Falling Through Doors

Oct
08

Flatmate Finders

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The rail lines have warped and everyone on the train dies a little bit. Sweat pools on the floor around my feet, which if I had more energy would make me feel gross and ashamed. Instead I concentrate on the speed at which sweat beads course down my shins. I have never seen this before; I wasn’t actually sure my shins could sweat. Now I know everything does. Each passenger is perfectly still, clothes soaked through, each face contorted and suspended in agony like we’re all stuck together in an antiquated religious painting. The Perils of the Underworld. The train is stopped just outside Brunswick station, and from the speaker above my head all I hear is static. Outside is a forty-three-degree day in January. We’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes.

I text Josephine, moving my fingers extra slowly. So sorry! Still on the train. Hopefully there in 10–15. Looking forward to meeting you. Out the windows stranded cars stretch in each direction, blocked by the train. I get a text back almost instantly: No worries. A large woman in the carriage with perfect posture and closed eyes says aloud “Fuckin’ hell” as she wipes her forehead with a defeated hand and everyone in earshot stirs. I feel a mounting urge to brush my teeth. I move my tongue around my mouth, first along the slick front surfaces of the top row, then the bottom. I press its sides into the jagged crags on the business surface of my top molars. I worry the retainer glued across the backs of my bottom four front teeth, inserted there twenty years ago by Dr Robertson, an orthodontist with coffee breath. Nick always tells me to start counting when the urge comes, and so I do.

Nick and I met at the University of Melbourne, and by the time I started my thesis I was sometimes up to seven, eight times a day. It started as strictly an oral thing. The brushing, I mean. I had quit smoking a couple years earlier, a habit that had gracefully entwined itself with my writing process, and brushing became a simulacrum for the disgusting, wonderful ritual of paragraph smoke paragraph smoke delete delete smoke. It then developed into a procrastination strategy before evolving into an anxiety management mechanism. How can you feel bad about yourself—and your lack of ideas and the fact that you’re a mere imposter not only as a writer but also as a functioning human—while you’re taking such thorough care of your pearly whites?

Nick was appalled. On days we didn’t see each other he’d call in for a count. I began complaining of gum recession and nerve sensitivity. One day after I’d told him I wouldn’t be joining him for gelato due to the pain that had begun to shiver up from my lower gums, he tracked me down in the office we shared in the graduate building and dropped his copy of Infinite Jest on the desk. He’d bookmarked the section near the end about an obsessive compulsive tooth brusher. I revisited it. There was blood. And psychosis. Lots of it.

The train suddenly grinds forward and I lose my balance.

Stepping onto the platform I discover the air feels cool. This lasts for a few seconds until a breeze comes, the same breeze that rushes up at you when you open your oven door. I turn left on Albert Street. This is my second year in Melbourne, and even though I haven’t spent much time in this part of town I keep feeling as though I recognize things. Shortly after arriving in 2012 a new friend took me to a cafe in which we ate breakfast, in which we chatted over flat whites, in which I finally realised shortly before we left that I’d been there before, several years earlier when I came to visit my brother, Michael, during the period that he called Melbourne home. The recognition yielded both comfort and a minor terror—not unlike the paranoid sense of being followed before reminding yourself you’re being a bit mad because you are in fact not being followed—and ever since that time I always wonder if I’ve ended up retracing steps I have no memory of, if that Edwardian iron lattice just looks familiar or if it actually is.

The people I pass on the street are slow moving and good looking, skinny topless men with bare feet smoking cigarettes through beards, thin women wearing nothing but oversize t-shirts and Doc Martens. They are dry-skinned and effortless and this makes me feel florid and damp. My tongue goes clockwise, then anti. I ring the doorbell at number 106.

A woman opens the door. Her sleeveless blouse billows, her cigarette crops precise and architectural, her fingernails talonesque and iridescent. She stands and looks at me blankly, the tips of her mascara-choked lashes encroaching on eyebrow territory. When she blinks I think first of monarch wings and milkweed, second of Venus fly traps.

“Can I help you?” she says, expressionless still.

“Hi, Josephine? I’m Alison. I’m so sorry I’m late.”

“Oh hi! No worries,” she says. “You know you look nothing like your photo. Your hair is a completely different colour.” She awaits my rejoinder and I am at a loss; that photo was taken a week ago, when I decided it was time to start looking. I touch a strand near the front, twist it around my index finger and look at it, searching for a difference, searching for a response. When I say nothing, she continues. “This heat! Come in come in come in!” She steps back to make space for me, holding the door open with one arm outstretched so that when I enter the doorway it’s like I’m entering an embrace. Her perfume reminds me of how Michael and I used to rub our wrists and necks with the paper perfume sample flaps found in the fashion magazines that littered ubiquitous small glass tables in the various waiting rooms of our childhood. They had always already been opened, the scent faded and degraded to a lingering sweetness. It’s a marvel our mother took us with her anywhere. Anyway, Josephine smells like one of those flaps.

She leads me into the living room, which is mercifully cool.

“I know it’s hot, but would you like a cuppa?”

The idea of hot tea makes me want to cry, so I say, “Actually a glass of water would be lovely.”

The house is fairly new and very clean, the walls an elegant grey contrasting ornate white mouldings and trim. There are fabric swatches covering a dark wood dining table with a sewing machine set up at the far end, countless spools surrounding it, standing guard. There is a small den off the front of the living room with a bay window, which is clearly a study of sorts; it brims with books, shelves, textile projects in progress and stacks of loose-leaf both free and bound. I decide Josephine is interesting and refined, an intellectual and an artist.

She brings me a glass of water. Her pearl grey blouse is nearly the same as the fabric of the sofa, so that when we sit down she and the sofa seem to become one.

“This is a very nice room,” I tell her. She thanks me and tells me she really thinks it reflects a lot about her as a person. The way she says it, though, it sounds like she’s asking me a question. “I bought it about six years ago?” she says. “It’s a two bedroom? You’d be taking Lucy’s room, which I’ll show you when we do the grand tour?”

Josephine and I were matched by an online house-hunting service called Flatmate Finders. Going through my matches each day makes me feel like I’m dating. How disappointing when they meet all your criteria while you meet none of theirs, how thrilling to find profiles that do not use phrases like I enjoy a laugh (or chat or yarn), a shared meal (or a movie or a TV binge) and a cheeky glass of champas (or wine or a pint) from time to time, but I like to do my own thing too. I had to Google champas. Now that I’m here in her living room, sitting side-by-side with her on an overstuffed grey sofa with our knees pointing vaguely toward each other, it feels even more like dating. We chat about likes, dislikes, and utilities.

“I love to sew,” she says. “I make purses. Handbags? But I never really finish them?” Her face is warm and she laughs at herself, so I laugh with her, because she is nice and I know what it’s like to sometimes not finish things. I look again at the fabric strewn on various surfaces in the room and see quite clearly now that they are bags in various stages of incompletion. My tongue finds my front teeth, just briefly.

“I love your accent,” she says suddenly. People comment on my accent frequently, and it’s taking me a while to get used to the idea that I have an accent, as well as the fact that people are so forthcoming about commenting on it. I am glad when she asks me where I’m from rather than guessing, as most people do. Most people guess wrong: Ireland, England, the States, and once, Holland.

“I’m from Canada,” I tell her. “The west coast originally.”

“I love Canadians,” she says as she sits up straight, her eyes opening a bit wider, lashes flaring. I find this claim to be both hyperbolic and unlikely, until she goes on to tell me that she used to live with a Canadian. “My first housemate here was from the west coast, too. Vancouver. She was such a good housemate. We’re still great friends.”

I tell her that I, too, know a few other Canadians here, and that my brother spent several years here as well.

“Amazing,” she says.

There is a pause as we sip our water. I can feel it warming up in here, the cool contrast from when I first stepped inside waning. I can feel a trickle of sweat running down my chest and notice the watery rings on the coffee table left behind from our glasses. Josephine settles more deeply into the sofa and folds her hands in her lap. She is thinking of something to say next. So am I. I want to ask if the house has air conditioning, but I don’t want to be rude so I just put my empty water glass on the table and stretch out my legs a little to air out the backs of my knees. I wonder if she feels she already knows enough about me, if she’s reached the necessary judgement of a complete stranger, as if it were possible to know enough about a person in fifteen minutes to be certain that they would be a good candidate to move into your home, to share your shower, to drink from the same glasses, to eat from your fridge, to possibly engage in minor reciprocal snooping.

I manage to break the silence first. “Where does your old housemate live now?”

“She married an Aussie and moved to the country and I hardly see her. It’s funny how life is, don’t you think? She comes here for the experience, meets the man of her dreams, has twins, has a destination wedding, and—” She smiles and shrugs and it means c’est la vie.

She is waiting for me to agree with her, to nod my head at her philosophizing and say something like exactly or totally, but something in me has constricted. My tongue slides back and forth between upper and lower molars. Josephine notices the tremor in my mouth but says nothing, just watches the slight shifting of my jaw.

“This might sound a little crazy,” I say. “But did your Canadian friend by any chance work in architecture?”

“Yes,” Josephine says, drawing out the word. There is caution in both her tone and facial expression. I notice a smudge of mascara now beneath her left eye. “A draftsperson.”

“Is her name Jen? And was her wedding in Hawaii?”

When Michael lived in Melbourne he had a Canadian friend, too. Her name was Jen and she was from Vancouver and worked in architecture and when I came to visit we spent quite a bit of time together. We went to see an Almodóvar film at Cinema Nova. We went for dumplings in a laneway. I even spent Christmas and New Years Eve with her. I also know that Michael, long since back in Canada, recently went to Jen’s wedding in Hawaii. I already know about her, about the Aussie hubby and twin bubs. I know her.

“Yes! Jen! Oh my god, you know her?”

I explain the connection and we look at each other, baffled by this coincidence. Then, she gasps. “Wait,” she says. “Your brother’s not Michael, is he?

I hope I am smiling, though it feels like I’m gaping. “He is.” I say words like wow and amazing and I find this to be a bizarre conversation to be having with a stranger I’ve been paired with by an algorithm.

“I love Michael! So tall and handsome. You know, now I can see the resemblance. You are very, very similar.” Josephine stares at me for a long time, and the smile drips from her face until the look she’s left giving me is perplexed and accusatory.

“We are,” I say. “People often say that.”

“But it’s not necessarily how you look,” she says, concentrating still on my face, tilting her head to the side. “It’s the way you speak, the way you move.”

It seems there is nothing left to say. I notice that Josephine is sweating. Her foundation is sliding, clearing space around her overflowing pores, exposing the greyish blue pouches under her eyes. She smiles quickly, the way strangers do when they pass on the sidewalk, open and closed with a raising of eyebrows, and I can see lipstick on her teeth. I emit a noise that is both a sigh and laugh. Just as she does the same, a key turns in the lock and the front door swings open. Butter-coloured light slices through the room, and I realise how dark and heavy the air is, how the windows are almost entirely obscured by piles of things: books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Female Entrepreneur’s Soul, uneven stacks of ragged gossip magazines, the unfinished bags with pins sticking out of them in every direction. They look violent.

“That’s Lucy,” says Josephine without turning around. “She’s the one leaving.” Lucy peers at us through the silence. Still without turning around, Josephine says, “Stay out of your room for a bit, okay? You can just wait in the hall while I show Alison around.”

Lucy drops her bag and comes to sit with us in the living room. We both say Hi. “So, you might be moving in.” She is telling, not asking. Her face is red from the heat and sullen. My tongue twitches around my mouth like an insect in a jar.

“Let’s go upstairs and I’ll give you the tour,” says Josephine. She lifts herself off the sofa with effort, coming unstuck. Her blouse now clings to her with moisture. On the grey back cushion she leaves behind a triangular wet patch, jagged as a giant arrowhead, and on the seat a love heart. I stand too and look apologetically at Lucy.

“Actually,” I say. “May I please use your bathroom first?” Josephine points and I excuse myself.

I stare in the mirror. My teeth feel too big for my mouth. There is something dark and troubling about such encounters. Again, the feeling of being followed, of a shadow—the past—lurking. I once ran into an old friend from Concordia University, whom I hadn’t seen for years, on a crowded train platform in Kyoto. It turned out we had both moved to different cities in Japan the previous month. When I first saw her I doubted my perception, and when our eyes met there was a distinct pause, a moment in which we both second-guessed the possibility of such fortuity. Because really, how is something like this possible.

I am stealthy as I open and close cabinet doors, as I move products to search behind them, careful to return them to their original positions. I find what I’m looking for in a top drawer: a small forgotten spool of floss. Waxed. Mint. It’ll do. I help myself. After all, she’s a friend of a friend.

Sep
07

Getting Hit: A Casual Cyclist’s Guide

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Photo caption: Worst pic of us in existence. Quite pleased to have found a use for it.


For those of you who didn’t get the memo: cycling in the city is dangerous! Cyclists and drivers seem to come from two different planets, and despite the fact that so many of them move regularly between the two modes, they really, very much seem to despise each other.

As a long-time bicycle commuter, car driver, flâneuse and road-use generalist, I have found myself at various levels of victimized by drivers and cyclists – and the odd pedestrian – alike. Roads the world over are not places of peace, and the way in which we use vehicles reflects more and more the way in which we – I refer chiefly to city-dwellers here – exist in society: as solitary beasts in competition with strangers, falling out of practice applying community principles such as sharing, empathy, patience, and resilience. I have been squeezed by a moving car into a row of parallel-parked cars. I have been kicked by a man in a suit who was standing on the footpath as I rode past. I have had a bottle thrown at me from the window of a moving bus. I have had drivers bump my back tire, race ahead of me only to cut me off, drive up close to me and scream suddenly in my ear, drive slowly alongside me at night for a kilometre or so, yell lewd comments, and give me the finger while hurling abuse as I rode in a wide bike lane, sopping wet and freezing, through a sudden deluge.

Cyclists can be real dills too. They can be self righteous, darting in front of cars to prove a point or acting aggressively towards other cyclists; careless, not signalling, and riding two or three abreast as traffic piles up behind them; dangerous, running lights and stop signs, and failing to warn other road users of their approach; and stupid, cycling on the wrong side of the road at night with no lights while smoking and checking Facebook with ear buds in (FYI, offenders: any one of those things alone makes you look like a real twit). Stopped at a red light one day, I tapped the cyclist in front of me to let him know that I’d noticed his back wheel was beginning to wobble. He looked at me as though I’d just slashed his tire, then rolled his eyes and rode away when the light changed.

I’ve also been hit by a car. I was lucky and escaped relatively unscathed. My position on accidents is that if you ride regularly, this – or something like it, such as being doored or run off the road by a taxi – is eventually going to happen. For your convenience, I have prepared the following ten bits of wisdom to keep in mind to prevent this from happening to you, or for dealing with it if it does.

  1. Refrain from biking downtown with your boyfriend on a Saturday afternoon because you’ve had enough of winter and you have your sights set on a queen-sized electric blanket that’s on sale at Target. In fact, just vow to stop letting your boyfriend talk you into buying blankets and electronics in general – convince yourself it was just a fluke that you ended up using that little AM/FM radio so much. Also, it’s just best not to shop at Target. Every time you go there, something – the lighting? the fat noisy children eating messy sweets? the questionable quality of the merchandise? – tells you that you should leave.
  1. Actually, if it’s not too late for you, reconsider going to university. The student life is largely to blame for the temptation to shop at discount department stores, and if you spend too much time within their fluorescent, mildly flickering white walls it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself wearing body spray, reading young adult fiction, purchasing Gone With the Wind and The da Vinci Code on Blu-ray, making arguments in defence of the film Air Bud – your mouth aggressively sweet smelling and stained red from an entire package of off-brand licorice – and buying things like queen-sized electric blankets because you can’t afford to rent a heated room. Being a student will also make it difficult to afford to repair any future damage to your bicycle, which you ride for equal parts fun factor, high-horsedness (it’s a pretty big bike because you’re quite tall), a daily excuse to ring bells, and to save money on public transportation.
  1. While riding home feeling pleased that the cube of plastic-packaged blanket fits perfectly into your rear basket, resist – and this is a big one – the urge to stop at The Drunken Poet for a drink and a chat about narratology (again, university and its hovering fug of pretentiousness bites you in the butt) with your fella. You know drinking and cycling is dumb – a lesson you learned in 2009 while biking home from Ingrid’s International Bar in the wee hours one morning with your friend Jasmine through the empty streets of Myodo, Japan, a ride during which you both managed to buckle your front wheels and stagger home after that garden wall came out of nowhere – but you also know that a single Guinness made to last over a drawn-out gush sesh about your mutual love for Michael Pemulis will not do you in. But no matter how you slice it, should a road accident occur later in the afternoon, a pint at The Drunken Poet is incriminating. It’s especially ill-advised if you’re a poet, so if this applies to you I suggest changing course immediately and taking up narrative nonfiction instead. Seriously, start a blog or something.
  1. On the way home, don’t bother riding in the bike lane, even though the road you’re using has a nice cushy wide one. In fact, don’t bother with your front and rear lights, your beloved bell, or those reflective strips on your helmet either. That Lexus coming along a side road will run the stop sign and T-bone you anyway, no matter how aware you are of the encroaching dusk, of the slight drizzle that’s beginning to gather on your eyelashes.
  1. If you find that you’re the boyfriend in this scenario, don’t ride too close behind. Keep your distance or that car will take you both out in one go. You’ll end up on the grassy median, mud ground deep into the wool of your favourite navy pea coat.
  1. Go with your inability to move. The shock will keep you there, pinned by your bicycle to the pavement and immobile, but when the urge comes to get up, I say fight it. When another cyclist casually rides past the scene of the accident and the urge comes to call him a sociopath, I say go with it. Even though you might be numb and uncertain how injured you are, don’t lock your bikes to the nearest pole and allow the driver – who in your memory looks like Al Bundy with Magnum P.I. hair, a Danny Tanner sweatshirt, and Napoleon Dynamite glasses – to drive you to emergency. In other words, don’t leave. Call the police and hold your ground, dummy! In the event that you do go with him, take his card, get checked out, take a tram home, have a whiskey, compare blossoming bruises. Don’t bother calling the driver to inform him that there are no serious injuries – despite him taking you to the hospital, he’ll soon reveal that he is not a decent guy.
  1. The next day, have your bikes assessed for damage at that bike shop near the train line run by that nice bearded hipster. When he says $400 all up for both bikes, feel good about it being a relatively low amount that you’ll be asking the driver for. The bike guy says he’ll sign a statement attesting to the type of damage to the bikes and how it was most likely incurred. Don’t bother taking him up on this – you’ll soon learn that you have few rights, and despite how much trouble you go through compiling a case, it’s the driver’s word against yours. When you report the accident with the local police, resist the urge to verbally object to the officer’s apathy and indifference.
  1. Don’t ask the driver for money, don’t expect the driver to accept responsibility, don’t bother the poor pro bono lawyer you read about on the university student services website, don’t file a claim with the transport accident commission, don’t ask for support from the local cyclist’s support network, and don’t tweet anything about the accident that the driver could consider defamatory (you will find out that this includes assuming that he was at fault, even if you’ve left his name out) – he’ll send you a letter from a ‘lawyer’. If you’ve forgotten what really happened the day of the accident, this letter will tell you. Make a promise to yourself never again stop your lightless bike in the middle of the street in a rainstorm after dark and stand there for some time trying to tie a large and cumbersome package to your rear carrier. What a dope you’ve been.
  1. Over the coming weeks as you continue to plod away at your thesis like a chump, you might find your eyes snapping open in the night from rage and discover you’re in a sweat, your electric blanket working away beneath you, your mind wandering, hatching cunning plans to exact revenge on this gutless Lexus driver. The most cunning of these may or may not include somehow trapping him into exposing a drunk driving record, and/or tracking down his car and inserting decaying barramundi fillets in the ventilation system. Allow yourselves the catharsis that such serious nighttime discussions provide, but try to get over it sooner than later. You’re starting to sound a bit crazy.
  1. Don’t worry! That d-bag has to live his whole life as a d-bag. In a few days’ time, get back on your noble steed. Speed down hills and ring your bell to your heart’s content. Spring will be here soon. As you pack away your winter things in preparation for the searing heat that will follow, fold the electric blanket as neatly as you can fold such an awkard, fitted, corded contraption. Allow yourself to admit that it did keep you warm, and by the time you pull it out next year, you’ll have forgotten that it’s the bastard to blame for causing the accident in the first place.
Aug
25

Calling Australia Home: On Privilege, Taste, and Timing

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This week I branch into a brand new area for me, and that is mainstream critical writing. The other day I read an article, felt irked and then frustrated and then angered by it, and so I wrote a critical response to it. (It’s harsh, but I believe it’s also considered and fair; before writing my response I researched what I could about the writer, including reading other pieces of hers published online.) Then, in an inexplicable act of ballsiness, I submitted my response to the magazine that had published the article in question. I’m not sure why; I was quite certain they would not want to publish it, but I definitely wanted them to read it. An hour later I found in my inbox the quickest and most detailed rejection I have ever received. I’ve included the correspondence with the article below, mostly because I can’t help but feel that the editor’s response directly supports some of the points I’m trying to make.

I would love to hear the thoughts of my minuscule (but exemplary, intelligent, discerning) readership here at Falling Through Doors regarding the piece, the rejection, and/or the issues I raise. This is new terrain for me. Here goes.


Dear Editors, 
I am a past subscriber who has recently moved to Canada. This is a piece in response to an article Overland published online on 17 August (Can I still call Australia home? by Mikaella Clements), which I took issue with for a number of reasons. I realise that my article is substantially longer than what you generally publish online, but I wanted to see if you’d like to publish it, in the spirit of creating a dialogue!

Many thanks in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back from you regarding my submission.

Kind regards,
Alison Strumberger


In this past week, I feel as though I have become officially distanced from Australia. I claimed back my superannuation, I filed my final tax return, and a friend from Melbourne has come to visit, confirming that we are, in fact, far away.

Among the things that make me feel distanced from Australia are that the government kept more than thirty percent of my super, and that my tax return was six-hundred dollars lighter due to a mandatory Medicare levy—a fee for a service I was never eligible for during my four years in Australia, but which I have to pay simply for having resided de facto with an Australian. And while these things are pains-in-butts, and surprising and inconvenient, they are only problems for me because of my privilege. They are not-too-distant relatives of people complaining that the heater at their cottage is on the fritz, or that their day was thrown off because Whole Foods was out of Peach Karma Sunrise kombucha. In other words, had I not had the resources to move to Australia, had I not had the freedom to travel and study and work in a foreign country of my choice, these would be non-issues. Basically, the factors that make my life among the easiest in the world are the factors that lead to me saying things like “Curse you, Australia!” in the privacy of my own home while shaking my fist at footage of an onion-munching prime minister. There are many people who say those words for far far worse (read: unimaginable, horrifying, heartbreaking) reasons, so in a public sphere I do my best to keep my mouth shut.

Among the things that currently make me feel glad of my new-found distance from Australia are the leaked files on Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru, which came to light on 10 August, and an article published by Overland only a week later, on 17 August.

For those not familiar with it, Overland is a Melbourne-based literary and cultural magazine. According to their website, it is their mission to “foster new, original and progressive work exploring the relationship between politics and culture, especially literature.” Other values of theirs include “aesthetic excellence, encouraging contributors to achieve their best,” “providing room for diverse and marginal voices,” and social justice. They publish a quarterly print journal as well as an online magazine. And in the spirit of full disclosure, they have rejected my short fiction on multiple occasions. Make of that what you will.

In the article, entitled “Can I still call Australia home?”, Mikaella Clements describes her experience of attempting to sponsor her British-citizen wife, whom she had married as “a joke and a desperate bid for safety”, to live in Australia. The thesis seems to be that the difficulties they encountered in this process (high fees, the fact that marriage wasn’t the golden ticket she had thought it would be) are indicative of Australia’s xenophobic tendencies. She offers a passing nod to others who suffer from Australia’s questionable policies, such as refugees, asylum seekers, and the stolen generations, and she does manage to state rather superfluously that her experience differs from that of an asylum seeker. She also attempts to tie in her perspective as a member of the LGBT community, as she feels the process would have been easier had Australia’s LGBT politics been less conservative.

I took major issue with this article. And here’s why.

The first thing that got me was the timing. This piece was published a week after details of the atrocities committed against asylum seekers detained on Nauru were made public. The author is a white, twenty-something Australian woman with mobility, an education, the ability to work, a voice, and—because of Overland—a platform. And she took all those rare and wonderful things and wrote a piece about how things are difficult for her.

The self-professed arrogance, sentimentality, and naiveté she leads the essay with resonate strongly throughout this anecdotal piece. She speaks of missing Melbourne (her hometown) once she had left for the first time. Among the things she missed about Melbourne were “a house with a backyard” and “expensive drinks on rooftop bars.” After discovering how difficult it would be for her partner to get an Australian visa, and feeling “slightly stunned” by the restrictions involved, she texted her mum, and then had nothing to do, so she went out for a drink.

It is clear that the writer didn’t bother to research before writing this account of what she seems to deem a personal tragedy and affront to her freedom. She describes the immigration system as “casually homophobic.” Here’s the deal: Australia offers a “partner” visa (subclasses 820 and 801). I should know: this is the very visa that my partner, Nick (male, Australian), and I (female, Canadian) found so prohibitively pricey that we moved to Canada instead, which we were able to do, because we are white, mobile, middle-class, educated, etc. This visa is described by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as allowing “the spouse or de facto partner of an Australian citizen, permanent resident or eligible New Zealand citizen to live in Australia.” Had Nick and I been married, our situation would have been just the same. Therefore, the writer and her partner were not, as she puts it, “relegated back to de facto”—de facto is… de facto. Would it not be more discriminatory to include marriage as a prerequisite to application? Yes, Australia’s LGBT+ politics are embarrassingly non-progressive, and this is an enormous and current issue, but this fact does nothing for her argument in this article except to prove that it is ill planned and under researched. (An article on her experience as a member of the LGBT+ community in a place such as Australia would have been timely and appropriate, but she doesn’t take her piece that way.) She says that “marriage to a British citizen isn’t a guarantee you’re able to stay in the UK.” This is a non sequitur. Marriage in not a guarantee in Canada either, where marriage equality also exists. I’m shocked to find that this millennial seems to view marriage (which many are coming to see as an antiquated, flawed, and patriarchal institution) as something that should bestow upon her some kind of special status.

Yes, the visa is very expensive. The exorbitant application fee, though, is not just a “baffling amount of money to twenty-somethings holding down lowly paid jobs”—it’s a baffling amount for anyone. But, it’s a lot less baffling for this young couple earning British pounds and Aussie dollars than it is for a couple earning rupees, riel, baht, or Syrian pounds.

(An Australian de facto visa, by the way, equals 343.25 Melbourne-priced cocktails. I calculated that on my phone just now.)

The writer posits that “when it comes to immigration to Australia, the government has been continually and brutally honest: not here, thank you, no more room, we’re full.” Not really, and not in this case. Immigration in Australia says if you can pay, we’ll give you a shot, but if you really need asylum, and are so desperate that you come by an unsafe or “criminal” means, then there’s no room. Both are shocking in their own ways, but this writer does not draw a clean enough distinction. The crux seems to be that Australia is unfair to the stolen generations, refugees, and white twenty-somethings. Her mention of the two former are passing and superficial, and these individuals who have been long-suffering at the hands of Australians (yes, the Australian government = Australians), deserve infinitely more than a nod from this writer. Twenty and broke does not equal desperate for your life.

In an attempt to cover her backside, she manages to clarify that “in no way does my experience resemble that of someone seeking refuge in Australia.” Then what does it resemble? The very presence of this fleeting sentiment only serves to undermine the point she is attempting to make. This is the worst possible timing for this piece, and shows a remarkable level of hubris that resides in many young Melbourne writers, writing in a clique that suffers from an internal lack of criticism or critique.

By making an example of this young woman’s article, I certainly don’t mean to be a traitor to my trade—young writers need to write and to publish and to develop confidence and to learn to get better, but Overland should have known better than to publish such a—I’m going to say it—lazy piece. Being a young writer is also about being rejected; it’s how you know there’s a road ahead of you until you’re actually “good”, and that road is very, very long. You need to learn how to look at something you’ve written and feel utterly disappointed by it and in yourself. You need to learn which of your words are for sharing, and which are for the trash. Just because you’re a writer, it does not mean that everything you write is even remotely readable. I’m certainly not there yet, and don’t expect to be until much later in life.

But in a city and milieu in which nepotism dominates, and young writers and publishers do little but celebrate each other and publish each other and promote each other, can I really expect this young writer to look at her work and say to herself Yikes! This is sloppy and unfocused? Can I expect Overland to expect more? I lived and wrote in Melbourne for four years. I got a degree from their celebrated university, have been published by some of their respected magazines and journals, and have bumped up against the bristly edges of this self-congratulatory clique time and time again, witnessing minor successes by truly mediocre writers.

The act of this writer writing in an environment that doesn’t challenge her correlates to the larger problem of Australians not challenging the status quo. It is this very conundrum that leads to the exclusive and xenophobic policies referenced by the writer in this piece. She says, “The Australian government prefers to quietly ignore things they don’t like, or shuffle them away”, and I agree with this, but I also feel that this filters down to Australians at the citizen level, transforming on its way into a kind of complacency. How else could an article such as this have been written, and then published, when it was?

My sense after four years in Australia was that Australians in general are lukewarm about their politics and—like many in the Melbourne writing scene—come across as comfortable, unengaged, non-questioning, and therefore lacking depth of conversation. A conversation is ok, as long as it’s the right conversation. While this did not always present itself in one-on-one political conversations, particularly with my Melbourne friends, everyone I ever heard questioned said they didn’t vote for Tony Abbott, which is one example of a recurring refusal as citizens to claim responsibility for the status quo. (I acknowledge that this tendency is not unique to Australia—if I had voted for Stephen Harper way back when I certainly would be loathe to freely admit it.)

Yes, the Nauru files were only recently leaked, but Australians have known about the shameful atrocities committed in these offshore detention camps for years. While some prefer to find their own bizarre ways to justify the situation, many view it as a national tragedy and embarrassment, yet do little beyond discussing it and shaking their heads at the insanity of it. On 30 March 2016, an estimated 50,000 people Australia-wide protested the offshore detention policies. And then what? Wait until the next march is organized a few months down the line, descend on Melbourne State Library and walk a few blocks?

Clements’ article—and Overland having published it—epitomizes whitewashing, which has multiple definitions, the most literal being to make something whiter, and another being the practice in which the experience of a person of colour is appropriated and/or rewritten by a white person. By mentioning her struggles with immigration in the same paragraphs as the plight of those seeking asylum in Australia, she is inadvertently conflating her experience with theirs. She tries to opt out of it with a brief doff of her cap, then goes and resumes her conflation by carelessly giving disproportionate significance and importance to her own experience.

In the midst of a public discussion of human rights violations which have placed Australia’s policies under international scrutiny, here is the voice of a young and naive writer who hasn’t got the facts right, who is complaining about her privilege of mobility, and who seems to hold marriage up as a bastion of legitimacy.

What does it say about the future of quality writing, and the quality of future writing, if people are publishing writing of such poor quality and integrity in a magazine that, while it supports emerging writers, is meant to be discerning and pursuing aesthetic excellence, encouraging contributors to achieve their best? Again, Overland should have known better than to publish this, and it worries me, too, that a young Australian didn’t know better than to write this article at a time such as this. It proves that even young thinkers and writers can be products of the very aspects of Australianism against which this one claims to push.


Dear Alison,

Thank you for sending us ‘Calling Australia Home: On Privilege, Taste and Timing’. While we support the spirit of debate and dialogue, and do appreciate the opportunity to publish multiple perspectives on issues, we are passing on this response for a number of reasons.

First is that we need such responses to be constructive. While Overland as a publication does pride itself on encouraging excellence, the majority of writers we publish online are new writers; sometimes, in fact, the article we publish on Overland is their first publication. We cannot publish a piece that publicly attacks a new writer, and makes a number of assumptions about them and their circumstances, in such a personal way.

Second, while the Nauru Files are damning, it comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following politics in this region that Australia is torturing refugees. We have published many pieces on this issue. But that does not mean that other issues are less worthy of coverage. Given that the majority of Overland staff are queer, and some have had numerous visa issues attempting to bring their partners (particularly when not from a Western country) to Australia, this is an issue that resonates strongly for us, as homophobia is rife in this country, both legislatively and empirically.

Finally, in some ways, this article reads opportunistically – that is, that Overland has not accepted some of your work previously, and you’re taking this opportunity to vent that frustration on this particular writer and article.

It is to be expected that people will not like or agree with every article published in Overland – we are a magazine with a diverse and wide readership with extremely varied interests and concerns. Perhaps this piece I’ve written previously on what it’s like to edit such a publication may be of interest:https://overland.org.au/2015/12/on-new-matilda-and-independent-left-wing-media/

We would of course be willing to reread the piece should you make it more focused on your experiences of Australia’s visa laws and less about your disappointment in Overland or the author of this particular piece.

Sincerely,

Editor, Overland

 

Aug
04

How to ruin a classic

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Yay! Another oldie!

This guy first appeared the The Big Issue No. 443 in October 2013. I liked that the magazine made it its very own image. I wrote it for a freelance writing subject I was taking as part of my MA. It was meant to be ‘food writing’. I guess this is food writing. Anyway, it is a thing that happened to me. (FYI, in Australia, beetroot = beets, and My Kitchen Rules is/was a primetime reality cooking show.)


A quick, easy and, well, realistic guide to cooking.

1. Pull your copy of Donna Hay Modern Classics Book 1 down from the top shelf in the kitchen.

2. Turn the pages until arrested by the photo of a bowl of wholesome green soup with pink flesh cresting the surface, and a hastily buttered piece of wholegrain bread lying in wait. Imagine it yearns – like you do – for split pea and ham.

3. Read the recipe, but not properly. Skim it because you’re hungry and your basket’s already on your bike and it’s Sunday and if you leave any later the supermarket will be heaving. Take particular note of 1kg ham, split peas, 1 stalk celery,  1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 bay leaf. Ignore the rest.

4. Arrive at the supermarket at the same time as the rest of the neighbourhood. Lock your bike and step past the sliding glass doors to find yourself confronted by a wall of Sunday-evening shoppers. Make a beeline for the meat.

5. Take a number, if there are numbers left. Exercise the kind of passive aggression that would make your mother proud: eyes averted from other carnivores until a position is secured within shouting distance of a deli guy.

6. Wait to be shouted at by a deli guy.

7. When he shouts, shout back, “I’D LIKE A KILOGRAM OF HAM, PLEASE.” Realize you don’t know how you need it, but assume you don’t want it shaved. Shout “THICK SLICES”. Realize with some panic that, perhaps, the butcher counter would be more suitable, but see over the whirring of the glinting steel slicer that you’re in too deep with this guy already.

8. Try not to be frazzled when presented with six, not thick, slices of ham. Curse background noise and try again.

9. Walk away with the paper bundle, marvelling at the weight of the meat in your hands, which is quite substantial for someone who tells 75% of people that they’re a vegetarian. Almost vomit next to the freshly baked dinner rolls when you turn over the bundle and see the $35 price tag.

10. Consider exercising the kind of stealth that would make your father proud: depositing the kilo of ham among the cheeses in the dairy fridge. Recall early lessons in honesty and integrity, and continue shopping.

11. With face flushed and inner monologue roaring with negative self-talk, go find the bay leaves. Notice after several minutes of scanning the spices that the bay leaves are obscured by a worker who is restocking the supply of these very leaves. In an attempt to transcend emotional turmoil over the ham blunder, and to atone for impure ham-abandonment fantasies, smile too sweetly and say something over-polite like “sorry to bother you, but I’m just going to get in your way for a sec and grab some bay leaves”. When he responds with a grin and the words “we only do it for you”, wonder if you’re on television.

12. Find peas and carrots and celery and onions and continue hating yourself. Buy vegetable stock because something is telling you to buy vegetable stock.

13. Listen carefully as the check-out guy recounts last night’s elimination on My Kitchen Rules. Also learn that his favourite food is beetroot, and that it’s healthy, and that you should really be buying beetroot. Pay $45 and acknowledge that 78% of that is the ham.

14. Know that you, too, would be eliminated on My Kitchen Rules. Ride home.

15. Now, as suggested by your self-loathing in the supermarket, you’re ravenous. Stick one carrot in your mouth and chop another one. Then chop an onion and a celery stalk. Toss a knob of butter into a pot and the orange and green and white little bits in after it, and watch the colours brighten. Pour a glass of wine and review the recipe.

16. Read the words ham hock.

17. As you cut the thick slices of ham into cubes, concede that one kilogram makes much more sense when there’s a bone involved. Also note that stock is only possible when there’s a bone involved, and ponder your subconscious as you glance over at the vegetable stock. These thoughts transform into a metaphysical meditation until you slice the tip of your index finger. Toss the ham cubes into the pot with the sautéing, softening vegetables, and run the finger under cold water.

18. Add split peas. Add hot water. Add the stock. Drop in a bay leaf. Stir your pot of simmering mistakes. Cover.

19. Toast some bread. Toast yourself. At least you’ve got something to eat and a whole lot of leftover ham.

Jun
30

Shadows and cities: things Toronto taught me about Melbourne

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Travel teaches us things about places. While this is not always what compels travellers to buy a ticket to somewhere, to buy a backpack, to buy weird things like money belts and Tilley hats and individual-sized mosquito nets and strong little dysentery pills, it is inevitably what we discover. (It is important to note that not all travel is equal, and that not all travellers are equal, and that not all travellers head to South East Asia for the first time armed with any or all of the above, convinced for some reason that they will spend the ensuing months wearing nothing but sports bras and relaxed fit Lululemon yoga crops – because somehow this trip will be otherwise physically uncomfortable – and having failed to take any precautions against the psychic discomfort that will inevitably ensue.)

As travellers, we pack our bags with all these things and take a plane and arrive at our destination with a rush of exhilaration and fear and think to ourselves Holy crow how weird is this I’m all the way over here like completely on the other side of the map and I can’t believe how different the air smells and feels I wasn’t expecting that. And then we find things. Dragon fruit, for one, or gestures that accompany greetings, or that certain insects are edible, or that sometimes a bus schedule is merely a formality, or that we look strange in the yoga pants. (I won’t go on about it, but it must be said that after these initial revelations, we discover a new kind of loneliness, a new kind of self loathing, a new kind of loss, an uncomfortable negotiation of distance from and proximity to our selves.)

Places teach us things about places. It takes a while to see, but for everything we discover about the places we go to, we learn just as much about the place we’ve come from. Once we have travelled, the places we see are no longer free of comparison, and elements of past places appear in the present, brought back to life and into the moment through memory and association. I think of this as layered transparencies, or as Andre Aciman calls the phenomenon, Shadow Cities. (“Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four to five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn’t avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York.” [The New York Review of Books, Dec 1997]).  When I look at Lake Ontario, I am also looking at The Pacific off the coast of Vancouver Island where I grew up, and at the coastline west of Melbourne that crashes beside the Great Ocean Road, and at the small beach in southern Japan where I’d sit and write at dawn on Sundays while friends bobbed like spools and waited for waves. (Let’s be real: I’m also looking at a grey and vastly cold and flat body of water that doesn’t smell like the ocean and whose virtually unused Toronto shoreline is a blatant missed opportunity.) These transparencies teach us not only to remember, but also to contextualize and categorize, and to make sense of how we internalize what lays itself out before us.

Now that I live in Toronto, I realize I am still learning so much about Melbourne, my home for the past four years. It is not that I walk around actively making comparisons; rather, I see or hear shadows of things that teach me more than my four years there could.

Below are a few things I learned about Melbourne after moving to Toronto:

 

People in Melbourne don’t spit.

I don’t just see this sometimes. I see it every time I go out. It’s not just people with colds, people exercising at high intensity, smokers, baseball players, or old-timey people expressing distaste toward one another. It’s women in pretty dresses, it’s men with manicured hands and expensive shoes, it’s people I know, it’s a kid goshdarnit, indoors! I’m sure there are spitters in Melbourne – it’s a big enough city that there’s room for all kinds – but it is not something I would see while walking through the city. It makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. If so, I wish I could return to that state. Maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.

 

Australia, as whole, gets kind of a bad rap.

Here are some things actual Canadians have actually said to me since I’ve returned from Australia, to which I struggled to respond:

“So how did you find Australia? I really liked visiting there – those beaches! – but I don’t know if I could live there. There’s so many things that can kill you!”

“Sorry we never came to visit. I mean, I just don’t know how well it would have gone, you know, since neither of us are white.”

“Was it difficult to be a woman in Australia?”

“You lived in Australia? Wow, so what do you think about this whole crazy Britexit [sic] thing?” (Okay, so that was just a dumb Canadian and had nothing to do with Australia’s reputation, but how could I not include it?)

 

Trams = streetcars / streetcars = trams.

Don’t freak out, people. These are the same thing. They do the same job, their drivers rage in the same ways, they are quaint in the same ways, and they fail in all the same ways as well. In Melbourne, when someone corrects you for referring to it as a streetcar – once they realize to what you could possibly be referring – the tone will be hushed and you will feel admonished.

 

Melbourne can seem less friendly than stereotypically friendly places.

It’s nice to be nice to people, and it’s nice when people are nice to you. And my Melbourne friends are all nice, and it’s nice to hear them say that it is important for them to be nice to others. And they are nice, it’s just that it’s different from Canadian nice – it’s not next level nice. I know that Canadian nice is a stereotype, and I also know that it is the brunt of jokes, both nice and less-nice, but let me just say how nice it is to make eye contact with strangers again, and have people be unexpectedly friendly on the subway, or even to have someone hold the door. And by someone, I mean everyone.

A week before I left Melbourne I was at the streetcar stop (oops!) opposite Flinders Street Station during rush hour. In the crush of people trying to squeeze onto the platform was a young girl of about eleven, wearing her provincial plaid summer school dress, tall socks and Anne-of-Green-Gables-esque straw hat (part of the uniform), shuffling along with all the rat-racers in their black suits, looking hot and beleaguered, a strand of strawberry blond fringe clinging dramatically to her cheek, her enormous backpack nearly toppling her. And as she finally pushed past me and onto the platform, she opened her mouth, looking as if she were about to cry, and suddenly shrieked: Keep moving, c*nts.

 

Melburnians drink from travel coffee cups of a reasonable and dignified size.

Wow. Toronto! Everywhere I go here people are drinking from enormous, 24oz plastic cups (that’s 700ml), through straws, and more often than not it’s some sweet-blended-looking thing topped with something whipped. They look like drinks for giant children. Even a small sized coffee is an anxiety-inducing 12oz. Before arriving, we tried our best to mentally prepare ourselves for the general terribleness of coffee here, but I’d give my cat right now (sorry Furio) for a flat white from anywhere in Brunswick, in an 8oz takeaway cup with a clever stamp on its side. That said, I’m not sure I miss the general coffee snobbery and how far Melbourne is willing to go with its coffee culture.

 

Melbourne ladies can aim.

In Toronto’s public ladies’ loos, it seems that the toilet bowl – yes, ladies, that’s the concave part with the water in it – is simply a suggested termination point for the trajectory of one’s excess water, salt, and nitrogen compounds. I never realized that women in Melbourne don’t pee all over toilet seats until I moved to a place where women do pee all over toilet seats. And by all over I mean ALL OVER, not the errant drop or two that happens to the best of us in moments of haste. Stumbling upon the results of such a laissez-faire urination style makes me wonder how much of themselves they’ve also peed on in the process of transforming a toilet seat into a veritable bird bath. For a population that’s known for its friendliness and consideration towards others, I am shocked to rediscover this. Again, it makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. Again, if so, I wish I could return to that state. Again, maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.

 

Melbourne is a super clean and very attractive place.

It’s true. It may also be true that raising this point is an act of atonement for using the c-word a few minutes ago, but it bears mentioning. I had a dream last night I was riding my bike down Rathdowne St on a late summer day in February. The dry rasp of rustling gum leaves hovered in the air above me. The sky was that acute Australian blue-sky blue and the afternoon sun was glinting of my helmeted dome. I was headed somewhere nice like Fitzroy North or Carlton most likely to get a high-quality 8oz flat white perfectly and pretentiously crafted by a skinny tattooed barista wearing all black. I woke up and thought what a nearly perfect dream it was, and that it could have only been more perfect if the wind had been blowing cinematically through my hair, which it hadn’t been, because in Melbourne, unlike in Toronto, you can get a ticket for that.

 

I’m sure as time moves on and I settle more deeply into my little corner of Toronto there will be more still to learn about Melbourne, and about the other places I’ve lived as well. Perhaps longer still and the transparencies will fade, and nothing around me will look all that new anymore. Toronto will become familiar, and I will have a history here, and for the first time in my life, that prospect doesn’t frighten me in the least.