet did it.

Perhaps it’s some crazy double standard, or maybe it has something to do with me having a good understanding of my own relationship with my mother and knowing nothing about this poet’s with hers. Maybe it has something to do with the age gap between the poet and myself, which makes me almost old enough to be her mother. Though really, I suspect it has more to do with context.

By that I don’t mean that I said fuck in the middle of a humorous piece about being in labour while this poet said it in a more, let’s say, aggressive, piece that suggested she less than loves her life, or more specifically, one aspect of it. Although that does have something to do with it.

I don’t remember the context of her saying masturbate, other than, as I’ve already suggested, it seemed rushed, like she was aware her mother was listening and hoped she could somehow disguise it so her mother mightn’t notice. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable saying it at all.

I do recall the context of the poet’s message though, the thing the poet, through the various poems she delivered as part of her featured set, was trying to say. She hates being a parent.

No two ways about it, considering the context of her overall performance, I have no doubt the poet hates, more than anything else on this earth, the responsibility that comes with caring for a dependent child.

At least she did when she wrote the poems.

A poem that involved no swearing was perhaps the most disturbing she delivered. It was the kind of poem that, as I listened, I wondered what would happen in the future, when her toddler grew up, could read, could ask questions like, ‘Why did you hate me so much, Mummy?’, ‘Why didn’t you want to play with me, Mummy?’ and ‘Did having me really ruin your life Mummy?’

Because this poet is angry. Angry about being a mum, angry about being responsible for a dependent child, angry about not getting enough time to herself to be herself, angry about her marriage breaking up, angry that her life isn’t what she hoped it would be. Angry that she was tricked into the responsibility of being a parent when she had a completely, albeit naive, expectation of what it might be like. Angry with society’s attitudes toward mothers.

I feel for her. I’ve been her. I feel the pain she’s suffering. I feel the pain her daughter may suffer in the future. I feel for her mother who sat and listened to her daughter’s pain, unable to do a damned thing but sit still and listen.

I understand where the poet is coming from, the things she feels right now, the desperate need to break out of it, at all costs. I’ve been there, although not so publicly. I felt ashamed of such thoughts, struggled to come to terms with them in the safety of my lounge room instead of belting them down a microphone in a dimly lit suburban pub. On one hand, I admire her for being brave enough to say some of the things I wasn’t, even though I’m all for getting the messages out there. I mean, half the reason she feels like this to start with is because talking about the things she’s expressing are taboo, but that’s a separate issue.

I think her poems are important. I agree the world needs to know what it can be like for new parents, how it can be difficult to adapt to new responsibilities, particularly when, as she pointed out in one of her poems, you become invisible to the rest of the world when you have a baby. But I’m not yet decided whether she’s brave, or whether she just needs some help. Even if she doesn’t need help, perhaps her poems will show others that many new mothers do. And that they often don’t know how to get it. I look forward to the poems she’ll write next.

I hope she’ll write some that offer the right balance to give these dark ones the strength the message in them deserves. The kind of poems that show the light side of parenting, that show she learned something valuable from this dark place she’s in.

While I could argue that other poets write about the happy times and this poet’s experience provides the balance, I can’t help but feel that without her providing a balance herself, the audience, instead of hearing her message, will just think of her as the poet that said fuck on stage. And masturbate.