Tag Archives: Connecting Hearts

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.

The Book Group in Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth

Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing 2020)

Having threatened us with another Rachel Cusk title, this month’s Book Chooser opted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, a decision I applauded.

Before the meeting: The book’s narrator, Erica Marsden, moves to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be near the prison where her son is serving a life sentence for murder. Harking back to her own childhood in a mental institution where her father was head psychiatrist and inspired by a dream, she decides that a way out of her depression is to ‘make something’, and sets out to create a labyrinth in the weedy patch of sand beside her shack. Between dispiriting prison visits, she makes connections in the local community, and runs into an illegal immigrant who has just the skills needed to help design and build the labyrinth. As she realises her plan, she regains a degree of equilibrium, and her son seems – tentatively, incompletely – to be returning from the weirdness that had led him to commit a horrific act and then be lost in rage-filled (and, she believes, mother-blaming) isolation.

That’s it. It’s beautifully written, including some evocative moments when Erica is bemused by unspoken understanding among diverse male characters. I loved it.

My one small complaint is that there are no illustrations. Even though the descriptions the making of the labyrinth are very clear, I lack the visual imagination needed to interpret them. When I looked online, key words like ‘seed pattern’ seemed to have different technical meanings from the ones Erica gives. I mention this in the hope that an illustrated edition may be on the way.

What you get from a work of art depends on what you bring to it. I brought quite a bit to this book that intensified my enjoyment of it. I’ve seen the labyrinth at Chartres, and it was covered with wooden chairs just as Erica describes it. I’ve meditatively walked a small labyrinth at Glendalough in Ireland. Much more significantly, I took part in Connecting Hearts Project, an art work created by the Emerging Artist, which invited participants, among other things, to walk a kind of labyrinth made of terracotta hearts while reflecting on our common humanity, on our connection to people fleeing persecution, especially those held in detention by successive Australian governments, and on what it means to belong. With her permission, here are a couple of images:

And a video of the London iteration, where the spiral/labyrinth appears from 2 minutes 22 seconds:

After the meeting: There were six of us. The streets were awash outside, but we were warm and dry in our host’s home, which had been a rundown mess when we met there just before the onset of Covid, but he and his family have rebuilt as a joy and a wonder to behold. We ate well, and drank well (I wasn’t the only one to bring non-alcoholic beer, one of the many pleasures of the evening).

Probably because we were all so pleased to be meeting in person again, and because of the absence of him who has been tacitly designated the group facilitator, we spent a long time chatting – mainly about the new house and the current theatre work of one of us, complete with some great inside-theatre gossip – before focusing on the book.

The terrific discussion was kicked off by someone who said he had reread the second half of the book because it seemed that everything that had been built up in the first part was then wasted in the second. Characters were introduced with the beginnings of narrative arcs, and nothing came of it: an architect promises to get back to Erica with ideas for a labyrinth, then nothing; a teenage girl is seen self-harming, then nothing; Erica meets a neighbour’s daughter, then nothing. On a second reading he felt he had been too harsh, but still felt like things more or less petered out.

I couldn’t fault him on his description, but I felt that it worked, and struggled to say why. In some way, the incompleteness of the stories was the point. The labyrinth itself (mild spoiler alert) is never finished, and there’s a tiny movement in a key relationship towards the end that could be the beginning of significant change. I passed around printouts of some of the above pictures.

A third chap said he read the book as a study in grief: after the ordeal of her son’s trial and imprisonment for a horrific crime, Erica is in a fugue state, and the failures to connect or follow through on other people’s stories is a function of that. He drew our attention to the last two paragraphs, and when they were singled out in this context I think we could all see how beautifully the book is brought home. Both the opening speaker and I said we now felt like rereading the book from the beginning.

One chap confessed right at the start that he hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the discussion, and I almost wished I could have been him when, in the middle of all the discussion of grief and fugue states, small town communities, the perils of living as a refugee, the points of similarity and difference between this book and, say, Sea Change, and so on, someone asked, ‘What about the book burning?’

Then five of us made our various ways home, all through streets that were awash.

Hearts in London, 4

img_2243

Two members of Amnesty International outside Australia House in sub-zero temperatures bear witness on behalf of people opposed to the Australian government’s treatment of people seeking asylum and refugees on Manus Island ad Nauru. Neither of them is Australian.

Hearts in London (continued)
(Previous parts herehere and here)

So we pressed on, launched, with girded loins.
Days blurred as we bused clay
from N9 to SE17 at £1.50 a trip.
Fearing Oz flu we registered
with the NHS and got shots

at miraculous short notice. Our health
was no problem, but neoliberalism
and global warming were: a picket line
blocked our venue and the melting Arctic
sucked warmth from London. Numbers were down

but not out. Earworms thrived. Don’t go breaking my …
couldn’t if I tried
. / Il neigeait, il neigeait,
il neigeait.
 / Take any heart take mine, / snow
falling faintly and faintly falling, upon all the living
and the dead.
/ And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. / As snow

in Aprylle, That falleth on the flowr / melts away like
snow in May as if there were no such cold thing.

And it grew warm again. In St James’s Park
seagulls were on thin ice and fat grey squirrels
froze like water dragons. And all the while

(To be continued)

Hearts in London, 3

Hearts in London continued
(Previous parts here and here)

hearts

became a fluttering message wall. Let me
digress to tell my own hearts story.
I’ve been a close observer, played a small part
from the start, fetching and
carrying, listening, responding, trying and

erring, donning the apron and making and
wrapping and unwrapping hearts. Always
seeing the tapestry from behind, all hanging
threads and tangles. I’ve seen people’s tender
reverence with hearts that they

or others have made. I’ve seen
amid what seemed idle chatter, the moment
when someone takes a stylus to write
words straight from heart to clay:
‘heavy’, ‘shame’, ‘humanity’, ‘sacred’.

I walked the spiral in December. Such
a long way in. My chosen parcel
hard, rough, fragile. Its maker had written
‘Hope’. The walk out of the spiral
seemed endless. So many tiny clay effigies,

so many lives laid waste, so many
of us so ineffective. Those hundreds of little things,
cluttering my life for months, suddenly grabbed
me by the throat. And here we are in London.
When Penny finished speaking, she invited

people to inscribe the hearts we’d made that day,
and they did: ‘No walls,’ ‘No borders,’
‘The human race is one.’ Outside
was winter and night. But at the launch
something glimmered.

(To be continued)

Hearts in London, 2

IMG_3850

Part of the installation of Hearts at Circular Quay in December 2016

Hearts in London continued
Part 1 here.

On the Tube from Arsenal to Elephant
and Castle, a boy frowns over buttons,
dials and switches on a tiny cube. A woman
flashes me a warning smile, ‘He’s my son, and
I see you looking.’ So I ask him what it is. ‘A thing

for people who have restless hands.’
His father adds with what may be
a Dutch accent, ‘It’s called a Fidget Cube.’
We’ve spent the afternoon with Sue and David
wedging clay (like kneading dough, but thumpier)

at Clay Time in N5 where Jawad our host
told migration stories to rival the worst
of Australia’s (well, not quite up
to Manus and Nauru standards, but bad),
and Brexit as a vicious assault on so many.

That’s Thursday. Friday we meet again to shape
clay into hearts – with aorta, vena cava and
sundry pipes – in six easy steps, in a windowless
room in labyrinthine King’s College London:
forty-three hearts in a tray by half past four,

then on to the launch of a new iteration
of Penny’s Connecting Hearts Project
which is, after all, why we’re here.
Nibbles and drinks and meet-and-greet chat
in a room that till 4 had been a student caff,

then Anna Professor and Jim Academic
and Emily from the Museum of Migration
spoke of the project’s UK context, and
conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
(don’t worry about the Latin, it’s just a little joke):

Penny spoke. Two years ago, as she tells it,
she woke from a dream of a heart being ripped
and stabbed and, not knowing why, she began
to shape in clay what she hoped was a humanish
heart. And the clay gave her hands an idea.

By the end of the year, more than four hundred people
had learned to shape humanish hearts
in clay, and had made one for each person
who’d come to Australia for refuge and been detained
with small hope of release on Manus Island or Nauru.

Among the early heartmakers were Rohingya
women who first drew barbed wire in the clay
and then wrote words: ‘I want my husband
in Manus.’ Long-ago refugees from Croatia
sang old songs and shed big tears.

Immigrants, children of immigrants, refugees,
activists, people of faith, artists,
even ceramicists sat at her tables and sweated
their DNA into the clay as they shaped it,
took up a stylus and made their marks.

Weirdly contorted, like arthritic hands
or slaughtered wild creatures, no two the same,
each one an oddity, they grew to an army
inanimate, cool, waiting for the breath
of life. She filmed them in a field like

casualties of war. She laid them in a circle
wrapped in muslin, and invited people
to unwrap them, to write on the cloth
(‘I’m sorry’ ‘I am ashamed’ ‘I will not
forget that you are there’). In December

a vast spiral (‘So many lives in limbo’)
at Circular Quay: a thousand passersby
entered, walked the meditative shape,
took a moment from the endless noise
and let it sink in (‘So many lives’). A fence

became a fluttering message wall.

(More to come)

Hearts in London, 1

hearts.jpg

Hearts and a woman I’ll sing, but first a word
about another woman. I forget her name.
She had progressive aphasia. When I knew her
she hadn’t lost speech altogether
but would sing instead in a rough plainchant.

I thought she was being cute, but it was terminal.
She came to mind as I tried to write about Penny’s
Connecting Hearts project. My prose wouldn’t rise
to the task. So I invoke my late friend
(whose name may have been Joyce) and try again

in rough improvised verse. On Valentine’s Day
(also Ash Wednesday) Penny and I flew out
with thirty clay hearts in our carry-on. Hearts
are no problem for Border Force (I’d worried
theymight look like grenades) and soon

we were in Singapore, wearing red
to usher in the Year of the Dog and reading
our horoscopes writ large: Penny’s a Rabbit
and will reap what she sows in her travels.
I’m a Pig and should be mindful of my words.

I was reading some Amitav Ghosh, his
cultural mishmash perfect for the place.
We saw Monet and Manet, CornBread and Banksy,
Anish Kapoor and a durian iceblock,
noodles and pratas, hot pots, kopi and heat.

Then with our hearts back into the sky
for fourteen uncomfortable hours
silent spectacular screens on all sides (I can’t
or won’t use earphones on a plane), to reach
London SE17 at half past one a. m.

weary and jetlagged and wondering what
we were here for. That was Sunday.
On Wednesday, we had our first meetings
with Anna and Jim and Vinya and Olla
and Jawad, and we were at work.

[In the next episode, the back story.]