Welcome! Here’s a loving snapshot of Melbourne’s literary 2017



In 2008, Melbourne joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network when it was designated the first and only City of Literature in Australia, and the second in the world.

Melbourne’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature is acknowledgment of the breadth, depth and vibrancy of the city’s literary culture. Melbourne supports a diverse range of writers, a prosperous publishing industry, a successful culture of independent bookselling, a wide variety of literary organisations and a healthy culture of reading and engagement in events and festivals.​

Last year we provided a snapshot of Melbourne’s literary 2016. Now we have literary 2017 for you. So please scroll through this whole website, please click, please read, and see what kind of publishing/writing/literary activities happened in Melbourne in 2017!

(All site illustrations are by Jini Maxwell.)

‘Who are you calling a Luddite? Our love-hate relationship with technology’



From the steam engine to the smartphone, technology has always changed our lives. But do you ever feel like you have no say? Meet the real Luddites.



In 2017, Nic Ludd tells Siri she's bored. In 1813, Ned Ludd makes stockings for a living.
Nic can't find a job and thinks she's been replaced by robots. Ned also feels machines are pushing him out of work.
Nic is upset that her crush hasn't texted her but has been on social media.
Ned and his friends are angry about their working conditions.
Ned knows the sledgehammer won't hold off the industrial revolution.
But out of pride, Ned destroys the machines that took his job.
Nic picks up her phone, containing the entire contents of her old desk.
Ned is being arrested for his part in the Luddite uprising.
Nic feels like she has a stone in her shoe.
Maybe it's just a pixel. She can't see it no matter how hard she shakes the boot.
Nic taps her shoe against the ground.
Ned is deported to Van Dieman's land. Part of his brain knows his surname will one day become an insult.
Some of Ned's friends are publicly hanged.
Nic takes selfies and watches the likes roll in.
Nic's brother ribs her. She calls him a Luddite.
Ned and his partner Elizabeth have a baby.
Their baby will have a baby, who will have a baby, who will be Nic.
Even though they are made of the same gunk, neither Nic nor Ned has any idea the other existed.
Is there an app that could change that?
What would Nic have done with that sledgehammer?
Would Nic have shown Ned video calls? What would he think of sex robots?
Would he have thought smashing them with a sledgehammer was violent or necessary?
Would Ned have boycotted Uber? Would he have tried to crawl inside that phone?
Does time progress in a straight line along a Y axis?
Or does it fold back on itself and sometimes disappear completely?
Today we share the Luddites' struggle as we embrace and resist new forms of technology. Does that make us all Luddites?


  • Design, illustration, writing: Sam Wallman
  • Concept and producer: Natasha Mitchell
  • Digital production: Rosanna Ryan
  • Development: Colin Gourlay

‘The Secret Science of Magic’



I’ve spent heaps of time at Melbourne Uni over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it buzz quite like this. Elsie and I step off the tram in front of the main entrance, Rajesh bouncing behind us. Elsie and Raj stand aside, presumably for me to catch my breath, but before I can recover from the press and mash of the tram, I’m smacked in the face by a giant spray of balloons. The colour, the almost TARDIS blue of MU, should probably be comforting, but somehow, it’s anything but.

‘Sorry mate,’ the guy attached to the balloons says. ‘Latex injuries are an occupational hazard.’ He smiles at me, all facial scruff and confidence. Under his jacket he’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a pipe and some French words in cursive. My head is light and my French is rusty, but I think the slogan translates as, this is not a hipster shirt. Although the thought of catching the crowded tram again makes me queasy, it takes every bit of my willpower not to bolt back onto the idling behemoth and head home.

Elsie and Raj hover beside me, a Nayer on either side. Balloon-guy’s eyes travel over Elsie’s tiny denim skirt under her black winter coat. ‘Lemme guess, you’re a life-drawing model? Arts building’s thataway,’ he says to her legs.

Raj whistles. Elsie gives balloon-guy a wide, toothy smile, even as her eyes narrow. ‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ she says sweetly, and loudly, in French. ‘If I ever need to brush up on deviant sexuality in film noir, or whatever.’

The guy looks at her blankly. Elsie points to his shirt. ‘Tu ne parles pas français? Sorry, I just assumed that someone with your deductive reasoning skills would understand his own shirt.’

Elsie pulls me away before he has a chance to respond.

‘Remind me again why we have no friends?’ I say, biting back a smile.

Elsie shakes her head with a lopsided grin. ‘Because you’re a socially inept freakazoid, and I think everyone’s annoying. Besides, that doofus looks exactly like someone who’d be buddies with Colin. Pretty sure he took that film noir course last semester, right Raj?’

Raj throws an arm loosely around her shoulder. ‘Does watching Netflix with no pants on count as studying? Dunno whose genes for slothfulness our big brother inherited.’

‘Who even knew it was possible to fail Cultural Studies?’ Elsie says with a laugh.

At a glance, Raj and Toby could easily pass for siblings. They’re both skinny, with skin the same shade of brown, and the same inability to competently kick, hit or throw any kind of sporting projectile. Yet unlike my taciturn brother, Raj has never been anything but warm. He’s always chatty, and, apart from me, he is Elsie’s best friend in the world.

‘Kay, Raj, time to piss off,’ Elsie says. ‘I believe you said you had some books to borrow, and I need a few hours away from your ugly face.’

Raj grins. ‘Sure you don’t want my expertise? Or a chaperone for all those skeezy Engineering dudes? My giant guns gotta come in handy for something.’ He flexes his spindly arms, where no guns of any kind are apparent.

Elsie snorts. ‘Yeah, and if you’d spent your first year here doing anything remotely cool, I might’ve taken you up on that. I’ll call you if we need help finding the “Magic: The Gathering” fan club.’

Raj zips his jacket up to the neck. ‘It’s on the second floor of Union House. But whatevs.’ He drops a fleeting kiss on Elsie’s cheek. ‘Text me when you’re heading back. Have fun, ladies.’

Raj disappears into the crowd and Elsie makes a grandiose gesture towards the entrance. ‘Your future awaits, Sophia! Come on.’

We walk through the tangle of people, grabbing a couple of showbags on our way in. Elsie immediately starts stuffing them with brochures gathered from various stands. Music is booming from somewhere on campus. To me it sounds like it’s coming from every direction at once. As Elsie pauses in front of the Maths building, I resist the urge to cover my ears.

‘So the Augustine’s crew are meeting at the main library. We’re late, but I’m guessing Peterson will still be boring everyone senseless with his complete history of everything. Should we head over?’ She grabs a flyer from a volunteer. ‘Hey, there’s a statistics seminar on soon. Isn’t that, like, crack to you?’

I wrap my scarf around my face, the biting cold numbing my nose. A guy jogs past, followed by an older lady. ‘Most of my subjects will be in here,’ he tells her as he passes. I can’t help but wonder what he’s applying for, what path he has mapped out that lets him move with such conviction.

I have no idea why I let myself get talked into this. ‘Elsie, can’t we just wander around? Just you and me?’

Elsie glances at the building. Her eyes linger on a group of laughing people tossing a frisbee near the doors. She turns to me again and smiles, but I think I also hear her sigh a little bit.

‘Sure, Sophia. Let’s just hang out on our own. As always.’ She brightens. ‘Hey, Raj said the Medical Museum’s open. Want to go check out cadavers?’

I dig out the activities program, and reach into the depths of my new drama skills for some sham enthusiasm. ‘There’s food on the South Lawn. And, hey, the clubs and societies tables are there as well. Maybe we can check out the mahjong club or, oh, how about the breakdancing club?’

Elsie barks out a laugh. ‘Sophia, I would happily donate a kidney to see you breakdance.’

We wander towards the South Lawn. The campus is congested with people and marquees, a bandstand in the centre. Behind us, the beautiful Old Arts building looms, its Gothic clock tower completely out of time and place with the smartphone-juggling multitudes.

I pause where the path meets the mushy, crowded lawn. Inadvertently, I have looped my arm through Elsie’s showbag, and I’m holding onto it like it’s a life preserver. I am crap with crowds, and this loud mob is making my stomach twist and tumble.

Elsie looks at me through one narrow eye, like she’s considering me through a microscope. It’s the same look she gave me in grade-four music, when she tiptoed into the corner where I was peacefully hiding and snuck a pair of maracas into my hands. I know how to interpret that look. It means her brain is circling through something that I am not going to appreciate.

‘Okay, Sophia,’ she says slowly. ‘I know you’re not really interested in biology, so I am going to go look at sliced dead people, and you are going to explore and try your best not to have an aneurism.’

I baulk. ‘But Elsie –’

‘Rey, look around! There’s music and food, and, see there, some juggling guys. And have you even noticed that the sky is clear for the first time in ages?’ She plants her hands on her hips. ‘You’re going to be fine. Just breathe. I’ll be half an hour, and then we can find Raj and get those dumplings. But this is important, Sophia.’

My eyes travel frantically over the chaos. ‘Why, Elsie? Because I’m suddenly going to decide that juggling is a skill I need to master?’

‘No. Because I need to know that you’ll be okay on your own after I’m gone.’ Elsie nods decisively. And then she gives me a brief one-armed hug before she takes a few steps away and is lost in the crowd.

Neither one of us is a hugger, nor a crier. But for some reason, Elsie’s fleeting grip makes me want to sit right down on the boggy grass and wail.

Of all my options at this moment, a mental collapse would probably not be the most productive one. I step into the mire and look helplessly around me.

There’s a guy with a beard who’s signing people up for the Juggling Society, and a girl dressed inexplicably in a panda body suit. For a second I’m distracted by a guy standing in front of her. He’s taking in the scene around him with this wide-eyed, out-of-his-depth look that, somehow, I recognise instantly. He’s nice looking, with curly hair and holey canvas shoes. He looks panda-girl up and down, then turns the badge she has flung at him over with a sharp burst of laughter. He shows it to the tall girl tucked beside him and she rolls her eyes, even though she’s smiling. The girl is wearing a dress covered in prints of pink cupcakes, and a red scarf wrapped elaborately around her hair. Even from a distance she projects that tangible confidence that typically makes me shrink. I watch them for a moment. I can’t tell if they’re a couple – unless two people are sucking face I rarely can – but there’s something about the two of them together that makes me feel inexplicably … lonely. I turn away as the girl grabs the curly-haired guy’s hand and tugs him, still chuckling, past the panda.

To my right there’s a line of people waiting for free popcorn, and as I turn, a group with Chinese Student Society jumpers push past, arms laden with pizza boxes.

And there is a boy staring right at me.

I glance over my shoulder. The band is behind me, a crowd milling in front of the stage. I turn back, but it’s not the band he is looking at; he’s staring, unmistakably, at me.

My brain clocks the following:

Tall. Too tall, really, at least six three or four. A battered leather satchel slung over his body, under a blue MU showbag, its flatness indicating that it’s all but empty.

Brown cord pants, long-sleeved blue shirt, grey waistcoat, tweed hat. I’m no fashion expert, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the busker near the supermarket wearing something similar.

I almost don’t recognise him out of uniform. And for a second, I have the strangest suspicion that he is a bit startled. Then he sort-of-but-not-quite smiles. That vaguely familiar half-smile, not directed at anything perceptible in the universe around him.

Elsie and Raj are nowhere to be seen. The indifferent crowd near the stage seems to have decided that this is, in fact, the greatest band in history and should be venerated with frenetic dancing in the mud. When I look back, busker-boy is walking towards me.

Balls balls balls.

‘I know you,’ I say quickly, as he nears. ‘Are you here with Mr Peterson? I thought he was with the Specialist Maths group. I haven’t seen you in Specialist, though.’

He doesn’t speak. The silence stretches far enough for the rising warmth in my cheeks to become perceptible, even through the chill. He folds his hands behind his back and does this wriggly manoeuvre, like he’s subtly adjusting his shoulders. He takes a deep breath.

‘Well, I’m barely scraping a passable grade in Further Maths. I mean, science I don’t mind, but I’ve never really had a head for numbers. It’s like, have you ever stared at one of those awesome illusion pictures? You know, you blur your eyes and if you’re lucky, a picture jumps out – a spaceship or the face of Albert Einstein or a dinosaur – but then, you look away for a sec and when you look back there’s nothing but colours again? That’s kinda like me in Maths. An occasional stegosaurus. But mostly, it’s mangled chaos that I’m pretty sure was created by a guy on ’shrooms.’

I stare at him. ‘Right, well,’ I stammer. ‘Don’t let me keep you. I’m just –’

‘– Sophia.’ He takes off the hat and tucks his dark hair behind his ears. ‘You’re Sophia,’ he says, as if this statement holds some significance that I should be aware of. He smiles. ‘I’m Joshua.’

‘Richard Berry’s disgrace’


Among the jumble of papers in my desk drawer are some disturbing notes I made in the Wellcome Library a few years ago. I was in London researching how medical scientists took possession of the dead for dissection during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was proving to be a dark tale: I found accounts of body-snatching and of mutilated corpses being unceremoniously disposed of in crude coffins alongside rubbish and animal parts. As my research continued, I noticed that details that had initially shocked me no longer did – until, that is, the day I read about Richard Berry’s activities at the Stoke Park Colony for Mentally Defective Children, near Bristol.


What a strange concept such a place seems today. Stoke Park was one of a number of facilities established by Reverend Harold Burden, who had earlier served on a royal commission inquiring into the care of the ‘feeble minded’. It was the first facility certified under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 and was soon regarded as the leading institution of its kind. By the time Berry arrived twenty years later Stoke Park had become more than a residential facility: it contained laboratories (called ‘the Clinic’) and a teaching museum, which Berry immediately set about enlarging. In a paper written during his time there, titled ‘The Problem of the Mental Defective’, Berry wrote of seeing ‘mental monstrosities’ on an almost daily basis. These ‘speechless, hopeless, helpless idiots’, whom Berry deemed the lowest grade of human, soon became his research material. Why, he asked, did society take such extraordinary pains to keep them alive, when ‘a kindly euthanasia’ would surely be preferable?


The book I had been reading in the Wellcome Library was A Cerebral Atlas Illustrating the Differences between the Brains of Mentally Defective and Normal Individuals with a Social, Mental and Neurological Record of 120 Defectives During Life, written by Berry in 1938. I needed to keep breaking away from the pages to reassure myself I wasn’t part of Berry’s world. Eventually I became too sad; I abandoned the Cerebral Atlas, closed my notebook and left. I’ve now returned to those notes because Berry is in the news again. Activists at the University of Melbourne recently succeeded in their efforts to have his name removed from a prominent building. The campaign drew on similar movements across the globe, in which students and scholars have called for the re-evaluation of how particular pasts are commemorated. In the US, Yale University has renamed a college previously dedicated to a defender of slavery; in South Africa, a student-led campaign saw the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town, leading to similar calls at Oxford University and other institutions.


Given Berry’s work as a comparative anatomist and eugenicist, it’s easy to see why he is being held in similarly poor esteem. As a talented anatomist, Berry inevitably acquired corpses for dissections and post-mortem examinations, but he also had other interests, including in collecting Aboriginal remains. Indeed, it was the 2003 discovery of a cache of skeletal material in a University of Melbourne storeroom that sparked calls for Berry’s legacy to be reassessed. The bones were thought to have been taken from some 400 corpses, including those of Aboriginal people. This was the kind of discovery no institution wants to make, and the university’s then vice chancellor Alan Gilbert reassured communities that the remains would be repatriated with dignity and respect. In addition, as a eugenicist, Berry collected and analysed the brains of people deemed to be ‘mentally defective’, arguing that such people should be isolated, sterilised and, for those judged to be beyond the pale, euthanised.




As it happens, dignity and respect were also on Berry’s mind when he became the university’s first professor of anatomy in 1906. Upon entering the dissecting room, Berry was unnerved to discover that its walls bore rusty remnants of student ‘meat fights’. This, together with a distinct lack of dissection specimens, illustrated to him that something was awry with the state of anatomy teaching in Melbourne. Berry informed his students that legislation required them to treat cadavers with respect, though the statute did no such thing. It merely set out the circumstances in which the school could lawfully acquire corpses, most of which were sourced from institutions for the poor or sick, such as the Melbourne (now Royal Melbourne) Hospital and the Immigrants Home at Royal Park. Such was also the case in other Australian states with medical schools to supply: bodies were provided by hospitals, ‘benevolent’ and lunatic asylums. After all, as one newspaper editor wrote in 1884, people in lunatic asylums were ‘of no interest or value to any person outside the institution’.


Berry was familiar with this way of procuring corpses. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh under Sir William Turner, one of the best-known anatomists of his day and a skilful collector of bodies from hospitals, poorhouses and lunatic asylums, often through former students who had gone on to work at these institutions. And Turner had taught his students in a way that extended their interest well beyond medicine. A physical anthropologist, he set about collecting anatomical specimens from around the world, hoping to illuminate the deep history of humankind. He even had a special room, designated ‘Turner’s Skullery’, in which his precious skulls were housed.


Interest in comparative anatomy was intense during Berry’s time in Melbourne and he soon set about creating his own collection of human remains. (At the time, a man could make his name and career on Aboriginal bodies.) Berry established an anthropological laboratory of his own, one he claimed was better equipped than any in Europe, and boasted widely about his collection of skeletal material.


One day in the dissecting room, Berry asked his students – especially those who lived in country areas – if they knew where to locate Aboriginal bones. Some did, and they willingly set about assisting Berry in his quest. That summer, William Crowther gathered together a group of men to search for remains on his family’s land at Oyster Cove where some of ‘the Tasmanians’ had lived and died. The men disinterred several skulls, many of which had tendrils and roots growing through them, and took them to the Royal Society’s Museum in Hobart, where they were measured. Berry’s assistant then returned to Melbourne with several specimens packed into his luggage.

Soft tissue was more difficult to acquire, not being a simple matter of robbing graves, but here too Berry was successful. In 1907, he took possession of the preserved bodies of two Aboriginal people from the Lower Murray region of South Australia: a twenty-five-year-old man who had died of pneumonia (indicating death in an institution) and a fifty-year-old woman whose death had been unexplained. Berry cut off and examined the heads, publishing his findings in a 1911 article titled ‘The Sectional Anatomy of the Head of the Australian Aboriginal: A Contribution to the Subject of Racial Anatomy’. Two years earlier the Argus newspaper had reported that the new professor was investing the ‘byways of ethnology and anthropology … with a glamour that is almost romantic’.


Berry was always a public intellectual, and in this aspect of his role (as well as in his scientific work) he increasingly focused on eugenics, a field in which medical men around the world played a central role. No anatomist, Berry commented soon after the end of the Great War, could fail to notice that the soldiers suffering from shell shock had small heads – so small as to be akin to those of ‘idiots’ and criminals. Berry had been interested in criminals for some time and had measured the heads of some 355 gaol inmates, communicating his results in public lectures. In 1912, the Argus, under the headline ‘Criminals and Brains: A Professor’s Deductions’, reported Berry’s finding – that intelligence and head size were correlated. Berry’s measurements showed him that the most intelligent criminals (deduced by the fact they had committed crimes like embezzlement and forgery) had the largest heads, while cattle thieves had the smallest. Berry also deployed his measuring tools on children, both at the Children’s Hospital and in schools (after the Department of Education had employed him to advise on ‘the problem of the small headed’). He further advocated that tests be undertaken in the wider population to detect who was mentally and morally defective, and suggested that businesses classify their employees.


The quest to divide people into recognisable types had a longer history. Physiognomists had sought to chart differences based on a range of facial indicators, while phrenologists believed that an individual’s character and mental abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of their skull. This classificatory project reminds me of Francis Galton’s composite photographs from the 1870s. Galton, often called the father of eugenics, photographed individual criminals, cut each portrait to match in size, then superimposed them on each other and took second shots, this time only allowing a fraction of the period normally needed to make a good photograph. The effect, he argued, was ‘to bring into evidence all the traits in which there is agreement, and to leave but a ghost of a trace of individual peculiarities’. Like Berry’s measurements, Galton’s portraits were of types rather than persons, though signs of individuality aren’t that easy to erase – the ghosts in Galton’s work appeared in the blurred edges of his composite photographs. Similarly, particular men stood out in each of Berry’s criminal sub-groups: some cattle thieves had large heads, while some embezzlers had small ones.






Berry abruptly left Melbourne in 1929. A difficult man, he had made powerful enemies who could thwart his desires, as became apparent when the university failed to offer him a customary five-year extension. For the rest of his career, Berry worked at Stoke Park as chairman of the Burden Mental Research Trust. There, he used the colony’s residents, laboratories and museum to research ‘the problems underlying the cause and inheritance of normal and abnormal mentality’.


Stoke Park housed more than 1,500 people, most of whom had been confined as children on the grounds that they were ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ unable to care for themselves, or ‘feeble minded’ and ‘moral defectives’ – people with higher capacities but who still required supervision and care. These were legal categories, but Berry consistently argued that discerning the differences between these groups was a medical rather than legal problem, for the boundaries dividing them weren’t rigid. The ‘high-grade’ imbecile might merge into the ‘low-grade’ feeble minded, and distinctions between ‘the certified high-grade defective’ and the ‘subnormal non-certified’ member of the general public could be difficult to detect. Indeed, Berry estimated that a quarter of the British population suffered some kind of mental deficiency. And those who lived at large in the community posed a real threat to society, he argued, as when left to their own devices they would inevitably have sex and produce ‘unfit’ children.


In 1938, Berry published his Cerebral Atlas, a large and expensive book containing photographs of brains extracted during post-mortem examinations either in Stoke Park (from 120 people, ranging in age from 1.9 to 36.3 years) or by doctors operating in general Bristol hospitals (from seventy-seven patients, ranging in age from two days to forty-five years). Berry claimed that in every case the person’s family or guardian had given consent. Yet at the time post-mortems were unregulated and commonly performed without permission. Such procedures would only become the subject of statute under the Human Tissue Act 1961, after which they could only lawfully be performed if the person or a relative had not objected. But that Act was silent on the matter of taking specimens, a practice that continued on a large scale. This was only revealed decades later after a series of public inquiries exposed that post-mortems were being carried out without consent and materials were frequently being removed and retained. Even where families had permitted specimens be taken, some didn’t understand what this might actually entail. Thinking they had consented to small amounts of tissue being removed for microscopic examination, they later learned that organs, heads and even entire bodies had been kept.


The brief patient notes in the Cerebral Atlas suggest that consent was unlikely. Of the Stoke Park residents, Berry states: ‘in view of their widely scattered homes and the fact that many of them were certified a good many years ago any personal investigation of their family histories has been impossible’. Instead, case histories were built on information supplied by ‘official visitors and certifying doctors’ as well as observations made on site.


Based on such information, Berry and his colleagues assessed those in their care. A telling example comes from the page on which I abandoned the Cerebral Atlas. It features a picture of a young man sitting on a covered chair, naked except for a sheet draped over his genitals, his body so thin that he resembles a famine victim. The photograph’s caption reads ‘Male idiot, aged 19.10 years with bilateral partial absence of cerebral cortex’. Next to the photograph are snippets of the youth’s history. At age four he had been admitted to a county mental hospital from where he was transferred five years later to Stoke Park. There the boy was found to be ‘a bad epileptic, wet and dirty, excitable, restless, destructive, spiteful, and quite unable to do anything for himself’. Berry states that his examination of the brain after the young man’s death fully confirmed the clinical notes made about him during his life. This was ‘a perfectly impossible idiot’ whose condition the photograph adequately conveyed, perhaps justifying, Berry wrote, ‘the views of those who hold that a kindly and early euthanasia is the better treatment for these by no means isolated or rare cases’. The only surprising thing to Berry had been that the young man had lasted so long before expiring from bronchopneumonia with portal vein thrombosis.


The Cerebral Atlas provides evidence for what Berry believed: that people like this were useless to themselves and to society. The assessments go on, page after page after page, as Berry made these brains and case histories tell a story of types, rather than of persons. The book thus supported Berry’s strongly held view that such people had been justifiably isolated from a society in which, regretfully to him, they could not be euthanised.





The campaign for Berry’s name to be removed from that building at the University of Melbourne highlighted his eugenic beliefs. Yet even after reading the sickening Cerebral Atlas I’m in two minds about this strategy. Berry wasn’t alone in his passions, though he took them further than many, and as a historian I think we need to understand rather than erase our past. Berry’s collections, writing and advocacy were part of the intellectual milieu of his time, the crude use he made of bones and brains indicative of contemporary ideas that were tightly intertwined with social apprehensions. Besides, once we begin all of the suggested rubbings-out, where will we stop? Many figures in the past won’t bear our close examination. There are plans to replace Berry’s name with a plaque, and the trick will be to ensure that the information on it reflects the complicated history of his various endeavours. If that’s done well Richard Berry will serve to remind passers-by how arrogant assumptions about others make it possible and socially desirable to classify them, which is always the first move towards expelling some from among us.




Helen MacDondald is an award-winning writer and historian. Her latest book is Possessing the Dead: The Artful Science of Anatomy.




Cardboard incarceration

This cardboard prison they call an archive

is cold, airless and silent as death.

Floor-to-ceiling boxes contain voices

no longer heard yet wailing within

faces no longer seen yet still missing in

a jail of captured snippets, images and memories

among the severed heads and bleached bones

of dismembered bodies tucked tidily away in vaults

and museums and universities of the world

in the name of science

or history or anthropology or

something else trendy at the time

justifying the collection of our bits and pieces –

as the Other.

Reams of records demonstrate how you measured

our heads with every Western yardstick –

examined us through voyeuristic lenses,

scrutinised our children’s fingernails

long under microscopes to find them remarkably pale –

gawked inside vaginas where that rosebud is

pink as pink is pink

despite the otherwise hypothesised differences

between black and white

intellect, industry and capacity to settle.

We are the inmates incarcerated within

cardboard cells where every neatly dotted i,

and symmetrically crossed t screams out:

Read this Black angst against

these white pages.


Colour of massacre

A new century dawned and white Australians got urged

to feel comfortable and relaxed about their history.

Shake off that irksome black arm band – legacy

of radical lefties who can’t leave well alone –

their tiresome chant that white Australia has a Black history and we all have blood

on our hands. We’ve got a new song

to sing now!

Right-wing historians hummed this new tune

set about to write Aboriginal massacres clean

out of the record, history books, out

of the classroom.

There were not truly fifteen thousand Palawa people

in Van Dieman’s Land before the arrival of

white Christians. They said. There weren’t

five thousand! Only a few hundred naked savages

roamed here and a meagre hundred or so killed

in self-defence – of course.

Perhaps they were stealing?

Darker still – they were cannibals –

weren’t they? Think about it!

What happened to the remaining?

Nobody wrote it – no history of

massacres here.

Perhaps saved by Christian charity?

Blended in with the rest – maybe they died of

natural causes, or perished just because

they couldn’t adapt. The rest is hearsay – oral history’s

words in the air!

Nothing on paper – so who remembers?

The Aborigines didn’t count in numbers –

why bother now?

Nobody recorded those other syllables in time,

full of sound, fury, punctuation

of blows, blood and screams.

Wasn’t their blood red?

Didn’t their loved ones wail?

Late in the twentieth century, a population

of eighteen million, the shootings of

thirty-five settlers went down in Australian history

as the Port Arthur massacre, prompting a prime minister

who denied Black massacres to buy

back the nation’s firearms to minimise

the chance of another white one.

But, wasn’t their blood red too?

Didn’t their loved ones wail?

What is the colour of massacre?


Remote community

In 2007 by the colonial calendar commands

were given from afar.

Suspend the Racial Discrimination Act

for Aborigines –

they can’t handle their rights

anyway. Troops marched in,

then –

Alpurrurulam, Anmatjere,

Bathurst Island, Bulman,

Elcho Island, Gapuwiyak,

Gove Peninsula, Gunbalanya,

Haasts Bluff, Hermanusburg,

Imanpa, Jay Creek,

Kaltukatjara, Kintore,

Ltyentye, Maningrida,

Melville Island, Mirrngadja,

Mount Theo, Mutitjulu,

Numbulwar, Palumpa,

Papunya, Ramingining,

Titjikala, Tjunti,

Utopia, Wadeye,

Wurrumiyanga, Yarralin,

Yirrkala and Yuendumu –

All shoved under the dictatorship,

a remote community on Capital Hill

called Canberra.



On a winter day, against a pink streaked sky

we walked to school.

You clung to my hand like

I knew the world.

Grey clouds hung low kissing eucalyptus blossoms –

red and green king parrots clipped the skeleton bows

of frost-glazed trees like brooches. Your peals

of laughter swirled in the chilly breeze

across the empty park.

We stopped to look –

birds, sky and flowers – but not long,

I worried we’d be late. You grew up amidst demands,

busy timetables and hectic schedules.

Now I have the time

to think of that day.

Should I have the luxury of raising you again,

we’ll stop and look at all that catches your eye –

let the day go slow – watch the sun on your

face shine gold –

hold your little hand longer.

‘I don’t know if I’m in love with you today’

to be engulfed

A moment of hypnosis

Ariane loves Christian. Christian loves Ariane’s sister, Isabel. This film is about how relationships that come to an end will be a mess. It’s about many other things, too. Primarily this.

My Sister’s Good Fortune opens with Ariane & Christian standing together under a tree, speaking. Ariane is responding to Christian, who has just ended their relationship. Ariane has heard (we presume) Christian declare his feelings for her sister.

When I first watched this film I thought Ariane had caught Christian on his way out of her life & would convince him he was wrong. Watching it more than once I realised he had already left, but Ariane is pleading in a way that I read as less concrete, more hopeful. But I had watched this as someone who usually is the dumped one rather than the one dumping, so this possibly skewed it all.

Ariane’s object of love is Christian; he is unable to talk to her. They speak like this: detached, distant. Across. Ariane’s Barthesian honesty is muted slightly by this delivery. I can remember when I was desperate like her once before or maybe more than once before. But I could not speak – I could only shout.

Isabel is the object of Christian’s love. Can we choose to succumb or is it a force acting upon our consciousness? Is the process of engulfment slow & unstoppable or immediate?

We die together from loving each other.

Ariane is almost wholly engulfed by sorrow & she is in love with Christian or grasping to desire him in a new & sad way that has sprouted from his rejection of her.

When I am engulfed I too might – like Ariane – brush my forearm with the lit butt of a cigarette; I might inspect it.

There is little movement in most scenes. Characters speak. Sit. Are mostly still. A sense of this stillness throughout but also broken up with the occasional scene of walking or traffic.

I like to think I control when I succumb but in the early days of mobile phones I called & called & called & left repeated voicemails & then threw my phone away or took the battery out so I could tell myself I would determine the next communication on my terms. It was a painful lie to exhibit.

This opening conversation in the film: Ariane tells Christian she doesn’t know if she is in love with him that day. It is a barrier to becoming absorbed by the ground. What is more painful out of falling in love vs being in love? Ariane is across the crevice of this. She was in love with Christian but he is turning elsewhere. His torso faces away but perhaps his feet are towards her still so she is now falling in love again: the process is partially reset but caught in this loop. The image of the other…no longer exists.

It causes me stress to watch love become complicated or painful. How can I gather a perspective? Only those who are inside it can know, but also: they don’t know how to move or act. The characters here are all so sure of what to do but have no idea how to protect themselves in the process. The engulfment is more like quicksand than flames.

Love is like a slow death you see coming or it’s the end of your personhood or it’s you but fundamentally altered forever – your constitution abolished, rebuilt with new knowledge.

It is crosspollination.

If we long to swoon are we weaker for it?



The loved object does not speak

Ariane & Christian meet again. He has now told Ariane that he will move in with Isabel.

The frame is tight around their faces: she huddles close, her face leans into him; she tells him how thinking about fucking will make her unable to think of anything else.

How thinking about fucking is the best distraction. If only they can just go home & fuck & he can think about Isabel if he wants. She tells him it’s okay if he thinks about someone else. She asks him about Isabel. What is it about Isabel?

I can fill myself & burst with filmic renditions / dramatic declarations. Hopeless pleas. All it takes is a glance to the side or behind. Shame is a delayed reaction.

Isabel has these phrases. These are phrases that make her a desirable person to Christian. She is rendered his object of love & these phrases now compound this. Upon hearing about Isabel’s phrases, Ariane pulls her face away. She looks out, no longer huddling into her lover. No longer imploring. Talking is now too much.

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other.

A loved object should not speak in return. It will change the dynamic if they become human. The loved object can only be ethereal / a sprite. A ghost, an aspiration.

What will happen when Christian takes his final step towards Isabel & away from Ariane?

Ariane & Christian are softly spoken, inquiring. Helpless in their discourse. In love but wildly circling each other’s wish.

Ariane’s tone when speaking does not oscillate wildly – the musicality of her voice is always plaintive.

The sad sorry state of being.

Shots are often static. Characters move off-screen, talk from beyond. Characters on screen address the person not in view. Occasionally a filler: a bus stop where passengers alight to return home for the evening. Traffic intersection under overcast sky.

The palette: mute, uniform tones – taupes, pale blues, washed-out eggshell. The colours of uncertainty & maybe another element I’m not ready to admit yet.

The film’s compositions are like fragments: linked but episodic.

Talking is always intimate – it is how characters offload & the delivery is restrained even if the content is not.

To practice a relation without orgasm.

To speak language that trembles with desire.

When I’m nervous or excited or have a heavy idea in my head I talk more than a person should (especially a person who proclaims to write rather than speak). I can’t just talk at them though, I need active response. I will keep talking the more I realise I must stop.

Talking turns a person away. Talking makes me not a good listener. Talking is an unloading of anxieties onto another person: it demands a piece of their flesh. What though when (dreaded) love is involved? Ariane talks & talks but when she hears something she doesn’t like, she turns her head away & her talking turns from pleading to chiding. [‘What kind of photographer doesn’t carry their camera on them at all times, anyway?’]

This scene makes speech its fulcrum. Even the sense of Isabel in it: not Isabel as a person. Isabel as the way she speaks. The fact is that he noticed it.

‘Talk to me, are you keeping warm?’ [Ariane]


The other world as a generalised hysteria

Christian has reinforced his split with Ariane; he has moved out. Ariane visits Christian at his apartment & says this to him: ‘I don’t comprehend that I never see you. I can’t comprehend it.’

This is a break-up that is messy but mostly polite. Then again, there is unsettlement at the corners. Ariane sees that Christian has got a cat & suddenly is concerned about whether the cat has a proper place to shit.

Without Christian in her life, Ariane’s encounters with the world have shifted. There is a thick sheet between her & the people & objects she comes across every day. How does one continue after they have been left for another? What conversation is there still to have? What if the talking does not cure but scrapes away at the object-person & the speaker, reduces & distils complexity & renders it mellow. Melodramatic. Flattened.

Reality as a system of power

But Ariane is left with no power. But perhaps the visibility is reworked. Then again: perhaps the terms have changed. Perhaps: power is in the Leonard Cohen CD she gifts Christian & Isabel. An act of platonic care. It might also be a gift that is a passive aggressive gesture. It says: Ariane no longer finds pleasure in listening to Leonard Cohen & in gifting this to her now ex-lover she hopes to make a talisman for him out of the sound association he robbed her of.

There are precise movements going on here. Ariane stands & watches as Christian finds a shoebox. She steps into the kitchen and leans against the back wall, looking towards us; towards Christian. He picks up a nearby pot plant & fills the box with dirt from the pot. When I watch a person perform a small, careful movement & everything around seems still, I cannot focus on a thing. That action becomes an object of my desire – clean lines; perfunctory movements & gentle still air & I’m suddenly aware of the projection of my personal flaws onto an object. It’s worse when the object is a film character, too. The film is where my desires – romantic & narcissistic & other – become sharply coherent & fortifying.

Is there a non-thunderous disreality? A sort that is quiet, possibly?

A lover surrenders himself to the Image, in relation to which all “reality” disturbs him. I’m thinking about Ariane so much. How can she be so gentle & severe at the same time?

Is disreal like how the unconscious cannot be articulated (lunge[d] at) without erasing itself by manner of utterance?

& how about the psychic space between lovers in orbit: what does crumbling world reality life face objects & skies, home &c. …

I mean what does it sound like wshen these psychic spaces collide but do not collapse?

I mean how can anybody function when their time is spent between paralysis & fear & love & desire?

I mean how does an advancing network of emotions contain a conclusion?

‘In exile: finding home as a queer refugee woman’


The most common question I get asked in Australia is: “Where are you from?”

It is asked at a party, by an Uber driver, and in a bottle shop, when I mistakenly call a six-pack a case.

It is asked whenever my accent is mistaken as a sign of otherness. It is asked everywhere, by almost every person that I meet.

“Where are you from, Tina?”

“I am from Newtown,” I answer.

My response is rejected straight away with visible confusion, asserting the power of a native English speaker. “You did not understand my question.”

“I think you did not understand my answer,” I say in my head.

It always amazes me, in these instances, how immediately I am defined as not capable of making my own decisions and identifications, and how my identity is somehow ‘obvious’ to other people.

But, you might ask, what is the problem with the question? We are a multicultural country and we like to know where people come from.

“Where are you from?” is a kick in the guts that makes you gasp for air. It feels like someone grabbing your shoulders and pushing you backwards.

“Where are you from?” is a power game. “We get to decide who calls themselves an Australian. You do not belong here, you are not one of us.”

It is a trauma trigger, reminding you of the past.


I met my partner Renee in 2007, when she founded the first human rights LGBTIQ organisation in the region where we both lived: a young queer woman trying to resist the state machine of systemic violence.

The state operated on the so-called social discourses derived from their traditional (read: Orthodox) values.

They strictly opposed all the ‘gay propaganda’ they thought was being imposed on them from the West.

Your life and body were valuable for the state only when they fulfilled their roles: submission, reproduction, subjugation and conformism. This is the legacy of the coloniser.

When I get asked “Where are you from?”, I do think of a home.

I remember the woods on the edge of town. We used to go there with friends, we would make a fire and bake potatoes in the ashes.

I think of the markets in front of our building, full of fragrant strawberries in May and juicy watermelons in August.

I think of elders chatting in the yard under the cherry tree, and us teenagers catching the final glimpses of summer.

My imagination also floats to my adult life: the cozy apartment that Renee and I made our home.

I also see us playing with our cuddly shar-pei, Teddy, and getting ready for work, which meant the world to us.

I think about our parents and our community – I think about these things with love. But then I remember that we left everything and everyone behind.

An overwhelming feeling of shame encircles me: shame for leaving, and shame for surviving.

Shame is paralysing. We fought but did not win. We could not stand it until the end. We were strong, but became weak. We ran away.

When I get asked “Where are you from?”, I also remember a different story of home.

Unlike the majority of people who were forcibly displaced, and fled because of armed conflicts, and who may long for their homes, I was banished, exiled, evicted, rejected and betrayed for being an unworthy citizen: for being a woman, a queer and a human rights activist.

My home has given up on me. I was not worthy to be protected. Is that the home I should want to go back to?

Is that the home you want me to identify with? Is that the home that should be missed?


During our last year in the country, we ran workshops on human rights for the law enforcement body.

One of the police officers said about gay people: “I would take a gun and shoot them all.”

I responded: “I’ll be the first then.”

It has stuck with me how the man’s face did not show even the slightest sign of repentance.

Several years later, in Australia, someone who knew us relatively well introduced us by saying, “This is Tina and Renee. They are refugees.”

There was no mention of anything else about us. Our bodies now mattered as long as our suffering was available for public consumption. We were not deemed worthy in any other regard.


There are two expectations of you when you are from a refugee background. The first is that you perform your refugee identity for people in a particular way – in other words, as a victim.

The second is that you are keen to tell your story over and over again. The more tragic details you disclose, the better you perform your refugee identity, in the public’s view.

You become an object of voyeuristic fascination. Your story is just another one that makes someone feel lucky to be born in Australia. There is no justice attached to it.

When Renee produced her social art project, Stories About Hope, which aimed to portray people from refugee backgrounds through the prism of dignity and strength, initially it did not gain much attention. When you are not portrayed through a lens of victimhood and vulnerability, the absence of your suffering invalidates your experience.

For some people, strength is not worthy of attention.

At an event in support of refugees, a humanitarian aid worker said a last name hyphenated with ‘Smith’ would imply marriage to an Australian and increase our chances of finding a job.

Again, our queer bodies only seem to matter when they fit into heterosexist, reproductive narratives.


Despite extraordinary progress in achieving equality and inclusion, social discourses on what is considered ‘normal’ still abound in Australia.

Queer is not normal outside Newtown or Fitzroy – “your friend” is how my partner is referred to, more times than I can count.

Refugee is not normal outside Sydney or Melbourne metro. Imagine when you are both refugee and queer.

I’ve never been someone people could easily define, or fit into a box. Even before coming to Australia, people would always assume we were not local to our town.

Back then, we would take that with pride, because it meant that we were forward-thinking.

Now, the depravation of locality in Australia has pushed us into a non-existing place.


For me, there are two key things to feeling at home: safety and belonging. But the more I think about them, the more idealised they become.

Jean Améry, an Auschwitz survivor, had been living in Belgium in exile for nearly 30 years. He stopped speaking his mothertongue in an attempt to ease the pain of betrayal, and yet never felt at home again.

In her book, An Archive of Feelings, feminist theorist Ann Cvetkovich quotes a queer immigrant, who has experienced no forced displacement, yet states: “I will remain a partial stranger anywhere and everywhere.”

Anthropologist Didier Fassin claims that to be a refugee means to be missing simultaneously from ‘there’ and ‘here’.

In order for me to belong ‘here’, I must detach myself from ‘there’, which is idealistic in itself, with the constant “Where are you from?” questions.

For me to feel at home, I need to have a community where I am safe, and where I belong.

Queer community is not ready to embrace me – I am the ‘other’, with too much of a heavy load to understand.

For a refugee community, I am a too-sensitive topic, a taboo. My ethnic community is my lost home that won’t ever be recovered.

I need to dismantle this illusion of absolute safety. Women and queers are never safe.

We who sought safety here are not safe from judgement or exclusion. Our home will not ever be perfect again. It is a site of fight and struggle.

These are the axioms that we must accept. By taking a risk of engaging with our never-perfect homes and their conflicts, I can open up more ways to reclaim them.

Even when the space is narrow, I will always try to create more room for myself to move.


Using the word ‘us’ is a part of feeling at home. My ‘us’ starts with Renee, but it could include more.

‘Us’ can include you, when you stop asking me where I come from, and accept with no judgement that I come from Newtown.

‘Us’ can include you, when you stop forcing me to tell my story of trauma for your entertainment, and accept that I have a survival story that aims to make you feel rage, and a thirst for justice.

‘Us’ can include you, when to “welcome refugees” would be about actions, not words: justice, solidarity and holding together. ‘Us’ can include you, when, by accepting me, you change something in yourself.


I am reclaiming my new home by wearing an Aboriginal flag T-shirt on 26 January; by being socially and politically active; by reducing my ecological footprint; by buying from farmers and not corporations; and by getting a coffee in my Keep Cup, instead of a paper one.

I am reclaiming my home by using my experience as a unique source of knowledge, to empower other women.

I will continue to reclaim my home, finding other ways to express gratitude and leave my trace.

I am learning to navigate society by gently shifting the walls it wants to use to confine me. I am learning to feel included by creating space for women like me.

I am learning how to be at home, in exile.


‘Blood Brother’


It’s always summer in childhood. I remember when we went to see the Peanuts movie Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown for your birthday. Your dad dropped us off outside the cinema and we accidentally went into the wrong cinema and saw The Deep instead. It was 1977. We were nine years old. Lost treasure, Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt, harpoon guns.

We lived next door to each other until we were 15, our back yards joined by a gate cut into the fence, through which we could come and go as we pleased. We climbed to the tops of trees and all over the roofs of our houses—seeking a better view, I guess. Danger and escape from it. We could see a long way, perhaps not far enough. One hot afternoon we scored a gash in our palms with knives, smeared blood in each other’s wounds and swore undying loyalty. An exchange. It was corny and it was true.

We collected dozens of cicadas in an old ice-cream container. We boiled and cut open a golf ball. In Manila we drank shakes made with condensed milk. More than once we stole your mother’s cigarettes and smoked them in the back shed. We swam one summer weekend at Aireys Inlet and got into a rock-throwing fight with some older kids. We made slingshots from coat hangers and rubber bands and shot at birds in trees. We ate plums straight from the tree, bitter, juicy. We made plans. Those countless Sunday mornings playing football when we were boys and, when we were older, shooting pool or playing pinball on weekday nights at Johnny’s Green Room. Smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, ‘Money for Nothing’ always seemed to be on the jukebox, which makes it 1985 or so. The hours kicking a ball around in your back yard or watching videos of The Deer Hunter, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and The Graduate. Endlessly, until we knew most of the dialogue. Are you trying to seduce me? You talkin’ to me? Charlie don’t surf.

I don’t feel I have a right to miss you, not really, because we hadn’t seen each other in years. I remember that day. The last time, that is. You, driving a taxi, sad and overweight; me leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Acland Street, St Kilda. This was probably in 1999. We were 31. We made plans to catch up, but never really did. You were at my wedding, but not really there at all; it was as if you had already left. But still. I do. Miss you, that is. And perhaps you of all people understand that you can’t help feeling what you feel.

I’d heard of your troubles, of course, because our mothers are still friends and see each other regularly. Besides, it was our entire childhood, where everything really happens—the place where, as we age, we spend more time.

One afternoon I came home from school and you were waiting for me on the burning footpath, terrified. There was someone in your house, you said. A burglar or a murderer. We were probably 12 years old. Our older siblings were elsewhere, had most likely moved out of home by then. The parents were not around. It was different in those days; we had our lives and they had theirs.

From my place we grabbed a cricket bat and, having decided that entering through the back door was wisest, crept up the side of your house where the plum tree grew. The house was dark and cool, as always. The creak of old floors beneath the grey carpet. Did we call out or did we creep through room by room, opening cupboards and flinging things aside in our search for the intruder? We were excited, fearful of what we’d find.

The house is difficult for me to recall. I think your sister’s bedroom was on the right, your own room on the same side but a little further along. There was a TV room, the dining room, which was hardly ever used, the kitchen that overlooked our back garden. From that kitchen window we might have seen our dog, Winston, snuffling about in our back garden, maybe my odd sister sitting on the couch watching Family Feud, rocking back and forth.

I remember hearing of your death. A bad phone line, my mother weeping as she relayed the news, the cold air on the porch at my brother’s place in the country where I took the call. Stars, the fog of my breath, the vast universe. The shiver in realising that a menace long eluded had at last slipped inside.

Often, in the middle of the day, I stop and think of what you chose to leave behind. The smell of dawn breaking over the ocean, the flavour of nectarine, a great joke, a catchy new song. I guess it wasn’t enough.

Your note reached me several months later, after it was released by the police. They said you wrote it as the drugs took hold, but I don’t know how they determined that. Thanks, but you never needed to apologise. I think that what you did was heroic in its way.

We found nothing, of course, that afternoon as we riffled through your house in search of the axe murderer, pulling our best Kung Fu moves and shouting Ha! as we kicked open doors and flung aside clothes. After­wards we laughed and poured ourselves orange juice before going outside to kick the footy.

I was flattered you trusted me that day, that you thought me strong enough to help you. Because there was something hiding there, wasn’t there? Somewhere we failed to look. I’m sorry we weren’t able to flush it out and kill it. I was too young and you were too young. But, my friend, your blood runs in me still.




She was waiting for him at the station as he got off the train the following afternoon, standing on the other side of the gate with her schoolbag slung over her shoulder. Roland showed the stationmaster his pass as the man reached up to unhook the stopping-all-stations sign, his pale face smudged with redness in the cold and the whistling wind. He nodded and started sorting through the row of enamelled signs leaning against the wall. Cassie was in her blazer and long winter dress, white socks folded just below the knee.

‘I saw you before, when I was waiting for the train,’ she said to Roland as they went down the ramp. ‘You walked right past me.’

‘Did I? I mustn’t have seen you.’

‘Yeah, I know. It was like you were in a world of your own,’ Cassie said, her voice sing-song and echoing through the dank concrete tunnel. Water was dripping from the ridges of mortar segmenting the ceiling, forming pools in the crum- bling bitumen floor. The children stepped around them. They walked up the lane beside the milk bar and through the carpark to Creek Road, Reg Noble’s face watching them from the back windows.

‘So are you friends with Darren Wilson now?’ Cassie asked Roland.

‘Yeah, we’re pretty good friends.’

Cassie nodded. ‘I thought you might be.’

A bus rumbled past, belching thick exhaust fumes as it went up the hill. It had been washed by the recent rains and its windows and fluted sides gleamed. A girl knocked on the glass and waved. Cassie waved back and turned to Roland, a loose tress flaring at her ear. She brushed it back.

‘Hey, is it true what happened with that Todd guy? And that spastic friend of his? That they scratched up someone’s car or something?’

‘Yeah,’ Roland said. ‘Troy’s car.’

‘Yeah, because they were going around boasting about it to everyone.’


‘Yeah. They’re such idiots.’ ‘Where did you hear about that?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Cassie. ‘Just from people.’

When they came to the Nobles’ house, Cassie invited Roland in. Colleen was lying across the couch in the living room, watching Wheel of Fortune. A half-drunk vodka and orange sat on the coffee table.

‘Hi, Mum,’ Cassie said as they came in.

Colleen replied in a blurred voice. On the screen, the wheel spun, music playing as the moustached host chattered. Smoke curled from the cigarette lying in the ashtray.

They got some Cokes out of the fridge and went up to Cassie’s room. It was exactly as it had been last time Roland was there: immaculate, everything frilly and childish, that same powerful smell of lemon-scented washing detergent coming from the crisp, clean sheets on the freshly made bed. They sat on the carpet.

‘What does Darren think of me anyway?’ Cassie asked Roland.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Hasn’t he said anything about me?’

‘All I can remember is that he told me you got really angry at him once.’

Cassie frowned. ‘When?’

‘After he told Lily off. When he told her to leave him alone.’ ‘Yeah, but that was ages ago. Hasn’t he said anything else

about me?’

‘No. Not that I can remember.’

‘Because I’ve sort of been bugging him,’ said Cassie. ‘I’ve been writing letters to him and leaving them in his letterbox. Just about stuff. About me. I sort of think, “Oh, I might write Darren a letter,” and then I write one even if I don’t have anything to say. I don’t know why. And sometimes I go around to his house when I can’t sleep. I tap on his window and wake him up and stuff. And I’m all sort of, “Hi, I can’t sleep and I’m bored, what are you doing?”’

She was tracing patterns on her lap as she talked.

‘I brought flowers over to him the other day. I just started picking flowers from everyone’s gardens on my way home from school, and by the time I got to Darren’s house I had this huge bunch of flowers, but all different flowers and bits of weeds and stuff. It was sort of a mess. So, anyway, I just walked into his backyard and handed them to him.’

Crimson spread across her cheeks as she glanced at Roland, her eyes sparkling. She buried her face in her hands and let out a single, muted shriek.

‘This big messy bunch of flowers. From people’s gardens. And his friends were all sitting there looking at me, prob-   ably thinking, “Who is this weirdo?” I was too embarrassed to say anything so I just sort of ran off. I think he thought I was completely crazy. I think that’s what he thinks about me, that I’m just this weird crazy girl who’s hassling him all the time. Which I am, I suppose.’

She took a sip of her Coke and uncrossed and recrossed her legs.

‘I just really like him,’ she said. ‘I get all hyped up and over- excited. That’s what my mum says all the time. She’s always saying, “Cassie, you’re overexcited, you need to calm down.” I suppose she’s right. I don’t know. I go around to his place and I just talk and talk and talk. And, you know, Darren’s always so cool and everything. I think I sort of freaked him out when I showed him my scars, though. Have I ever shown you my scars?’


‘Do you want to see them?’ ‘Okay.’

Cassie held out her arm, turning it, and showed Roland the crisscrossed rows of raised white lines along the inside.

‘Cool,’ said Roland.

She examined the scars, running her fingers over the pearlescent skin.

‘I did them a while ago,’ she said. ‘I can show you the other ones, like the fresh ones, but you’ll have to trust me.’ ‘Okay.’

She uncrossed her legs and hitched up her skirt, then gath- ered the material and rolled her leg over to reveal the fine red lines and pink welts down the creamy skin of her inner thighs, the freshest of them beaded with dark dry blood.

‘When I was doing it on my arm, my mum said I was just doing it for attention,’ said Cassie. ‘So now I do it there, where no one can see it.’

She pulled her skirt back down, smoothing it over.

‘I’m pretty fucked up,’ she said, her eyes meeting his. She ran her finger along the carpet, picking at it.

‘I don’t know what Darren thinks of me now,’ she said. ‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Roland.

‘Do you think I would have scared him off or anything?’

Roland thought about it. ‘I think what Darren’s really good at is that he sort of understands other people. Sometimes, even if I don’t say anything, he seems to know what I’m feeling anyway.’ Cassie’s face lit up. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s what I think too.

That’s exactly what I think. Sometimes, when we’re talking, I think, “Oh, he actually seems to get me.” Like he really gets who I am and everything.’

She blushed furiously and remembered her Coke, gulping it down. They both stared at the floor in silence.

‘Hey,’ Cassie said finally. ‘Do you want to do Valium and listen to some of my dad’s records?’

‘All right,’ said Roland.

She left the room and came back with a portable record player and a pile of records, a slim box of Valium slipped into her blazer pocket. Roland saw Colleen’s name on it. ‘Won’t your mum know?’ he asked Cassie.

‘She knows anyway,’ said Cassie. ‘My mum was the one who started giving them to me, to calm me down when I get over- excited and stuff. So now I just take them whenever.’

She sat back down on the floor and began flipping through the records.

‘My dad got most of these when he was in the army in Vietnam,’ she said. ‘He was friends with this black American guy who used to get them from America. Whenever my dad went around to see him, he used to go, “Man, you got to dig this.”’

Cassie did the accent, rosiness creeping across her cheeks again. She pulled out one of the records and showed it to Roland. It was a single by The Doors, ‘Riders on the Storm’. Cassie traced her finger over the picture of Jim Morrison, who looked out at the camera from under a shock of thick hair, one hand outstretched and his fingers splayed in a gesture of supplication.

‘I used to be so in love with Jim Morrison,’ said Cassie. ‘I actually used to write him letters as well. Like, a heap of them. And so then I went and asked this teacher at school about him. She’s pretty cool. She’s lived in America and everything. So I asked her if she knew how I could get Jim Morrison’s address. And she said, “Oh, didn’t you know, he’s dead.” And no joke, but I actually burst into tears right there. I’m such a dork.’

She put the album back in the pile and continued shuffling through them.

‘Anyway, so apparently he died years ago. Before I was even born. He’s buried in this cemetery in France, and all these people have written signs in the cemetery that say things like, “Jim is here” and “This way to Jim”, with arrows showing the way to his grave, and people sit around and play his music and stuff. I’m going to go there one day. I’ve got it all planned out.’ She took out another album: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going


‘This one’s my favourite when I’m on Valium,’ she said to Roland, showing it to him. She took the blister pack out of the Valium box and pushed out six yellow tablets. She handed two to Roland and took four for herself.

‘I’ve built up a tolerance,’ she told him. ‘Two used to be heaps for me, but now I just feel normal unless I take at least four.’

They swallowed them with the metallic dregs of their Cokes. Cassie turned off the lights and put the record on. There was laughter and voices, the wail of a saxophone and the throb of a bass guitar, a voice that was almost tearful. Lying on the carpet with the music playing, the two of them fell asleep like children.




Episode 38 of ‘The Garret’



Dr Tony Birch chats on podcast The Garret.

Show notes

‘From the Wreck’


He felt it first when the horses shifted and cried. They had been muttering among themselves all day, but this was different, a note of panic in it. The horses aren’t yours to care about, George, he reminded himself. He went from cabin to cabin and collected the crockery and cutlery smeared and encrusted with an early dinner, the passengers getting ready for bed.

Jupiter. He’d heard them call the horse Jupiter. He could hear the horses nickering and wondered why it was that everything felt a little off. I’ll leave this cleaning just one moment, he thought, and go below. I’ll just make sure someone is attending to them and then I’ll return to the galley.

‘Jupiter.’ He breathed the name out because there was no one there, only the six horses and George himself. ‘Jupiter,’ but no horse turned his head to look. He didn’t know which among them was the famous racer. They were shuffling still, something anxious about them. He told himself, You know nothing of horses, what do you mean something anxious, how would you know? But he felt his own sweat prick a little.

He sat himself on a flour barrel and watched the horses nudge one another. He may have closed his eyes. He did not think he had. But when he opened them there was another, a woman. She was running her finger around the rim of the horse’s mouth and it stood, death-still, eyelids peeled back and eyes locked on her shadowed face.

She leaned forward out of the darkness and licked the foam from the horse’s quivering muzzle and George could hear the creature breathe, a strange whimper deep in its chest. That did not sound like comfort. ‘Harvesting’ was the word that forced itself to George’s mind.

He stood as slowly and quietly as he could and left the enclosure back-first. The floor creaked but she did not once raise her eyes to him, nor did the horse shift its stare from her face.

He returned to the galley and the cleaning he’d abandoned. There were eighteen women on board and he had served each of them dinner during the evening. That woman had not been among them. But you did not see her face, he reminded himself. And you are only one day out from Port Adelaide — how can you be so sure you know your passengers well enough to recognise one in the darkness, in an unexpected place?

There were steps behind him and a hand sliding into the crack of his arse: Mason, of course. The assistant steward cackled loudly as George turned to flick him with the wet dishcloth.

‘You’ll have a brandy with us, won’t you, Hills? Finish that up and come have a brandy.’

The other stewards and a couple of the able seamen were packed around a table in an empty aft cabin. Mason slid a glass over to him and asked what he thought of the horseflesh.

‘Horseflesh?’ Had someone seen him visiting the horses below?

‘The sheilas, man. Seen a decent set of catheads among ‘em?’ Mason asked.

‘Haven’t seen a one as wouldn’t splinter to bits under the weight of me,’ George said, and it was true: they were a feeble-looking bunch. ‘Still, as long as they could hold it together for the duration, I wouldn’t complain if they expired after.’

Mason cackled – it only took the slightest provocation – and poured him another.

‘There is one up front, though,’ Peters said, ‘much more your style, Georgie. Big, plump pair on her, arse like a pumpkin.’

‘Blonde?’ George asked.

‘Brunette as they come.’

He did like a strong, plump brunette.

‘Big girl, is she?’

‘Ooh, I’ve really caught your attention, haven’t I? Nope, not above five four, I’d say, but plenty of meat on her bones.’

George’s Eliza appeared before him, her shining brown hair and adorable chubby backside, and he reminded her he’d be back to marry her soon, he just had one or two more trips to make, a few more coins to save, another girl or two – adventurous, entangled elsewhere; he didn’t like the lonely types – to tumble.

And though he’d cast her from his mind, he did see her again, fleetingly, that apparition among the horses. Had she been brown-headed? A set of rounded handfuls? All he had left of her was a creeping sense of dread; nothing physical he could call to mind.

‘Ledwith, her name is,’ said Mason. ‘Bridget Ledwith. She was down below, wandering around, and I asked her did she need a helping hand’ – he mimed groping her arse – ‘was she lost, and she told me all chilly that no thank you she was just fine. I followed her back to her cabin anyway, just in case. Got her name off the door.’

‘Down below?’ George asked.

‘Trust you to pick that up, Hills,’ Peters laughed, and George laughed with him, remembering suddenly the mouth on the woman and thinking what she might be able to do with it.

Between them they finished that bottle and then another one and there were only a few more hours until they all had to be back on deck.

‘Enough,’ George said, and Mason agreed. It was a stumbling walk back to their quarters, made longer when George declared he was just going above to piss off the edge.

‘Have one for me,’ Mason said, and veered off towards bed.

Just a small look, George thought to himself. Just a peek. And if she’s worth it, then tomorrow I’ll be all charm. Might even comb the old locks, he thought.

All the stewards knew how to come and go, unobtrusive, so it was nothing for George to gently slide open the door of Miss Ledwith’s cabin, to adjust his eyes to the dark and scan her sleeping form for flaws and favours. There were many points in her advantage, Mason was right, but there was one thing she was not, and that was the woman George had seen below. The shape of her was the same; the colouring too – it all came back to him in a rush. But when he saw her he did not feel death behind him and the cold pit of the sea floor.

It’s the brandy speaking, George, he told himself. Cold pit of the sea floor, indeed. Bed now, and a smidge of sleep, then tomorrow a play for this flossie. But still he couldn’t shake the sight of her, her lips against the horse’s foaming mouth.


He had slept, perhaps, for two hours, then arisen to prepare the ladies’ breakfasts.

At the inquiry, months later, he heard that some time on that first evening one of the horses had fallen, knocked from its feet by the rough seas. The racer’s owner had demanded a shift in course and the captain had turned the prow of the ship into the swell to ease its heaving. Had it brought about the wreck, this shift? Perhaps. It did not occur to George to stand and say that it was something other than the swell that had caused the horses to panic. He didn’t even believe it himself.

Instead he had told the inquiry, blunt but polite, that he did not know the cause, he did not hold blame; that all he could say was eight days, eight nights was too long to spend half-submerged in the freezing Southern Ocean with little food and no water and with the dead and the sharks ever increasing in the bloody waters around. But whose fault was it? He didn’t know. Perhaps the lifeboat could have come sooner: it seemed it had tried. He was thanked and dismissed with no further questions because it was clear to everyone he had nothing more to add.

He had a great deal more to add, and none of it on that particular topic. He would have liked to ask the court how it was possible that the woman Bridget Ledwith had changed her form so utterly from one day to the next. He would have enquired how was it she had seen into every part of him those eight days and eight nights but now he could see nothing of her because she was gone. Vanished. They mentioned her in the course of the hearing, certainly, but as though it was no great mystery for a grown woman to go missing, to disappear entirely from the colony’s face. Privacy, they said, or something; a lady’s right to be left alone.

Also, he would have liked to say, how did such a little wreck, such a gentle wreck, break, ruin and drown the lives of so many? He had not even noticed when the ship first lifted and dropped onto the reef. One drop of coffee had spilled from the pot he was carrying to the ladies’ cabins for breakfast service; he could see, clear in his mind, that drop as it rolled across the timber below his feet and he felt the shuddering mass of the boat slow, settle, creak to a halt.

Why have we stopped? he’d thought. We’ve arrived already?

But before the thought had even completed itself he saw an enormous wave wash over the companionway, taking men, women and children to the bottom with barely a chance to scream.

He couldn’t say for sure that even then he’d realised the ship was sinking. He had dropped the pot and rushed to his cabin to find his savings. Is that something a man does on the brink of death? Perhaps it is. He’d thrust the money in his pocket, and by the time he’d made his way up top, the boat had begun in earnest to tear itself apart.

George had hauled himself over the broken bulwarks, tearing his back to shreds, dodged between the hoofs of maddened race horses stampeding about the deck, scrambled into the rigging of the main mast, where a phenomenal wave washed over the lines where he was clinging, and both he and the mast were swept into the ocean. He could still see, always somewhere behind his eyes, that monstrous wave rushing towards him, its foamy head hanging above him, then the blue-black-green crashing upon him, filling his lungs and mind with blank, white, drowning fear.

God, the despair when his trousers, with his savings in the pocket, were torn from him and swept out to sea. All that bloody stewarding for nothing, he’d thought, forgetting for the moment he would probably be dead before ten minutes was up. All that yes ma’am no ma’am right away ma’am and now I haven’t got a damn bit to show for it and I might as well drown myself this second. Twenty-four bloody years old and nothing at all to show for myself. He was in space, it seemed; flying through space. The bottom of the mast had got stuck in something and now the top, with him attached, was thrashing itself about in the air. George had always hated the circus and this did not strike him as particularly funny.

Hurtling through space with a naked arse he looked towards the ship, expecting a laughing crowd arrayed on the deck, and he’d been surprised to see a mess of floating, splintered lumber, a wet and screaming array of bodies, where once his ship had been. He fell back into the water beside one of the bigger chunks.

That young bloke, Soren Holm, just come from Denmark, reached down and pulled him from the water. George was wearing one shoe and a belt. He felt a body pressed beside him, softer than his own. He turned his head and saw it was her, but with a dampness and coldness about her that told him here, at last, was the woman he had seen below. ‘Miss Ledwith,’ he said, though he knew she wasn’t, and he felt her small, clinging hand slip inside his.

The sun was just beginning to rise.


‘Breaking the Mould’



Of all the sports functions I’ve attended over the years (and there have been many), one sticks out in my memory for all the wrong reasons. Towards the end of the evening, I went to the ladies’ room. When I came out of my cubicle and headed for the washbasin, I saw a man leaning against the wall. And he was staring at me. I knew him (he’s well known in sporting circles), and I’d been speaking to him earlier in the night. The sight of him stopped me dead in my tracks. He registered the look of confusion on my face and offered up a smile. He then unzipped himself and pulled out his penis.


It’s not like me to be lost for words, but moments like this freeze the brain. Mine iced up in about half a blink, leaving me at the mercy of my autopilot – which fortunately walked me right out of the bathroom door just as the rush of blood to my head almost blinded me. My last memory of the encounter is of him standing there with his appendage framed against his grey suit trousers, his glazed eyes, and his smile rapidly fading from his face.


I didn’t confront him at the time. And I didn’t tell anyone at the function what had happened. What did he think he was doing? What was going through his head as he made his way towards the women’s toilets? ‘Hey, I’ll show Ange something that’ll really break the ice.’ What did he want? A round of applause? For me to invite him into the cubicle for further examination? Was it his way of flirting? (99.9 per cent of women would find being flashed about as attractive as watching someone lose control of their bowels during an intimate dinner.) I certainly didn’t flirt with him, so there was no way that he could have misinterpreted our earlier conversation – not that this would be excusable. At the end of the day, if someone is going to show me his business, I want to have some say in the matter.


I talked to friends of mine about it and was shocked to hear how many of them had suffered a similar experience at some point in their lives – at work, a work party or after-work drinks … I was also surprised to learn that they hadn’t said anything about it. I’m not suggesting that this flaunting of the organ is common practice – most guys I know would be horrified by it – but what strikes a chord with me is how many others also felt compromised about speaking out, even though they knew it was an outrageously inappropriate thing to do and that some kind of action should be taken.


Let’s be real, though. It’s never simple to speak out about uncomfortable things – most people take a deep breath, then weigh up the pros and cons (because there are always pros and cons). We all want to get by, and we all want to fit in. We get by on the choices that we make – we do this and we get accepted, we do that and we don’t. What’s going to happen if I say this? What will the reaction be? It gets complicated, and part of the problem is that we’re often forced to shift our moral boundaries to get by, to be liked, to feel part of a group. We’re all forced into complicity, though perhaps for different reasons depending on our gender.


I didn’t confront the man (I should have) and I didn’t tell his peers (I should have), and I’m not going to name him here (maybe I should, but I’d rather play the ball than the man on this occasion).

I knew that it was more trouble than it was worth. I was new on the scene in Melbourne, the sporting capital of Australia: I knew that my story would label me, I knew it would follow me everywhere, I knew it would set me further apart from my peers in sport. I already felt like an outsider – as a woman and, even worse, a woman from Adelaide. I was trying to carve out a career in sport in a new city, and the last thing I wanted to do was to further ostracise myself.


So I opted for the way of the three wise monkeys: hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing. Some would call this ‘cowardly’, some ‘smart’. And some would call it ‘necessary’. I left my conscience behind and I buried my values deep – something I would do over and over again in work situations to keep relationships intact. I knew that by turning a blind eye to one of the darker elements of sporting culture, I was compromising my values. It was a conscious decision to just get on with those around me, to make my work life as comfortable as possible and kick career goals. I didn’t feel great about it.


Most women have a story about wanting to speak out against something they thought was wrong, but not going through with it. Most women have witnessed behaviour that’s left them feeling compromised. Most women have said what needed to be said inside their heads and kept their mouths shut – because in the real world (not our fantasy world where we’re bulletproof) speaking out on matters of sexism and inequality often marks you as a troublemaker: a fire starter, a poor sport (how ironic), not one of the gang, an uptight bitch, a femmo, a prude, a killjoy. Sometimes it’s just easier to go along with things.


The sad reality for girls is that this kind of deal with the devil starts early. Girls are encouraged to ‘be nice’, to please, to be quiet, to accept intrusions and impositions and insults without causing fuss – especially when they’re made by men in powerful positions.


Former Victorian Police commissioner Ken Lay cried when he read, in a survey of community attitudes towards family violence, that girls as young as ten are diminishing the seriousness of abuse they receive from boys. The 2015 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, commissioned by the Federal Government, shows that while 96 per cent of Australians condemn domestic violence, underlying attitudes entrench the problem. It found that blaming the victim is so automatic that many people don’t realise they’re doing it. Lay, now chair of the COAG Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and Children, said that despite his years leading Victoria’s police force, he was shocked and saddened by the survey:


When presented with some scenarios of aggression by boys, I heard with sadness about ten-year-old girls already diminishing the abuse they received from boys. I heard girls say about boys harassing them: ‘It’s not that bad, it’s not like he punched her.’ I heard boys justifying the violence by saying that they just wanted to be heard, that it was harmless.


How often do we hear ‘boys will be boys’? These children don’t know that they’re complicit in perpetuating gender stereotypes: it’s what they see and what they hear.


Left unchecked, these attitudes are carried into their teenage years. I remember the lengths that some girls went to, trying to be popular with the boys at school. These girls distanced themselves from their bookish or ‘nerdy’ friends, and some very athletic girls dropped out of sport because they were ‘too cool for it’. Every action was done to please the boys – even if it meant compromising themselves and their ability to express themselves.


For women in a male-dominated workplace, it’s usually not about impressing the boys with your femininity: it’s about ‘being one of the boys’. The temptation to ‘go with the flow’ when you don’t agree is a hell of a lot stronger than in other parts of life. You’re a rare female voice, so the last thing on earth you want to do is speak out against anything – let alone anything that has a whiff of controversy.


This sense of not wanting to rock the boat is perhaps greatest in team sport. In the lead-up to the London Olympics, Australian swimmers Eamon Sullivan, Matt Targett, James Magnussen, James Roberts, Tommaso D’Orsogna and Cameron McEvoy took part in a ‘bonding’ session that involved taking the sleeping drug Stilnox. Despite inconsistencies in accounts, it seems that some time after midnight a group of male swimmers started making prank phone calls to female swimmers’ rooms and knocking on their doors.


Olympic swim team member Jade Neilsen spoke out to the media about the relay team’s behaviour towards her and another female teammate that night, saying that it was ‘completely inappropriate … so inappropriate it was not funny’. Another member of the swim team, Emily Seebohm, also complained to the Australian team’s head coach Leigh Nugent. But no further action was taken.


Shortly after Jade Neilsen spoke publicly, another female swimmer, Cate Campbell, was put on the spot by The Today Show. Clearly uncomfortable about answering any questions on the incident, she eventually offered the line: ‘Boys will be boys.’


Despite confirming they found the behaviour obnoxious and disruptive, the female swimmers stopped short of calling it harassment and chose not to pursue the matter under Swimming Australia’s ethical behaviour by-laws. Although Neilsen was willing to speak out about what had happened in general terms, she refused to be specific about the allegations. Her roommate on the night in question had her name withheld in the media, presumably because of an unwillingness to publicly come forward. No other female swimmers have spoken publicly about what happened.


Whichever way you look at it, there appears to have been a disturbing cone of silence around the incident. Can you imagine the uproar if the girls had hassled the boys in the same way? Dawn Fraser still gets grief for stealing a flag in Tokyo – and that was in 1964.


There’s another side of complicity that keeps the wheels of sexist sporting culture turning: male complicity. Women can absolutely make a difference by challenging norms, but there’s a limit to how much can be achieved when your views aren’t equally respected and you don’t have the same decision-making clout. Men have the power to smash the paradigm, if the will is there. They have a birthright to an opinion in sport, so they’re more likely to be taken seriously and listened to, and this puts them in a privileged position to drive meaningful change. Men have the opportunity – and I’d say responsibility – to think about this stuff and try to counter it.


But many men don’t take this opportunity. Some remain quiet because they don’t care, and the ‘natural’ order of things suits them down to the ground; others are pushed to shut up and play along for the sake of the team (this is the kind of behaviour that, at its worst, leads to sexual assault going unchallenged in group situations); and others don’t act for the same reason that women don’t – it’s seen as a backwards or, at the very least, a sideways career move. The bottom line is that when men stay silent, it’s women who often bear the consequences of that silence.


Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to wave and no spell to break. The only way forward is for all of us to speak out. And we all know how tough that can be. If I had my time again, I wish I could say that I’d speak up after every sexist or demeaning comment, after every unasked-for grope, kiss and drunken lunge – but honestly, I’d probably keep my mouth shut again. What I can do now, with the benefit of a stronger voice, is make the case for why it’s important for women in sport to speak out and how we should do it. The first step is to cast our eyes further. We’re not lone voices. As women in sport, we’re part of something much bigger: we’re connected to a worldwide movement to improve the lives of girls and women, and we should draw strength from that.

‘Kuller Kullup’, ‘My Country’ and ‘Empirical’


‘Kuller Kullup’ 

by Bruce Pascoe


Kuller Kullup walked

from the stoney shoulder of Targangil

to this bend of Birrarung

spoke to all the people gathered there,

Wathaurong, Bunurong, Maap

Wurunjeri, Ganai, Taungurong,

all the people,

and he said,

the sky is falling in,

bring me poles, the longest poles,

bring me axes of sharp edged greenstone,

for the sky is falling in.

The missionary arrived, as they usually do,

but Kuller Kullup refused to speak

while the man of god was there,

for these were the great seer’s people

and his message to them was

the sky is falling in,

bring me axes, bring me poles,

together we will repair the rent

in our world.

Of course the missionary

demanded to know what was said,

as they usually do,

and for the price of a loaf of bread

to a hungry man

and a blanket,

to a woman whose child was cold,

he purchased the information

that the sky was falling in.

Oh those natives,

those children,

their savage superstitions,

Henny Penny the sky is falling in,

and soon the whole of Bearbrass

was chortling at the foolish blacks.

Some guessed, as some do, that the need for poles and axes

had a more metaphoric intent,

a more tactical thrust,

and they made sure that,

Kuller Kullup, sky master,

dream master,

was never seen again,

just in case.

How dare he assume a superior dream.

And so the dust was settled,

the gold was won,

the sheep were shorn,

banks were vaulted

parliaments raised.

Of course the gardens

followed the rule of Kew, as you do,

no natives of course, no natives at all

for nothing in this land

could please an Englishman’s hall,

except of course, the grass and gold, the beaches

a sunrise or two,

the quaintness of the kangaroo,

the docility of koala and wombat,

the duck billed ornithorinchus.

Exotica, unnecessary really,

when you could have a fox and a rabbit,

a trout and a blackberry,

thank you Ferdinand von Mueller,

creator of the gardens,

destroyer of rivers,

the founder of the real Australia.

Kuller Kullup knew the sky was falling in.

And it still is.



‘My Country’

by Ellen van Neerven


my country

is between two rivers


two ribs

two hip bones


if I mapped it for you

it would be a narrow shape


like a truck

the shape of me is shifting


hollowing wrists

smaller breasts


the places I notice

are losing and lacking


one hip bone

more pronounced than the other


is a long absence from country

related to my eating


is interrupted sleep

rivers with no beds


is dirt under my nails



is naesea



I let my stomach hair grow

so you won’t notice


I show you my blood



runs into the sea

and is returned


my hands

push into the soil


my country and I

numb until fed




by Lisa Gorton


A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway—

between them, these two or three acres which unevenly rise

from the storm-water gully up to the railway line where for years

the city heaped its wreckage—broken horizon-stone with

head-high fennel, milk-thistle stark from the mounds—

as of a house erupting slowly up through dirt—After he had made

what he called his treaty Batman walked back through here,

ground ‘thinly timbered with gum, wattle and she-oak,’ and named it

Maria’s Valley, Lucy’s Creek—‘Track to the Salt Water River

and Geelong’—its dotted line crosses Robert Russell’s hand-drawn ‘Map

Shewing the Site of Melbourne’—where Lightly Wooded

opens out to WOODED, inches left blank except for that

curved word—A year later, Hoddle’s printed ‘MAP exhibiting

the situation & extent of the sections of land marked off for sale’

marks Jika Jika Parish out in ‘1.5 acre allotments the greater part of which

are already sold’—The day he sailed for England

La Trobe rode his horse around this place and named it park—

bounded to the west of Hoddle’s map by a wavery line of circles—

‘Monee Monee’s Creek, a Chain of Ponds’—‘Mur-nong or Mirr-n’yong

may be seen growing on the banks of the Moonee Ponds’—

‘this part was called “The Fuse” because of the turns its course

there took and also “Lousy Pat’s Creek” after an old sundowner

who used to camp there’—Now a concrete drain beside the motorway

into the city—Moonee Moonee and Tullamareena run

from the burning prison at the back of Liardet’s watercolour painting

‘An Escape from the First Gaol’—Jin Jin, diving from the rooftop,

has flung his coat beneath him, its grey square like a trapdoor

out of the picture—Inside its soft-scribbled smoke, thin strips of flame

burn with the same soft red as its backdrop butts—In the foreground

two new-felled trees, bare stripped trunks angling oddly in, invent

a vanishing point out the wrong side of the picture—

Over the gully they used the land for a Model Farm—‘fences running direct

north and south and at right angles’—£904 4/- on fencing

in the first year alone—‘planting seeds of the acacia, cape broom,

thorn and privet &c that the live hedges will combine with and ultimately replace

the present fencing as it decays’—and ‘perennial rye grass, Italian rye grass,

Kangaroo grass, sweet-scented vernal grass, cocksfoot, Timothy,

meadow foxtail, crested dog’s-tail, hard fescue, meadow fescue,

red clover, white clover, Bochara clover, yellow clover, lucerne’—

‘It was proposed to carry on the necessary labour—by means of pupils’—

Enough sky here to watch where butts come in over the motorway

on slow dissolves of rain—Once in late-winter Burke’s cavalcade

rode past this place, ‘Burke leading on his grey horse, singing

“Cheer boys, cheer”’ as they followed him around the cattle yards,

the camel’s manure pile, past the swamp and out of South Gate

toward Essendon’—Away into TW Cameron’s magic-lantern slides,

the day of their departure mirror-bright on the blank interior

of St George’s Hall in Bourke Street—Prisoners in Jika Jika

made the camels’ shoes—‘The men have been for some time past

accustoming themselves to bush life by camping out in the Royal Park’—

The River Red Gum died that was their monument, replaced with a cairn

of mortared scoria in the shape of a chimney fenced with iron—

Esau Khan came back from Swan Hill on a wagon

to care for the camels left behind here which calmly graze

among the llamas, alpacas, cashmere goats and deer

in Edgar Ray’s etching: ‘Acclimatisation Society: Animals in Royal Park’—

The Society’s motto: ‘If it lives, we want it’—‘The introduction

and assimilation of every good thing that the world contains

seems about as legitimate an enterprise as can be conceived’—

‘During the past year there have been liberated at the Royal Park

Hares, Mynas, Starlings, Sparrows, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Blackbirds’—

‘The carp, tench, roach, and dace, and the gold-fish, have been introduced

and distributed in various localities favourable to their multiplication’—

‘Several of the English sparrows have hatched off young ones

in the neighbourhood of the Royal-park’—‘Sir.—It is well known

that a section of the council of the Acclimatisation Society has

long been striving to establish a miniature zoological collection

at the Royal-park—Does it not seem almost wicked

to throw away our money in the purchase of useless animals

when we have so much to do in the importation and propagation of

animals and fish which will furnish the colony?’—

‘Now that our Zoological-garden possesses an elephant, what more natural

than that it should be made use of?’—“Ranee” was at the Zoo

for 20 years, and was aged about 60 years when she died—

Her skeleton is now in the Melbourne Museum’—‘“Queenie”

has been engaged in her present task for more than 20 years’—

‘About 600 children experienced the joys of a ride on “Queenie”

on Monday’—‘Queenie, a zoo elephant, today killed her keeper,

Wilfred Lawson (69), of Brunswick’—‘The “old tip” has been used

to bury diseased trees and an elephant from the zoo’—Now

gorse, cape broom, privet, self-seeding out of the history

of their names, advance over its debris— Rebar, an iron drain top,

soft-edged blocks of gravelled concrete, a single piece of anthracite—

On the grounds of the Model Farm they made a place of Quarantine—

‘Sir—when I was getting the other children who had small-pox

removed to the Royal Park, Dr. K—informed me there was a child

in Jeffcot Street—On the next day, which was very wet and cold,

I was again sent for to see the child and told the policeman

he ought to urge the authorities to have the mother and child removed’—

That evening on an open dray they proceeded to the Quarantine-

ground at the Royal Park—The child died the next morning—

In a couple of hours the mother was allowed to depart home’—

‘In 1871, when the Board of Agriculture was abolished, Mr M—,

lessee of the Model Farm—sold off his stock—the lands and buildings

were converted into an Industrial School’—‘A large building—

orphanage and truant school combined—contains about 200 girls—

the girls learn housework of all kinds and the use of sewing machines—

At a short distance is a small farmhouse, with out-buildings and a few

acres of farm—boys drafted from Sunbury are sent here for various terms’—

‘Another batch of street arabs was brought before the magistrates—

Five lads—aged about 7 to 12 years caught wandering about the streets

at 1 o’clock that morning—The Constable ordered them off home—

Between 3 and 4 he found them sleeping in some empty barrels

in Flinders-street—Mr C— remanded the boys to the Industrial Schools

for a week’—‘Being so near their old haunts the temptation to bolt

has proved irresistible to several of the genuine street arabs,

especially as the grounds are bounded merely by rickety old fences

not even goat proof’—Boys from the Industrial School worked the farm—

‘Boys might be employed cutting some embankments and

filling up the gullies’—When the ship Faraway in Spring Cove, Sydney,

was filled with small-pox patients, in Royal Park they built

a Calf-lymph Vaccination Depot where the Quarantine-ground

had been—‘to continue and keep going the stream of pure calf lymph,

the first cultivated in Australia’—‘The Government having a building

in the Royal-park might properly be asked to send the immigrants there—

to guard against the spread of epidemic diseases’—That year

the Immigrants’ Aid Society took over the Industrial School building

and ‘Boy’s Receiving Depôt, Royal Park’—The Society noted

a ‘valuable donation of trees and shrubs for planting in the grounds—

from Mr Guilfoyle, curator of the Botanical gardens’—

Late winter, black cockatoos scrap and cry in the Monterey pines

which bank the gully’s soft earth sides, holding

an arrowhead of land where what was once named ‘Permanent Creek’

flows from a pipe under the hospital carpark to join the creek

now piped under the railway cutting—Along the cutting’s side,

spear grass and rye grass move under the wind like light on water—

They dug the railway cutting out by hand, down through sandstone,

its fossil shell remains—extinct nautilus-type molluscs, lampshells,

lace corallines, sea-urchins—overlaid on sheets of older lava

‘decomposed where it lies into a greasy fawn-coloured clay

that can be readily dug out with a pen-knife’—to Silurian bedrock,

broken, irruptive, inlaid with fossil sea liles, graptolites, trilobites—

‘Nearly every beginner in geology makes a collection of these

Royal Park fossils’—Near the carpark, where the gullies join,

‘there is to be seen a deposit of white clay overlying the bedrock—

fossil leaves were found in these clays which thus appear to represent

a fresh-water deposit’—A creek, or lake, which met old shoreline here—

In Melbourne Gaol, ‘the warder who looks after the hard labourers

is a bit of a geologist—He drew our attention to a large stone

in the prison wall—quarried, I believe, in the neighbourhood

of the Royal Park—in which he could see an almost perfect fossil duck’—

‘The idea of a collection of animals caged for public viewing

was not quite a century old’—For the ‘Centennial Exhibition’

the Park Trustees staged mimic warfare here with cannon fire—

while the Director of the Zoological Gardens and Acclimatisation Society

fetched a man, a woman and two children in from Coranderrk

to ‘populate’ the display which he and his wife had made—

‘an exact representation of an Aboriginal people’s encampment’—

‘On the sheet of water close to the camp there has been placed

a native bark canoe of the olden times’—In the Director’s

family archives a cutting, ‘Zoo House, Once Attacked by Blacks,

to be Pulled Down’, leaves out the story—Outside the zoo

‘a dozen companies of redcoats are in motion—the bugles peal out

with their quick long notes—there is a delightful apprehension

amongst the children that they will be in some fashion surrounded

and mixed up with the soldiers whose bayonets flash so bravely’—

‘Huge and empty, but not yet “swept and garnished”, stands

the military infantry camp high on the hill at Royal Park

waiting for 6000 or 7000 men who are to enter into it this week

from every part of Australasia’—‘The most modern 15lb quick-

firing field guns, of a type in use in the present war in South Africa,

will be furnished to the Victorian Field Artillery as soon as possible’—

‘Nearly 150 tents have been erected and stand now in ten long lines,

with the officers’ tents lying grouped fifty yards to the eastward’—

In the First World War the AIF fenced in these acres

for a rifle range—‘each unit of the AIF shall be at once supplied

with the necessary equipment for musketry instruction—aiming rests,

sand bags—dummy cartridges, rifles for miniature practice,

landscape targets and visual training figures’—‘In a misty shower of rain,

the Royal Park camp where 1,200 men are in training

was yesterday inspected by five representatives of Royalty’—

‘A Special Military Mental Hospital was opened at Royal Park in 1915’—

‘If [Gunner] P— had hysteria would he be a malinger?’

—‘No, not if he had hysteria.’

‘How would you test him for malingering?’

—‘With pretty strong electrical treatment.’

‘Of course, you could get an admission from an ordinary man

by using the thumb-screw?’

—‘No, there are men who will stand pain.’

‘Do you know the battery that was used?’

—‘Yes, in the Melbourne hospital we frequently used it

on this class of cases—hysterics, malingers, drunks’—

After that War, they levelled the hill for a playing field

where the swamp had been—‘to create an ordered

public recreation area from a previous wilderness’—

In the Second World War, the 1st Australian Guard Compound

in Royal Park was fenced with barbed wire—In a photograph

from the newspaper, ‘The 17th battalion—jubilantly march

towards the Royal Park railway station on their way

to overseas service’—Libya, Greece, Papua New Guinea—

‘For the return they marched as heroes—from central Melbourne

out to Royal Park’—In 1942 the US Army set up its camp

in metal huts over the railway line—Their Signal Radio

Intelligence Company used these acres as a training gound—


‘Two Australian soldiers from a camp near by, Driver M— and Cpl F—

walking through the park, were attracted by the driver of a butcher’s cart

who called to them, “There is a body on the bank” —

The soldiers ran to the locality, where slit trenches had been dug,

and saw a woman’s body lying face down in the mud’—

‘Black-trackers brought to the scene were greatly hampered

because many soldiers had trampled mud in the vicinity’—

Private Edward Joseph Leonski, tried by US court martial,

was hanged in Pentridge—He said, ‘She was singing in my ear.

It sounded as if she was singing for me’—

‘Tremendous excitement prevailed at Royal Park camp

when the long convoy of cars arrived from the Otranto—

many of the Army men were ex-prisoners from Germany—

‘The crowd of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wives

and sweethearts, and little sons and daughters waited

longingly in the cold’—After the war the US Army’s metal huts

were used for housing—‘Three families lived in our Army hut—

Our address was Area 4, Hut 7C’—‘Their meat, bread, vegetables,

groceries, and milk are delivered to their door’— Mrs—,

who came from Ouyen, planted maidenhair ferns on either side

of her front door’—‘Camp Pell kids, Camp Pell kids,

Camp Pell kids are we, always up to mischief, wherever we may be’—

‘Camp Pell is, in plain language, nothing but a dump

for human beings’—‘Camp Pell must be cleared at once and

handed over before the start of the Olympic Games,

Mr Bolte Premier said’—The huts sold off, foundations razed—

Now bullet casings, bottle shards, steel mesh alike

turn to monument under my eye and by this trick

here I have felt the past around me like a landscape—

ruinable, massed, a blank in thought which sets the names

in their array—Now at the level of my eye, its close horizon,

impasse—What I have named weeds and flowering grasses

being to itself single, singly forward in the instant of its

happening, pitiless, walled in silence—

The stone heaps lie around me and nothing is mine—



In writing about the colonial history of this patch of public ground, Royal Park, I was provoked by a statement in the ‘heritage assessment’ carried out by Andrew Long and Associates, in consideration of the East-West Link: ‘This location would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses’. This claim seems to me to epitomise how a manufactured landscape can conceal the history of country. The ground now named Royal Park opened out alongside the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds, now a creek enclosed in concrete; what were its creeks are now storm drains running under the golf course and the railway line; and its swampland was drained for playing fields. This poem collects fragments of colonial history from maps and pictures in the State Library of Victoria and contemporary newspapers, which cite among other things reports from the Model Farm and Acclimatisation Society.

‘Not Dead Yet’


The architect enters the room
Wearing a black velvet blazer
Crisp white shirt, skinny leg jeans
A caricature – oozing ‘starchitect’ cool
He’s won the tender
To design an Aboriginal health centre
He’s saving our lives
One commission at a time
He promises community engagement
Indigenous design through collaborative consultation
Hand in hand
We’ll Reconcile
Treaty unsigned
Another scrap in the pile

The meeting starts
MacBook Airs charged, iPhones on silent
His portable projector
Boldly animates the wall
With technical drawings, gum leaves and
kangaroo paw
His young assistant smiles with eyes that beguile
Their knees uncomfortably close
And a suffocating power clenches the room
His presentation ends with a photo
A black hand holding a white hand
Cos it’s all okay
Nothing ever happened here they say

Mob gently start to share their stories
But the loudest voices are white
The complexity of colonisation erased
Although a white council officer knowledgeably explains
That the design should reflect the river
White voices drown out community who sit silently by the end
I guess they speak better than we ever can

The ‘starchitect’ leaves smugly
Muttering how he likes to explore Australia’s
deep cultural dimension
Another project to boast about
Bringing cred and status to his illustrious career
The health centres vital
But no one can guarantee
There’ll be free services
For those in need

Back in the office
I sit at my desk
On the thirty-fifth floor my window
Lingers on the William Barak building
An Aboriginal leader
Designed by a white man
Gazes down Swanston Street

Moving through the city
Other identities thrive
On the periphery:
Street art by Lisa Kennedy
On an old post-box in Bourke Street
A torn Gary Foley poster
Clinging to the railway’s underpass

Fierce, fighting, alive
Denied a spot in the public eye
And I wonder if
A living black face
Could ever exist
On a thirty-one-storey building

Cos whose land is it anyway?
A bunch of white academics from RMIT proclaim
Another urban planning conference on the way
Colonial property rights will be erased
Alternative living, squats and co-housing
Yarning circles and lemon myrtle flavours
The new themes of our progressive left-wing
white saviours

Anti-eviction and anti-gentrification
We need to reorganise our neo-liberal
property relations
Squats for the rich and a high-interest mortgage for the poor
Just before they decolonise us all

‘Do Not Ask for Whom the Pinball Chimes’


Can we cheat death with words? Of course we can’t – but we’ll probably die trying, as David Astle attested at the Wheeler Centre Gala 2017. 

It’s dark. The fridge is humming. You’re lying on a hotel bed, half-awake, half-asleep – neither here nor there, to be honest – the maritime blink of a smoke alarm on the ceiling. The fitful whine of traffic on the street. Beside you, a clock is pulsing, moving the numbers from 3.33 to 3.34 and then 3.35. You know what comes next, right?

So maybe that’s not your ringtone. Maybe you went for the marimba, the guitar strum, or the old-fashioned Bakelite phone.

Perhaps you picked the choo-choo train; it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you are your own ringtone. No matter where you travel, which bed you choose – your call-sign will find you.

Worse than that, tomorrow, next year, your phone will erupt at 3.37am or nearabouts – so early you know the news before words have time to shape. You know the implications in a heartbeat, the flavour of the message. It’s why we say the dead of night, the witching hours. It’s why nothing good happens after 1.00am. I lay there watching my phone squirm with every jangle of the pinball machine.

My plan was simple. The longer I resisted answering, the more the news would un-happen. That was my logic. Not only would the caller quit, give up before the voicemail kicked in, but the news would evaporate, too. At 3.37am, nobody calls with the cheery stuff.

… we slumber to remember the dead, to honour them with mimicry.

Many of us have received that call already; all of us will receive it at some point in our lives. Do not ask for whom the pinball chimes, my friends. Nobody can hide. Like it or lump it, death has all our numbers.

Heaven forbid, maybe tonight is your turn for that unrequested wake-up, that hideous alarm. At 2.14am, or 5.06, the sudden marimba, the gate-crashing Taylor Swift, and you will lie there, awake to the news, aware to the brunt of it before you can touch the screen and say, ‘Hello?’

And then:

‘Oh god … I’m sorry. Uh-huh … I love you, too … I wish I was there … OK, yeah … I love you … I’ll call you when it’s light. OK, I’ll call you when it’s light … Promise, bye.’

I’ll call you when it’s light. I’ll call you when it’s light.


Photo of David Astle, performing this story at Hamer Hall

David Astle at Hamer Hall for Wheeler Centre Gala 2017: Stories for the Dead —Photo: Jon Tjhia


In Arabic folklore a black camel pays a visit. Even if you’re sleeping in a Sydney hotel, the camel knows which floor you’re on, which way to turn from the elevators, which door to pummel. Either the camel collects you, or carries news you don’t wish to sign for, a beast of burden bearing a burden just for you. Special delivery – just sign here, and here, thank you. Have a nice day. Duties done, the camel then leaves us, deserts us, every man and woman in this hall, every child, every usher, every stagehand, every dignitary. Before too long, the camel is a plume in the distance, obliging us to hitch the new load on our own shoulders, the burden that’s never light.

In Greek, the word is Thanatos, the ancient god of death. Not a camel, but a handsome dude with a lantern jaw. His cute twin is Hypnos, the deity of sleep, the living form of death. Temple carvings show the brothers asleep like spoons, nestled so close you can’t tell them apart. Every image of the twins is like a game – daring you to pick which god is dead, and which is playing possum. It makes you realise we slumber to remember the dead, to honour them with mimicry. Or we take the chance to rehearse our own death, a dummy run on the queen-size, that final rest in peace until the peace is broken by a phone.

Dozens of euphemisms, a hundred aphorisms, all in a bid to camouflage the casket in the room: so much oratory to sidestep the mortuary.

By way of legacy, Thanatos gives us ‘euthanasia’, literally ‘a beautiful death’, and ‘thanatopsis’, meaning ‘a contemplation of mortality’, looking at death square in the eye. Tonight in Hamer Hall, it’s one great thanatopsis, a thanatopia … a toast mortem.

The Latin word morire means ‘to die’. The verb gives us ‘mortal’ and ‘mortuary’. Next time you feel mortified, keep in mind your shame is so profound you long for the earth to swallow you up, entomb you. ‘Murder’ comes from mortem, too, as does ‘mortgage’, a payment pledge you make to your bank until you ‘close your umbrella’, as they say in Costa Rica.

In Romania, you ‘turn the corner’. In China, when you die, you ‘join the mountain path’. In Russian, you ‘play the snake’, ‘glue your slippers’, ‘give your best skates away’. In German, ins Gras beissen: you ‘bite the grass’. And in Chilean, irse al patio de los callados: you ‘enter the courtyard of the hushed’.

Because death is nature’s way of shutting us up, closing the lid on the argument, stealing our breath. After last rites, and famous last words, the dead have no more to say. All talk is done. Down comes the silence, that bottomless lull between the bells. The moment you hear the hush inside the clangour, you cannot unhear it.

Haunted, we do our best to cover the silence. Disguise it with Beethoven and Call of Duty III. We medicate, intoxicate. We invent sports, game shows, recipes. To keep death on hold, we bow to Eros – the nemesis of Thanatos. Charles Bukowski called sex ‘kicking death in the ass while singing’. Life-affirming, life-making, sex is a slap across death’s chops, a needle through the camel’s eye.

Photo of David Astle

David Astle — Photo: Jon Tjhia

Then there’s English, so generous when it comes to dying – so much slang, so many synonyms – proof that anxiety makes us garrulous. According to Roget, we don’t just die, but go ‘the way of all flesh’, ‘the way of the dodo’ – ‘crossing the Jordan’ to ‘cash our chips’ and ‘buy the farm’. Idiom lends us courage, helps us put death in a box, give it a taste of its own medicine. But really it’s just barbecue banter, where people never die but ‘pop the clogs’, ‘kick the bucket’, ‘count the worms’. Diggers at Gallipoli talked about going ‘west of hell’, of ‘biting the dust’.

Lying awake in a hotel room – after the bells, the news, the conversation I had to have – a deeper silence settled in, louder than the fridge if that was possible. Lying there, my mind became a dictionary, thinking how we fall, we lapse, we pass away, we check out. No longer for this world, we give up the ghost to join the great Wheeler Gala in the sky. We depart. We succumb. We assume room temperature. Dozens of euphemisms, a hundred aphorisms, all in a bid to camouflage the casket in the room: so much oratory to sidestep the mortuary.

Imperfect, of course, since death will prevail, despite our awesome vocab. Talk all you like, sing, tell stories – but death is due the final gag. The ultimate gagging. Even English is wise enough to recognise the tedious kapow of death.

In China, when you die, you ‘join the mountain path’. In Russian, you ‘play the snake’, ‘glue your slippers’, ‘give your best skates away’.

The gaps in our language – ‘semantic gaps’, we call them – seem deliberate. The moment your last parent dies, you matriculate into orphan. Bury a husband and you qualify as widow. Lose a wife, a widower. But should your child die, perish the thought, even English is bereft. There’s nothing to cloak the nothingness, no syllables, no word, as if the gap in the dictionary is the wound itself.

Only a few languages rise to the challenge. Hebrew has av shakul (a father who’s lost a child) and em shakula: the childless mother. East of Alice Springs, across the Barkly grasslands, the Wambaya people have damanggayirna – the woman in mourning for her child, and damanggayi – the grieving father. Beyond that: silence. No more bids, no more languages, an open gash in the glossary. A crack in the vocab where the darkness gets in.

‘Words after speech, reach into silence,’ to quote the dead poet. Sex and drugs and vernacular can only do so much to stem the unavoidable – every death will have its day. Or early morning, in my case, 3.37am in a Sydney hotel. Not that I could lie in bed too long: 3.37 turned 3.38 and 3.39 and so on. Soon I needed to carpe the diem, get my mortal arse in gear, put on a brave face, prepare for the day. As Sancho Panza was fond of saying: ‘To the earth the dead/the living to their bread.’

Outside the day was wasting, the traffic getting busy, the curtains transfusing with light. Still in shock, standing in the bathroom, I gazed at the mirror, heavier for the phone call – both emptier and heavier, which makes no sense. I stared at the glass and you stared back. As I swept the razor across my cheek, your ghost emerged. There you were, lurking in the sudden heirlooms of my face, each feature set in stone, your lips and jaw rising into view as the lather disappeared.

Standing at a basin, naked as the day I was born, I could hear a family phrase taking shape in my mouth, your mouth: ‘Live every day as though it is your last, because one day – one random morning – you’ll be right’.

various pieces

Thirteen young editors from Melbourne’s west investigated many a crime and murder mysteries lurking in their neighbourhoods to put together the sixth issue of early harvest:


‘Investigation of Pencil Red’ by Orlando Cavallaro (age 13). Published in early harvest issue six:


‘Terror at 1000 Storey’ is a collaborative, interactive story about you, your dog, and a towering inferno! Go on press the link


Shoes of Doom is a zine featuring micro stories by young writers aged 5 to 16 in collaboration with artist Cam Baker. Published by 100 Story Building:


Fitbits and Baby Apes

In this podcast, young writers at 100 Story Building share micro stories and discuss important matters such what if Fitbits could act as ‘homework completers’ and where do baby apes sleep:

Created by BooWriClu
Stories by Eden, Giuseppe, Jessie, Kate, Lily, Mikayla, Nang, Owen, Petra and Sav
Production: Lucas and Simon



Level 87 Podcast
Over the summer holidays, the members of Level 87 Book Club managed to prise open the trapdoor and sneak down the 100 Story Building elevator to record their very first podcast. Too bad the elevator doors were rusted shut due to poor maintenance service checks!

Nevertheless, they were able to utilise their new sound recording and editing skills to capture the mysterious sounds from the underground levels, talk about their favourite books and report back their findings on the definite lack of snacks available.

Created by Level 87 Book Club

‘The People’s Justice’ and ‘Heavenly Queen by the Maribyrnong’


The People’s Justice

by Soreti Kadir


My people have always known justice through song

My people have always known justice through song

When feet started pounding the ground to resist the coming rampage

the Songstress stood by closely

if you choose to see what most see

which is mostly


“Why are you busy with those sounds? How will they sway parliament and the crown?”

But my people have always known justice through song

When war comes we sing strength into the masses

When lose is known we sing spirits back home

When confusion comes melodies male way for sureness

When victory is known we stamp our feet on the earth returning it’s mud and fire

We sing praise into the moment

And sorrow out of memories

Misdirected is not what we are

Divert the distraction

Parliament only holds a fraction of the power it parades

The people’s song is know charade

We know justice through it

Do you want me to prove it?



Heavenly Queen by the Maribyrnong

by Lian Low



The Chinese, my father’s ancestors sailed into the Straits of Melaka and settled into the Malay peninsula,

They prayed to Datuk Gong, his altar hidden in forests and crannies

Gave him offerings, they wanted to make peace with the spirits of the land,

Where I now live, call home

Heavenly Queen Mazu gazes steadily over the Maribyrnong / bidding seafarers safe


On the lands of the Kulin Nations / I pay my respect to elders past, present and future /

In solidarity, with all First Nations Australians

Whose sovereign rights, ancient wisdoms and stories were never ceded



Australia is Melbourne is Glen Waverley 

Australia is Melbourne is Glen Waverley is my new home. Where the moisture is sucked dry, where I can trace a cartography of where Malaysia ends and Australia begins on the contour of my papery skin; but connection to place is beyond physicality, I had yet to uncover.


Connection to place is about a love for the familiar, tracing a memory, and finding that sweet spot where you just know you’re home. Wherever home is. Whatever home means.


In 1991, I’d moved continents, settled into Kulin Nations country the year before terra nullius ended, and hope for a new nation was stymied, stunted, bludgeoned by the fury of anti-political correctness campaigns. Howard. Hanson. Racist rhetoric.


Australia is Melbourne is Glen Waverley is my new home.   Connection to place is about a love for the familiar, tracing a memory, and finding that sweet spot where you just know you’re home. Wherever home is. Whatever home means.



The Heavenly Queen

When I craved love, I would look to the heavens, hoping to catch a glimpse of paradise in the sky

Stars twinkling like fireflies

Melbourne’s overripe moon glowing an outer space gold

I looked, onwards and upwards

For that invisible road to Heaven’s Door

Hoping the Doors would burst open to show my destiny

Little did I know that Paradise lay at Footscray’s riverbank.


Grounded along the Maribyrnong,

Oblivious to industry, machinery and heavy traffic

Glimpsed by thousands as they sped across train tracks

The sixteen metre Heavenly Queen’s gaze is serene as she looks past black swans, cormorants, swamp hens, red-rumped parrots, marbled geckos and Pobblebonk frogs

Her gaze drifts towards Footscray Road, floating past the Yarra, until her wide- open eyes contemplates the Bass Strait.

In her fingers, a small ball of light,

Beacon to shore.


Patron of seafarers, demon destroyer, rainmaker and healer

One legend tells that Queen Mazu’s origin was humble

Not yet 18, with supernatural powers

She fell in a trance when her fishermen father and brothers were caught at sea

Their lives about to be loss in a storm

She manifest in spirit, guided them to shore

But before all were safe,

Her mother broke the trance and her father died at sea.


Up close, Queen Mazu’s gold paint is chipping,

And the lake surrounding her base is filled with weeds and rubbish

Duck feathers and shit

A swamp

No tossed coins from lovers wishing for good fortune


The Queen’s slow decay mirrors the fallen stars I’d found along the river near Newell’s Paddock,

An exoskeleton of five arms,

Yellow speckled in purple stripes and tips,

They lay unfurled, arms spread equidistant

Sometimes scrunched up

Unnervingly still

Underwater creatures stranded on land.


22 broken, crumbled, dried, sun-burnt to the bone

Northern Pacific Seastars / marine pests

Plucked from the muddy riverbank and weeds, not far from the mussels and the patient fishermen, after bream or yellow eye mullet or silver trevally.


Someone wanted to piece together paradise on the pavement,

Maybe it was someone also looking for love.

‘Things That Helped’


By the time we move to Footscray, Owen is a secret seed, secret even from me. All the time he is there, as I lug cardboard boxes, and scrub paint from sinks, and paint the rental we are leaving a dingy shade of beige — the same shade that, on moving in, we had painted over in pale, pale celery-green. It is too early for a rising tide of nausea to clue me to his existence. He is simply, secretly, there.

Almost from the minute that Mike and I begin seeing each other, we talk about our child, the child we will one day have. It should seem much too soon, but nothing feels more natural than lying in the sun at the park, drinking coffee and eating warm bread rolls from the bakery, sketching out our future plans: running a B&B in rural Hungary if I sort out my citizenship; travelling to Berlin; living on a vast property deep in the mountains. And always with a baby in tow.

Our child will be called Coralie, after my great aunt, or maybe Ivy; Gabriel for a boy. When we get married the fantasies drop away, but the longing for a child remains. We manage to postpone the craving throughout my Honours thesis; Mike enrols in a Masters; we do everything we can to pace ourselves, to not jump in, not give in to this deep, visceral craving for the milky smell of a newborn’s scalp until, at last, we do give in. It is a surprise to me how much I want a baby, and unbeknownst to me, unpacking boxes in our beautiful new terrace in Footscray, I am hiding the beginnings of one.

Counting backwards, I work out that Owen must have been conceived at or just after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. New Year, new life: it should be an augury, but I am too nervous to invest the pregnancy with any special symbolism or significance. All I want, when I learn the news, is to make it through to Christmas, six weeks away; for this small ball of matter to become robust and staunch and truly embedded in the lining of his small but swelling home, and then I will believe it; then I will breathe out.

I have always wanted to guard the things I find precious, and in this way I am not good at sharing. I am superstitious: believing in it too much, wanting it too much will inevitably mean that I will lose this pregnancy, I think, though to the best of my knowledge I have not lost one before. I have suspected a loss, and that felt aching and raw; and in a small way I grieved it, and it was real grief. I feel like a village woman telling her neighbour their new child is ugly, so as not to draw the attention and jealousy of God.

The morning I suspect I might be pregnant I take a test, and then wipe it clean and carefully bring it into the bedroom, rousing Mike.

‘Does this say what I think it says?’

Mike looks at the test and its firm pink declarative line.

‘We’re having a baby,’ he says groggily, and pulls me into his arms. Somehow, even knowing this, the day continues as usual. It is not until a work trip to Tasmania the next week, upon which Mike has accompanied me and where we camp high up in the mountains, that the fact begins to sink in for him with any clarity and brilliance.

‘We’re having a baby!’ he hollers to the ferns in the fern gully, where we have tramped along a rough dirt track. The air is richly oxygenated from the lush green foliage, the forest floor dense with scuttling creatures in the undergrowth; spider webs hold drops of moisture, and the night-dark earth seems fertile enough for anything dropped there to take root. Mike grips my hand tightly when we pick our way down the rocks, promising a steady landing.

He wants to tell people when we return, but I hold to my Christmas deadline, superstitious and self-imposed.
I have felt the faint tremors of quickening, but I only let my breath out properly much later, at our second ultrasound, when we first glimpse the shape of our child. The ultrasound technician guides the probe around adeptly, angling it lightly into the small hill of my jellied stomach, leaving out identifying details at first in case we don’t wish to know them.

‘Do you want to find out the gender?’ she asks.

Sex, I silently correct, and then, ‘Yes.’

A slight twist of the probe and then there he is, revealed, tucked up into himself with the small outreaching shadow of his five fingers making a whole hand, a whole hand we can see. The little girl I am half-convinced I am carrying floats away and instead, waving from the deep, is this new and unknown thing — a little boy.

As we inch towards Christmas, and the weather gets hotter and drier, each week of viability feeling like a clandestine accomplishment, the nausea becomes more intense. I find out, for the first time, about food aversions, which are much stronger and more visceral than any of my cravings. The provisions I had thought would carry me through my pregnancy — liquorice and pickles and dark chocolate and potato chips — are too oily, too salty, too acidic by turns. The only thing I want to eat is pho.

I lie anchored to the couch, moored against the sticky leather with the dry pages of an Agatha Christie novel rustling in the wind, which comes in sudden rushes through our open windows, while Mike traipses up to our local, Hien Vuong Pasteur. The main drag of Footscray is lined with Vietnamese restaurants, interspersed with relics of the past, like Cavallero, the pastry shop, or, further down, Sudanese and Ethiopian food. The competition for best pho is fierce, but we have found our local and are loyal customers.

‘For your wife?’ the owner asks when Mike comes in, and Mike nods, and soon he is home with two plastic containers, one full of slightly gelatinous rice noodles topped with thin slices of chicken, and the other of rich chicken broth. A little plastic bag of sliced chilli, Vietnamese mint, bean shoots, and lemon rounds out the meal, and I carefully pour out half the broth and noodles into a saucepan, and put the rest in the fridge, a safeguard against the next day’s nausea.

It is nice to be known. Every morning I walk to work past the Little Saigon market, angling past men in aprons and gumboots unloading their trucks from the fish market, and every morning the sight of glossy-eyed trout and snapper and bream brings a wave of muggy heat up beneath my skin.

I think of my growing child, due in July. He will be a Cancer: a cavorting little crab.

I have never believed in astrology, but now I become avid about the signs, trying to prophesy our future child’s personality. Mike is an Aries, I a Capricorn: private, creative, stubborn, the charts say. An earth sign. It is true that I need to walk into the back garden and plant my feet in the cool grass of an evening, watching the sky change colour, from parched blue to an industrially shocking pink and then to a pale apricot-grey. I am greedy for the sunset. At dusk, the suburb smells like eucalypts and fish sauce.

We see in the New Year at a writer’s house in Brunswick, newly built upon a tiny patch that she and her partner have bought, requisitioned from someone’s backyard. Though the house is complete the garden is still unfinished, and we stand in a dug-out patch amongst uncovered pipes, as music blares and the sky fills with fireworks. The pregnancy is still hidden, though I think that I can feel my stomach swell, just the smallest bit, beneath the cool and slippery fabric of my dress. Mike puts his hands on my stomach as our friends clamber to the top of our host’s old van, shrieking their midnight exhilaration into the sky.

Dead sober and glowing with sweat, I straggle homeward with Mike at 3am, losing my favourite lipstick along the way. When we finally find a taxi it first takes us south, then out west. Melbourne is a city split by a river — the Yarra — and people talk of North and South, but now we are heading into a new terrain, demarking a point towards which the compass hadn’t already swung in our three years and four houses together. Home.

I have fallen in love with Footscray years earlier, schlepping out from Brunswick for a contract stint at Lonely Planet, feeling immediately calmer as I walked down to the banks of the Maribyrnong. My grandparents used to have a shop here, schmatte, in the suburb’s first wave of migration, before the Europeans ebbed and the Vietnamese flowed, and then the Sudanese, Ethiopian, Congolese, Somali. My grandparents left when a pig’s head turned up on their doorstep; the meaning was unmistakable. Nonetheless, I came back, and I loved it.

Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt; Mike and I and the friends who begin to move westwards cannot avoid that we are the harbingers of change, the crest of a wave of gentrification that will soon firmly crash, driving house prices upward and long-time residents out of their homes, and closing us all out when rents soar beyond our means.
I walk around every room of the terrace ritualistically, blessing our books, our paintings, our spoons, our second-hand furniture, the gold metallic fringe we have hung around our low-hanging light-fixtures. We call them ‘disco chandeliers’, and Mike’s head brushes through the fringe if he forgets to look where he is walking, but the long strands glimmer as they move in the afternoon light.

Owen ripples and flexes. The curve of my stomach is not hidden now; it pushes insistently outward, the only place I carry any weight until my eighth month, when my face suddenly balloons. I order a few maternity skirts early on, a pair of jeans, trying to get through the pregnancy as cheaply as I can.

When my own birthday passes and the nausea drops away, Mike and I wander down to Vien Huong to sit together in the window and watch the world pass. Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, fills the streets with neon lights, and wild noise, and smells that wind together on the breeze, so that hints of pho are caught up in the doughiness of bao and the oil of ‘Korean Swirl Potato’, a newly invented ‘traditional’ snack like a potato cake on a stick. I exult in these smells, which no longer hold the power to upset my balance. It is the Year of the Dragon now: magnanimous, imperious, strong.

I talk to the hospital psychiatrist once a fortnight, trying to gird myself for what might come next. Because I have a history of depression and anxiety, this feels like a sensible step, but I am giddy with joy over the pregnancy and the shadow side of it doesn’t touch me. These fifty-minute hours feel like homework; virtuously completed, but at base unnecessary. At work a colleague laughs when I suddenly swing around, my stomach appearing like an optical illusion from my otherwise unchanged frame.


Excerpted from ‘Pho’, an essay in the collection Things That Helped.

‘The Way Things Work: Writing, Diversity, Australia’



Hard work is etched in my bones.  I see it in my mother’s restless hands, the way she jiggles her knees or bites her fingernails when she sits down to rest. I saw it in the spotlessness of both my grandmothers’ houses – in the way that they never sat down until everything around them was pristine.  As much as I long for the order of these houses, I have learned to sit in the chaos of my home and look only at the screen or book in front of me.  But the restlessness has stayed with me.  I check work emails both earlier and later than I should.  I work early in the morning and later in the evening. Before I had a child, my ideal working hours would have been roughly 8am to 7pm. I’ve been forced to truncate my hours into more or less 9 to 5ish, squeezing in extra hours when I can.

It’s probably no accident that I’ve chosen academia; a field notorious for the limitlessness of the work day. There’s no day too long – working on weekends, before nine and after five are all givens. We do this work because we love it, because it is important and somehow bigger than we are. Academics are idealists and hopeless romantics.  We chip and chip and chip away at things we feel, no, we know, are important and bigger than ourselves.  Being an academic and having a child are so similar.  Both blur the boundaries of work and fun, of relentlessness and boundless energy.  There are no clearly defined boundaries in either.

As an academic woman in the fields of literary studies and creative writing, I have more work to do than my white, male counterparts.  When I teach these subjects, I find myself side-stepping history, having to explain why certain texts are canonical, why they matter, why we should read critically.  But there are times when I just want to wallow – I just want to enjoy the work of TS Eliot or Donald Barthelme, pay attention to the words and ideas and not wonder about the words and ideas of all the women who were writing at the same time. But it is hard to train my mind away from all the words stuck in women’s throats, ‘breeding like adders[1]’ and not wonder if those words made it out into the clarity of daylight. I don’t want to know, like Margaret Atwood knows, that ‘a word after a word / after a word is power[2]’.  I just want to enjoy the story, get swept off in the narrative, take pleasure from the sounds of the words, the pictures they put in my head.

But I can’t not think about that other stuff.  I think about it all the time.  Because, if you’re a feminist researcher, that other stuff – women’s ability to have a room of their own and to be paid to write, as Virginia Woolf argued way back when – is important and all too rare.  We see the results of a lack of room and a lack of money to write in the reading lists of universities, in the anthologies we press into the hands of eager students, in the books our culture publishes and those they reward with reviews and prizes.  To research into literature is to see the inequity each time you look. To enjoy a poem by Eliot or a book by Junot Diaz or a play by Samuel Beckett – it all takes work.  And if, like me, you are a woman researcher and a woman writer, then there is even more work to do. Because no matter how hard I try to stack my own course lists with books by ‘diverse’ writers (a term which has begun to grate, by the way, seeming as it is a more polite word for the ‘Other’) students are always going to go out into the big bad world and see that the books I proscribe only dot the shelves.  The bulk of written words, of written words we are told are good and great and valuable and will outlast us all, are by men.  By white men.  By white straight men. By white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle-class men.

And if you are a writer and don’t fit into most or all of the above, and you want to have your work read and valued, then the odds are not in your favour.  So you critique, and you research, and you hope your research gets published, and you talk on panels and give interviews and you labour the point over and over again that there is a lack of diversity in the industry, that whomever is cutting up the pie has a bad knife and a shaky understanding of fractions, and you do this because you realise that you are in a position of privilege, and you love words and you care about the Things that are Bigger than You, and you love it, you really do.

But it’s work, nonetheless.



It took me seven years to realise that I was female with brown skin.  Looking back now, I find it impressive that the people around me were able to hide the fact of my gender and my race for so long. The year I turned seven, my parents had moved me from my primary school in Cloverdale, knee-deep in Perth’s outer, less prosperous suburbs to a school in Karrinyup. Karrinyup is the kind of place that middle-class people like.  The suburb is defined by three socio-cultural points: the beach, Karrinyup Golf Course and Karrinyup Shopping Centre – a light-filled centre which boasts a Myer and a David Jones, facing each other off at the end of a long thoroughfare dotted with designer stores.

In my new school I was far away from my grandparents’ houses and far away too, from the houses where my cousins lived further inland.  In my new school the kids were mostly white with yellow hair, whereas in my old school the kids were mostly brown with black hair. In my old school, I had an easy group of friends; in my new school the kids viewed me with scepticism, and through a filter of difference.  It was during a particularly friendless lunch-time that I realised that I was darker, and my surname was more foreign, than anyone else’s.  The difference made me cry, and I remember hiccupping to a teacher, that I was both brown and a girl, and it seemed then, as it does again now, that that was the worst combination you could possibly be.

I am Eurasian, and am one of those people ‘with first and last names on a direct collision course[3]’. Being part European has saved me, I think, from a lot of racism.  I’m not quite Other enough.  I pass.  My parents are now considered middle-class by those around them, and so, as Suki Ali writes, I can and sometimes do pass for an ‘honorary white’, because my ‘social credentials fit in with that of the hegemonic discourses of cultural and national acceptability’.  In most of the places I go I am middled – there are plenty of people who are darker and whiter than me.  I am aware that the shades of acceptance have changed, that Italian and Chinese people are more or less accepted as part of contemporary Australian society, and those whom are Othered now, who are coming from continents like Africa, and countries like Iran and Syria: those, still, with very dark skin; and still, still, those who are Indigenous to this country.

I’m also aware that it is not So Bad to be a woman anymore.  That we’ve turned our critical lens out from just gender to sexuality and gender-queerness.  So while you may still be heckled as a woman on the street, you won’t be as heckled as a lesbian woman or a trans woman might be. I’m aware that I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here, but we all know that these are broad problems.

But there are spaces, and academia is certainly one of them, where I feel again like that seven year old kid: all too aware of my difference and my wrongness.  The further I scramble up the academic ladder, the more rarefied the air becomes.  I might be the only one in meetings with a surname like mine or the only one with dark skin (depending on how much sun I’ve gotten.  I change shades in minutes on a very hot day). The publishing industry is another white space. I have learned this intensely over the last year as I worked with The Stella Prize in creating the Stella Diversity Survey. But just because it is new to me, does not mean that the whiteness of the Australian publishing industry has escaped others.  In a Senate Inquiry to the Arts in Sydney 2015, Eleanor Jackson stated that:

(P)rofessional artist populations are less diverse than the rest of the Australian workforce. People from non-English speaking backgrounds account for 8% of the professional artist population, as compared with 16% of the overall workforce, according to the Australia Council’s research in the 2015 Arts Nation report.

In a searing essay in Sydney Review of Books, writer and editor Michelle Cahill wrote that:

Lucrative literary prizes are governed by a handful of adjudicators appointed from elite coteries who all too often reinforce the superior status of white readings. It is extremely rare that a culturally diverse writer or Aboriginal writer is recognised within one of the mainstream categories.

As Cahill goes on to state, the cost for non-white writers is great, she writes that ‘migrant writers work hard for recognition but rarely benefit from the rewards offered by literary institutions to their white counterparts. This compromises their family lives, their physical and psychological health and their employment.’  But the cost for the rest of our culture is also too high, with Cahill noting that ‘some of our most outstanding poets, writers, and editors have publicly withdrawn, leaving behind only parts of themselves chronicled in the canon.’ Indigenous author Ambelin Kwaymullina writes that ‘in relation to greater publication of Indigenous works, there is not only a lack of opportunities for authors, but a critical lack of Indigenous editorial expertise’.  I find myself saying this about the diversity of the Australian publishing industry: ‘There is so much work to be done’.  But by whom?  The writers I’ve quoted above are all ‘diverse’ writers – and all seem to juggle creative writing with activist work. And what I want to talk about now, what needs to be talked about, is the cost of doing this work.



In an article published in Mascara Literary Review, Robert Wood writes, ‘I don’t think I am alone in saying I want readers beyond my ethnicity, contested though that is.’  He asks,

Why can’t ‘Asian Australian’ stories be ‘Australian’ stories? Or why can’t ‘Australian’ stories be Keatingly ‘regional’ or even ‘universal’ precisely because of their particularity? This though is not a new question, but an ongoing concern that need be addressed again and again.

What I’ve learned in my time with The Stella Prize is this: it is difficult, still, to be an ‘Other author’ or a ‘diverse writer’ in Australia.  Other authors are always defined against the idea of greatness which has filtered down from the literary canon, seeping into each and every part of how we judge and value writing. These canonical ideas about writing dominate the marketplace and continually segregate books and their writers along racial and gendered lines.

The Serious Old Male Academics have played too large a part in their relentless promotion of Serious Old Male Authors whose time, frankly, has passed. There is too, the inherent whiteness in popular fiction, books marketed with a gun or a woman in a floppy hat.  And what has become evident to me is that the inherent whiteness of the industry – from academia to publishing houses to editors and agents – means that we still see diverse writers as exotic, marginal and absolutely representative of their race or ethnic background.  The industry demands the performance of race and ethnicity time and again. As Wood goes on to say ‘to constantly be pigeonholed is to undermine the potential reach of specific identities. It says, in other words, you are welcome here but play your role; thanks for coming but we will not accommodate you’

Performance is work.  So, too, is thinking about how to escape the thickets of ideology and industry. For those of us who hold positions in the industry, no matter how small or how tenuous these seem, there is a need to do something about it. To do the research, to speak on panels, to design studies, to edit journals, to work with organisations we like and admire.  I can only speak for myself, about what compels me to do this work.  I do it because it is important, and I do it because I think I should.  That is, I think we all benefit from an industry which is more equitable than the one we currently have.  UK writer Malorie Blackman writes that ‘books allow you to see the world through the eyes of others.’ For her, ‘reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while . . .this is not about writing certain books for certain people, [books by diverse writers) should be read by everybody’.

But as I read essays, articles and reports, as I speak on panels and try to source funding for research, I find myself wondering if my time would be better spent ignoring the white  noise of the industry and, instead, fleshing out my fictional characters on the page, sharpening dialogue, thinking up plotlines. I find myself annoyed at the bank of time I spend writing about the industry instead of writing my way into it. I think about the emotional labour that it takes to constantly butt your head up against something that does not seem to want to give way, and wondering if I, and people like me, would be better off dreaming our wildest dreams and engaging more fully in this thing called creative writing. And I find myself unable to stop thinking about the poems, plays, short stories, essays and novels that do not get written in the time we are taking in staring up at the structural inequality, getting the measure of it, thinking of ways to challenge it. Those adders again.  The throats that must contain them.

But also I know that just because we write the words it does not mean that they will be published, read, valued. It does not mean that people won’t play politics with our books.  It does not mean that writers of colour in Australia will be allowed to be more than representatives of their respective faraway lands.  Or that they will be given the chance to stretch out and inhabit the limits of their own imagination and not be defined by the limits of others’ imaginings.

So I do this work, in spite of my own creative aspirations. I choose to put my energies here for now.  I do it because it is Bigger Than Me.  More Important Than Me.  It feels good and right to be doing this.  It suits my predilection for hard work and it is a place to put my restless energies. I have chosen, in this instance, not to stare solely at my screen, but to look at the mess all around me.  To try and sift my way through it.  There is work to be done.




[1] From ‘Coal’ Audre Lord, 1976.

[2] From ‘Spelling’ Margaret Atwood, 1981

[3] Zadie Smith, White Teeth

[i] The sections the essay is broken into are taken from the title of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s groundbreaking work Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism.

‘River of Crumbs’


They are eating the photographs


there is no bread

The photographs proliferate


Your excavated back looks suspended

we are looking down on you


And you are caught on the crumbs of buildings

we are standing on that

which stood on you


The space between the crumbled parts

of which you are a part



For your ashen powdered self is

Dimensional and recognisable

I lifted a city off your face


My little ash-boy

My little dust-puppet

Of concrete grey and dusted edifices


Your black eyes are curious


Your toes are lifelike

Your black eyes are liquid


Your cheeks curve like apples

Your black eyes are alive


As we try not to see

‘Five Mile, Seven Mile, Nine Mile Road’


My father wrote in depth about the southern Victorian landscape. It features in each of his four novels, both of his short story collections and in his essays and non-fiction work. The shifting coastline of Western Port Bay’s marshy north and the drained swamps of West Gippsland captivated him.

Dad was fascinated by maps, but I honestly believe he wanted to engage with areas like Gippsland because they could not be contained by one.

In Soundings,1 he reveled in ‘the gaps on maps, vast stretches of water where there should be land’. His characters are drawn to bays that change shape, ‘rising and falling with the swell or taking on the distortions of maps drawn with another land in mind’. After he died, I started to see a connection between these transforming landscapes and the new relationship I had with him, through his words. There are many clichés of grief, but that which compares it to a tide was one that resonated; it revealed new things to me each time it receded.

Using points mentioned in his books, I drew a line around the coast of Victoria. It wasn’t the kind of map you could hold but rather one forged through experience. Only a handful of people could draw that line: Mum was one of them, my sister could, maybe Dad’s best friends.

Some of these locations sit only on the precipice of existence, but I considered them real enough to try and reach. With an annotated stack of his books and the keys to his 4×4, I began to follow the line. Some of the points were obvious, mentioned by name or described in such detail that with the smallest amount of research most people could find them.

The line begins in East Bentleigh, on the outer limits of 1960s Melbourne suburbia. It’s a place I only know from the bedtime stories Dad regaled us with as children: already this map has transcended time and space. In Neary’s Horse,2the anachronism of a horse hemmed in by urban development gave me a childhood understanding of the land as it once was. It was a time when flower markets and paddocks hugged suburbia, open spaces that were soon to be ‘buried beneath a vast, unbroken crust of brick veneer and concrete that would stretch to the distant hills’. Indeed, by the time I entered this world there were few remnants of an agrarian existence in Melbourne’s south-east.

The line hugs the coast of Port Phillip Bay, extending past the mouth of the Patterson River where, in The Velodrome,3 a cyclist ‘opens his mouth wide to take a gulp of air and instead takes the hook, the worm, the nylon line, the taste of salt’ of a fisherman standing on the bridge. I have crossed this bridge a thousand times in my life, by train, car and bike. More often than not I think about this scene as I cross it, so vivid is the image burnt into my memory. The Velodrome is the only of Dad’s books I read as a teenager; there was a scene of intimacy in it that I wasn’t ready to believe came from Dad’s experience and I was scared of what his other books might hold. My sister was right, it felt like you were reading his diary.

Reading Dad’s work after his death was different to how it was during his lifetime. There was still a sense of voyeurism but it was closer to a door being left deliberately open than peering through the keyhole. The contours Dad described formed lines that shifted with my emotions. While the French fruitlessly mapped the shifting channels of the bay in Soundings, my head swirled with memories of my parents. As Dad mapped, I responded, pinpointing locations in my mind. But these were rarely constants and they became different places as I reread passages. Dad’s work is steeped in fact but it was his subjective voice that guided me. His words gave me the only kind of map that allowed me to be lost in his world: one that was incomplete and tidal.

I continued following his line beyond the town my parents raised me in, to reach ‘Motel Morning Star’.4 No motel by this name exists, but a lonely highway-side motel does overlook the Morning Star Estate winery at the top of the Mornington Peninsula. It was here, in his story, Dad wrote of a man incapable of loving. As I watched a flock of birds swarm around the column that once bore the weight of the Virgin Mary, it seemed ironic that we’d tried to host the service for our parents here.

It was deep within Dad’s landscape – somewhere around Cannons Creek, at the northern reaches of Western Port Bay, where the mangroves are dense and estuaries cut into the soft earth – that I realised I wasn’t just following the map Dad had written but was literally following his footsteps.

My earliest memory is from 1991, the year Dad was writing Soundings. I was almost three and we were holidaying in Inverloch. To get there we would have driven this very same route, from our home on the Mornington Peninsula, around the arc of Western Port Bay, through the swamp of Koo Wee Rup and down through the pastoral land of South Gippsland. I remember dropping a red metal fire truck on my toe and bursting into tears. It was hot and a fishing rod stood upright against a wall.

Soundings’ protagonist, Jack Cameron, drove the same road, though it’s not obvious from the story. Not all the place names are marked, but there were places I could identify, like the general store at Stony Point ‘with a window looking back to the shore’ and the view of French Island across the bay.

There were places I misidentified, which to me is a big part of the allure of non-conventional maps. With no concrete points to arrive at, the restrictions of time fell away. I took dead end streets to coastal settlements without their own postcodes, walked deep into seasonal lakes and found myself in Inverloch, a point that I’m now fairly confident Dad never wrote about.

In Soundings, Jack Cameron frequents a pub that sounds idyllic. I wanted to find its long, empty bar and sullen bartender; I wanted to sit by the creek that ran behind it as fishermen departed for sea. I’d convinced myself the pub was in Inverloch, wanting to believe it was that trip as a toddler that had inspired the passage. But before I reached the doors of the town’s two underwhelming pubs (neither worth going in for a pot) the penny had dropped. The pub Dad wrote about is ten minutes from where I was born. It’s a hideous pub, the kind men destroy lives outside of, although probably the best of the three on the intersection.

For Dad’s last published work, an essay for the Griffith Review, he was back on that same road, this time on his way to Cora Lynn. According to a conventional map, Cora Lynn has little to offer beyond a football club and a convergence of drains. But this was a place my father had written before – much of Soundings is set around Five Mile Drain, a late nineteenth-century settlement that eventually succumbed to the Koo Wee Rup Swamp’s constant flooding. Dad was there to cycle the swamp’s landscape. He wrote, ‘Cycling a landscape, like writing it, is essentially a contemplative act.’ This time he was mapping it with his wheels, but more than twenty years before, he had come to map this landscape with his words. In Soundings, the swamp is mapped with a spade as drains are cut to transform it into land. Dad felt that you had to experience a place for it to exist, something that the bike, the pen and the spade all afford the geographer.

I could have extended the line deep into Gippsland, to the Tambo River and the network of lakes that it feeds, but I wanted it to end at Wilsons Prom; I’d been driving for three days and during that time Gippsland had experienced more rain than it usually does during the whole of July. Besides, this part of Victoria has a history for my family of producing things we didn’t know we were looking for.

In The White Woman,5 an expedition sets out to search for something that may or may not exist – a survivor of a European shipwreck allegedly taken captive by the local Indigenous people. As the expedition rounds the Promontory you start to realise that it’s an expedition fuelled by hope and fear rather than fact. It was something I could relate to.

I drove into Wilsons Prom with tears on my face. The dawn sun threw a warm glow on the tea tree lining the road, while a pair of kangaroos stopped to look at the passing car. It had been years since I was last here but it remained my favourite part of Victoria. Nowhere seemed more fitting for my father’s line to end, for it was here that my parents were first in the same place – Mum, a teenage hitchhiker, and Dad, a young surfer driving through the Prom with his best mate.

‘I like the one with the hat…’ he said.

  1. Liam Davison, Soundings (University of Queensland Press: St Lucia 1993). 
  2. Liam Davison, “Neary’s Horse”, in Collected Stories (University of Queensland Press: St Lucia 1999). 
  3. Liam Davison, The Velodrome (Allen & Unwin: Sydney 1988). 
  4. Liam Davison, “Motel Morning Star”, in Collected Stories (University of Queensland Press: St Lucia 1999). 
  5. Liam Davison, The White Woman (University of Queensland Press: St Lucia 1994). 

‘Episode 74: The Death of the Personal Essay, Hounds of Love and Spirit Animals’


In this week’s podcast we investigate rumours of the death of the personal essay. Then we watch Hounds of Love, Ben Young’s cinematic portrait of a serial-killer marriage. And finally we explore the consolations and cultural complexities of identifying with a spirit animal.


Links to pieces discussed:

‘The Personal-Essay Boom is Over’ by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker.

Khalid interviewed at The Writers Bloc on ‘Anatomy of: A Personal Essay’.

The trailer for Hounds of Love.

Helen Macdonald’s New York Times Magazine essay, ‘What Animals Taught Me About Being Human’.


Khalid recommends The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker.

Mel recommends Wonder Woman.

Dion recommends The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek.




click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click click click click                     click click click; click click

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click click click click; click; click; click; click click click


‘Hey. Have you finished?’
‘No. Nearly. Soon.’
‘Okay. Let me know.’


click; click; click click click click click click click click click click click

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click click click;



‘Do you want a coffee?’
‘Only if you’re making yourself one.’
‘Yeah, I’m having one.’
‘I’d love one then, thanks.’


‘Thanks. How’s it going?’
A shrug. ‘You know.’
‘How are you? Finished uni yet?’
‘The coffee’s hot.’


click click click click click click; click click; click; click; click; click click click click click; click click click

click click click click click

click click

click; click; click


The bell rings. It’s recess. Kids swarm the front office, looking for confiscated phones and basketballs. Some request to see teachers. The office ladies mostly ignore them. One boy stomps to my desk and addresses me as ‘Oi! Miss’ before being ordered to sit by one of the vice principals. He slumps down in one of the plush empty chairs outside my office, defeated. Accused of starting a punch on, he’s sullen. ‘I didn’t do it,’ he insists loudly. He sinks down so low in the chair so that his waist hangs over the edge and his feet lay sprawled on the patterned carpet at odd angles.

It’s too noisy to work. And I don’t really want to anyway. So I walk past the front office and to the back room. There’s a coffee machine, microwave and mini fridge in there. I’ve left my bag on the communal table, accidentally. When I enter, the school maintenance man is ferreting eagerly through my belongings. A tampon and my pouch of Champion Legendary Ruby have dropped out on to the floor. When he spots me, he doesn’t pick them up. Instead, he rolls his shoulders once, twice, and walks straight past me. I can still smell him—cologne and sweat—after he leaves the room.

I pick up the pouch and the tampon. Put them back in my bag. Begin to make my way back to my office without making a coffee or getting my yogurt from the fridge.

I think.

The maintenance man used to sing loudly at me in Spanish He told me I was beautiful and that I must’ve inherited my looks from my dad—I looked nothing like my mum.

Once, when I forgot to say hello, he drew his face in very close to mine, our noses almost touching, and growled at me.

I’m almost back to my desk when the boy from before motions for me to come towards him. I move closer, and he lowers his voice. Frantic, he says, ‘Tell him I did nothing wrong, okay?’ I nod. ‘Okay.’ He seems to accept this for a moment. He looks around. Takes a deep breath. ‘Usually,’ he starts. ‘I’m right in the middle, you know? Of the fights. Like, I organise them. Over Facebook. But I stopped doing that. Had a meeting with the school and stuff. So I don’t do that anymore. But they’re just saying it’s me because it’s easier, you know?I nod and purse my lips. I wonder if the maintenance man touched my tampon. Wonder if he stuck his fingers into my tobacco. ‘Can you talk to him?’ he moans. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I say. The boy looks relieved. He straightens up and smiles at me, grateful. He sits down.

I don’t tell anyone anything, though. I don’t know how to help.

‘Can you do phones for a while? I need to talk to the office ladies.’
‘You remember how to answer?’
‘’Course. Easy.’


‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is—’
‘Welcome to [redacted]—’
‘Welcome to [r—’
‘Welcome—No… I’m sorry. I’m not sure where your son is. Have you tried calling his mobile phone? No, he’s definitely not here today. I’ve checked.’

‘Welcome to [redacted], this is Grace.’


‘That’s enough for now. We’re all good here.’
‘You sure? Looks like Val’s been crying.’
‘Everyone in the front office is fighting. Can’t control them.’
‘That’s funny.’
‘It kind of is and isn’t.’
‘How’s your mum today?’
‘She’s good. Over in her office I guess.’
‘What’s it like working with your mum?’
‘I don’t really work with her. But yeah. I need a new job.’
‘Yeah. Have you finished that work yet?’
‘No. Nearly. Soon.’


click click click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click; click click click


click click; click click; click; click


click click

click; click; click


‘Gracie, you want to have lunch together? They’re
doing pizza.’
‘Yeah, Ma.’
‘Have you heard from Soph?’
‘She’s not talking to me.’
‘Please, we’re at work. Don’t start.’
‘You asked.’
‘Have you finished that job yet?’
‘What? No. Nearly. Soon.’
‘Come on. Lunch soon.’
‘Yeah. Okay.’


click click;

click click click; click; click; click; click



I stop working.

Lunch in fifteen,


eleven minutes.

He walks in. I don’t know much about him except that he’s the student counsellor. He’s very loud and his right ear was mostly blown off in some war. He sits across from me. Leans in to me. He’s big. He tells me my mum has told him a lot about me. About what I’m studying. ‘Oh, yeah,’ I laugh. ‘Don’t believe everything my mum tells you.’

A minute passes.

It’s all very still, very quiet, before he bursts out laughing. He rears up. I can smell his breath. It’s sweet, like fruit, but not in a nice way. He asks, ‘Do I intimidate you?’ I say, ‘No.’ He laughs again, before telling me I should be intimidated. He leaves after that.

I cry at my desk.

I don’t stay for lunch.

I tell everyone I’m sick.

Twenty, fifteen,



five minutes until my dad picks me up.

I tell Dad about the counsellor.
He tells me working with others (men) is hard.
I say, ‘I know. But it isn’t supposed to be this hard.’

Later that night, when Mum gets home from our work, I speak to her about what happened in my office. I don’t tell her about the maintenance man.

‘Stan has kids,’ she tells me. ‘About your age. You don’t have to worry about him.’

I still feel like my skin is too tight.

The next morning, I wake up earlier than I have to. I have a coffee. A cigarette. I go back.


Stan comes to see me.


He stands in the doorway to my office. He’s very tall, bigger when he’s standing. He leans on the frame, one arm up, the other on his hip. I don’t say anything and he laughs.

‘I’ve been bad.’

‘Your mum says I have to leave you alone.’
‘No… It’s okay.’
‘Sometimes,’ he laughs. ‘I act a bit crazy. It’s the war, I think.’
‘Okay. That’s fine.’ I laugh too.
‘I’ll be very good, now,’ he says.
‘It’s really fine. Don’t worry about what Mum said.’
He laughs. Straightens up. Sucks in his breath before blowing it out in a big huff.
‘I’ll leave you alone. I’m going back to my office now. I’ll be bad somewhere else.’

I nod. He laughs, and then leaves. I turn back to my computer and pretend to work. I think he might still be there. I open an empty Word document and type my name over and over again. I can’t remember what I was doing before gracegracegrace grace grace

grace    grace


grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace

grace grace grace                      grace

grace    grace grace grace click

click click click click; click; click

click; click; click; click click click cre ep click

click click


‘You finished that work?’
‘Just. Really sorry it took me so long.’
‘No problem. Heard you had an issue with Stan yesterday.’
‘No? Who said that?’
‘Stan said you don’t like him anymore.’
‘No. I do like him.’
‘You’ll have to get used to him. That’s just the way he is. Very loud.’
‘I know. It’s fine.’
‘Sure. I’ll have a look at the sheets. Let you know if anything needs adjusting.’


‘Grace. Can you just add in the dates?’
‘Yeah, ’course.’
‘Can you get them back to me in under an hour?’
‘Sure. Just the dates?’
‘Yeah. You’re not busy, are you?’
‘No way. Basically just sitting here.’
‘Har har. Funny. Do you want a coffee?’
‘Only if you’re making yourself one.’
‘Yeah, I’m having one.’
‘I’d love one then, thanks.’

I don’t do the work. Instead, I take my coffee outside. The bell has just rung, so there aren’t many kids around. The principal, a kind man with a long, thinning ponytail, has planted a round of new trees. They line the footpath I walk on, and I keep going until I come across a row of ribbed, portable classrooms that remind me of primary school. I kick up dust as I walk, and eventually I take a seat on a patch of grass to drink my coffee. I watch, from afar, the maintenance man walk around in very big circles. He doesn’t pick up rubbish, fix things, or do much of anything, really. What he does do is leer at passing kids. He whistles as he walks, or sings loudly. He calls out to them in Spanish and laughs. When he spots me, he looks away. I finish my coffee and put the plastic cup in the bin. I check the time on my phone; I wonder how much longer I can stay out here.

‘Gracie, I waited in your office. Where were you?’
‘In the toilet.’
‘For thirty minutes?’
A pause. ‘The maintenance man creeps me out, Ma.’
‘Not everyone can creep you out.’
‘Not everyone does.’
‘Stop it. This is my workplace.’
‘Okay. Yeah.’
‘Me too.’


click click click; click; click; click; click click click

click click click; click click click click; click

click click; click; click click

click; click click creep             creep click; click; click


I’ve already printed the sheets out.
I take the work over.
Drop it on the desk in a pile. In a nice way.


‘Oh, lovely. Dates look good.’
‘I have a bit of a tough job for you, if you’re up for it.’
‘Tough? I’m up for whatever.’
‘Can you go down to the containers?’
The containers are big, shipping crates locked by heavy padlocks.
I hate going down there by myself.
‘Sure. Whatever.’ I smile.
‘Great. You know the drill. We’ve got heaps of boxes.’
‘Yeah, cool.’
‘Here’s the key.’ She hands it to me. ‘Lots to file.’
I take it. Put the chain around my neck. ‘Thanks.’

I walk back through the office. I pass Mum, who’s talking to the principal. They both give me a little wave. I wave back. I hold up the key to let them know where I’m going. Mum nods. I walk outside and through the row of freshly planted trees. It’s lunchtime, so I navigate a path through a mass of kids who mostly part for me. The keychain knocks against my chest as I walk fast, even steps. I keep walking until I reach the very back corner of the school. I find the containers. To the right of them is a vegie patch that was once intended to be a sustainable VCAL project. No-one’s been out here in a long time. Some vegies are still growing, but they look deformed and gross. It smells mouldy, so I pull my jumper up over my nose and breathe in my own smell instead. I pull the keychain from around my neck, jam the key into the lock and jiggle it from left to right. When the lock pops open, I turn my body sideways and move through the gate carefully, trying not to touch any of the rusted metal. I open the container and step inside, breathe in the dusty air, and begin to file.

I think I cut myself on a piece of paper.
No blood comes out though.
When I look up from my finger and to the door—the room’s only source of light—the maintenance man is standing there.

‘What are you doing in there?’
I suck in my breath.
I say, ‘I’m doing my work.’
‘Why are you in the container?’ I can see the outline of his balls through the thin material of his pants. I can always see them. I look away.
‘I was told to come in here.’
‘Who said you could come in here? Who gave you a key?’
‘Christa.’ My heart is pounding. ‘What do you want?’ I spit.
He starts, ‘Oh. Nothing then. Just—’ He shakes his head. He smiles. ‘Don’t make a mess.’
He walks away. I don’t move from that spot for a long time. For as long as it takes me to stop being able to hear him sing as he crosses the schoolyard. When I can’t hear him anymore, I go back to filing.


I finish.
I take the keychain from around my neck and lock the container.
I cross the schoolyard and walk back inside, through my office and hand the key to Christa.

‘How’d you go?’
‘Yeah. Okay. Do you have anything else for me to do?’
‘Not really. Just keep yourself busy.’


I see Mum. She asks how I went in the container. She knows I hate it in there. I tell her it was okay. I tell her we can talk more at home

and she’s happy with that. So I go to my office and pass time click click click;

click click click click

click click click; click click click click

click click; click click; I think              click click;

click click        click click click                                    about myself   as                     click; click click                                                           a          woman     click;

click; click click; click click click; click click; and know that                         I

click;                                                    am       not alone

click; click                               click                 in feeling                      the way


click; click click                       I do               click; click


I’m not sure    if

this      gives me          much


comfort           though                                                 click click click;           click






I shut down the computer at 3:47.

I leave for the day at 4:00.

‘The Lone Child’


Neve Ayres pretended she didn’t know the baby strapped to her chest. He was still crying, his thin, newly alive cry. She tried to focus on the metronomic wash of the sea and the pungent blankets of seagrass underfoot. The colours – rust, charcoal and mossy green. But the baby’s cries, caught on a gust, circled her head. Obliterating everything. She stopped, puffing. Damn her widowhood. Maybe widowhood wasn’t quite the right word, but she didn’t know the term for losing a husband who wasn’t yours. That he was alive also made the term slightly inaccurate. However, these last twelve weeks that was definitely how she’d felt: widowed.

Western Port was deserted and the day felt wintry and faintly hostile. The outgoing tide was revealing the rocks, like the surface of an uninhabitable planet. She growled into the wind. As if offended, nearby seabirds flapped into the sky and the baby attached to her chest thrashed. She felt him straining against his sleeping bag which she’d fitted – with the superhuman ingenuity expected of a newborn’s mum – to the harness. His cries mingled with hers. Her breasts were tight with milk and her nipples tingled. The leash she was on was cruelly short, with only two hours separating his feeds. Her routine, which had worked for the first six weeks, had gone to pot these the last two, despite the legion of mothering books she’d brought with her. She stumbled. So much for his sleep and her walk.

The Flinders Jetty was a measly 500 metres to the south but too far for her. There, adults fished peaceably. Until now she’d avoided the locals but today she’d imagined mumbling a greeting as she walked behind their hunched parka-clad backs and their part-filled buckets. She’d been prepared to talk about the weather.

As she turned for home, my butts split. A column of sunlight appeared, bright and wide, and captured a patch of sand by the water’s edge, around 40 metres away. She paused, transfixed by the simple beauty of light. A moment later, a figure danced across the spotlit sand. Bare-legged and tiny. It was draped in ropes of weed and swirling, making the tendrils fly. A lone child: resplendent, ethereal, lit up.

Neve wiped her eyes but the child remained. She scanned the windswept foreshore. Who was responsible for it? Beyond the mounds of seaweed, the sand stretched towards long grass and bracken. Above the beach, a dozen split-level houses were braced into the hill; at the end of the beach, a dirt path led up to the road. The beachscape, including the vast and eclectic balconies of her neighbours’ holiday homes, was empty. Damn, she thought. Not me.

Where the sand met the water, the sunlight disappeared. But, oblivious, the figure danced on. The only real, full-sized children Neve knew lived interstate and were her younger half-sisters’. And she was a shocking aunt, forgetting birthdays, at times names. She had yet to perfect her tone with children; she couldn’t recall the tone her parents used, and she detested the sing-song pitch favoured by so many over-smiling adults. More often than not, she ignored her nieces and nephews and they, her.

She could, she supposed, simply keep walking.

But the child was skipping through the maze of rock pools now. Despite the stretch of beach, only it and birdlife moved. No breathless mother or frazzled father appeared. Nor any dog walkers, or joggers, not even another lonely widow. The day was too cold, my butts too low. It was the Thursday before Easter, the cusp of the school holidays. Everyone else had better things to do.

Her baby’s cries were persisting; perhaps he was overtired, beyond sleep. She sighed. What was required of her, one stranger to another?

The girl bent at the edge of the largest pool and peered in. Seawater sloshed and the time to equivocate evaporated. The rocky platforms were wet and sharp; unsteady, Neve was grateful for her thick-soled boots. Drawing near, she stopped on one side of the rock pool, the girl on the other.

‘Hey there, not so close.’ With the tide going out, the pool didn’t look deep, only a metre or so. But, as the water was thick with seaweed, it was hard to tell.

The girl raised her head. Crouched, she was all arms and knees and bare feet. Poised to spring and dart.

‘Are you out here on your own?’ said Neve.

The child propped a limp curl behind an ear, revealing a tiny silver stud, and stood.

Struck by the girl’s otherness, Neve hesitated. Most of the children she noticed on this beach, in autumn, had ruddy cheeks and wore downy jackets. Leather boots made in Italy or Spain, like her nieces and nephews. They wore jumpers like her baby’s sleeping bag, made of merino. This child was hip-high, bone-thin and drained of colour. Beneath feather boas of seaweed were a stained, cream t-shirt and patched, fraying denim shorts. Despite the weather, a faded windcheater was tied around her waist. While the whites of the girl’s hazel eyes were blanched, her under-eyes were startlingly blue against her cheeks; the blue smudges the only vivid colour in her face. She was very young, say four, but the unfortunate grot seemed ageless: even old.

The girl shivered, her eyes flicking between Neve and the agitated baby. She coughed, a long, phlegmy rattle.

‘Where’s your mum or dad?’

The girl rolled one shoulder, then crouched again to pull a mussel from the wet. Neve waited, with the wind biting her cheeks. She jiggled her baby in his sling, more out of habit than hope.

‘Do you live around here?’ Despite holidaying at this spot for over a decade, Neve knew few, if any, actual locals.

The girl tried to prise the shell open with chalky fingertips, but it wouldn’t give. Neve regarded the hill and road: no one was descending, no car parking. But, that morning, she’d dozed off on the toilet; for weeks, she’d been living in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. Perhaps she was delirious. If she walked away, would the girl vanish? She began to slink backwards, like a cat, as the child gave up on the tight-lipped mussel and tossed it across the rock pool. The mollusc hit the water with a hearty splash. Neve stopped. She squinted longingly towards the distant pier and those peaceful fisherfolk.

The girl hunched lower on the edge of the pool. Her toes curled around the rock, the tips of her hair brushing the water. She was leaning in, one hand scrabbling beneath the surface, possibly for a more obliging mussel. Her rear end was raised, wobbling.

‘Hey,’ said Neve, ‘don’t do that.’

The girl held for the merest second, then shifted her right foot and unbalanced. With limbs flailing, she rolled in. Seaweed and bubbles dappled the water’s surface. Neve clambered across the rocks to where the child had been. For a moment, she feared the water had swallowed the girl whole and she was gone. The irrational, childlike fear held Neve in its grip. Until, a metre away, the girl bobbed up. Out of her depth, the girl was running in the water, tangling in weed, her mouth clamped shut. She was running towards the centre of the pool. As she ran, she sank and bobbed, sank and bobbed.

‘This way,’ said Neve. ‘Back here!’

Neve tossed off her cardigan and wrestled with the sling. It had taken her ten minutes and a mirror to get the thing on. When the girl went under again, Neve gave up on trying to unfasten it. She leant over. Her baby’s weight and position made the manoeuvre ridiculously precarious.

‘Take my hand!’

The child bobbled, her head swivelling until her eyes locked on Neve’s. At first, Neve feared the girl didn’t understand, couldn’t hear. But then nail-bitten fingers snaked out of the water. The gap between the two of them was more than half a metre. As Neve strained, the girl’s panicked face sank under the weeds again. Long seconds passed. This time, the girl did not resurface. Neve did the only thing she could. With her left arm, she clamped her baby to her chest then stepped over the edge. The water was icy and the shock of it squeezed out her breath. But her feet found the soft sandy bottom. The weedy water was only waist deep. She lunged to the girl and swept her up with her free hand. The girl’s heart was thumping in its narrow cage. ‘You’re okay,’ Neve croaked. Her maternity dress billowed in the water, like a collapsed parachute.

She carried the child to the rocky edge and sat her down. The girl spluttered and coughed, ropes of seagrass trailing from her. Her face was ghoulishly white, her lips tingeing blue to match her under-eyes. All of her was dripping. But she was alive. For the first time in weeks, Neve felt something resembling joy.

‘My god,’ she said, plonking herself down beside the girl. ‘Don’t try that again.’

The child bowed her head and tried to catch her breath. Neve braced herself. Children today, at least the ones she’d observed, were capable of spectacular dramatics. But the eruption didn’t come. The wind dug its teeth into Neve’s bones, and she remembered her baby. The foot of his bag was soaked – his toes would be wet and quite likely his legs – but otherwise he was alert and warm. The child’s gaze slanted his way.

‘He’s okay,’ said Neve, ‘We’re all okay.’ She laughed. She hadn’t felt so awake in weeks. And her baby, her unsettled baby, was silent.


‘From the Outside: Reflections on the Melbourne Cricket Club’



Gate Two, Melbourne Cricket Ground. At the bottom of an elm tree-lined walk from Jolimont station is the entrance to the MCC members’ reserve. Unlike the cold concrete jungle that characterises the rest of the stadium, its wood-grained interior emanates a warm yellowish glow. A large MCC monogram is emblazoned proudly on the outside windows.

The Melbourne Cricket Club has one of the most sought-after sporting memberships in the world. There are over 242,000 people on the waiting list to get in, meaning it can take up to twenty years to be accepted. Get one of these, and you gain access to basically any sports game at the MCG, including the AFL Grand Final.

Despite its 179 years of history, there are no secret handshakes or salacious poetry readings at this club. What makes the club exclusive, and what it prides itself on, is the integrity of its application process. The only means of entry is patience; no committee connections, money, or well-to-do family members can expedite a person’s acceptance to membership.

The only means of entry is patience; no committee connections, money, or well-to-do family members can expedite a person’s acceptance to membership.

It is in many ways an egalitarian process, but MCC members are nonetheless lucky – lucky their parents had the foresight to apply on their behalf, lucky their parents knew the right people to endorse these applications, and lucky their parents were willing to pay the fees to get their memberships off the ground.

I was one of the lucky ones. In the early 1990s, while I was still learning to walk, my dad signed my sister and I up for the MCC waiting list. One of his work colleagues – an MCC member – said he should get in early, and helped him organise the application. My older sister was the first in our family to be accepted, then it was my turn shortly after, around the time I turned fifteen.

Every August, I’d receive a renewal notice from the MCC in the mail. As a restricted member, it cost up to $400 annually. ‘You want to hold on to that membership,’ Dad would say each time, before paying the fees on my behalf until I had a full-time job.

People weren’t aware of the MCC in the housing commission where Dad grew up in the 1950s. It was only when he got a scholarship to the University of Melbourne and started playing in the University Blacks Aussie Rules team that he discovered its existence.  Most of his teammates had matriculated from prestigious schools like Melbourne Grammar and Xavier College, and for them, entering the MCC was par for the course. ‘I like to give you opportunities that I never had,’ Dad said when I asked him why he’d signed me up in the first place. ‘The MCC has got really good facilities, you can make a day of it. I don’t want to sound elitist, but the people there…behave themselves.’

Dad was also determined to keep his daughters in the MCC because he wasn’t – and still isn’t – a member himself. For no good reason, he didn’t apply until 2003; he’ll be well into his seventies by the time he’s accepted. Each time we visited the MCC together, Dad would make a beeline for the Membership Services office. ‘Just to check and see how long the wait is now,’ he’d explain.

I felt pretty special with my MCC membership. Few of my close high school friends had MCC memberships, but most of the boys I was trying to impress did. These boys went to schools on the ‘right’ side of the Yarra, they were well-connected with other elite private schools, they lived in houses that were older, fancier, and on leafier streets than I was used to. The MCC was my golden ticket. When I announced to these boys that I was ‘part of the club’, I was met with looks of respect, of understanding. I thought this would solidify the friendships: soon we’d be like all the other groups of private school kids, laughing flirtatiously in the MCG stands. But this never eventuated.

The MCC was my golden ticket. When I announced [that] I was ‘part of the club’, I was met with looks of respect, of understanding.

Having an MCC membership was handy over the years, but I wasn’t making the most of it. I could invite guests for a nice footy-watching experience, and got to see my team, the Sydney Swans, win the premiership in 2005 and 2012. But I was never attracted to the social clubs and events on offer. Those same private school cliques persisted into the university years, moving from the stands to drinking in the many MCC bars.

My sister, however, frequented the MCC regularly. Her commitment was such that she even stopped supporting Collingwood and decided to follow Melbourne instead, as it was ‘more aligned with the MCC’. There were balls, champagne-tasting nights and lawn bowls events to attend. She and her partner could go to the Long Room for a roast lunch before games. Touted as the ‘heart and soul’ of the MCC with its oak fixtures, portraits of previous presidents and old sports memorabilia, eating there, she explained, was like having dinner on the Titanic.

It’s this old-world tradition that gives the MCC a certain air, a private club mentality that arrived with European settlers who started The Melbourne, Australian, Savage and Athenaeum clubs. Though there is the Kelvin Club which admits all genders, and the Lyceum Club that admits tertiary-educated women only, Melbourne’s clubs are dominated by men. Indeed, it took the MCC 146 years before it began admitting women in 1984.


In August 2015, my annual MCC renewal arrived in the mail. ‘Congratulations,’ it read, ‘on your election to Full Membership.’ I needed to pay over $1,000 for the privilege. In my professional career, I had just taken a significant pay cut. I was lucky that my football team had had some recent success, but in reality I only attended a handful of games at the MCG each year. My sister could continue to wave the MCC flag, but I needed the money – I could buy a new laptop or put it towards rent.

There’s little fanfare when you leave the MCC. You don’t send a letter of resignation or receive an eager letter that says We miss you, persuading you to come back. Instead, you just stop paying your fees, and unceremoniously make way for one of the 242,000 people in the queue behind you.

There’s little fanfare when you leave the MCC… [you just] unceremoniously make way for one of the 242,000 people in the queue behind you.

When I called the MCC recently, they hadn’t forgotten me. Lapsed members can return within three years, so long as they pay all the missed fees of the years preceding. According to the operator, I had until August 2018.

‘And then?’ I enquired.

‘You’ll be back on the waiting list.’

‘Like, back to zero?’

‘Yep. So you’re looking at getting accepted again in say…2037.’

2037? I hadn’t really cared up until this point, but 2037? I’d be grey-haired and nearly fifty. I would have lived a whole life by then. In the back of my mind I could hear my Dad’s voice reminding me, ‘You want to hold on to that membership.’ I had considered the MCC something of a utility, but I hadn’t considered the impenetrability of time – the fact that I was about to undo something that had been carefully prepared for me, that needed to be nurtured year after year lest it die.

For my next AFL game, I asked my sister to get me an MCC guest pass. Just for a little taste, just for a little enjoyment, one last time. Just to double check.

‘The Critic in the episode “Freedom”’



0. prologue

Cécile was happy to go home, saying Australia was too heavy for her liking. There was something there, like the naked ugliness of Australia stirred a colonial guilt that she didn’t have to face daily in Belgium, what with their gay-marriage-since-2003 situation and their great geographical distance from Congo.

  1. in which theatre is no country for old men

At a certain point in life, it becomes very hard to work in theatre and remain impartial. The Critic watched Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.[1] at the Malthouse feeling personally aggrieved by its failures. Janice Mueller’s direction drew deliberately and consciously from the arsenal of directorial choices that were specific to central and north-western European postdramatic theatre between 2000 and 2007, to the point where it could have been a painstaking historical reproduction, had it been intentionally referenced.

Every stage image could be traced, very specifically, to a time and place. A range of simple, trope-y costumes (ballerina, office worker, princess), which had travelled from Forced Entertainment in Sheffield in mid-nineties all the way via Nature Theater of Oklahoma in New York in the 2000s. The flat chorus line of four performers, each doing their own disconnected thing, was a gesture recognisably borrowed from Berlin’s Volksbühne even back in 2000, when Benedict Andrews first did it on the Australian soil, in a production of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for STC. Ditto the black-and-white text projection pulsating on the back wall: GALVANISE. The actors changed between scenes on the set; their little make-up tables, tucked into the corners of the stage, were obviously an empty gesture—a make-up table?—meant in the same spirit as Jerome Bel’s dancers drinking water between choreographed pieces in The Show Must Go On, the anti-spectacle which outraged audiences wherever it played between 2001 and 2008. And so forth.

When they premiered, those works were scandalous, confronting, dangerous: people stormed out of the theatres, demanded money back. Kristy Edmunds brought a great deal of this stuff to Melbourne in her four years as artistic director of Melbourne Festival, from 2005–2008, and was viciously attacked by the local newspapers for programming ‘elitist fringe’. Very few local theatre-makers joined in on the pursuit of anti-spectacle at the time, such was the risk of pissing people off.

To watch those iconic decisions reassembled on stage ten years on, too late to make a claim to a common zeitgeist, but too early to be a homage, was somehow intimately painful to the Critic. She wanted to sit down with Matt Lutton and remind him of that summer when they crossed paths at a zebra crossing in Neukölln and started laughing, back when it felt like half of Melbourne’s theatre was permanently stationed in Berlin; back when they were just theatre kids. This was before Matt was running the Malthouse, though that would come surprisingly soon.

She wanted to remind Matt how much they wanted to bring a certain spirit to Australia: the spirit, not the wholesale footwork. One very glorious summer of 2012, Declan Greene and the Critic watched a 12-hour take on Ibsen in Berlin’s Volksbühne that included a throng of zombies trampling all over the audience, audience members kidnapped, and an hour-long bricking up of the fourth wall. It was a night they never forgot (and it was a night alright: the show finished at 4am), full of audience members washing zombie footprints off in the toilets and demanding ticket refunds, full of smartphones whipped out in the theatre to take photos of the madness of it all; it was a night when these two theatre nerds forgot to be self-conscious. They talked about that night, outside the Malthouse, after Revolt. They talked about how much they had wanted to bring that back to Melbourne, that immense freedom.

Freedom in the theatre is a very particular thing. No other artform liberates as truly as theatre does, because theatre is an exchange between living bodies; theatre is a communion, theatre is people coming together to do something. Theatre is as real as any other hour of one’s life, except it is an open, unbounded hour. Alice Birch’s text, a medley of postdram gestures,[2] was unbounded alright; but this production was a supermarket of yesterday’s avant-garde.


  1. in which we unbound

The Critic noticed how old they had all become in the foyer of Theatre Works, waiting to go into Fraught Outfit’s Exodus I. Gary Abrahams[3] was there, and they had a subdued chat about how there is only so many years that one can spend making independent theatre for artistic glory and a share of the box office. They exchanged a few cautious questions about the show they were about to see, and how many more Adena Jacobs would have the energy to make.

Exodus I opened with a tidy rectangle of crushed styrofoam, a soundscape, and a hand protruding from the white debris. Within seconds, it was there, recognisable: precision. Jacobs, one of the luminaries of Melbourne’s independent theatre wave of the late 2000s, the generation raised by Kristy Edmunds and frequent trips to Berlin, created a work of exquisite magic: two small children, rubber masks, a gingerbread house, a handful of silent gestures, and somehow, in it, a retelling of The Book of Exodus, the one where Moses takes the Jews out of Egypt following the ten plagues. The rare piece of spoken text, read by one of the children, is the instructions to the Jews that would lead to The Feast of the Firstborn, the commemoration of the tenth and final plague, and the salvation of the Israelite firstborns. The entire work is only fifty minutes long, but it is somehow infinite.

At a time when the theatre of central and north-western Europe was destroying the spectacle by dressing the performers in trope-y costumes and projecting words onto the back wall, Melbourne theatre created a distinct and unique aesthetic, highly intellectual as well as physically rigorous, gesturally minimalist, and obsessed with drilling deep into cultural heritage. Exodus I was a perfect example of what that used to look like: it excavated the gruesome violence and inspected the metaphor of the traditions that followed. It was elegant, quiet and, above all, ambitious in scope and skill.


  1. in which we touch base with our ballooning cast and many-threaded plotlines

Nico had called the month before, still in Germany, somehow still doing his drag shows in the dingy underground bars of Berlin, to say that Club was closing down. The little gay bar in Neukölln owned by their friend Derek had finally capitulated, squeezed on all sides: by the rising rents; by the growing conflicts between the former kids who had opened it, no longer as young and as prepared to be cool and penniless; by the admission that they were financially illiterate when they signed their lease (because what 25-year-old American understands a German rental contract?); by the changing tastes of the new kids. Club had given them their first taste of adulthood, getting high in their very own Kiez bar, shaping their very own urban cool. Everyone knew Club: Nico performed there, Karen exhibited there, the Critic danced there, even Declan once did a rare drag performance in the back room. They celebrated Derek’s birthday there, in late 2015, surrounded on all sides with pop-up spaces that had $7 beers and Instagram accounts, and said to each other: “This, this, is old Berlin!” and then laughed incredulously that they had become people who think theirs was the only authentic time in history. And now it was closing. Nico was calling to say that Derek owed him money, and was irked about it in that short-tempered way typical of people who do a lot of amphetamines.

Karen sent a postcard from Lake Como, where she was holidaying with the Berlin-based family whose kids she was nannying-in-English-language—a postcard breezy and aloof. She didn’t mention Club’s closing—her Berlin was made up of largely different places, those with Instagram accounts.

The Critic ran into Liz in the VCA staff room. Liz who still hadn’t left her Melbourne rental nor her contract jobs, but who was now managing extended creative residencies in Europe every year. Liz was enthusing about Croatia—she had been!, the women are so strong and sassy!, what an amazing place!, the theatre!, the politics!, the food! It was the never-ending high of someone who had forgotten balance.

They didn’t see much theatre in 2017—it was mostly shit—but one time she did, the Critic ran into Barney in some new gallery space in a back alley in Fitzroy. It struck her, at the sight of this man in his forties surrounded with new Theatre Kids who thought that even the rubbish they saw that night was awesome because theatre is an artform without memory—that she did not want to be the lone forty-year-old in a back-alley theatre.

It was not exactly a sad feeling: between the art that they made, events they ran, and words they wrote, they had made a beautiful world for themselves—and lucky is the person who manages to centre themselves in their own life, as they had. But time had happened. As far as the Critic could see it, her once glorious circle of friends was fraying, splintering, into those who would burn out with the scene and those who would graduate from it wiser.


  1. in which yes there was freedom, but also there was terror

The Critic went to see Merciless Gods because she had heard many good things about Little Ones Theatre. “It’s our tenth production,” said Eugyeene Teh in the foyer. A new generation of theatre-makers had grown up. Little Ones had become renowned for their slick productions (they were a designer-led trio) and queer aesthetic, somewhat in parallel with the more freewheeling-backyard-spectacle of Declan’s Sisters Grimm, and Gary Abrahams’ cerebral adaptations of key texts. Between the three of them, almost the entire back catalogue of LGBT culture got put on stage.

Merciless Gods was a collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas, invariably brutal, all written in that decade bookmarked by the birth of rave on one side, and the Cronulla riots on the other. There were cynical people tossing between making a lot of money and hate-fucking their friends. There were awful, malicious European parents, living fantasies of former artistic glory, or of patriarchal order of their home villages. There was that classic Tsiolkas rage.

“And there were so many mentions of ‘thick cocks.’” said Angus once they left. “Tsiolkas really likes to talk about being fucked with a thick cock.”

All of Tsiolkas’ characters always, including women and girls, in one way or another end up being fucked by thick cocks. The sex in his prose is as copious as it is ungentle, be it heterosexual or homosexual (‘straight’ or ‘gay’ somehow seem improper words here, for the sex is always curiously un-socialised, always heterotopian rather than fully enmeshed within loving relationships). It is always jeans unzipped, panties rolling to the ground, cunts filled, cocks thick, mouths moaning, fingers pushed inside people. None of this was ever extensively dissected by Australian literary criticism, but when The Slap became a global best-seller, Melissa Denes wrote[4] in the London Review of Books that everyone in the book was filled with the same pent-up, violent anger, and everyone was having the same sex, which was porn sex, and that the combination of all this identi-sex and identi-anger made the book so much less than the sum of its parts. For what it’s worth, when The Slap came out, the Critic thought it was the first book that described what was happening in Melbourne. Yet still.

“I enjoyed this so much less than I thought I would.” she said. “I feel like I should like Tsiolkas because The Slap was great, because he’s a queer wog like me, because his politics are good, because what enrages him also enrages me. But there is such unrelenting bleakness to his writing. And there is so much self-hatred. All this punishing sex. All this internalised homophobia.”

At this phrase, Nick, Angus’s partner, stood up: “You noticed it too?”

Nick, younger than both, was a medical student and not a Theatre Person,[5] which made him refreshingly honest theatre company: “No one was happy. No one had happy relationships, or happy sex. It was so bleak.”

“Well, to his defence, that used to be your LGBT story-telling,” said Angus. “People dying. Of AIDS, of gay bashing, of broken hearts. Well of Loneliness… Being gay was tragic.”

“You know, I intellectually know that this was the case,” Nick said gently, yet steadily, “and I know this is part of our history. But I’m really happy I wasn’t there at the time.”

“It was not a good time,” said the Critic.[6] “This whole idea that you can be gay and happy is incredibly, incredibly recent. It was before Queer Eye, before Will and Grace, before The L Word, before Brokeback-fucking-Mountain. When Merciless Gods was written, AIDS had just decimated gay men, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell became law, Ellen came out and lost her TV show…”

“Ellen lost her show?” Nick stopped, confused.

“She came out on her sitcom, her sitcom was canned. How do you not know that? It was a big deal.”

Nick was still confused: “Ellen had a sitcom?”


  1. in which we were asked to vote on other people’s civil liberties

The year was not exactly going splendidly to begin with, but then Malcolm Turnbull announced a postal survey on same-sex marriage.[7]


  1. in which there are angels

The battle tales were great. Glyn remembered multiple years of annually producing eight professional shows on no budget. Adena remembered forty grant applications, all rejected. Carl talked about the early geo-location of patron data that allowed Hayloft Project some modicum of audience research. Adena said: “We have just been asked, by Theatre Works, for our contact list, and we didn’t have one. I suppose everyone has one now? We used to just make a show… and people would somehow come.” A lot of the work of advertising was done by blogs, remembered the Critic, people who wrote three or four major essays a week, as if they were on staff at London Book Review, rather than moonlighting after their café shift. Finally, Glyn said: “We pushed each other to do better, to excel, and we did. We did amazing things on no money. But that story cannot be told without a chapter on burnout. On relationship breakdowns. On debt. I feel like we looked at the next generation and said, hey, see if you can do better than us? And they said, nah! They didn’t even try. They’ve retreated into making theatre selfies.” Before leaving, Adena reminded them that Gary Abrahams was in rehearsal with Angels in America.


  1. in which mental health and memory are like two sides of the same coin

That year, Hannah Gadsby won all major comedy awards with Nanette, a one-woman show about growing up lesbian in Tasmania in the nineties, and the fundamentally dysfunctional ways of using comedy as therapy in the face of hate. June and the Critic made a healthy, informed, fully responsible decision not to see Nanette, for the sake of their emotional health. Overall, it became a year of avoiding theatre. Everything was emotionally overwrought, confessional, too personal, de-metaphored. They read books instead.

Funny how much free time suddenly appears when one isn’t spending four-to-five nights a week at the theatre. They read Audre Lorde and Rebecca Solnit. They read Judith Hermann and Lundy Bancroft. They read queer histories, feminist histories. Medical manuals on partner abuse. They read books about gaslighting, about toxic masculinity, and rape culture. A bully was leading the free world and they were in need of peer-reviewed answers. They read a book that said that the trauma with strongest connection to addiction and depression is chronic recurrent humiliation, i.e. bullying, and that LGBT communities are communities of profoundly traumatised people. They read a book that said what makes men abusive is not addiction or depression or terrible childhoods, but belief in their own entitlement to another human being’s emotional and sexual labour. They shared books. It was a year of Donald Drumpf, and then became a year of ‘It’s OK to Vote No’. It was a year so bleak in so many ways that they retreated, away from the moment-to-moment-ness of theatre, political or otherwise, and into long, large timeframes: histories, historiographies.

They ventured out to see their friend’s Chris’s show at Fringe, another first-person confessional. One of the last things he said in the show, after that same thing about chronic recurrent humiliation, was a quote from Judith Hermann: “Bearing witness is an act of solidarity.”

It wasn’t a quote that pardoned all confessional writing; but it did give it context.


  1. in which we will be citizens

Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in two parts, one on each side of 1990. In 1988, Millenium Approaches, Prior Walter is diagnosed with the gay plague. His partner of four years, Louis, promptly leaves him. Louis starts sleeping with a legal clerk who is a married Mormon in deep denial about his sexual preferences. Meanwhile Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite lawyer, real-life neoliberal attack hound, employer to Mormon clerk, closeted sodomite, is diagnosed with AIDS or, as he menacingly instructs his doctor, liver cancer—because Roy Cohn is not a faggot. In Millenium Approaches, the world falls apart.

In 1991, Perestroika.

Together, the two are seven hours long, spanning a few years dense with social change, a sweeping transition from the bleakest selfishness of the American eighties to the renewed hope of Perestroika. The dramatic story is a vast complication on many levels, personal, historical, mythological, phantasmagorical. It is as high as it gets—among other things, Angels is a meditation on durability and the purposes of religion, from Judaism to Mormons. But it also takes its sweet time sitting in the gutter: there are literal flying angels, pill-popping Mormon wives, handjobs in Central Park, and let’s not forget that gay breakups in 1988 were stuff of pulp dramas, more than of respectable art. The romance itself is cathartically inelegant. Louis is a coward. The protagonist: a terrible, inexcusable coward who abandons his partner because he hasn’t dealt with death even on the conceptual level. Prior, HIV-positive before any effective treatment exists, precipitates into physical, and then mental, ruin. He starts having visions, or is perhaps just delirious, and as part two rolls around he is walking around Manhattan claiming to be a prophet. Among many things, Angels is a comedy. It is something to say in theatre’s favour—as an artform, as an industry—that this seminal, Pulitzer-winning play is in some ways a triumph of form, but in other ways completely demented.

They saw the play over two nights, most (but not all) of the audience coming back on the second. There is a TV version of Angels, with great Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but you haven’t seen Angels until you have seen it in the theatre. Gary Abrahams’ cast was not the most self-assured, and the staging was lo-fi and pokey compared to the incipient Broadway extravaganzas. It felt like everything had been stretched to a shoestring—the budget, the time, the talent, the creative stamina. But this is the magic of theatre. As hour after hour rolled by, dialogue after dialogue, as the play swished from a Valium fantasy by a despairing Mormon housewife to an angel crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, as Louis debated politics while also cruising in Central Park and Roy Cohn screamed in agony, hallucinating his own victims on his deathbed, the vastness and humanity accrued in the performance space, together with fatigue, together with the smell of sweat, together with that incredible sense of community that grows out of sharing an experience with strangers. There were breaks. They drank wine. They were introduced to friends of friends. They moved around to see better. It was seven hours of a play that included lines such as: “Greetings, Prophet; The great work begins!” And somewhere in it, a very gay nurse who has despised Roy Cohn his entire life, forces the unbelieving Jew Louis to perform the Kaddish on Cohn’s dead body.

The stories of Merciless Gods happen not much after the events of Angels. And yet its tone of self-centred and nasty bitterness is entirely absent from Angels, even though Angels describes evil people and acts of harm, even though Tsiolkas describes a far less doomed time.

There was an odd camaraderie of bearing witness to this quintessentially gay play, in a room full of artists and queers, as around them raged an expensive and nasty postal survey. It was late when the show finished, but the room gave a standing ovation, in unison. The inaudible lines, the wonky accents, who cared. They had just had an experience. This, this was why one went to the theatre: to know that something is a classic because many people have come to see it spoken on stage; to see life events re-presented in a small, enclosed space, and know that it matters, because it matters to many. To experience a missive from 1988 in 2017 articulated again, again.

They were quiet, afterwards. They drank wine in Supper Club and talked about the people who might vote No.

“I was confident at the start,” said Nick, “but now I’m not. I think we might lose.”

“We’re living at a time of election surprises from the edge of sanity. Everything is possible,” said Angus. Angus and Nick had just gotten engaged. How strange it was to think that, in their very short lifetime, they had gone from LGBT holocaust to an almost gluttonous gay normality, all via Ellen’s sitcom. And yet here it was, the postal survey.

“I wrote down the last line, it was surprisingly relevant,” said Nick. “What was it? Here it is: We will be citizens.”

“If the vote is Yes,” Angus reminded him.

“I think we will be fine,” said the Critic, who thought of social change as compound interest. “If this referendum fails, the next one will pass. Or the one after. Think about the work of the people before us, generations of activists, artists, the people who threw rocks, the people who got arrested. Think of all that effort, accruing. It doesn’t go away. It stays. We are on the right side of history.”

It hadn’t been the best time always. There had been good art, Ellen’s coming out, there had been Perestroika and Tony Kushner, there had been Club and Berlin, and drag shows in basements, and they were young and immortal. It would still be months before they would know the results of the postal plebiscite. But they had each other, and they were no longer children; adulthood had brought them the realisation that the present moment cannot last, that things always change.

When she came home, she looked up those last lines of Kushner’s. There they were.

The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.

Bye now.

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

And I bless you: More Life.

The Great Work Begins.



[1] As promised in the previous episode of The Critic.


[2] See previous episode of ‘The Critic’.

[3] See episode one of ‘The Critic’, in which we reviewed Gary Abrahams’s take on Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and were upset by its cross-dressing unfeminism, the naïve theatre babes that we were then. Gary would turn out to be one of us, not one of them, but who knew it then?

[4] Melissa Denes, “Freakazoid,” London Review of Books, vol. 32, no. 16 (August 2010): 26–28.

[5] See previous episodes of ‘The Critic’, in which the distinction is made between Theatre People and the so-called GP.

[6] See episode one of ‘The Critic’, which goes into some detail of what it meant to be queer in the 1990s.

[7] See episode seven of ‘The Critic’, which charts the very beginning of this whole sordid affair, under the reign of Tony Abbott, plague on his house, the attacks on Gayby Baby and Safe Schools in 2015, and the general regression of mainstream Australia into some sort of ultra-heterosexual moral panic. With hindsight, we will see this time as the last hurrah of neoliberal conservatism, sure. But for now, they were still riding the same wave of madness, a wave that had already damaged both their country and them.