— If it’s mediocre, it will be called average. (Bryce Courteney, Colleen McCullough)
—If it’s average, it will be called good. (Robert Drewe, David Malouf)
—If it’s good, it will be called great. (Tim Winton, Nam Le)
—If it’s great, it will be ignored. (Gerald Murnane, Patrick White)
‘Where you from, mate?’
That makes ‘em laugh, for some reason.
When people overseas ask me where I’m from, I naturally say “Australia.” When people interstate ask, I say “Sydney.” When people in Sydney ask, I say “Blacktown,” and they look askance, as if to say: Where the bloody hell is that?
For some, the Western Suburbs are some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant, blank space, uncharted territory, a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains. A faraway boganville. With no atmosphere, no culture – and definitely no reason to visit. A place to leave rather than to return to, a place from which to seek asylum.
The Italian writer Aldo Busi says that ‘we travel like lobsters, our heads over our shoulders.’ Which is to say, we’re always looking back, looking away, our eyes fixed not so much on the horizon to which we’re heading, but what we left behind around the corner we just passed.
But in Sydney, where ‘executive waterfront investment opportunities’ grab at the hem of the foreshore, stabbing the skyline like upturned fingers, once-vibrant harbourside neighbourhoods are now silent but for the sound of the security buzzer, everyone as blinded as dazzled by the Harbour’s glistering, dancing light.
And, unlike the starving colonists of Old Sydney Town, who looked westwards for salvation (and installed the Governor in Parramatta Park), it seems, at least from reading the papers or listening to the radio, nobody looks West, least of all those of us who grew up there. I left as soon as I could, moving to Town, where I imagined everything happened, finding myself apologetically justifying my place by doing everything I could not to appear a Westie, even if I was still obviously a darkie.
In Greystanes, where I grew up, and where the only water views were the Beresford Road stormwater drain or the Prospect Reservoir, our gaze was always fixed on Town, as distant as another country. From the milk bar at the top of Ettalong Road, the sky bleached and laundry-dry, our paddle pops dissolving into the incandescent asphalt, you’d see the city, so far away, shimmering in the burnt-blue distance, a mirage reminding you how far away you were, despite being so close.
And at night, Town’s candy-coloured lights would flicker uncertainly as the humming sodium streetlamps of the Great Western Highway swallowed them up into the stifling night.
‘No, where you really from?’ they ask.
‘Well, I was born in Blacktown,’ I reply. ‘But don’t tell anyone – we don’t want to lower property values.’
They laugh a little less.
The Australian academic and critic Stephen Muecke observes that ‘a language like English is like a group of textual suburbs,’ each with its own character, the differences expressed not just through space and distance, but in a cultural and political geography, crowded with meaning, like, say the difference between Blacktown and Circular Quay or Greystanes and Girraween.
It’s always struck me, Greystanes or Girraween or even Doonside aside, how incongruously Western suburbs are named. The imperious names of posh suburbs like Northbridge or Edgecliff or Palm Beach describe them perfectly: there is a bridge there, it is on the edge of a cliff, and there are lots of expensively transplanted palms within the high-walled gardens of those luxurious weekenders.
But if you’ve ever been to Merrylands or Pleasure Point or Silverwater, you’d find it hard to see the merriness or pleasure or silveriness over the belch of exhaust fumes and the roar of motorway traffic. The only high walls on the Cumberland Highway are there not to protect the residents from the invasive gaze of outsiders, but from the pollution and noise and collisions that the many smash repair shops all the way to Smithfield take advantage of. Sometimes it seems, the roller shutters clamped down against the yellow heat, that even Westies don’t want to look around them.
Only Blacktown, where I was born, seems apt: named after a school established to educate the natives in ‘civilised’ English ways, its Indigenous Dharug name long lost. Now it’s home to Sydney’s biggest population of Indigenous Australians, immigrant Indians and Sudanese refugees.
A black town, indeed, even if Greystanes did feel, growing up, as it sounded: a regretful smudge, only an incremental shade from darkness.
‘No, seriously, where’s your family from?’
‘Seriously? Actually, Greystanes. I grew up there.’
They stop laughing.
Just as for those who’ve never ventured any further down Parramatta Road past Annandale, the Western suburbs is uncharted territory, written on the blank page of an imaginary map, my geography is an emotional one. The longer you’re away, you realise that the landmarks aren’t the things you sped past on the way to the Cumberland Highway on-ramp: those mysterious, windowless hangars; the anonymous storage facilities; the cut-price hotel-motels; the shabby shops selling soiled seconds; the heavy machinery yards, the dead skeletons of cranes and earthmovers hung, fossilised, in the still, suffocating air… but the spaces they once were – and more importantly, the people who inhabit those spaces.
Unlike the heritage-listed million dollar terraces of Paddington or Rozelle, the streetscapes of Western Suburbs like Padstow or Rosehill are constantly changing, from minty fibro cottages to brick veneer bungalows; now lurid McMansions and strange glassy-faced apartments thrown onto empty stretches of Parramatta Road staring out at caryards or the acrid remains of the Homebush Abbattoirs. Could you tell Australia’s second white settlement was established at Parramatta, now in danger of being rechristened Westfieldamatta?
Horrified faces seem to ask: how could anyone want to live there? As if you only live there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, seeking asylum from even worse places. When I was due back after a couple of years in London, my mother couldn’t understand my reluctance to return. ‘There’s a new Gloria Jean’s in the Boral Brick Pit,’ she said indignantly, referring to the Pemulwuy development over the spar from the Reservoir. ‘And the coffee, frankly, is quite adequate.’
Unlike the phó, the raw beef larb, the kuttu roti, the bhelpuri or bipbimbap, which are phenomenal. Growing up eating chevapi from Fairfield, pastizzi from South Wentworthville, kofte in Auburn, at little lunch, I’d swap my puris and dhal for Marko’s csabai roll; after school, Carlo’s mum would stuff us with cannoli or we’d gobble devon-and-sauce sangers at Kieran’s.
There’s a danger, though, in regarding the Western Suburbs as a kind of food court, like a series of little China- or Viet- or Korea- or Lebanon- or Serbia-towns, enjoying the cuisine but disregarding the cultures that cooked them up, leaving “them” to deal with the mess between “authenticity” and “assimilation.”
And there’s a danger in perpetuating the false perception of “us” and “them”, East and West, when the borders are always shifting and easily crossed – as long as it takes to get on a train (or, given Western Sydney’s unending public transport woes, just getting on the motorway) – or, perhaps, more importantly, within us.
Yet it seems odd that most of the city’s population, coming from the Western Suburbs, must make the effort to engage, at least culturally, with thousands spending hours on the train or motorway to line the Harbour and crowd the Domain every January for the Sydney Festival, as if there was nowhere else to go, when while the road ends at the foreshore, there are countless directions heading the other way going West into Australia’s dark heart.
However, for “native Westies” like my mother, living in the Western Suburbs is not simply a question of affordability but community: the ‘ethnic ghettoes’ pilloried by those opposed to diversity exist only as new immigrants find their feet in a strange land among friends. It seems that the transformation in public opinion from ‘ethnic ghetto’ to celebrated ‘cultural precincts’ like Norton Street or Dixon Street takes only a generation. Just as from Ettalong Road to Centrepoint, it’s only twelve miles, even if in Sydney traffic, it sometimes it feels a world away: another country, as foreign as the past, in these forgotten places where everything seems demolished, where certainties seem erased.
But it’s in those places, like the meaning hidden in the spaces between words, where just as much, if not more, is gained in the translation, as was ever imagined lost.
‘Where were they born?’
‘Well, my parents were born in India – ‘
‘Right, so you’re Indian?’
I eat tandoori chicken I do on the barbie; I’ve read the Mahabharata, but only in English. I’m not sure I’m really Indian and yet people aren’t really sure I’m not. ‘Indianness’ is a concept as foreign to me as ‘Australianness’. Let alone ‘Westieness.’
I was born in Australia, I speak with an Australian accent, I don’t speak any Indian language, but I look Indian: what you might call a ”coconut,” white inside and brown out. It’s funny: when I tell people in India where my parents are from, they laugh and ask me where I’m really from. It’s only in India that I’m Australian… and perhaps vice-versa.
In more supposedly cosmopolitan quarters I’d find people kindly reassuring me I wasn’t really Indian, or Westie for that matter, and being surprised I took such exception.
Such questions don’t bother my mother, adjusting her sari defiantly. ‘I’m a Westernie and proud of it,’ she says, well, proudly.
But what would a Westie look like anyway (or, while we’re asking, an Aussie)? Who wears flannie shirts with Winnie Blues tucked into the sleeve over an Ackadacka tanktop stuffed into skinny jeans – and, most appallingly, with thongs?
(Actually, walking down the trendier quarters of Bondi or Surry Hills, it seems everybody. It seems strange not just that such privileged young slashies should be copying Westies, but that their Westie contemporaries might imitate them, imitating their own Westie parents.)
And it’s ironic that with Sydney’s exorbitant house prices forcing people further west, many of us who left are now returning – and those same Eastern Suburbs or North Shore denizens who might wonder who’d live in the West find themselves on its doorstep, newly arrived immigrants in enclaves like Petersham or Ashfield, where the multicultural atmosphere – with older Portuguese and Greek immigrants rubbing shoulders with newer Chinese and Anglo arrivals – is celebrated.
Much is made of Sydney’s multiculturality: after all, as Australia’s largest city, home to Australia’s busiest airport, and the first destination for many immigrants (such as my parents), it has the most and most diverse ethnic communities.
But, on a recent trip to Bondi, packed with foreign tourists, it struck me that I was the only non-white person on the street: a strange, unsettling feeling I suddenly realised I’d never have back home, out west.
And it occurred to me that the Gateway to Australia wasn’t at Circular Quay, but somewhere around Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic and geographical heart, its streets alive with exotic aromas and unheard of dialects, offering at once the reality of Sydney today, and its possibilities tomorrow. Lost for words, I thought of Muecke again:
‘When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.’
‘No, mate, I’m a Westie. And proud of it.’
And it seems, just as the geography of a place is one more of meaning than merely location, so too a nation – especially a nation of immigrants like Australia – is not so much a collection of gazetted borders or place names but an idea, agreed upon by the majority of the people who claim citizenship of it.
But like any idea, like any nation, like any city, like any community, it cannot exist statically in the ghetto of some idealised past or limited to any particular definition: it can only be enriched and strengthened by debating it and expanding it, the changes keeping it alive.
And nowhere is that more true than the Western Suburbs, constantly demolishing and building and reinventing, its face changing with every new wave of arrivals, building their own ideas of Australia on the foundations of their own imaginary homelands.
Although the Indonesian-Chinese-Australian theorist Ien Ang acknowledges the conflict between questions of ‘where you’re from’ over ‘where you’re at,’ particularly for immigrants and their children, and while the idea of being where you’re at is more relevant in finding your place, it shouldn’t discount where you’re from. Why, as Salman Rushdie asks, should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of society, or drawing on our roots – whether Oriental or Westie – for our art or identity?
In his classic The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (set in of all places, Western Australia), Randolph Stowe’s semi-autobiographically based protagonist, Rob, whose uncle is Maltese, wonders ‘if he would ever go as far as Malta, and hear people talking foreign languages in the streets.’
We needn’t travel so far: once we open the shutters and turn towards our hearts, it’s there, where it always was, and if we look hard enough, we can see it never really left us, or us it. Just as I cannot disavow my apparent Indianness, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing?
After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants, but its outsiders, always on the margins, looking in: not offering new certainties, but new ways of questioning accepted ones. Like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere, offering new insights, new visions, new illuminations?
And best of all, not just artists or writers. For one marvellous month in Greystanes, we wander once silent streets, shining with fairy lights and children’s laughter and the jingle of carols. The Caruanas, the Browns, the Sabouhs and the Wongs all festoon their front windows with puddings and elves and animatronic Nativity scenes, steaming in the Mr Whippy gloaming, the sky radiant with rosy resplendence, all of us swelling with Christmas spirit and community pride: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. My two little girls, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, half-Indian, half-Anglo and wholly Australian, are as enthralled by these Christmas decorations as they are by the Deepavali ones at the Murugan Temple up the road.
The Parramatta Advertiser proudly reports how many people come from all over the city to delight at Greystanes, of all places.
And, amidst the excited clamour and electric lustre, nobody notices the spray-on snow or sweltering Santas dissolving in the dusk, or the way each of us has added a little of our own traditions and expectations to make something shinier, more colourful, more inclusive: different, but not discrete. Nor, as the rainbow sparkles and tinkling carols shimmer along Cumberland Road, the uncertain glimmer of Town, so far away.
We’ve no need to look longingly over our shoulders that one marvellous month, for we can see that light right in front of us, where it always was: round the corner from home, in our neighbours’ and children’s faces, sticky with choc top and lit with joy.
‘Country and Western’ was published in Best Australian Essays 2010.
My father is not yet dead. People who knew him say there is a likeness in this drawing. I can still see him breathing, can you? I still feel warmth when I bend to kiss his head in salutation; I feel a pulse through his skull against my lips. I imagine his gaze on me. Hello I hear him say, do I know you?
He doesn’t have long now to live. It is only a matter of hours. He dies the next day.
Maurice Blanchot once wrote: Look again at this splendid being from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself. And someone says to me, kindly: Francesca, he’ll be tangle free you know, when he’s gone he’ll be at peace.
Death skewers the heart of those left behind, no matter what the age of those who are dying. One minute I have a father and he’s with me in the flesh. The next minute he’ll be gone, really gone, disappeared. All breathing stopped.
These images of my father’s body span two notebooks. You can see the ordinariness of the lines and checks on the paper I’ve drawn across. When I was called to his beside in Toowoomba, I didn’t think I would be drawing his figure as he lay dying: I thought he would be already dead. I didn’t think there would be enough room for me to spread out around his bed, not room enough to measure stillness like this. There are too many of us for that. We fill up his room, bodies everywhere. Nurses stay away.
Did you know, with six children in a family there are six children trying to say goodbye to six fathers? In mathematical terms, there are 720 different sorts of relationships the six of us can have – a multiplication of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6. Add my father into the equation and multiply that figure by seven, to take it to 5040 combinations and permutations.
I draw him with a pencil found at the bottom of my bag.
Was it John Ruskin who said: but only draw what you see?
I watch my father find breath with my marks. The nurses tell me, when checking respiration, it is important to also note whether a person has any difficulty breathing.
Did you know that on average we take 15 to 20 breaths per minute? That’s 900 to 1200 breaths per hour and 21600 to 28800 breaths per day. If we think of a year, we take 7884000 to 10512000 breaths in those 365 days – millions in other words. For my father who is 90 he has taken 709560000 to 946080000 breaths until now, to these, his very last.
My father is dying and I wonder what he is thinking, is he thinking at all. Does he still wish he will go to heaven to be with Angel, my mother? Is that his dream? Or has his Alzheimer’s clouded his view of any possible a f t e r l i f e?
I read once: in death, the rictus is an oddly painful unexpected ugly fact. The mouth is all wrong.
My father died when he was ninety. In mathematics, the number nine is at the end of the primary series beginning with one and finishing with 10. It denotes a complete circle, 360 degrees or, to put it another way, 3 + 6 + 0 = 9.
In French, the word neuf means both nine and new.
Nine is a lucky number.
I draw my father with my lucky ring on, from Hanoi. I call it lucky because it is in nine pieces – a silver ring with the palest of white Halong Bay pearls shaped in a grid of 3 x 3. I sometimes think of it as my noughtsandcrosses ring.
Thinking of my father I think of kissing him goodbye for the final time – with these nine pearls, these nine kisses, and with my story in nine drawings.
This requiem for my father in nine drawings complements a photo-essay I wrote for Overland entitled ‘My father’s body: creation, evolution and Alzheimer’s disease’.
Gordon and Dorothy
She was sixteen and at a dance when she saw him. It was, she said, like the song, across a crowded room. And I did know immediately that this was the one for me. He was a young farmer, then, with no thoughts of uniforms or war. It was the eyes, she said. Those gorgeous hazel eyes. And whenever she talked about him, which was only when pushed to, it was always about the eyes until bitterness took over as she aged and other, less attractive, things surfaced. Photos show that I inherited those eyes, as did my own daughter. It must have been hard for her to see his eyes in my face.
Small fragments of the child
My in-betweenness started at birth as, during the disarray and movement of late World War Two, my mother and baby-me followed my father around RAAF bases, staying with various relatives or in inexpensive accommodation. I have been told fragments of stories of my own beginnings and baby-life: the dramatic, the memorable. There was my father’s mother’s home in Mount Lawley, where I, the non-sleeping infant, would be walked by whoever was available while my mother napped. There was the apartment on the beach in Geraldton where toddler-me was taken to the beach by a neighbour with her own children. My mother, watching from the window, saw me run towards the water. I had hardly time to get wet before she pulled me from the waves. She had run down stairs from the first floor, across the railway yard and the broad beach. I never knew I could run so fast, she’d say. I’d told the woman you had to be watched all the time as you were quick and always escaping to explore. But she didn’t understand.
When we went to Melbourne we flew on a RAAF plane. You headed straight for the biggest brass there and sat on his knee the whole way. Even at two, you went for the top. There we lived in Surrey Hills with a relative of my father’s. There the story is of me being pushed in a small wood cart by a distant cousin, one of the Redhead family, who lost control and let the cart run down a hill towards a main road.
The story I liked most was set at Greenacres, my mother’s parents’ farm, and was told many times. It was a hot summer day, early afternoon. The mid-day meal had been cleared away and the men were back in the paddocks, harvesting. Baby-me was asleep in a low open cot in a bedroom that opened onto a partly-enclosed verandah. I had a feeling something wasn’t right, she’d say. I tippy-toed along the verandah and looked into the cot. How I didn’t scream was a miracle, because if you had woken then, you wouldn’t be here now. There, curled up at the bottom of the cot was a brown snake.
What did you do? I was always fascinated by this story of life and death and my mother’s bravery. How did you save me?
There was no-one around. And it would have taken too long to run out to the paddock to get your Pop. Who knows what could have happened while I was away. So I crept up to the top of the cot and reached in so, so slowly. I put my hand over your face so you wouldn’t cry or make a noise, and lifted you out, very slowly at first, then with a quick jerk. And that snake stayed asleep until I had you out of the cot, then it uncoiled. I ran out of the room and put you in your stroller in the kitchen.
And then? I was always anxious to get to the next bit.
I got the poker from the fireplace. Then I went back and I hit that snake. I hit it and hit it, and I broke the cot getting at it. Your Pop had to fix it when he came in from the harvester. He made one with netting around so nothing could get in again.
So much danger for one so young, all told in a voice tinged with horror.
But these fragments are from before I remember being. They are pieces of stories and family mythology that tell me who I was, before I could know myself.
Air Force Blues — Gordon and Dorothy
Wherever we went she tried to make a home for him when he was off-base. He just wanted to go out and play, she’d say. Wanted to leave the baby, me, with a sitter, and go to dances and bars. But I couldn’t do that. Bob and Harry, Gordon’s brothers, had transferred from the army to the RAAF, and their wives were in the WAAF and the Army. I can imagine them meeting in Melbourne. St Kilda, she’d say. Such an awful place. So dirty and crowded, and with things going on that I can’t possibly tell you about. The service men and women would want to see the town, see the sights so different from their small farm small town origins. Dorothy must have felt isolated in her civilian-dom and her motherhood, not understanding the stresses of the forces and they not understanding the problems of the camp follower trying to create normality as she knew it.
So easy to see, now. For the farm boy the RAAF was a release, an escape to the world. For the young Methodist-conservative wife it was a threat to stability with the moving around and the partying instead of being a family. It was an often-repeated story that as a baby I never slept. I’ve had the fancy that my mother’s distress reached me in the womb, making me afraid to sleep in case my father disappeared.
When Gordon was transferred to Townsville Dorothy took me to Greenacres where we lived with her parents until he came home from the RAAF.