‘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.


‘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.


‘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.

‘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). 




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


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‘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.’


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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.’


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‘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.’


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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

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‘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.

‘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.