New words

Some moments over the past few weeks:

I watch George Clooney and Matt Damon being interviewed on ABC News. Talk turns to Harvey Weinstein’s recently-exposed abuse of women. ‘There should be zero tolerance for that kind of thing’, George said, and Matt agreed, nodding furiously.

I wonder what their new movie with the crap title, Suburbicon, is about, and I find that it begins with a man’s plot to kill his disabled wife and replace her with her twin sister. I try to write and I stop.

Then:

I decide not to go to the gym. Without thinking, I ask my boyfriend if he thinks that’s ok.

Then:

I go to a writing workshop and ask a question about when, in the course of writing a story, is it best to pursue an interview with a subject. The tutor looks at me blankly. ‘You don’t need to wait for permission to speak to anyone’, he says.

Then:

I stand outside the State Library with my workmates to watch the results of the Marriage Equality postal survey. All I can see is the backs of people, and some of their fronts, faces tight and hopeful. Eventually, the results start to come through thick, broken static. ‘Spit it out’, one man yells from the bough of a tree, wearing a rainbow feather boa, ‘it’s one word’. And eventually the chief statistician does spit out the word, and it is a ‘yes’. Everyone's faces melt, and our arms find the nearest bodies to wrap around. My nerves turn to water and I am shaking.

I feel so light for the next two days, as though my cells have merged with the rainbow confetti released into the sky that morning. This brightness is the feeling of a new future unfurling, like a path gradually revealed by torchlight: let’s go this way.

Grimly, gradually, as if read from an instruction manual, this survey, a referendum on the empathic capacity of our nation, becomes a biopsy. Commentators trawl through the statistics, testing for greater cruelties. In the face of logic and fact, someone claims that it was all the fault of Muslims, and everyone agrees. I remember my rage against this question that should never have had to be asked, the 61% answer that we maybe traded for other insults and more violence. On Manus Island, refugees report that guards have tipped over emergency water supplies. I try to call the Prime Minister’s office again and I lose my voice.

On the cover of a newspaper, there are two men wearing pink Hawaiian shirts, smiling. Behind them, another man wearing a t-shirt that says: Silence = Death.

What is it that stops us from speaking?

Acts of self-censure are like anti-biotics. We swallow a little bit of the disease intending to inoculate ourselves, for protection.

But the trade-off is a quiet, unmistakable death of the imagination. When we wipe away the new words we might say, the new ideas we might think, in favour of the familiar words (or silence) that we believe will protect us, what are we really doing if not upholding a version of reality in which we are prey?

Often, defiance is associated with the word ‘no’. But this one word, ‘yes’, is still everywhere. Plastered up on billboards and shop windows, in the window of my own house, on a badge I lost on the tram home, caught somewhere in the rattling gap between the doors and the stairwell.

Tomorrow is the last day

Tomorrow is the last day.

I see an image on Facebook of a water pipe cut down the middle. It’s someone’s job to go around cutting the pipes for drinking water. I wonder how they made the cuts. Was it with a knife or a pair of tough scissors to slice through the plastic? I wonder how long it takes to cut a water pipe and how strong you need to be.

The rations get cut off tomorrow too, though they’ve been winding down food stocks for weeks, the reports say. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Just the basics, and soon the basics will be takeaway packages only, no sit-down meals. No power, no water.

There have been nearly 100 days of protest on Manus, but so far, the last days of the camp have been quiet here. I don’t think most people actually know. If they’ve heard of the closure they think it’s because the refugees who’ve been living there have been settled somewhere else. America, maybe? Didn’t everyone go to America? I think I heard that.

Sometimes I feel like the news moves so fast I can’t keep up. My screen is wave upon wave of things, calamity I mute with my own fingers swiping through. I want it to quiet, I want to think more clearly. I’ll wait for a clearer time to read those articles in full, to call my MP (to find out who my MP is and call them - Peter somethingorother, I think). But this closure is conspicuously quiet. And so much slower. The news comes in dribs and drabs, and then finally I read the long stories written by people on the island about what it’s like there: what it’s like to be imprisoned for years, and then for the prison to close down around you. To know that even your captors will leave you for dead.

Those of us who do know what’s going on have underwater objections - muted, ineffective. We are soft and immobile, dead bluebottles on a beach. We say we don’t know what to do, but in truth most of us have given up, hollowed ourselves out. We have come to regard this cruelty as a background condition to our lives. It’s not hard. We are good at silence, even when we mask it with indignation. We get better at it each time someone is killed.

Back in May I made a quilt by reading incident reports from one of the camps. I hand-wrote the text, I slept a night on each sheet, I stitched them together. It took forever, and when I had finished, the quilt was huge, much larger than my bed. It stretched out in all directions. A quilt of my own complicity. A nightmare quilt I did not design, but one I stitched with my silence.

As I wrote those documents I couldn’t look away from the names. I couldn’t read them, of course. They were censored by thick black bars. But they were there.

I hear them now.

Tomorrow is the last day of the camps.

 

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Going to the doctor

This morning I went to the doctor to get my mental healthcare plan reviewed. Ironically, while I'm grateful to get the steps and medication and referrals and further appointments that I need, this is an activity that never fails to make me feel depressed and hopeless. If you've had one done before, you'll know that the highlight among the various forms that need to be filled in is a questionnaire on which you rank your current level of shitfeeling on scales from 0 to 3, and then you get given an overall score. The higher your score, the more likely you are to be feeling shit.

When I first got a mental healthcare plan, a long time ago, I quite liked doing the scale questions (which do have a name that I can't remember right now). It's a way of objectively establishing that something is wrong, which was initially relieving. You don't have to come up with the words yourself, just the rough level to which a sentence matches your state of mind over the past month. And you can measure your own progress, too. When things started to get better for me, I could do this test, whatever it's called, and be sure that I was recovering. And I could also tell my family and friends, 'hey look, I really am a lot better'. It was a tool to prove I was becoming worthy of being in society again. And amid the whole bureaucratic exercise, this was something, to some extent, within my control.

But today, I got no sense of relief or accomplishment out of the scale. It felt a little bit like failing a test, but it's more complex than that. Throughout the process, my doctor assured me that it was 'just procedure' to ask questions about whether I was feeling suicidal, whether I was in a space where I might hurt other people. I didn't mind. I understand why they need to be asked. But amidst the constant reminders that these things are procedural and aren't intended to 'mean anything', I wondered what exactly was the point of asking them, of being there at all. Why did it take two hours to provide such minimal information, that my doctor conceded was inherently meaningless? I think I've entered a stage where I'm not talking about 'recovery' anymore, but 'management'. And that means maybe I'm going to have to acknowledge that basing my worth on a set of completely arbitrary questions is not the best way to proceed.

Anna Spargo-Ryan wrote an excellent essay a couple of years ago on why things like World Suicide Prevention Day are a bit counter-productive. Because when people have a tendency to feel shit, pointing out this tendency is the last thing they need. When you feel shit for years, decades, whatever medically-diagnosed (or not) form this takes, you don't need people telling you offhand that it's bad to be that way, and that they hope you're not like that.

The stigma around mental illness goes deep, and it's not just about being 'treated differently' than so-called normal people, it's about having an incredibly poorly-developed vocabulary yourself about how and when and why mental illness can affect your life and the ways you are able to live it. For me it all crystallises in this stupid anxiety-depression scale. When I ace the test, I feel good, my doctor feels good, everyone is proud of me and life can go back to normal. I am acceptable. I even wrote an article last year about how good being acceptable feels, how right it is to fit neatly in a medically-sanctioned box. But when I fail the test, everything is put on hold until I meet the right criteria again. I'm getting to the point where I rarely meet the right criteria, or at least I don't feel like I do. So what do I do now?

This emotional investment in what is essentially a box-ticking exercise seems like an additional headache that I just don't need. The world is three minutes from nuclear war. My taxes are funding a hate campaign against LGBTIQ+ people and their children. I wonder if the people who make these sorts of decisions ever feel like a scale in a doctor's office precludes their ability to live and speak in the world. My guess is no, they don't.

The experience of diagnosis, treatment, the healthcare system in general, can divide and effervesce subject-hood at its very core: the body. If this has happened to you, for whatever reason, I just wanted to say this to you as well as to myself: You're allowed to be the way you are. You're allowed to pursue the treatment you want and feel you need. You're allowed to define your own horizons and know that they may not fit on the Medicare form or be part of the drop-down menu, or have a name or a shape yet, or fit on a scale from 0 - 3. They might be a 6 or a 9,000. As my doctor says, waving his hand with incongruent nonchalance in my face, it really doesn't matter. But you, and I, do.

Today

Today I did nothing

And I spent too much money

On stuff that I don’t need and

that I actually actively dislike

 

I bought

Two burnt coffees

Some wooden spoons that are

Too long for the tea jar

A rug woven in a factory in China

Using cotton from India, and

A square of Taiwanese cheesecloth,

For making cheese one day

And someone’s old clothes from an op shop

That smell musty and are slightly damp because

I also got caught in the rain

Today.

 

An embarrassment of riches

As they say

It was my day off

My first day as a part-timer

And all I could think was

 

‘But I was trying to outrun capitalism’

 

I had a such good day,

Despite world events and the weather

Buying things

And not caring

About whether I really needed them or not

And what they said about my personality

Or the type of person I would become

Over the passage of time,

And whether that person's clothes would be sort of clothes

That someone would one day carry home

From the op shop

On their day off

Soaking wet

In the rain.

 

the truth

I'm trying to come to terms with something I find both benign and monstrous, and that is the fact of writing poetry.

Benign because, well, what are poems? Nothing. Just words. And monstrous, because the nothing of poetry is in fact something: the self sliding out and turning. Almost, but not quite, a mirror. Where narrative is words following an idea, I think in poetry, often it's the words that lead. Someone at work recently chided me that all poetry was 'heart vomit'. It's true, the words do just come out. But equally I find myself tethered to them as if I am on a leash.

I never knew I wrote poems until maybe a year ago. I thought of what I wrote (when I wrote, which was not heaps) as more of a non-fiction narrative form that had no plot or characters and was slightly kinder on the ear than your average paragraph. It wasn't until 2016 when someone had the audacity to call me a poet to my face that I started to think about the form itself.

Up until this point, I'd primarily thought of poetry as a label. It was a club I knew about but wasn't a member of. Poetry went its way, and I went mine. I was happy for us to nod at each other in the corridors, sure, but interaction beyond that level felt like I was overstepping my bounds. You can get tied up in labels and definitions to the point of excluding yourself from doing anything, I suppose. When I think about it, I've written a lot of poems.

I wrote my first fully-formed poem when I was five. It was an illustrated, handwritten one (obviously) that my mum framed in a soft grey cardboard matte-board, and put on our mantlepiece. It's still there, somewhere, in amongst bank statements and junk mail and christening photographs and things that don't work anymore.

It went like this, with tiny in-line paintings of flowers, a rising sun, and the night sky, like watercolour emojis:

 

Black is the night

Yellow is the day

In the evening, it is orange

And the sun is red

 

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I found out that this first poem was also my first experience of editorial censorship, albeit repressed somewhere in the back pocket of my subconscious.

'Claire,' mum said, 'I always thought your original version was better'

'What version?'

It turned out that my dad, a writer himself, had ruthlessly edited my five year old heart vomit. I remembered it as having been more of a collaborative process at the time. But, at mum's request, when I was 21, I went back in with a pencil, crossed the altered bits out and changed the text back to the original, which mum remembered as:

 

Black is the night

Yellow is the day

In the evening it comes orange

And the sun is pink

 

She was right. It is better this way. I remembered this poem, written and restored over the course of 16 years, because I wrote another one today, sick (again) at home. Maybe it's an update on the theme. Some things in life feel so inevitable that it must be fate. But the truth is that nothing is meant to be. Night follows day. Day follows night. And the sun is pink. Truth.

 

Life rains down like fate in fat streaks

Like a sheet of hard steel in the wind

I buckle

I try not to feel

But in the end I crumple and fold.

Useless tears track salt lines

Down my face

 

I breathe in the sticky sting

Of the liquid I have made

Into my skin and I begin

To melt again

To mould myself around the things that are happening

and to buffer against the things in my way

and I make them shiny so that I can see them

I take the bitter moon and swallow it, cursing

 

And then I spit light back at the day

 

Note that this last poem was edited after I published this blog post, and may be edited again. If it's important to you to know what version you are reading, you can email me and I'll tell you.

big things and little things

Today I broke up with my bank. It had been a long time coming, and it was definitely them at fault, not me. It feels like an oddly renegade thing to do, to simply take your own money, the savings you've built up and sacrificed for, and move them to another virtual holding bay. The bank teller treated me with disdain bordering on pity, speaking quietly to me and enunciating carefully, like a hostage negotiator. 

'Now, I'll be cutting this card up, today. So, do you understand that once that happens, you won't be able to use it?'

I understood.

'You may have a purchase on here that hasn't come through yet, so it might show up later on your final balance, and you'll have to pay it. Do you understand that?'

'Oh, ok. I don't think I will though. I haven't used it in...' the look on her face made me change tack. 'yep. I understand'.

Next to me, a woman was getting her credit card interest rate lowered. 'Whatever it's at now is too high, it's killing me', she said. I bet she wished her card was getting cut up too. I walked out of there feeling lighter about my finances than I have in years.

Lately, I've been on a bit of a downsizing binge (is that a tautology?) It seems a lot of people I know are also consolidating their finances, trying to spend less, cutting up their credit cards. Recently, this article published by the Queen Victoria Womens Centre struck recognition and fear into my heart. In it, Jane Gilmore discusses the financial circumstances of an average Australian couple. They begin with only a small gap in their incomes as they start careers in comparable industries. But, as they navigate maternity leave, childcare, mortgages, divorce and settlement, a wide gulf separates their finances until the woman in the article- the statistical average- is left in financial hardship for the majority of her adult life.

No matter how hard you work, systemic biases create financial uncertainty and instability that can be impossible to surmount. Once upon a time, I thought the leanness in my household growing up was caused by fate, incompetence, or an unfortunate mixture of both. As an adult, I realise it's not that simple, but nor is it all that mysterious. Mum once said to me 'divorce makes people poor'. She's wrong of course. It doesn't always make people poor, or at least not the same people. But she's right about cause and effect. Some things make other things hard.

Today Australia recorded 26 years of continuous economic growth (i.e, we haven't technically had a recession, despite the fact that since 1991 the economy has both shrunk several times in its total size and wealth has swelled noticeably toward the top, like an undercover pimple). Yesterday, it was announced that retail, hospitality, pharmacy and fast food workers would have their penalty rates cut every year for four years. The same workers have never seen an annual rate increase greater than inflation. And wages growth overall has hardly even broken a percentage point in the last year. 

As Richard Denniss points out in this blistering essay, year after year, Australian politicians (so-called conservatives) have engaged in what amounts to inter-generational theft across superannuation, taxation and housing, to say nothing of their trashing of universities. As a result, life is harder than ever for young people. And more so if their parents lack the assets and the means to support them well past university. I'm thinking of those single mothers who are themselves struggling within a sexist economy that forces them into financial dependence and then punishes them for it.

We hear every day about climbing rates of anxiety and depression among young people. I know so many people who struggle daily, their stress compounded by the fact that they work casually, or don't have sick leave, or work freelance or on short contracts. No matter how much you talk about your feelings or practice self-care or delete your Instagram, you have to eat. And you have to be able to envision a future in which you'll be able to do so, and maybe even one day feed other, littler mouths too.

I don't have any answers, because despite my own relative security, I feel quite powerless, which I think is the whole point of neoliberalism. Eventually, we'll all just float along in the cool liquid embrace of the market, bobbing over to where we need to go. But of course it doesn't work like that. No one goes through life without making deeply personal, idiosyncratic decisions, which nevertheless affect those around us. All we deserve is an economic system that recognises and supports that process.

Big things make little things hard.

Harmony Day, now with inverted commas

I really don’t like the idea of writing what I’m going to write next. But I can’t see a way around it. I’m tired and angry, and I need to untangle these emotions in the most blunt way possible, or I’ll just end up screaming into the abyss for the next 12 hours.

As a white person, I am deeply disturbed, pissed off and, yes, offended by the Liberal government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Today, Australia celebrated Harmony Day with the news that the Turnbull government had confirmed its intention to remove ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Instead, it will be replaced with ‘harass’. I'm not across the legal semantics, but to me that sounds like a word that relies more on the intent of the attacker than the impact on the victim, and carries the implication that you have do it quite vigorously. Advocates, Indigenous groups, community leaders and Racial Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane have made their opposition clear, saying it will weaken protections and send a 'dangerous message' that hate speech is now welcome in our society. You know, like singing happy birthday and being a bit suspicious of Halal foods and hating Anthony from Married at First Sight for being an abuser and hating Melissa George for being abused. Just something we do.

Most of the commentary about the issue has been galvanised around the case of the now infamous (or legendary, depending on your particular position on the racist dickhead-o-meter) QUT students, against whom a complaint was made invoking the Act. Very little mainstream commentary has focused on the voices of those 18C’s opponents want to insult and offend. I have seen very few interviews with people of colour, whom the law is about, whom it is supposed to protect, in the mainstream media, and far too many pandering discussions with racist nationalists like Corey Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, and James Paterson (who closely resembles a piece of floating, flaccid sea-junk most days, except when he comes to life talking about the excesses of multiculturalism and the joy of untrammelled ‘free speech’, whatever that means).

That’s why I am so reluctant to comment on this issue. Because while it upsets and disturbs me, I just don’t know first-hand what the sting of racist speech feels like. I cannot imagine the utter betrayal of my own elected representatives lobbying for the right to offend and insult me on the basis of my race. I don’t believe anyone who hasn't felt the impact of overt and ingrained, under-the-surface racism is properly equipped to discuss it, let alone make laws concerning it. I don't believe the term 'backlash' properly encapsulates the response of people of colour to this bill. The proper word is 'refusal'.

But while I don't know what it feels like to be on the receiving end, I do know what it feels like to have the ‘right’ to be racist offered to me, as if on a silver platter. Most white Australians do, I think. It feels like being made to swallow something particularly bitter, something rotten to the core.

It feels like the phrase 'everyday Australians' being used to describe you, instead of 'minority group'. It feels like the sly expectation of compliance from the mouth of a passenger spouting racist insults on the tram, as if you're on their side. It feels like a shop assistant serving you ahead of an Indigenous person, even though they were in line first. It feels like overhearing racist remarks and trying to give a supportive smile to the victim, but being too cowardly to challenge the perpetrator. Though I wish this was not the case, I have been too cowardly on more than one occasion, and partly this has to do with a culture that applauds people for ‘fitting in’ more than it discourages those voices who strive violently to push others out.

It feels like an arts website I subscribe to publishing a glowing obituary for a man behind a string of racist and homophobic caricatures. He was lauded as having a ‘sharp pen’ and being ‘divisive’. In Australia, it seems there’s nothing more ‘controversial’ than an old white bigot with a gigantic media platform.

Anyone who believes we don't need the protections afforded by 18C in its current form is lying, or wilfully oblivious. I watch the 18C debate with a sick, twisting feeling in my stomach, but without the unique pain of victimhood. But I also watch it with an awareness of history and language, and the ways this unnecessary 'debate' is being had at its expense too- becoming bent and twisted towards an agenda totally naked in its cruelty.

Today on the morning news, Corey Bernardi was asked what, exactly, he wanted to say that he couldn’t say right now, with 18C protecting people from intentional insults and offensive language. In what ways was he so constrained?

‘Well Virginia, I want to say exactly what those QUT students said on their Facebook page [after they had been told they couldn’t use a computer room reserved for Indigenous students]. I want to say ‘QUT is fighting apartheid with apartheid’.

Even though my expectations of Corey Bernardi saying something idiotic and bigoted every time he opens his mouth is pretty much the same as my hunch that Malcolm Turnbull will be staring hollow-eyed and grave into the bathroom mirror for just a few more seconds than usual tonight (i.e a 100% certainty), I was perplexed. And a little bit stunned.

I don’t know if Corey genuinely did just want to admonish QUT for its attempt to furnish Indigenous students with study equipment.

I don’t know if he meant to tacitly admit that Australia does have apartheid-like, racially-motivated and divisive policies and always has. Or that Australia was founded on the notion that whiteness was so superior that it had to try to eclipse even the existence of Aboriginal people, first conceptually and then physically, and then alternately after that.

I don’t know (though this is doubtful) if he wanted to say that apartheid existed in Australia and should not continue to exist. Or if it should.

I don’t know if he actually felt that that one sentence, built from a pile of historical inaccuracy, thoughtless white privilege and factual nonsense, and university politics and toneless, casual social media slander was worth the demonstrated harm to millions of Australians.

All I know is that it really, really fucking sounded like it.

And I’m pretty surprised that Donald Trump ranks as the world’s number one racist. We’ve gone way past coded nationalist slogans here. They’re not even dog-whistling anymore.

 

Looking for new ways to be miserable? Have you tried creativity?

I am usually alone when it hits. Sat in front of my computer screen, a couple of hours spread out before me, like a luxurious bedsheet on which to roll around and wrap myself up in. Time to create something, to gather up the almost-nothing shadow-world fragments swirling in my head. The bits of words or sentences or images snatched and stored up there between emails or on the walk from home to work or work to home. You know, the stuff that gently growls to a deep belly-full longing when I'm working in my actual job.

That’s exactly when it comes. Terror. I freeze. I can’t and won’t write anything. I have no ideas, and the only words I can think of are adjectives, not even good ones. I don't know how anything has ever been described without the use of the word 'nice', unless you add 'not' before it. Nouns have completely left my vocabulary. The bones in my hands won’t work to type. And I remember (of course!) that of the few creative attempts I’ve made to date, everything has been awful, trite, or an obvious and embarrassing forgery of work by other people who actually can write, make art and think of good ideas.

This is what it’s like every single time I sit down to write anything at all, and it’s a thousand times worse if the creative task I have in mind is in a visual one. In that moment, I would rather be doing anything else in the world. Why for God’s sake can’t it be a work day? I make bargains in my head. I’ll work overtime this week, starting right this second. I’ll work for $5 an hour carrying Tony Abbott’s Iron Man towel and his swimming cap and getting him a Powerade (red, don't you reckon?) I’ll do anything. Just get me out of this hell. I wait, sometimes hours, for inertia to lift.

Then, after a while, if I’m lucky, I get something down, and my brain quiets a little. I’m able to work (it's 'nice') and I find a stopping point somewhere. And getting to this point is enough without having any perspective on what I’ve done, whether it’s good or bad, if it makes sense or makes me laugh or is beautiful.

The main feeling, on stopping, is sweet relief. Sudden rainfall after a 35 degree day, a summer storm breaking. I think ‘practice’ must come from being able to defer that moment for as long as possible. Which is a pretty tall order, one that's probably lifelong.

This is what the creative process is like for me. I just wanted to get it out there, in case this rings true for you, or you’ve only made it to the terror phase.

Congratulations- it sucks, but you have begun.

It was the best of times, it was the absolute rat-hole worst of times: reading and listening in 2016

By now it’s obvious that 2016 ‘totally sucked’. Right?

The affront to consciousness that is the Trump presidency immediately springs to mind, but there were plenty of contenders for low-point of the year. Britain’s racist smoke-bomb out of the EU, for instance. The Pulse nightclub massacre, one of the worst ever hate crimes against LGBTI people in history. The fall of Aleppo, in which thousands were captured and killed while the then President Elect had a go at Anna Wintour on Twitter. No one can deny it was an awful year in global terms.

I love a good 2016 meme as much as the next person, but just for a second, I want to question if last year really was the anomalous fuck-up it’s purported to be. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Australian politics, 2016 was a year of fairly routine cruelty. It was a year of escalating abuses towards asylum-seekers, Indigenous people, and the poor, punctuated by real shocks which were all but dismissed by large sections of the media and the political class.

Asylum-seekers self-immolated and Peter Dutton told activists to stop giving them such silly ideas. Sickening footage revealed abuse at Don Dale detention centre, and the investigation of the death of Ms Dhu made it clear, once more, that our justice system is set up to treat Indigenous people like human garbage. Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico, but we’ve been slowly stacking the bricks up on our own racist fortress for years. Now it’s pretty much business as usual.

So, life goes on. Personally, I had a pretty rocky year too. I started a Master of Fine Arts, then changed my mind and started working full time. In the middle, I was barely employed, thoroughly depressed, and my hobbies mainly comprised listening to podcasts and crying in the bath. I also re-discovered the pleasure of reading. When you’re doing it right, reading feels private and world-opening. And that’s a pretty good feeling to have, especially when you are hanging out full time on unemployed self-aware feminist island, population: 1. So I wanted to share my top ten(ish) recommended reads and listens from 2016. You might like them too.

1. The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Chances are, if I’ve seen you in the last 5 months, I have told you how obsessed I am with Naomi Klein’s writing. If not: hello, sorry I forgot to tell you, Naomi Klein is my idol. Klein’s worldview is unapologetic, incisive and totally spot on. She rigorously attacks neoliberal ideology, and she doesn’t buy into the colour-blind and often outright racist free-market promises of the right and the new left. Both The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything are terrifying but you feel so angry the whole time that you can get through it.

Though her research is meticulous and her scientific knowledge impressive, for me the most compelling writing in This Changes Everything is where Klein uses her own experiences with IVF and miscarriage (she experienced several during the writing of the book) to illustrate the how the 'extractivist' mentality abuses people and the planet. Where doctors would tell her to ‘push back’ and force a pregnancy her body was clearly rejecting, she decided instead to listen to her instincts. And she draws the same simple analogy to action on climate. She asks: doesn’t it feel like the planet is asking us to stop pushing it to the edge? And she asks it in an extremely bold and intelligent way, mapping out a socially-just plan for saving our arses and our children’s arses from climate Armageddon.

I know these books are bricks but I am telling you to get in the bath and give it a good solid crack because the payoff is worth it.

2.      The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford

Think about every woman you’ve heard about in the news who has come forward with an allegation of sexual harassment or assault. Or women 'outed' for dating married or older men. Or women who have the misfortune to make a man look bad or even criminal in some way, usually by saying they were raped when they obviously weren’t. You know how you rarely hear from them after they are shamed in the media? Read The Natural Way of Things.

Then read Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford’s memoir/manifesto. Aside from being a fizzing, raging down-to-earth feminist polemic, it’s just damn good writing that makes you go ‘yes!’ a lot. Ford is hilarious, doesn’t mince words, and is full of anger and life. Her passion is infectious and she is the foremost voice in contemporary Australian feminism. I’d even go so far as to say she’s the foremost voice in contemporary Australia, full stop, given how prolific she is. This should be a set text in schools.

3.     The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir rocked my world. Her experiences growing up in suburban Sydney amid casual and not-so-casual racism are tremendously affecting. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful, drawing a blistering portrait of suburban life in the 90s.

Being a beneficiary of Australia’s culture of white supremacy myself, it was a revelation to see the world through Maxine’s eyes. It made me think about the injustices my non-Anglo friends at school must have experienced, often silently, and about how different our schooling experience must have been. From the stares of people on the street, to the singsong curiosity of teachers interested in her cultural difference, to the amount of snarling racist bullying she experienced by peers and adults, there are so many facets to this story, which is also one filled with adolescent self-consciousness and bravado. I love what Clarke does with language and storytelling to talk about the fact of racism, riven as it is throughout Australian society and her own life. Her writing gave me frequent liquid shivers of recognition, and surprise.

4. Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil, Playing and Reality by DW Winnicott

I discovered Simone Weil during my (now abandoned) Masters research. Weil was a French mystical philosopher, one of Simone de Beauviour’s rivals at the Sorbonne. While Simone de B was sharing black turtlenecks with Sartre, Simone W went to work in automotive factories so that she could understand the experiences of the working class. She needed to experience things in her body: the exhaustion of physical labour, the single-mindedness needed to complete repetitive tasks, in order to write her philosophy.

I didn’t read the whole of Gravity and Grace, her opus, but the bit that left a mark on me is about ‘attention and will’. She talks about the transformative power of attending to things: to tasks, to people. If we take proper time to think about things and to attend to the specific actions they demand from us, then we will find the right solutions. I know this sounds a bit like a line from Affirmation by Savage Garden, but I really love this idea and I think about it all the time in plenty of different situations. Because most of the threats we face as humans and as individuals are attempts to divert our attention from the things that we know really matter. I don’t know about you, but thanks to my iPhone I am mostly unable to focus my attention at all and it seriously scares me.

I also loved Playing and Reality by DW Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and child psychologist. He has an incredibly intimate conception of what play is, and how children think and learn. It’s a beautiful, sensitive clinical book that touches on how art of all kinds can be an imaginative, attention-full space. I loved the two ideas together, and I recommend reading them as companion pieces even though that might be wrong according to actual philosophers.

5.     Not by Accident (podcast) 

I started listening to Not By Accident in an effort to try and consume more Australian and less American audio content. And when I heard it, I realised what was missing from all of the expensively-produced NPR and Slate podcasts I’m addicted to: vulnerability.

Not by Accident is a personal documentary by Sophie Harper, all about her decision to become a single mother on purpose, through artificial insemination. It’s a pregnancy story like I’ve never heard before, as Harper recalls her decision and her sometimes fraught experience, half-narrating to her daughter. What do you tell your new boss, for instance, when you don’t have a partner and have become pregnant entirely of your own volition? And how do you even do such a thing alone, not because you split from a partner, but because it just felt right to do the whole thing by yourself?

Harper’s story is told with honesty, depth and humour, and great production values (she is also a filmmaker) including audio recordings of phone calls and interviews with key people. It is breathtakingly intimate, and feels like a friend trusting you with their own secret history. I extended my walk home on several occasions just to keep listening.

6The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Another major shock to my system (in a good way) was The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. It’s a kind of memoir, but one shot through with literary and theoretical observations, clever stabs at philosophers that are revered without good cause, and other gemlike bits studded throughout. The whole piece culminates with the birth of Nelson’s son, and her partner’s gender transition, and later being a mother and how that changes things. Nelson’s writing is so spiky and sure-footed, and I really responded to the strength she invests in the personal, and the domestic (I was going to write 'mundane'- that's patriarchy). I definitely had some sort of awakening reading this book but I don’t know quite what it is or how to explain it yet.

7.     Revisionist History (podcast)

This podcast is so good, I could listen to it instead of eating food and probably be completely fine. It just feels so nutritious.

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s journalist Malcolm Gladwell re-considering conventional understandings of various historical phenomena. The premise is quite simple, but the implications are massive. Sandwiched somewhere in the middle is a mini-series on the inequities in the American college system that is totally engrossing. These are stories that are at first look small and isolated, but Gladwell shows them to reveal massive rifts in narratives that shape policy, identity and culture. Even that idea is itself revelatory.

8.     Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit put this up for free download after Putin made Donald Trump president, and I’m so glad she did. It’s a slim book that came out in 2004, about the history of activism, and the wellsprings of hope and action that have made incremental, but powerful impacts. Solnit argues that while we might long for big revolutions, it’s actually little acts of resistance and protest, in the most hostile circumstances, that make the greatest differences. Like everything Solnit writes, Hope in the Dark made me feel like my brain was being stretched by poetry, big ideas and new information, and I emerged feeling energised.

9.     Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

You know how water is a good drink? Between the World and Me is a good book in exactly the same way. It slips beyond the category of good and into essential: a missing part found.

10.     The Nauru Files

This is not a book and I didn’t read all of the more than 2,000 leaked documents when they were published by the Guardian mid-last year. But I did read enough of the documents (which were also read aloud in various protests around the world), to glean something of what life is like for the people detained indefinitely under inhuman conditions in our names. Even through the stilted officialease of incident reports, these documents are soaked with despair. Reading them marked all of the other reading I did in 2016, and since.

 

 

Open ya window, there's a revolution happening outside

I missed the march. I was at an all-day writing workshop that had already been paid for. If it weren't for that I would have been there. Definitely. With a sign. I mean, unless something else had come up. I spat out a couple of retweets in solidarity, which should count for absolutely nothing.

Tonight, I hopped on the internet, caught up with the world and realised I hadn't missed the march, I'd missed day 1 of the revolution. 

Today's Women's March on Washington was the largest inauguration protest march in history, and was replicated in every single US state and over 60 countries around the world, including Antarctica and Iraq. As a certain wannabe dictator might say, this is 'big-league'. That these protests were driven by women, but were also inclusive and representative of everyone who stands to lose from the new world order (i.e literally everyone, unless you own an oil company), is a major feat of feminist organising that gives me a huge lump in my throat and a fire in my belly. Especially the photos of young kids out marching with their mum and dad, holding giant signs like 'I'M YOUR FUTURE AND I AM FIERCE'. What incredible parenting to give your children such an empowering political experience. I'm tearing up again.

But am I really surprised that it took feminism to bring us here, to the widest-reaching protest in history? Yes, in the best possible way. Trump's list of hateful attributes extends far beyond his misogyny. He is a white-supremacist. He is not only ableist, but actively attacks disabled people. He is a homophobe. And he is many things besides which were wrapped up today in goosebump-inducing terms by Ashley Judd. But the fact of him is summed up by something viscerally familiar to women: he is a grabber. He sees no problem with the violation of our bodies. In fact, he sees all bodies as landscapes to be pillaged and plundered for cash, or oil, or pussy, or just his own dumb name on a sign somewhere. And while his grabbing is literally directed at the bodies of women, it doesn't take much to see this extended into the abuse and pillage of all people, and of the black and brown bodies whose marginalisation and commodification everywhere fuels its enactment. The insidious racism of this mentality is not easy to miss. The injustice and mundanity of 'the grabber' has appalled people everywhere and evidently, made them really, really mad.

But it's also made things a little clearer. It took a really dark fucking cloud for me to realise that my feminism is more than the product of my own privilege. It's the thread to a better, more defiant and more just world. I almost forgot. The patriarchy has a great sideline in gaslighting feminists. For example: 'women need to understand that class led to Trump', 'women should have got behind a different woman than Hillary', 'women don't understand the root causes'.

For the record, I understand the root causes. So do 2.5 million people around the world who marched today.

I understand them because I am finally, I think, paying attention.

If world ends, break glass ceiling

‘You know when The Wizard of Oz came out it was considered a flop’

(that was my friend Matt, in a text to me a few weeks ago.) He went on, with line breaks, just like this:

‘And now it’s like’

‘A classic’

‘I think the same will happen to Artpop

For those uninitiated few, Artpop is Lady Gaga’s third studio album. It came out in 2013, the same year that I became extra well-acquainted with the ACT mental health system, and Matt moved to Sydney. For both of us, Gaga’s synth-driven, repetitious tracks, propelled by strident cabaret vocals, mark significant chapters in our lives.

Unlike Born This Way, her second album, Artpop didn’t have the kind of songs you’d play at a house party with impunity. Artpop was only really appropriate to listen to in gay clubs, inside one’s own car, or pumped directly to the brain through earphones, so as to avoid polluting the noise-space of our more 'tasteful' peers.

We enthusiastically exploited all options. Some songs were a weird kind of science-fiction erotica, like Venus, which had the odd but cute rhyme, 'When you touch me I die just a little inside and I wonder if this could be love, cause you’re out of this world, galaxy, space and time…'

Some songs featured rappers, respecting what was then mandatory in pop music. These included the abysmal Jewels n Drugs featuring T.I., and the (much better) Do What u Want with R. Kelly, which I personally interpreted as a kind of anthem for female intellectual freedom: 'You can’t have my heart, and you won’t use my mind, but do what you want with my body. You can’t stop my voice cause you don’t own my life, but do what you want with my body'. I stand by it. At least this reading made her photographic collaboration with certified scum-bag Terry Richardson a little easier to stomach.

Disclaimer: Gaga is not a perfect person, nor is she my personal hero. But she is about the creation of idols, which is why she’s interesting. Artpop was an album about origins. Birth of Venus and motherhood imagery sprung up throughout the videos and her album cover was a Jeff Koons-designed birth scene, showing an inanimate Gaga midway through heaving a giant reflective blue ball out of her spreadeagled legs. But unlike in Born this Way, where she birthed her own head, coated in embryonic liquid (I really am pulling this, lyrics and all, straight out of my memory. Maybe I am a little too involved), this birth had no product. This was origin as loop, as reflection: I exist when you exist. Her gross, sticky synth and exploded sexuality hungered for audiences of all kinds, consumptive and unsated.

As much as I (still) hate Jeff Koons, and I ‘fully get’ why Beyonce is the crowd favourite, I totally agreed with Matt. I managed, despite the input of autocorrect, to text him back:

‘Yeah you’re so tight’

‘*right’

‘Not right’

‘*tight’

‘ugh’

 

I had another flicker of remembrance, as I recalled old-guard feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia’s 2010 anti-Gaga article, in which she slammed the singer and her fans. I’ve just found it again, now, Camille's analysis of my species:

Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.

Ah, yes, that’s right. Me and my band of alien cyborg mates, flicking mute missives of passive adoration for our poker-faced, meat-dressed queen from screen to screen. She’s not far off, I guess.

My love for Gaga goes back not quite as long as she does. I didn’t understand the hype when she first came out. If I had, I would have paid all of $75 to see her play AIS Arena in 2009. The only thing that struck me when she first emerged with Just Dance and Poker Face was that she was quite ugly, by pop standards. ‘That must be why she wears all those crazy head costumes’, my sister and I reasoned, like the sexist arseholes we were. It was only later that I realised I actually look quite a lot like Stefani Germanotta, as she’s known to her friends. I sometimes imagine myself playing Gaga/Stefani in a movie about her life. I kind of think that an untrained Australian actress with no discernible musical talent would appeal to her chameleon nature.

It happened, like most awakenings, in my first year of uni. One night, I was up late trying to finish an essay, something about Russia or printmaking, or Russian printmaking. I was fading fast and needed energy. I messaged Matt on Facebook, and he said ‘have you watched the Alejandro clip yet’? So I did.

There she was, in her long-nosed, ultra pale glory, wearing a kind of rubbery spider costume with squelchy monocle attachments. The clip went for over 8 minutes, featuring lots of soldier-like male dancers, and Gaga near nude on a bed pretending to ‘do’ them from behind, then elsewhere dressed as a kind of S&M nun swallowing rosary beads. Despite the skin on display, she didn’t look sexy at all. She looked imitative. This was enhanced by her false Russian (?) accent: I know zat we are young, and I know zat you may luff me. But ay jshust can’t be with you like zis annymorre, Alehhandrro.’ The whole thing was grotesque, but also, highly compelling.

There’s a lot of truth to complaints that she’s not truly transgressive, but that's not really the point. This is all fakery. But where many of her counterparts are pedalling male fantasies newly wrapped in female sexual empowerment, Gaga is more like some thrown-up nightmare, where the scary part is the sexuality, amped up by fantasy capitalism, that she portrays. She’s camp in Susan Sontag’s way: ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp but a “lamp”; not a woman but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and in persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension… of the metaphor of life as theatre’. What I mean is, she looks like a character forming from the combustion of other things. That’s how myths are made. That’s what icons are.

It’s not surprising that her latest album, Joanne, which came out recently, has a kind of bluegrass Americana vibe, a sort of Springsteen and Willie Nelson mash up, sung in a drag club. Not a real drag club, but more like a drag club scene in a movie about a kid moving to the big city to find themselves (Young wild American, lookin' to be somethin'). Though it sounds more pared back, it’s more, not less, theatrical. It makes total sense, when you think about it, that her album breaks a few weeks before the most divisive election in history, and it looks less like rampant, techno sexuality and more like a re-visioned longing for some kind of American mythic nationalism.

As I’m writing this, the results of a Trump victory are coming in. It’s not conclusive yet, but it’s pretty damn close. Close enough for me to realise that this stage show fantasy America that I delve into in this album, is not so. For many, this is not overblown camp myth, but something real and recoverable. Gaga was publicly supportive of the Clinton campaign, giving a speech at a Clinton rally in the last days of the campaign. Her speech was delivered with a shuddering voice. She sounded odd, too-sincere, as she talked about the historic moment of voting for a woman for president. She looked bizarre too, in Michael Jackson’s actual military jacket, and was almost crying. She relaxed when she went on stage, to sing Come to Mama: Who are you gonna follow? There’s gonna be no future, unless we figure this out…

Commentators have made so much of the disenfranchised rural and suburban working class, whose jobs have reportedly evaporated and whose relative wealth has decreased. But I’m forced to realise that a mistrust of women has played a greater role than anything. This tendency to relegate women to archetypes: the harlot, the bitch, the mother, the grandmother, has been the driver of this election. That's why I'm pissed off, because this sentiment feels global. It’s possible for Trump, a man whose lie-count is about 63%, every time he speaks, to be anything. To shape-shift. To brag about assaulting a female journalist one minute, and then shake her hand the next. It’s not possible for a woman like Hillary Clinton to be afforded anything like the same license.

Watching this America today, in the same repulsed/fascinated/depressed way I watch The Bachelor, I’m not sure that Gaga’s Hollywood theatrics really are surreal. Her body, thrashing in knicker-sized denim cut-offs in the desert, racked with convulsions like a heart attack, in the video for Perfect Illusion. Her anthem song, Grigio Girls, about women crying together behind closed doors. There’s pain here, some real wrong-doing, even in the midst of sharp-eyed fame. I just feel frustrated and sad.

‘This is an anti-establishment election result’, says the ABC, a line I’m sick to death of hearing. I’m forced to concede that, actually, this has always been more about hating women. Men have made this happen. Those who’ve judged their wealth to be more important than women’s rights to remain free from abuse, to have access to family planning and healthcare, to have basic respect from their leaders, are to blame. Men need to wear this failure; not only those who voted, but those pseudo-intellectuals who’ve ridiculed Clinton, who’ve clung to Bernie Sanders in bloody-minded mockery. Luckily for them, racist nationalist Marine le Pen will likely now win in France, so they can pretend to be feminists again when that happens.

Clinton’s no doubt working on her concession speech now. I bet she’s crying. I hope she’s got some good friends around her- girls, who know what this particular kind of injustice feels like.

I shouldn't have to say, as I just did about Gaga, that Clinton's 'not perfect' or my number one politician ever. Of course she's not. But she was eminently capable. She should have won. And she was slighted by men who still wield more power than they deserve.

I hope that Hillary Clinton will be more fairly judged in future.

She and Artpop might have that in common.

To claim things as one's own

I have felt lately that time has been slipping away from me, like too-small grains in a large colander. I have no time to do anything, and often I don't even try. I do not try to squeeze things in. I fill the day like a jam jar, sloppily and often without real interest. I wonder where this has come from, and I think it may be because my partner has a full-time job, while I am studying. It feels sometimes that time belongs to him, while I am only permitted the leftovers, the dregs of the day. This is not the case, I know, but only my perception of our situation, the way in which time slices up between us.

Perhaps this feeling of time being properly owned by others is something that affects women unduly: first loud boys at school, and then maybe by your own children at some stage. It is amazing how easily I allow time to unravel from myself, like diving into a pool and dissolving entirely. Other people must feel this way too.

Playtime

I am very bad at playing. I don't mean I am a sore loser, or not fun to be around (I hope), but I do struggle to be lighthearted, to do things without worrying about consequences, or aiming for some sort of outcome. The proof of this is that I would like to improve my skills in playfulness. My aim is to become a capable player. 'Most valuable', if you will.

I recently found a photo of myself as a child playing in a cubby house that I made out of two chairs and a large blanket. I wonder what I was thinking back then, whether I had any sort of goal in mind, whether the play had a narrative arc, when it began and ended. It occurred to me that my ability to play must be related to the increasing need, as one gets older, for things to have a beginning and an ending: the increasing pressure on time, on outcomes and resolution. On not 'wasting time'. If capitalism is all about the acceleration of time, of the growth of expedient forms of labour and ways of 'making a living', then 'wasting time' is wasting money (though that phrase makes no sense, in that same way that 'wasting time' makes no sense, when you think about it). I think I am too poor to play, at the moment. It does not feel like a viable thing to do.

Boredom, on the other hand, I am familiar with. I am bored all the time. I am bored with what's on TV, with my hair, with my clothes, with politics, with writing, with art. Why is it so much easier to be bored than to be playful? Being bored is such a cheap rebellion. Perhaps it's tempting because it feels better to waste time and feel bad about it than to waste time and feel good about it. I notice, though, that my capacity for boredom increases as I think beyond the present moment: to hope for something that is not there, to wrongly perceive infinite unending stasis.
 

The dance artist Steve Paxton talks about the 'small dance', the endless falling and catching that happens in your body when you close your eyes, weight constantly shifting. You cannot be good at the small dance, which I think characterises playtime: it's something you can't be good at. This is what I'm reduced to as an adult: closing my eyes and falling and catching myself, just for a bit of playtime. Even though this feels tangentially playful, it does admit something, which is that I am nowhere near as rigid as I sometimes tell myself I am.

Wake me up when it's all over

On the eve of the federal election, I'm feeling quite unlike my usual self. In every election since I could vote, and even before that, I've been totally riled up during the election campaign: I've taken people to task on social media, shared articles, talked constantly with friends about election issues. Hell, I even bought a Kevin07 t-shirt once upon a time (how distant that memory seems now!) Perhaps it's growing up in Canberra, going to watch the final count at Exhibition Park on election night. Perhaps it's my early memories of John Howard and Paul Keating, whose prime ministerships were colourful, if nothing else. Or perhaps it's just because free-to-air TV is so completely rubbish, but either way I've always found Australian politics exciting.

The last part of that sentence makes zero sense now. To be honest, I couldn't care less who the prime minister ends up being. I'm hoping for a strong Greens vote, but beyond that I really couldn't give a rat's arse, as Keating might have said. Why? There's a couple of reasons. The first is that the debate in Australian politics is so distanced from the realities of life here, as I understand them, as to comprise near total abstraction. The Great Barrier Reef, which I haven't yet had the opportunity to see, is dying, and even that fact hasn't made it onto the list of election agenda items. Both major parties are intent on continuing the illegal concentration camps on Nauru, and the debate on that issue, which has been labelled 'toxic' by everyone involved since Tampa, has stalled. I used to imagine some future government apologising to victims of the cruelties of offshore processing and mandatory detention; now I wonder if I will see an end to it in my lifetime. The forced closure of Aboriginal communities is hardly a blip on the election radar. Climate change has all but vanished from public discourse. I'm not sure that I'm living in the same universe as most of our politicians anymore. Either the conversation used to be more relevant, or (more likely) there used to be a conversation, whereas now, there is not.

The second reason is that Australian democracy as such has become so disfigured it should be called something different. How did this happen? I think it's been creeping up for some time. It started with harsh cuts to the ABC and SBS, then the failure to regulate print media as it dwindled down to some almost-nothing mush of advertising and click-bait. Cuts to arts funding, which have recently increased, have also had an impact on the perceived worth of comment and independent thought. Personal expression is becoming a luxury, and is largely (and increasingly) reserved for the top echelons of Australian society. That is the real story with cuts to the arts: not only that the arts suffer, but that those who suffer most are already marginalised voices. Australian art, like the Reef, will become whiter and blander, until it too breaks off and dies. 

An election which is being fought on behalf of jobs in the face of successive and seismic blows to our ecological future, the robustness of our intellectual landscape, and our duty to care for vulnerable people certainly is a pitiful thing to witness. I can't get excited about Labour's Buzzfeed-style '100 positive policies' any more than I can get on board with the Coalition's cuts to welfare and their debt-fetishism. The whole thing is a grotesque display of greed and ignorance, preying on the impotence of the media and the boredom of the electorate. When Joe Hockey's punishing budget came in at least we had some kind of tangible example of what rampant inequality could look like. Now, we've just got the vague promise of total narcolepsy from Malcolm Turnbull and 100 turgid slogans from Bill Shorten. I'm not sure this actually counts as democracy. Am I missing something?

 

Action and speech

Probably like many people who've glanced at the internet over the past 24 hours, I have been moved to tears by this statement by the victim of a sexual assault case in the US. The case itself has received significant attention in the media. The perpetrator received an almost laughably light sentence of six months jail time, out of a maximum of 14 years, and is repeatedly referred to as a 'swim star', causing many, including the victim herself, to question just what exactly that has to do with anything. Brock Turner's mugshot has vanished from screens, replaced instead by a grinning high school portrait, so vacant it seems to say, 'rapist? I've never even met one, let alone been one!' But, as Clementine Ford pointed out today, this is exactly what a rapist looks like: someone who has no idea they have committed a crime. The fact that his sentence was so light also proves that despite the obvious fact of the assault, this is also what rape culture looks like. It looks like a lot of people who have no idea that a crime has been committed, even when the victim points it out, painstakingly, in over 7,000 words. I want to talk about those 7,000 words because I think they are extraordinary. 

The writer begins by addressing her remarks directly to her attacker: 'you don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that's why we're here today'. She goes on to walk him through his crime, from her perspective, which begins not at the crime scene, but at the hospital, where she experiences the profoundly disembodying experience of witnessing bruising and assault to her body, with no memory of how it got there. She describes feeling pine needles and dirt in her hair, leaving 'a pile of them in every room [she] sat in'. Then there is the realisation that her underwear is gone:

When I was finally allowed to use the restroom, I pulled down the hospital pants they had given me, went to pull down my underwear, and felt nothing. I still remember the feeling of my hands touching my skin and grabbing nothing. I looked down and there was nothing. The thin piece of fabric, the only thing between my vagina and anything else, was missing and everything inside me was silenced

This silencing is why the statement is so powerful, and also why the sentencing is so pathetically inadequate. Because the crime she describes is not about violence (only), or physical pain, or even violation. It is about silencing, taking away, enforced muteness, which happens not solely in the crime itself, but after the crime has been committed, and throughout the protracted legal campaign she is subjected to. It also appears in the drowning out of the victim's voice through the incessant (and irrelevant) questioning of Turner's legal counsel, which exists not only to establish innocence, but to propel the perpetrator towards the position of speech, of being the only one able to speak. When the victim can't remember details, Turner is called forward to 'fill in the blanks' (read: smooth it all over, in his favour).
 

In her statement, the writer even describes her own self-enforced silences. She drives to secluded locations to let out a scream. She finds places at work where no one can hear her cry. She doesn't tell her sister about her bruises because she doesn't want to see her reaction, because that will 'make it real'. She describes a year of being spoken for, by the media, and in the false words of her attacker and his legal team. But what I love most about this statement is that you can hear a unique, individual voice in here, someone irreparably hurt, but also totally baffled and angered by the situation in which she finds herself: here, on the stand, still schooling her attacker in his own crime. She is scathing, and she is funny. She writes:
 

You said, you are in the process of establishing a program for high school and college students in which you speak about your experience to “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.”

Drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that. Goes along with that, like a side effect, like fries on the side of your order. Where does promiscuity even come into play? I don’t see headlines that read, Brock Turner, Guilty of drinking too much and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that. Campus Sexual Assault. There’s your first powerpoint slide.

Even in this turgid, lengthy, expensive and demoralising situation the fact remains: the perpetrator has no idea of his crime. This is confirmed in a statement by his father who described the crime as a mere '20 minutes of action', almost as though disappointed by its brevity. But what this case makes clear is that the 'action' of sexual assault is hardly the point. The point is what it takes away, its denial of self and agency, and finally the denial of speech that is extenuated by the legal system. It reflects the continuation of women as passive (mute), and men as active (speaking). This is grimly underscored by the fact that Brock Turner wants to turn his misadventure as a sexual assailant into a career as a public speaker.

But in the victim's statement, something happens. Action is reclaimed by speech, and victimhood is no longer associated with muteness. I love this writing, and I am so awed by the courage required to unswallow this trauma. The whole thing bristles with emotion and rawness, contempt and power. It's visceral and riveting. It's so, so sad, and disorienting, and strange. It has cracks everywhere, and it is suffused with a sense of the last resort. This is the kind of writing that needs to be read, almost as if it will shrivel up and engulf itself in flames if it is ignored.

Research is...

... mainly a process of finding out how much you don't know, while trying to remain positive about everything you have learned. Like going to the beach when it's raining, not swimming, collecting a few nice rocks, and then saying 'we must go to the beach again when it's not raining'. I think it must take a while to learn that actually, it's possible to swim in the rain. Personally, I'm not quite there yet.

Time travel

It's one of my best friend's birthdays today, which I knew in theory but not in practice. As usual, Mark Zuckerberg reminded me. This is not only evidence that I need to keep Facebook in my life, even though it is listening in to my conversations and trying to sell me things that make me feel bad about myself, but that I, like Zuckerberg, am only human. 

I have only ever known three birthdays off by heart, which are my own, my sister's, and my mum's, which I learned by counting forwards from the US Independence Day by one day. For anyone interested, who also grew up in the shadow of Will Smith or who at least now has access to Google, you can also know my mum's birthday using this handy, yet mentally laborious trick. My step-mum's is just after mine, and my dad's is after that. I can't remember the exact date but I do know that he is a Scorpio, while I am a Libra, and that no one has any money left when his birthday comes round, which is perhaps one of the reasons his presents have changed from chocolate and socks, to music and books, to 'nothing'. Which is both a downgrade and an upgrade, depending on your perspective. So far, I understand his ageing process as basically a transition to asceticism, plus type 2 diabetes.

This friend of mine is a Taurus, which someone told me means a love of ceremony. I don't really see that in him, but then I don't really see him that much anymore, and when I do we rarely have the time to 'do nothing', to share space for no other reason than that we both like to be quiet and watch people on TV who are loud. Maybe he secretly loves ceremony now, but I guess I remember it as ritual. I think he's like me. He likes things that are calming, life-affirming or both. Like Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Dianne Keaton singing 'You Don't Own Me' at the end of The First Wives Club. I want to give him that.

 

Impossibilities

It's been proven that multi-tasking is impossible. When we talk about multi-tasking, what's actually happening is that we're moving very quickly between entirely different things and then we become shocked by our own dexterity. But doing separate things at the same time is not actually possible. Humans don't come with compartments. The brain is not a Munchable. If this is true, then why is so much of life organised this way?

Everyone talks about multi-tasking on an extremely small scale, as if it's a matter of cooking dinner and watching TV at the same time, or booking a doctor's appointment while simultaneously scanning groceries. It seems to me that this hardly compares to the absolutely head-splitting reality of multi-tasking. I'm not talking about doing something with your body while doing something with your head, like walking and talking, walking and seeing, walking and thinking, walking and just literally anything at all (actually it's very hard to think about the possibility of walking in isolation). That is nothing on the scale of multi-tasking that I'm talking about. I'm talking about multi-tasking your entire life, which also very common, to the point of comprising an absolute mode of being unless you live nowhere, know no-one, and no-one knows you.

So many of us have at least two words in our bucket of identities which we toss out like it's feeding time at the seal enclosure when someone asks us what we do, or who we are. Mine are so piled up in there that I often pull out the wrong one and then watch it fall to the ground with a slap like a flung slug, entirely unappealing. It seems like there are millions, not just for me but for everyone I know. And more, now that even our sources of income have become so fragmented by freelancing, short-term contracts, part-time work, and degrees in industries which (surprise!) do not hire paid staff. It's shocking to me that there are people with one label they are happy with, that seems adequate to them. It's like hearing about the past, or a parallel universe of people who are just slightly cleaner and all smell good. These days, I hate nothing more than the pressure of crafting some sort of identity for an audience, and it is always crafting, because how could I possibly have anything ready to go? I'm too busy trying to get on with walking and talking. It's impossible to do both.

On moving away

Almost since I decided to move to Melbourne, I have thought about the ways I would tell Canberra goodbye, like the worst kind of person trying to plot a painless break-up. There seems to be a lot of pressure, particularly in the arts, to be a cheerleader for Canberra, to make work in Canberra, to stick up for Canberra, to contribute to the ‘scene’. I never thought there was anything wrong with this until just about now.

 

I left Canberra over January and February, in dribs and drabs, which is a phrase I love and the way it's good to do things sometimes: little trips and weekends, and then a weekend where I didn’t go back to Canberra, I just stayed here. It’s been a few weeks now, almost a month. Most things in my brain to do with life in Canberra have been replaced by new information. There's tram timetables and work passwords, and Dewey decimal numbers and my new postcode. I’m in a catch-up stage: I need the new numbers first, out of necessity, then I’ll get around to working out where the hell I am and what it feels like. At the moment, it’s a bit like walking around on a giant Excel spreadsheet, filling things in, like those huge novelty keyboards they have in America.

 

In the reverse way, most of what I have left of life in Canberra is feeling and sensation. In my last few weeks, I drove across Commonwealth Bridge almost every day, going from north to south, and back again, traversing that thick, connective tendon. I breathed in morning traffic and summer, which was new then and is now old, crumpled like a piece of fruit too long in the bowl, despite these hot nights and rainstorms, both here and back there. The route was so familiar to me that it hardly existed. None of the architecture mattered: just me in my tiny, dying car driving about 20 minutes there, and about 30 minutes back (I left work during peak hour, I left home just after), like a line being drawn over and over again along a white piece of paper. Blue morning skies and clear lavender evenings, water that was sometimes sparkling, sometimes not. Palms on a burning steering wheel, no air conditioning, alternating between 2XX, 1053 2CA, Mix 106.3 and Triple J, never hearing a full program. Moving through Canberra had long ceased to be a matter of negotiating geography. All of the physical matter of the place had dissipated into atmosphere, temperature, wind, movement and noise. I guess anything that’s done with the regularity of habit starts to take on the quality of ritual.

 

I realise now that I don’t need to break up with Canberra, or hate it, or love it, or think anything much about it. Place is just a construction: who’s to say where it begins or ends, what worlds are left to explore in the smallest of spaces, whether my experience of place is the same as yours (it's not). Our minds aren’t big enough to take everything in at once anyway- they’re too busy trying to make sense of things, usually against the grain of our own thinking and being. This is why I am protective, I suppose, of Canberra, because living in small places doesn’t have to mean your mind is small. However, the two sometimes coincide. For the record, I’m not anti-Canberra, but I am wholly sick of talking about the place. It feels like a limit.

 

Moving is not essential, nor is it always desirable, practical, or even possible. But I think it’s important not to be defined by places, by limits, by not moving. New thought happens at the edges, at the limits, on the borderlands- literally. Anything else looks like fetishism. It's in danger of curling in on itself, creating an identity of habit, of knitting into a single, arbitrary pattern. There’s a point at which the threads of us need to connect with other threads, other habits, other ways of ritual- we are not lost, or left, but expanding.

Access Denied

People are always talking about new technologies changing the world. For me, it's not so much technologies that matter, but the extent to which they encourage different forms of communication- ways of speaking, thinking and listening that change the ways we engage with the world and each other. The particularly nasty and undeniably addictive art of commenting on online articles is one of those things. And rather than increasing conversation, it's shutting down debate. I know, because I'm one of the guilty ones. I'm not proud of it, but I have been a troll.

Picture this, I'm scrolling through Facebook, tacitly absorbing hundreds of meaningless bites of 'information' (sound familiar?), and I stop to read an article. Not because it's interesting, though sometimes that happens, but because that headline could easily be lassoed inside that ring of fire known as 'offensive'. I want to hate-read the whole thing, and hate-comment on it, fingers tingling with outrage. For the moment, it doesn't matter what the article was about. If the issue really matters to me (which, in this case, it does), I'm not going to use it as a punching bag to exercise my burning rage about all of the idiots in the world. I'm going to consider it carefully and soundly at a later date. I'm going to write about it, not just shout in quick takedown sentences at people who don't agree.

But this is the new me talking- the old me was riding high on the online comment train, stopping all stations: Mt Moron, Nearsight, Jerktown, population: 1. Then, just as quickly, my comments were deleted, and I was banned from the page. A snarky little message: 'bye'.

The shock rocked me to the core. After all, I was one of those people who usually celebrated a takedown, the shutting down of one belligerent voice, out of step with the rest. Was I, suddenly, that voice? Then gradually, a little voice crept in. 'I must have really got to them. They knew I had a point'. But, of course, this was the high point of my delusion. I realised: this must be how Donald Trump feels.

In the online comment world, it's not the potency of words, or the strength of argument that makes the difference. It's expediency. Of course I had a point that could be explored in depth, listened to, cared about- and even objected to from that base line. But actually, that's not what happens. No one bothers to engage: you just ignore, or delete.

This ability to delete has changed the debate everywhere, to the point where people think the only correct response to ideas which are unpalatable, hurtful, offensive, or just different, is to deny their existence. Think of calls for Germaine Greer to be banned for her absolutely retrograde opinions on transgender women. Sure, she's wrong- but surely talking, research, debate is the way to arrive at a better outcome.

I'm a little uncomfortable with the fact that I'm putting myself in the same basket as a bunch of right wing nutters, and people I outright disagree with- those I have in the past wanted to shut down myself- but on this occasion I felt some sense of how they got that way. People made them think they had a point to begin with, and that their point was intractable, solid, immune to contest. Perhaps deleting those voices we disagree with most is the real danger.