Gentle and Fierce by Vanessa Berry (Mascara Literary Review, 30 November 2021)
One Hundred Days by Alice Pung (Mascara Literary Review, 15 November 2021)
After Australia, ed. Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Kill Your Darlings, 7 July 2020)
From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer (Kill Your Darlings, 9 August 2019)
Prisoncorp by Marlee Jane Ward (Mascara Literary Review, 7 September 2019)
Godspeed: a memoir by Casey Leger (Feminartsy, 17 June 2019)
The Contiguity of Totalisation (Art Guide, 24 October 2018)
Gentle and Fierce by Vanessa Berry
Gentle and Fierce is a book of essays that provides glimpses of Sydney author Vanessa Berry’s life by dissecting her encounters with non-human animals in various contexts – in the household, in captivity, in art and in the form of ornamental objects. Through Berry’s encounters with animals, we piece together her life as a city-dweller and an intellectual, a solitary who is as much an observer of other humans as of the animal world. Her essays allude to the destruction of the natural world and the marginalisation of other life forms by humans as Berry strives to connect with nature despite a paucity of opportunities to do so.
The author begins by sharing that her first name means ‘butterfly’ and that knowing this as a child ‘attunes you to their presence’ (p.7). She recalls expecting adulthood to be ‘a time of emergence, as if from a cocoon, into a life where I was colourful and unconstrained’ only to be disappointed at finding herself, in her twenties, ‘still as ponderous as ever, given to reticence in social situations and to slinking away alone’ (p11). The author’s introversion is a recurring theme. As a child she realises that the ideal is to be extroverted; instead, as a young woman she thinks of herself as a spider, eavesdropping on the conversations around her and writing down lines in her notebook, ‘Every detail stuck in my web.’ (p.125)
Berry repeatedly evokes the folly of humans. The notoriously aggressive myna bird was introduced in the nineteenth century to control the insects in crop fields, only to prove more interested in eating the produce itself. She reads of how palm oil, paper and rubber industries are affecting Sumatran forests, the habitat of tigers, prompting her to reflect:
As I look over the list these substances seethe around me, the pantry dribbling palm oil, the papers dusty and yellowing on the shelves. The rubber soles of shoes sit heavy in the depths of the wardrobe. Outside, car tyres crackle over the road. (p.20)
In ‘Rabbit Island’ she recalls visiting a Japanese island that serves as a sanctuary for rabbits in the months following the Fukushima disaster. The essay alludes to the issue of vivisection but does not delve into it, instead tracing the theme of rabbits in her own life, recalling a pet rabbit, which people joked was edible. She writes:
That was difficult for me to understand. Having been a vegetarian for decades I made little distinction between food animals and companion animals in terms of what kind of soul they might or might not have. (p.53)
In this way, Berry’s observations about the reprehensible attitudes and behaviours of humans towards the animal world are made in a way that is restrained and non-didactic. She implicates herself in her criticisms of the mores of human social life, where animals are relegated largely to museums and fairy tales as she lives a life where animals play a largely symbolic and abstract role. Her childhood memories of animals are not of wild or even domestic creatures, but of the badger and the toad in a story and a stuffed bear in a museum exhibit. She describes various kitsch representations of animals: porcelain figurines of horses, dogs and cats, a glass fish, a polystyrene bear and a ceramic crocodile, and acknowledges, ‘it is difficult to reconcile their abundance as mascots, toys or decorations, with knowledge of how their real counterparts have been affected by human encroachment on their lives and habitats.’ (p.104)
‘The Fly’ strings together a series of anecdotes from her life using the presence of flies as the organising principle. A reference to a fly’s buzz in an Emily Dickinson poem read in the late 1990s. A fly alighting on her hand, while listening to a talk by Elizabeth Jolley, preventing her from raising the hand in response to a question. A fly buzzing around an acupuncture clinic and another one crawling across a pub table. The ubiquity of flies during a bush fire season.
Some of the essays tell stories whose connection with the animal under consideration is tenuous. In ‘The Word of a Snail’, Berry reflects on her lifelong love of the work of Sylvia Plath and relates the experience of visiting the poet’s grave, where messages written to her by fans were being crawled over by snails. Just when anecdotes like these are starting to feel glib, Berry plunges us into the horrors of the 2020 bush fires which killed over a billion animals with ‘Animal Chronicle II’, which was for me the highlight of the book. In that essay, Berry imagines, amidst the inferno, ‘a dystopian world of only cities and burning forests, where animals were extinct or rarely seen, only to be remembered through objects’ (p.155). But just how much imagining is required for this scenario? This dystopia seems to be exactly the world that we have been reading about, where humans fetishise cute representations of animals while remaining either oblivious to or uncaring of what is truly befalling the animal world.
Curiously absent from Berry’s selections is any mention of the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are mutilated and slaughtered for profit every year in what has been called ‘the animal holocaust’. Nor does she mention the fact that the majority of mammals on earth are now livestock and the vast majority of birds, farmed poultry, an omission so glaring that it must be deliberate. Perhaps the absence of any discussion of these facts is a reflection of the lack of awareness of or attention to these issues in most echelons of human society. Unlike the ornamental, domestic, taxidermised and wild animals to which Berry dedicates space, the victims of factory farming are out of sight and out of mind.
However, Berry does explain, in ‘Animal Chronicle II’, what is termed ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, the phenomenon of each generation taking its own youth as its point of reference for ecological diversity. In this way, she joins the dots with her earlier essays, many of which dwelled on the presence of insects and other critters during various scenes of her youth. How many of these mundane experiences will future generations share?
Gentle and Fierce is a quiet but absorbing and thought-provoking work that approaches relations between humans and animals from many angles. Berry’s writing is languid, evocative and highly literate and the generous sprinkling of literary references is one of its most appealing features. Each essay is illustrated with a drawing of an animal done by the author, who is also an artist and zine maker.
One Hundred Days by Alice Pung
Alice Pung’s fifth book and second novel, One Hundred Days (Black Inc, 2021), deals with the difficult relationship between sixteen-year-old Karuna and her manipulative and overbearing (but also loving and hardworking) Chinese Filapino mother. Karuna’s father, who is Anglo Australian, has left the family and she has fallen pregnant to a boy she knew only briefly. The setting is 1980s Melbourne. Information is not readily accessible and hysteria about AIDS is rife. Pung tells a simple story that is rich and layered, exploring with compassion both the dysfunction and the strength of a complex mother-daughter relationship and ultimately empowering and vindicating the teenage protagonist.
The novel begins with Karuna addressing her unborn baby as she lies in bed beside her mother who ‘says she can’t sleep by herself, that it’s too dark’ (p.1). The claustrophobia is palpable and Karuna wishes she
could start off with a fairytale (sic), something that makes you think the world is much bigger than us beneath our ceiling. But it’s just me and you and your Grand Mar…there is no big bad wolf, even though your Grand Mar wants to wring his name out of me. (p.1-2).
We soon learn that the Grand Mar in question plans to treat the baby as her own and to raise her believing that Karuna is her sister. The older woman’s looseness with the truth becomes clear and Karuna’s frank and intimate narrative is a pushback against her mother’s attempts to rewrite her story.
Karuna’s mother decides to confine her daughter to their housing commission flat for one hundred days to keep her safe. We then learn that Karuna met a medical student during the summer before Year 11 and got him to take her on long drives through the western suburbs, before having sex with him in the back of his car. The second person point of view is mostly limited to referring to Karuna’s parents as ‘your Grand Mar’ and ‘your Grand Par’ in an unobtrusive reminder of whom the story is being told to. Karuna’s mother works for a hair and makeup salon during the day and cooks at a restaurant in the evening. Karuna likes to read but cannot think of anything more pointless than studying literature at university and has no professional ambitions. When she finds that she is pregnant, she thinks that at least she’ll have something of her own.
All too often, mothers are romanticised, even fetishized, as selfless, wise and endlessly emotionally giving. Their sometimes-questionable behaviour towards their teenage daughters is a subject often spoken of with a platitudinous whitewashing that belittles or erases the experiences of daughters who have been subjected to true abuse. In contrast, One Hundred Days thoroughly interrogates the mother’s abuses of power and misconceived overprotectiveness of Karuna. She complains, ‘Aussie(s) think everything is child abuse’ (p. 12) and uses her culture to excuse her controlling and eccentric behaviour towards her more educated daughter. This extends to making Karuna boil watermelon, forbidding her to eat crab in case the baby is born with six fingers and warning her not to use glue as it will cause the baby to be born with birthmarks. Karuna eventually suspects ‘she is just making it up as she goes along, this cultural stuff’ (p.227), highlighting the disconnect between migrant parents and their Australian-born children.
Pung deftly captures the difficulty for a teenage girl of conveying to outsiders the wrongness of her relationship with her mother when, on the surface, it does not appear abusive. ‘Your mother’s just making sure you get plenty of rest’ (p.108), a teacher tells Karuna when she tries desperately to tell the woman about her confinement in the flat. After her baby has been born, she ponders, ‘She doesn’t hit me, she doesn’t hurt us – how would authorities see what is wrong with our situation?’ (p.101) Pung also captures the ambivalence of a child who is mistreated by a parent and the half-awareness about one’s rights that can exist in this space. Karuna is at once outraged at the disrespect she receives from her mother and quick to protect the woman from consequences and from the judgements of others. When emergency services suggest sending out police after her mother locks her and the baby inside the flat on the hottest day of the year, she panics. When at last she succeeds in winning some autonomy and space, she is quick to reflect on how her mother has worked overtime for weeks, rocked the baby to sleep and got her everything she owns that’s not donated. Their relationship, at last, starts to resolve into one of mutual respect.
As someone from a single parent background, I found it refreshing that One Hundred Days does not play into some of the common tropes of narratives of single motherhood, where characters often yearn to connect with an absent father. Karuna gives the baby’s father only the most fleeting importance. Her own father’s absence from her life is also largely peripheral to the story, with the focus kept squarely on the relationship between the women. When she loses her virginity to nineteen-year-old Ray, the conquest is hers, but it is primarily a victory over her mother’s stifling control; the boy a means to an end.
If I hadn’t been in his car, I would have wanted to raise a triumphant fist in the air. Woohoo!…It didn’t make me a woman, but it did make me a separate person with secrets. (p. 56)
Ray is cast as harmlessly buffoonish. He asks if The Handmaid’s Tale is some kind of fairy tale and tries to work out Karuna’s ethnicity from her name, with an arrogance for which she gently mocks him.
Fairy tales pervade Pung’s novel, with Karuna’s confinement in the apartment tower calling to mind the story of Rapunzel. She repeatedly recalls the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth as she tries to find her way through the maze of her relationship with her increasingly paranoid and delusional mother who has ‘stolen’ her baby and to escape the prison she has made of their flat. However, Karuna’s relationship with her mother is too complex to reduce to fairy tale archetypes. Ray is eventually relegated to ‘the Once that started this Upon a Time’ (p.239).
One Hundred Days contains echoes of Caroline Baum’s Only: A Singular Memoir (2017), in its exploration of the claustrophobia of life as an only child and the over-identification with parents that this can bring. Karuna’s situation is also reminiscent of Margo Lanagan’s The Best Thing (1995) but in Pung’s world it is the middle-aged grandmother, rather than the teenage mother, on whom it is incumbent to make concessions so that the pair can move on to the next stage of their lives. The novel engages with issues of race and class while dealing primarily with a relationship that teeters on the edge of family violence. Karuna is ultimately delivered in her struggle for recognition and autonomy, while the hardships faced by her mother are acknowledged, in an uplifting validation of both women.
After Australia, ed. Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Published in Kill Your Darlings, 7 July 2020
Back in February, something like canned laughter rang through the collective consciousness when Scott Morrison announced that the Christmas Island Detention Centre would be used to house COVID-19 evacuees from Wuhan. Was this a news report or a spoof mocking the Kafkaesque direction of federal politics? It is in this climate, where satire is increasingly difficult to distinguish from current events, that After Australia, a collection of speculative fiction by Indigenous writers and other writers of colour, struggles to find its niche.
Framed by Hannah Donnelly’s ‘Black Thoughts’, vignettes that capture the friction between black and white Australia, After Australia assembles voices from across the contemporary non-white literary landscape to posit where the country is heading as 2050 approaches. Faceless bureaucracy, a heating climate and the expulsion or incarceration of undesirables are recurring themes in this collection. In ‘Displaced’, Zoya Patel’s narrator relates memories of Fiji while standing in an interminable Australian Immigration Department queue, her observations eerily present-day, despite the future setting. ‘The bushfire season is no longer contained, stretching across the entire year in different parts of the country,’ she forbodes. In Omar Sakr’s ‘White Flu’, the narrator comes out as bisexual to his repressive Lebanese community while a pandemic that affects mainly white people devastates the globe and ‘airports [are] being closed and cordoned off into quarantine areas’. Dystopian scenarios are coming true faster than they can be speculated about.
To read After Australia is to explore not only twelve writers’ re-imaginings of the past, present and future of this country, but also to be confronted with the very short space of time that it can take for imagined futures to become contemporary reality. In this sense, the collection sometimes feels stuck between speculative fiction and commentary on the present. Still, there is much in this book to fascinate, inspire and provoke. In Claire G. Coleman’s ‘Ostraka’, citizens who are declared to be of ‘bad character’ are ostracised, rendered stateless, and indefinitely detained. Khalid Warsame’s ‘List of Known Remedies’ unfolds in the cosily familiar (yet subtly defamilliarised) world of the Melbourne hipster scene, where, in between discussing emoticons, friends pause to consider ‘the ramifications of the continent’s forest cover being turned into particles that shred the membranes of our lungs’. In the most hopeful of these visions, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s ‘Message from the Ngurra Palya’, a voice from the future, reveals that ‘a just world/is not unreachable/It is what’s next/You can breathe it/in your next breath/Feel it/in your next heartbeat.’ The empty calendar of 2020 has given all Australians time to stop and reflect: where to from here?
From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer
Published in Kill Your Darlings, 9 August 2019.
‘Here be dragons’, or ‘from here on, monsters’, are how medieval cartographers labelled maps to indicate hitherto unknown parts of the world. Elizabeth Bryer’s debut novel opens with bookseller Cameron Bryer being tasked to investigate the provenance of a medieval codex in an unidentified language. It’s a mystery of charmingly bookish intrigue: a stranger appearing to hire a wordsmith; literary journals making curious changes to their style guides; a request for the valuation of a library collection consisting of painted books. Bryer plays ironically with the conventions of the detective genre while paying homage to the written word.
The act and implications of translation, as well as that of writing history, are central to this story. Bryer, herself a translator and translations editor, poses the question: how does one make an ancient text comprehensible to a modern audience? Must history replicate the conditions of its source material? Should translation transform the original, rather than recreating it? For a time, the narrative threatens to get bogged down in abstraction; nothing seems to be at stake, and the urgency of the more traditional detective novel is absent. But then, as the codex reveals itself as an account of early attempts by Europeans to make contact with the Antipodes, connections form and the story avalanches into an examination of the legacy of colonisation (that fantasised simulation of an original) and the suppression of plain-speaking.
At the heart of the novel is Australia’s asylum seeker policy. What happens if we continue to pursue these policies into the uncharted territory of the future of forced migration? As the hidden meanings of the codex begin to manifest around Cameron, a literal monster can be heard at night in the space behind the bookshop and her translator observes, ‘Monsters were not something Europeans found in the Antipodes…They brought the monsters with them.’ At the same time, Cameron’s fixation on language leads her to notice strange ellipses in the conversations society is having. While the record number of boat arrivals make newspaper headlines, there is no mention of the people on them.
From Here On, Monsters is a detective novel whose sleuth investigates her country’s history and future. It is theory and allegory heavy, and though not immediately accessible, it is ultimately rewarding. It is both a warning and a promise of the importance of language in shaping political landscapes. Bryer takes us into uncharted literary territory while sounding the alarm about what may lurk beyond this country’s political horizons. What monsters lie there?
Prisoncorp by Marlee Jane Ward
Published in Mascara Literary Review, 7 September 2019.
Prisoncorp is the third volume in a young adult speculative fiction trilogy that engages with issues in contemporary Australian society. Marlee Jane Ward posits a near-future setting where current legal and economic trends have gone to an extreme, but which contains enough of the current features of our country to ring uncomfortably true. The first book, Orphancorp won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2016 and was heralded as timely, in the same year that confronting footage of human rights violations in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre became public, raising questions about the criminalisation and institutionalisation of vulnerable youth.
Ward’s series centres around orphan Mirii, who believes herself to be Aboriginal, but has lost her connection to family and country. She knows her last name means ‘shooting star’ in an Aboriginal language, but only because she looked it up on the Tab that is her only connection to the outside world. In Orphancorp, Mirii counts down to the day she will obtain ‘age release’ from the privatised foster system in which she has grown up. A rebellious girl with a dirty mouth, Mirii is subjected to brutal forms of discipline in the days leading up to her release from the ironically named Verity House, where information is near impossible to come by.
In the sequel, Psynode, we re-join Mirii a few months after her age release. She is staying in a women’s dormitory and feeling that, while at Verity House it was ‘us and them’, now it’s her against everyone. Mirii gets a job and waits impatiently for the day she is supposed to meet up with Vu on the steps of the old Sydney Town Hall, one of the few old buildings still standing. However, her plans go awry, and she is arrested for a suite of offences committed in the process of trying to free Vu, the girl she ‘like-likes’, from her captors.
Prisoncorp opens with Mirii being held in a solitary confinement cell at the notorious corporatized prison located in a remote part of the Australian desert. She is not, however, alone. Her nemesis, Freya, is with her and the novel plunges straight into action with a fist fight between the two girls. Mirii reflects that although she earlier had an epiphany about how their enmity ‘played into what the system wanted of me’ (p.2), Freya has not achieved this insight. Relationships between women are consistently foregrounded in Prisoncorp. Mirii’s friendships are staunch, but we are afforded no illusion that any general sense of sisterhood can be counted on. An unknown prisoner of whom Mirii asks a favour promptly tells her, ‘go fuck yourself’ (p. 6). A day out of solitary, Mirii discovers her crimes are so serious as to warrant a ‘real, human lawyer’ (p. 31), whose face pops up on a screen to tell Mirii that she will be doing 25 years for manslaughter.
Mirii is soon reunited with kids from Verity House. Young people who grow up in the system are seen beating a well-worn track into prison, a familiar pattern that reminds us of how far along the path to this future we have already come. The privatisation of the prison system, which began in Australia in the early 90s, is now complete, with the prison headed up not by a Warden but by a Chief Operations Officer (COO), who ‘represents the board’ (p. 36). Ward’s depiction of prison from the point of view of an Indigenous woman alludes to current concerns about prison demographics. The fastest rising incarceration rate in Australia is currently that of Indigenous women This concern is made explicit when another prisoner tells Mirii, ‘There are a lot of us in here…it’s a crime to be Koori in our own bloody country’ (p. 97).
Ward presents the prison industrial complex and the immigration detention industry as inseparable, with the screws announcing unceremoniously that 200 immigration detainees are to be amalgamated with the prison population. This prompts Mirii to reflect:
I feel about as hopeless as they do. I wonder where they’re all from, how they thought their new life in Australia might go. Did they expect to be rounded up and put into this dusty camp, to waste away on starvation rations? Weren’t they seeking something better, and is this better, or is it more of the same? (p. 61)
The book’s engagement with current human rights issues gives Ward’s predictions an uncanny immediacy, but it also leaves us craving more detail. How did we get from the Australia we know to this near future? Why are there few old buildings left? Where does the climate crisis stand? Where is this hellish private prison located?
Mirii’s sexual involvement with Vu is presented as unproblematic throughout the series (except to the extent that touching anyone is forbidden in the Orphancorp). Ward also presents a number of other same-sex sexual encounters and their queerness passes without comment. Monogamy seems to be a thing of the past, as do fixed sexual identities. In Psynode, Mirii recounts a history of sexual experiences that would make Tony Abbott and other opponents of Safe Schools shudder: boys, girls, threesomes and kink. The unproblematised sexual fluidity of Ward’s characters provides welcome relief from the overall bleakness of her premise. It allows the focus to remain on the struggle of these young women against a brutal and oppressive system while suggesting some more liberal developments in Australian society in the near future, taking Ward’s vision beyond a simple dystopia.
The plot progresses swiftly, with Mirii’s initial hopelessness turning into resolve as she and her friends conceive of an escape from Prisoncorp, which snowballs into a full-scale riot. Characters express doubts over where they will go after breaking through the fences, given they are in the middle of the desert. The situation calls to mind the mass break-out of the overcrowded Woomera Immigration Detention Centre during a protest by refugee activists in 2002, which led to clashes between Corrections and asylum seekers fleeing across the South Australian desert.
The novel climaxes with an uprising that confronts us with some of the ethical dilemmas associated with rebellion. How to treat one’s captors once they become one’s prisoners? To what extent can individuals be blamed for acts committed in obedience to orders? Can you justify risking the life of someone whose name you don’t even know to attain freedom for the group?
Prisoncorp includes an epilogue of only a few pages in which we glimpse the aftermath of the series’ dramatic conclusion. This is precious little space to explore the myriad ways characters have developed over the three books or how society may look outside of the institutions where most of the action has taken place and this feels like a missed opportunity. However, Prisoncorp offers a powerful vision of the future of the carceral state and a warning of the dark places to which prison privatisation threatens to lead.
Godspeed: a memoir by Casey Legler
Published in Feminartsy, 17 June 2019.
Godspeed: a memoir is former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler’s account of her troubled adolescence. A largely unparented child with prodigious athletic abilities, Legler turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with her emptiness while training and competing at the highest level. Legler evokes her isolation from family, substance abuse and traumatic events in her formative years with a relentless interiority in an experimental work of life writing that can only very loosely be classed as memoir. Why Legler chose to label her work in this way is one of several puzzling things about this book, which nonetheless vividly evokes a colourful slice of Legler’s history.
Since ending her career as an athlete, Casey Legler has become a world-renowned menswear model who has blazed a trail for gender nonconforming fashion models. She has also worked as an artist and manages a café in Paris. In interviews she talks about the long and harrowed process of forging the identity in which she now strides down the runway. She speaks of the difficulty of learning how to live in a body such as hers and of the trauma of being sexually assaulted as a kid. But none of these connections are explored in Godspeed. Instead, Legler offers an impressionistic present tense account of her adolescence, anchored in her young self’s fractured perceptions of her life as a string of meaningless and disconnected events supercharged by alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.
The narrative that results has few of the conventional markers of memoir. We are given no explanation of her parents’ almost total absence from her life or of how her entry into professional athletics came about. Through Legler’s eyes, we see the cold opportunism of her coach, who has hit the ‘genetic jackpot’ (p. 38), and her own reserved precocity, disparaging her fellow teenagers who ‘didn’t even know who Proust was’ (p. 26), but we are given very few clues as to how she came to be so well-read despite her apparent disengagement with school. One of the most appealing aspects of memoir is surely its polyvocality; the sense of being given access simultaneously to a whole cast of the writer’s past and present selves. This element is entirely absent in Legler’s memoir. Also largely absent is dialogue, an absence that reflects the young Legler’s isolation, but which also limits the text’s capacity to come to life. Her writing is disorientating, non-linear but sometimes strikingly evocative of her subjectivity, ‘we sit on the green grass and pose and I am fat cheeked and all wrong’ (p. 111).
An author’s note at the start of Godspeed reveals that Legler was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder during the period she was writing the book and says she ‘inadvertently’ wrote the story of a young girl on the spectrum. Intriguingly, though it is never addressed in the text, many passages and images suggest a neuro-atypical point of view. ‘I didn’t understand anything but the way the light looked in the sky or that I could see a flower petal breathing’ (p. 26). The prominence of light and sound in her perceptions is something Legler has reflected on elsewhere, a quirk of her character that was often observed in the years it remained undiagnosed. In Godspeed, she evokes rather than reflects on this experience, in hallucinatory prose that verges on stream of consciousness. An abundance of sensory details eclipses her disengagement with her study and her training. Traumatic events are recalled with chilling casualness ‘I wake up lying on the sidewalk hard grey with Australia’s fingers in my cunt and I push him out with my hand’ and a complete absence of follow up. Sexual violence is normalised and the protagonist in no state to process her experiences. Events unfold numbly around her. Her mother comes to a meeting with her doctor because it is ‘a fancy experience she wants to have’ (p. 72). Legler swims ‘for every chance to get wasted’ (p. 58) and in class, ‘Blah blah goes the teacher and I sit through it unhearing’ (p. 53).
In interviews, Legler has described the ‘loss of self’ that she experienced during the years dealt with in Godspeed. At the end of the book, she enters rehab but is expelled for drinking after one day. Her uncle picks her up and drives her towards an unspecified future. The reader does not get to see how Legler overcame her issues, nor how she achieved the successes of her later life. Instead we are shown the white midday desert sun and the sensation of the seat on the back of her thighs.
It is paradoxical to write a memoir that evokes a loss of self. It’s a genre inextricably bound up with identity. The theorist John Paul Eakin has written extensively on the interconnectedness of narrative and identity. We give narrative accounts of ourselves as a way of constructing a socially acceptable identity in accordance with the ‘obligation to display a normative model of personhood’ (Eakin, p. 43). It is this impulse to strive towards a unified self that Godspeed most stubbornly resists. In choosing the point of view of the most troubled incarnation of herself and never wavering from it, she spurns the conventions of the genre, the historicity of memoir and the specifics of her life achievements, presenting us instead with the grass poking at her thighs, the screaming of cicadas and the midday scorching sun.
The Contiguity of Totalisation
Published in Art Guide, 24 October 2018.
The Contiguity of Totalisation is a multimedia exhibition by three queer artists (Tarzan JungleQueen, Matthew van Roden and Koulla Roussos) that is currently showing in Ballarat as part of the 2018 Biennale of Australian Art (BOAA). Curator Koulla Roussos says that the title is a paradox: contiguity refers to the state of bordering, of being side by side, while totalisation requires unity.
On arriving in my hometown I send Roussos a message and she responds with characteristic aplomb. “I just have to buy and install a TV,” she says. “Be there in half an hour.” At the last minute, she explains later, she asked the proprietor of the Unicorn Hotel if they would show the film on a flat screen set up on their counter to maximise its exposure. While I wait, I show my 92-year-old grandmother the limited-edition catalogue, which describes “negotiating queer identity as a dynamic discourse and process.” She nods slowly and declares that she will go with an open mind. Then she laughs and says, “What’s Tarzan’s real name?” After an estrangement of 20 years, wrought by my troubled mother, we are reconnecting. She has my mother’s turn of phrase and an almost identical bookshelf.I am fascinated by this glimpse of a historical town reduced in my memory to annual school excursions to Sovereign Hill. Roussos leads me across the road to view the exhibition of still images displayed in light boxes in Unicorn Lane Gallery. The black and white portraits show the three artists in different configurations: JungleQueens’s head superimposed onto van Roden’s body, Roussos’ face smeared with clay, JungleQueen preparing to devour a tiny van Roden on a spoon. The images are taken from a seven minute long black-and-white film, made by the trio over a nine-month period, in which the artists explore their identities as queer subjects in a loose narrative which the three describe in fascinatingly divergent yet overlapping terms. Film is the ideal vehicle for an exploration of fluidity. The moving image shows the body transforming as it explores possibilities. The decision to exhibit a collection of still images from the film plays ironically with the idea of fixity.
The following night, a small crowd gathers at St Andrews Kirk beside a van selling wine and beer. Underdressed, I stand shivering as I watch the artists’ delight at seeing their film on a giant inflatable screen in the churchyard.
Shot with green screen, The Contiguity of Totalisation isolates forms against a black background, opening with two humanoid figures emerging from a bathtub. The naked artists are then shown seated on plinths. Roussos appears smeared with clay – the stuff of creation – and screams primally. A scriptural passage appears within van Roden’s naked body and JungleQueen proceeds to eat him, his body reduced to a tiny figure and shaking convulsively on a spoon. JungleQueen’s breasts are wiped away as van Roden’s body appears in their place in what could be seen as a rebirth. It’s apt that the main screening of the film is in a church. Van Roden does not believe in grand narratives, he says, but in the unfolding of endless possibilities. He scored the film with a hymn written using an ascending scale of major lifts and played in reverse.
At the Unicorn Hotel, the film injects its bold queerness into the domestic setting of a Sunday family brunch. We gather around an outside table and Roussos tells the others that this afternoon I am taking her on a personal tour of Ballarat– a tour of my childhood. It was in this town that I first encountered the rigid separation of individuals into male and female. It was on a rural property bordered by state forest to the west of the town with only my mother for company, that I grappled with the earliest questions of identity, truth and religion.
Roussos and I leave the group and drive out to Smythesdale. I point out sites to her as we drive through the tiny town. That’s where the old general store used to be. That’s where I saw a snake. That’s where I made a phone call to the electricity company as a ten-year-old, making excuses for the unpaid bill. When we reach the property, I don’t even recognise it. The grass has been cut and a fence put up. I lead her into the adjoining nature reserve and we look across at my old house. A tractor is parked beside it.
Van Roden’s religious upbringing is playfully embodied as a piece of religious text appearing within his naked body. Of their morphing body scene, JungleQueen says, “It was a fantasy I’ve always had. Having a breast-less chest. So it was amazing to have that fantasy come to life, without the need to do it in real life.” Roussos reflects that for her, the struggle for identity has been about being a Greek, a barrister and an artist, and reconciling the different hats she wears. The art-making process has made this easier. “I’ve even shown my mother. ‘It’s το υποσυνείδητο,’ I told her. It’s the subconscious.”
Part of the success of The Contiguity of Totalisation is that the images are resurrected and reconfigured in different exhibition spaces around Ballarat. In observing the fluidity of the art we witness the endless possibilities of which it speaks: the self excavated from foundational texts, primal impulses, lifelong preoccupations.