Tag Archives: Behrouz Boochani

Journal Blitz 8a

I’m chronically behind in reading the journals I subscribe to. I’ve had seven goes at dragging myself up to date by blogging about a batch in one post. But blog entries get unwieldy when they deal with several very different publications, and I wouldn’t blame my readers fro giving up after the first screen or so. So this time, there’s just the one journal:


Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 1: modern elegy (2020)

At the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, poets Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada met with Jacinta Le Plastrier, publisher of the Australian Poetry Journal, on a panel called The Heart Bent for a discussion on ‘the ethics of elegy and writing on and from love’. Jacinta suggested that the panel members put together an issue of the APJ on the theme, and this excellent publication is the result. No one could have guessed that a pandemic would make the theme of elegy – a formal lament for the dead – bitingly relevant.

The journal is divided into four main sections, each wth a foreword by a different editor, a brilliant solution to the question of how to co-edit.

Each of the forewords ruminates on the nature of elegy. Ellen van Neerven invokes the context of the terrible happenings of 2020 – the ravages of country, Indigenous culture and First Nations people in Australia and around the world, and the rising up against racism that followed the deaths of George Floyd and David Dungay. In the thirteen poems she has selected, she says she feels ‘the energies of these pieces and the futures these poet don’t wish to mourn’. David McCooey writes, ‘We all live elegiac lives. Loss is endless, and the things we lose pile up like the debris in the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.’ Felicity Plunkett starts from Denise Riley’s Say something back (2016), a book of poems that centres around the death of the poet’s son, and writes, ‘The question of what the elegy – and, more broadly, the elegiac mode – can and can’t do is one the poems in this anthology approach from different angles, counterpoints in an extensive song.’ Eunice Andrada hopes ‘that through engaging with these elegies, we can widen our collective vocabularies when attempting to offer language to our loss’.

Behrouz Boochani has a special place. His ‘Forgive me my love’, hand-written in Farsi and translated by Moones Mansoubi, stands alone before all four sections. Even if it was drivel it would have justified its place, given his heroic history as a beyond-marginalised Australian writer. But it’s not drivel:

Forgive me, my angel!
I am not able to caress your gentle skin with my fingertips.
But I have a lifelong friendship with sea zephyrs
and those zephyrs strum my nude skin here, in this green hell!

What follows is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Well established writers have beautiful work here: Jennifer Maiden (‘Meteors’, since published in Biological Necessity), Eileen Chong (‘Cycle’, in A Thousand Crimson Blooms), Evelyn Araluen (‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, in Dropbear), Toby Fitch (‘Spleen 2’ in Sydney Spleen, which is on my TBR shelf), Andy Jackson, Sam Wagan Watson, Jordie Albiston, Tricia Dearborn, and more.

There must be something in this collection for all tastes and moods. I want to mention three poems by poets who are new to me.

Winnie Dunn’s ‘God in the Margins’ dramatises three episodes from a young woman’s life involving menstruation, contraception and herpes. They are told in straightforward vernacular, but with footnotes that link to texts from Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scripture. The effect is stunning: hard to demonstrate by quotation, because the thrill of the poem lies in the way the footnotes create a kind of cosmic miasma around the scenes of demotic Western Sydney life.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Air: For my parents and all who passed (2018–2020)’ starts with a school music teacher telling students, ‘Open your lungs when you sing’ and contrasts it to her dying parents’ difficulty breathing on their deathbeds. Here’s the poem’s turning point:

Death gags us, or swallows
all the air and never ever
gives it back, but today
walking in Haig Park,

under the cedars, I chance
upon a Chinese woman,

alone she sings with the beat
of a tambourine I hear
before I see, we're trees and trees
apart, socially distanced
but what amplitude her air,
its rise and fall of notes

giving back, giving me back 
a song I cannot understand 
except that it's lament

Perhaps I responded strongly to Elena Gomez’s ‘Death and all his friends’, because I read it just after hearing a review of the movie Fast and Furious 9, but it’s a terrific poem even if you’ve never heard of the franchise. it enacts the way emotions evoked by movies and TV shows – in this case a Fast and Furious movie, an episode of Gray’s Anatomy, and Jurassic Park – can be a vehicle for grief that has nothing to do with the movie. I desperately want to quote the poem’s surprising, brilliant and devastating last four lines, but that really would be a spoiler.

Tucked away at the back of the journal are two related sections: ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – five poems from an event at the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ Festival (not all by Melbourne poets); and ‘Introducing the Tagelied, the Dawn Song’, a brief essay by Nathan Curnow followed by six poems – by poets including Cate Kennedy and Bella Li – that are either examples of the form or relate to it somehow.

So poetry is thriving in Australia. I’m pretty sure copies of this journal are still available for Australia Poetry.

SWF 2020, 11th and final post

I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.

Drawn from Life: Alice Oseman in Conversation 21 October: YA phenomenon and graphic novelist Alice Oseman chats with media phenomenon Jes Layton.

Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.

Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies 4 November: Trent Dalton in conversation with Annabel Crabb bout his second novel

Guardian Australia Book Club with Helen Garner 6 November: No elaboration needed from me. The interviewer is Michael Williams, now artistic director of the SWF.

Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch in Conversation 11 November: Again, no elaboration needed from me about either of the participants. I will mention that Tara June Winch acquitted herself admirably in Hard Quiz recently.

Tony Birch: The White Girl 18 November: Tony Birch is here again to talk with Evelyn Araluen about his novel The White Girl.

Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth 3 December: The author of the excellent Disappearing Earth talks to Tam Zimet, until recently associate director of the SWF.

It’s nice to finish with one of the rare books that I’ve read that also features in this year’s Festival

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.