Elly McDonald

Writer


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Reviews: Another American war – Manhattan Beach (2018) by Jennifer Egan, American War (2018) by Omar El Akkad

Two strong novels presenting visions of America at war, at its best and at its worst.

That’s the short summary.

Manhattan_Beach_Jennifer_Egan

Manhattan Beach is not an especially long novel, at 433 pages, though the narrative sprawls. It’s set in the early ‘30s, from 1933, and then from about 1942, after U.S. forces entered World War 2. Variously, we see through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, a splint of steel with a kind of innate, blind mechanical genius; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for Irish racketeers on the New York docks; and Dexter Styles, stylish mob boss for the Syndicate.

The characters can be read, allegorically, as embodiments of the traits that made America great: boldness, resilience, resourcefulness, courage, individualism, ambition, idealism, initiative, a certain ruthlessness, ethics that make sense on their own terms but then again – no.

Allegorically, the novel could be read as an ambitious tale of the rise of the American Century, the rise of American world dominance, fuelled by immigrant energy, replete with gangsters and war heroes, chorus girls and dock workers, closet homosexuals, proto-feminists, and systemic racism.

There are nods to other narratives of immigrant reinvention, other relationships between the American Establishment (the world of bankers) and the Mob. In Manhattan Beach, we read counterpoints, echoes, to E L Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller Ragtime, and, more pertinently, to F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, albeit less glamorous.

I envisage Dexter Styles as the young Robert De Niro, playing Monroe Stahr, a character based on movie producer Irving Thalberg, in Elia Kazan’s 1976 film adaptation of The Last Tycoon. Which, incidentally, has what for me might be the most haunting final lines in movies, entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach, from a script by Harold Pinter: the master storyteller, the maestro of reinvention and invention, turning to camera and admitting, “I don’t know what happens next.”

There’s a motif of night skies, dawn skies, silver seas, and moonlight throughout Manhattan Beach, as there was in Kazan’s vision of The Last Tycoon.

That last scene, in The Last Tycoon, with the night sky above a beach, is so entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach I can’t help but wonder if it inspired the novel. But then, I also wonder if Jennifer Egan’s project was to write a response to Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. I wondered as I read whether her plan was to present an optimistic reminder of “the greatest generation” – but the ending is not, in truth, optimistic:

“Look,’ [he] said. “here it comes.”

She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent, distant explosion.

Without thinking, she took [his] hand.

“Here it comes,” she said.

Final lines worthy of Harold Pinter.

There’s a character whose verbal quirk calls to mind Samuel Beckett: when he repeats a thing, the repetition negates what he’s saying – “What I want from you […] is that you be your own man. Your own man”, or ‘It’s forgotten. It’s all forgotten’ meaning just the opposite (quote here not exact).

Egan does not generally evoke Beckett, or Pinter, her style being fluid, welcomely readable, astonishingly seductive. Very occasionally, there’s a faint of odour of romantic overripeness, just momentary; and then, at other points, she pokes fun of movie, radio, and popular fiction romance.

When she does write sex, as she does as an extended sequence in Chapter 17, it’s erotically charged and intelligent, and does not neglect context:

And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car – this smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy – and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her. The rest – vague notions that she might work for him, that her toughness could be of use, that she was likely a good shot (taut slender arms, visible in the dress she was wearing tonight); confusion about how they had originally met (had someone introduced them?) – flickered at a middle distance, well behind his need to have her. And even as that need made it hard to drive the goddam car, he was also thinking: this was the problem between men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.

American_War_Omar_El_Akked

Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is a different proposition: a terrifying, raw novel that imagines a future while simultaneously confronting us with the contemporary politics of displacement, radicalization, terrorism, torture, treason, the fall and rise of empires.

It’s a disturbing read that humanizes (though not necessarily forgives) the players.

American War follows the trajectory of Sarat, an American girl from Louisiana’s south in a United States geographically altered by the encroachment of the seas, due to climate change, and altered politically by the Second American Civil War, 2074-2095, with a breakaway “Free Southern State” (FSS), led by the MAG (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia, South Carolina having been knocked out by biological weapons), proclaimed after disputes about fossil fuels, acts of terrorism, and political assassinations.

The author was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. As a journalist he’s won a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting in Canada for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot. He’s also reported on the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Egypt’s Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter.

It seems obvious – to me, at least – that El Akked’s project with American War is to describe the paths to radicalization, the making of a terrorist (of terrorists). Western readers won’t read a novel about children growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or Kenya; so El Akkad has written about Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan in the guise of speculative fiction set in America. I was disconcerted, on scanning some online reviews, to see that some American readers failed to recognize that intention, and instead expected a World War Z-style overview of a dystopian social collapse. Reviewers didn’t understand why the author’s focus increasingly narrowed in on Sarat, a character it’s hard – and gets harder – to empathise with. Katniss Everdeen, she is not.

(I was also nonplussed by the person who complained that all the main characters, except Sarat, who is explicitly black, are, according to him, white, with, apparently, “No Hispanics or Blacks”. It seems to me quite evident that just about all the characters are racial blends, with varying degrees of Black, Hispanic and other racial traits, not to mention the Arab and North African characters from the fictional rising power, the Bouazizi Empire. I can only assume the readers who failed to recognize the multiracial nature of this future are the same readers who were shocked, on seeing the first Hunger Games movie, to realize that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins intended the character Rue, along with most of the inhabitants of District 11, to be black.)

By following Sarat, El Akkat takes us on a dark journey through displacement, to a displaced persons’ camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to displaced persons’ camps and refugee camps in the Middle East), through the politics of radical splinter groups, to radical activism, to an interrogation camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) called Sugarloaf Detention Facility, on an island reminiscent of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) but which happens to be the residue of what once was Florida.

The spectral raising of Nelson Mandela seems, to me, intentional. El Akkat intends to explain radicalization and terrorism, not condone it. In how he writes what happens after Sarat emerges from detention at Sugarloaf, he intends to make clear that Sarat still has choices: she could use her horrific experiences for the good, as Nelson Mandela did, or by creating a healing, peaceful life in seclusion for herself and those close to her – she is, remarkably, offered that option, due to unique circumstances her family is blessed by. But Sarat chooses a different course of action.

We are told 11 million people die in the Second American Civil War. Another 110 million die in its aftermath, after a terrorist turns biological weapon during Reunification Day celebrations. It’s a terrible cost. American War is speculative fiction, but no wonder young American reviewers put down this book, incomplete.

The myth of the “Greatest Generation” is that war brings out the best in a people: the myth directs to 1940s Americans, the British during the Blitz. But, without minimizing the undoubted heroism many Americans (soldiers, merchant navy, civilian war workers) did demonstrate during World War II, and the undoubted heroism many British service personnel and civilians showed from 1939 onwards, it is a lie. War does not bring out the best in people. It brings out the worst.

War brings out the racketeers, the profiteers, the exploiters, the sadists, the sociopaths, the people forced to abandon goodness to the slave-god Survival. War breaks down civil order, breaks down social codes. War has its merits if it takes place offshore, if your side emerge as winners, if you’ve invested in profitable war-related ventures. If it takes place on home soil, if you are directly affected, if you’re injured or displaced or your soul is destroyed – not so okay.

As I said back at the start – just, no.

Somewhere, a fog shaped like a mushroom cloud rolls in.

Here it comes.

Robert_De_Niro_Monroe_Stahr_The_Last_Tycoon

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr


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Author’s notes – the Lenny novella (4 May 2018)

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.

There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).

These include concerns about:

  1. The hysterical tone and narrative content.
  2. Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
  3. How to end the narrative.
  4. Plagiarism.

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.

I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).

It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.

It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.

There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.

I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.

Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.

I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.

At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.

I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.

I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.

The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.

The End

The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”

I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.

I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.

So, I let them live.

Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.

Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.

Plagiarism and due credit

As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny_lotus

By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.


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After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise (2016)

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora-philippe-mora

Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

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Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora

George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


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Good in the world

Featured image: Screaming Freedom, and Freedom, both by Sina Pourhorayad

This week British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who in court justified his actions by yelling “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

Jo Cox was a champion for Yorkshire. She also championed, across her career, children’s health and safety, worldwide, and multicultural immigration to Britain. She campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and she campaigned for just treatment of asylum seekers. She believed in humanity and a shared planet. She believed “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She died for her beliefs. More particularly, she died in consequence of acting on her beliefs.

The tragic death of Jo Cox, at age 41, elected to the Mother of Parliaments just one year ago, idealist and career activist, a wife and mother of two young children, has me thinking about good in the world.

It’s a truism to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A partner to which might be the verse I quoted to some friends last night, from Julian of Norwich, the famed C14th English anchoress:

And all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be exceedingly well.
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.

Usually that line is left out. I think that last line is where truth lives.

In a church today I heard the challenge activism presents expressed another way. The question was asked, “If this church closed tomorrow, how would that affect this town’s community? Would this church be missed? How would it be remembered?”

Last night I observed community activism in support of asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne. Richmond Uniting Church made its gallery space, Gallery 314, available for Over The Fence, an exhibition of art by asylum seekers, curated by Uniting Church minister Lisa Stewart. The exhibition is open for two evenings only, as an event within Refugee Week.

At the opening last night, a former detainee, Mohammad, spoke movingly about the experience of being a young man in indefinite detention. He spoke of the corrosive effects of being confined, restricted in his interactions with the broader community, unable to participate and contribute in the ways he wished. He spoke of the extraordinary moment it was for him the first time an Australian citizen with Anglo heritage spoke that simple word to him: “Welcome!”

Welcome. Well come. How can it be I’ve never heard the “Well come!” in “Welcome”?

An advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, representing the Melbourne detention centre visitor program, spoke about her frustration at the questions sometimes put to her by Australians with Anglo heritage who are well-intended and educated and whom she would presume are well-informed.

She asked, “How can it be these people need to ask these questions? How can it be they don’t know the facts about asylum seekers? How can it be they don’t know we have a detention centre here in Melbourne?”

I cringed when she voiced this. I consider myself well-intended and in terms of academic qualifications, I had the best education Australia can offer.

Yet despite a strong sense that detaining people indefinitely is morally – and surely legally? – wrong, I have questions I hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding stupid, for fear of sounding callous. Out of fear I am both ignorant and not nearly as kind as I’d like to believe I can be.

My questions include, “But if asylum seekers who arrive without papers are not detained, what are the alternatives? How can we verify who these people are? If we can’t verify who they are, how can we determine whether individuals among these arrivals without documentation might pose a threat to our community?”

Without realizing it, I have to some extent bought into a perception of asylum seekers as to varying degrees sinister.

There were past and a few present asylum seekers at the art exhibition launch last night.

This morning when I was telling my brother-in-law about my experience of the exhibition launch, he interrupted me and said, “I get it. Good looking. They were good looking. You’ve used the word ‘good looking’ five times so far.”

Without realizing it, I have to a large extent bought into the equation ‘good looking=good’. How very shallow of me.

Yes, the asylum seekers present last night were conspicuously good looking. Also conspicuously ‘normal’, in the sense they looked as eager to please, as motivated, as intelligent, smart, as delightful and frankly delicious as young people generally do to my middle-aged eyes. They looked nervous, too.

I spoke briefly to one artist, whom I will call Ayesha.

I said, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You should be.”

In response, a flicker of what I can only describe as panic crossed Ayesha’s lovely face. Then she smiled, nervously, tentatively, and lowered her face slightly.

What did she hear? Did she hear an older Anglo lady say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You freeloader. You fraud.”

God, I hope not.

‘Ayesha’ is not ‘just’ a lovely face, and not ‘just’ a refugee. She is not a freeloader and not a fraud. ‘Ayesha’ is a talented and intelligent young woman, a young wife and mother – as Jo Cox was.

‘Ayesha’ and her fellow artists exhibiting in Over The Fence want to live. They want to live free in a community that accepts them and allows them opportunity.

They want to be “well come”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Ayesha and to see Mohammad and others who have been – or are still – in the detention centre in Melbourne. (What is its name? I heard the acronyms but I don’t know what they stand for. I would ask but I hate disclosing my ignorance.)

I am grateful to the volunteer detention centre visitors who attended the exhibition opening.

I am grateful to the activists who spoke and to those who organized this event.

I am grateful to the young woman employed by the detention centre security company who chose to spend her Saturday evening at this exhibition launch.

I am grateful for having my eyes opened, even if it took “good looking” young people and heart-rending artwork to clear away some cataracts.

Most of all, I am grateful to be reminded of goodness in the world. Jo Cox died and unjust detentions continue, but Good (with an uppercase) acts in this world, and I do believe good can prevail.

 


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Practice Talk (1986)

He is learning English.

He likes to practice.

 

– So tell me what your life is like

here

asks the passenger.

He practices talking.

 

– My life is very filled

he says

his life is full.

 

He drives this cab: al days

most hours.

He studies.

He works hard and he

is learning.

Family?

 

No family.

There is no

since he was 15.

 

His passenger asks

– Was it hard?

 

– getting out?

he waded down

a river he swam

at night: smell

 

bodies

bits of bodies

like bouillabaisse

and mines

and he

did not know how

or where

to turn or which direction

and the delta was a swamp

clogged with flesh and he trod

and wished

 

for moonlight and the sea and

for his uncle:

who was dead

among bodies somewhere

 

else

and now

he is here.

He is learning.

Not so hard.

 


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Remembering Snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow


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With love, to Ahmo (25 September 2014)

Ahmo's picture of Elly and Toby 2002

Ahmo’s drawing of Elly, Toby and Joshua (2002)

From early 2002 till end 2004 I worked with newly-arrived non-English speaking refugees, as a volunteer home tutor teaching English. The first family I worked with had arrived in Australia two weeks earlier. They’d spent two years in refugee hostels in Denmark waiting to learn which nation would accept them. They’d hoped for America, where the mother of the family had family, in Detroit. They got Australia.

This family were Bosnian Muslims, from the part of Bosnia claimed by Serb nationalists as Republika Srpska. The family were living in Sarajevo, where the father was a police officer (traffic), when civil war broke out. The father’s father and his brother were murdered, as were his cousins in Srebrenica. The father, who’d returned to try to protect his mother, fled for his life. For three months he lived in forests, sometimes surviving on bats and beetles. Then he joined a Bosnian Muslim militia. I don’t know a huge deal about his war, except that he was terrified at what might be happening in Sarajevo, to his wife and child, under siege, and that he was a sniper. I know he was a sniper because I saw him do his thing at the Geelong Agricultural Show, at a sideshow attraction, shooting clown heads for a fluffy toy prize. He shot fast and deadly and left us – myself, his son, the sideshow operator – in shock.

“Show off,” said the sideshow operator. She winked at his kid and raised her eyebrows at me.

This family saw themselves as ‘secular’ Muslims. They were Muslim the way most Australians of European heritage are ‘Christian’. The father drank and partied. Lovely man, beautiful boy: but not religious. The wife did not eat pork, and I think she prayed, but hers was a quiet faith. The boys (the younger born after the war) were brought up in a wholly secular way.

The week I met this family, the older boy turned 10. I turned 41 that week. This boy and I became very close. In fact, eventually I came to recognise that my relationship with this boy, and his family, was filling my unmet emotional needs, that the family no longer ‘needed’ me, and that it would be better for this family for me to pull back.

It’s hard to explain this to a 12 year old. It bothers me, a lot, that he felt abandoned. My sister the primary teacher assures me it’s likely he barely remembers me, but I feel guilt. Over the years I’ve thought of him very often, googled to try to find out how he’s doing, without finding much; have hoped he’s safe and thriving.

I do know where his family now live, in suburban Melbourne, and I’ve had Facebook updates from his dad.

This week especially I’m thinking of Ahmo, who is now 22. I want him to know I love him and have always loved him and I care about his future.

It’s time for me to pick up the phone.