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
30

Foreign Food

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The biggest reason I was able to live in a small city in Japan for as long as I did was a seventy-one-year-old woman named Tama. Despite a language barrier that ensured our deep thoughts and the complexities of our personalities would remain a mystery to one another, we got on well and saw each other weekly. She cared for me, taking me to the hospital once in summer for severe dehydration (after an ill-advised half-marathon run on a hot day with a new long-distance group), and again in winter for a torn calf muscle (after crashing over an icy mogul on a ski slope). We taught each other our languages. We went out for meals. She delivered vegetables from her garden to my door and taught me not to plant my tomatoes near my eggplants. We often cooked together. She showed me how to make Japanese dishes like tempura, agedashi tofu, and gyoza, while I taught her to make truly mundane dishes that she repeatedly requested, despite my insistence that we could do better than spaghetti bolognese, fancy sandwiches, and banana bread. (The banana bread episode was a real debacle. She had invited her friends for this particular demonstration, so I was properly on display. Her minuscule oven—it was unclear to me whether it had been bought for the occasion or unused for years—malfunctioned and the bread wouldn’t bake, so of course, due to politeness protocol, I later found myself sitting at her table surrounded by nine septuagenarians smiling and eating what was essentially warm banana batter from bowls with spoons, nodding and telling me it was delicious.) Food was a large part of our friendship.

Food was also one of the most persistent reminders that I was living somewhere foreign. One evening, my Australian friend Aaron and I decided we would finally try the little yakitori restaurant down a small alley in our neighbourhood. We had noticed it many times, and since the kanji for yakitori was one of the few I had memorized at that point, in a way our meal there seemed predestined. (For the uninitiated, yakitori translates to grilled chicken, and consists of skewered chicken pieces [and chicken parts] cooked over charcoal and seasoned, most commonly with salt or a sweet sauce. It’s really really good.) The interior was small and wooden, and there were a few stools lined up in front of a counter dotted with ceramic condiment vessels and ash trays. When a man came out from the back, he greeted us warmly. The menu was handwritten and had no photos, so I asked him to please bring us a dish of his recommendation. When he returned some time later with our meal, we were puzzled.

“Hey,” I said to Aaron. “Aren’t we in a chicken place?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you think he brought us sashimi?”

Aaron shrugged and said “Itadakimasu,” (bon appétit) and we cracked apart our chopsticks. Before us was a beautiful plating of pale pink sashimi, scattered with paper-thin garlic slices and delicate curls of chili peppers. Two small dishes of sauce perched artfully on the side. The man stood back and waited eagerly for us to taste the dish he had prepared. I put a piece in my mouth, and it wasn’t until it had been in there a while that I realized what I was eating. It was chicken. It was raw. It was confronting. It was delicious. I probably wouldn’t eat it again.

I like to eat and to cook Japanese food, and so I didn’t often miss food from home. Until suddenly I did. Acutely. I would find myself blindsided by an intense craving for nachos. My whole body wanted nachos. Gherrrrd, I needed nachos. Or garlic dill pickles. Or granola. Hummus! Brieee!! And then I didn’t—the moment would pass and I’d continue munching on my tuna rice ball. Because I couldn’t shop for those things on a regular basis, I didn’t think of them all that much. But then one day an opportunity presented itself, and I went all the way.

Nothing is less Japanese than Costco, except perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. Wholesale megastores are decidedly out of place among the other food buying options that side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Even in the average Tokushima grocery store one would not find the shopping trolleys that come standard in North American shops, and while big supermarket chains are prevalent there, boasting long wide aisles of processed poisons, there was not a POS conveyor belt in sight. People there just don’t really buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size M, and in Japan I’m like a double XL.

That said, there was a Costco in Amagasaki, just two hours of bridges and highways from Tokushima, and one day Tama invited Aaron and I to go there with her. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner at Tama’s several months earlier. We told her of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese, chocolate by the kilogram, and granola.

“It’s cheap,” we told her. “Big and cheap.”

This is the conversation that led to her one day borrowing a friend’s Costco card, the three of us piling into her tiny square Mitsubishi, and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.

We arrived and parked. We negotiated throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate-covered pretzels. We jumbo shopped. Pushing past my food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and biscuits and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and garbanzo beans and even jelly beans.

The contents of Tama’s cart were sparse: tissues, cling wrap, sliced beef, and a package of a stomach-turning product so perplexing and revolting I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Through the transparent wrapper I saw eight chubby, sausage-shaped processed meat products wrapped around bones. Actual bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle—a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species—this was it. A sausage with a bone jammed up inside. Tama’s judgment had clearly been impaired by the overwhelming experience that was Costco. I hurried away from her.

After the shame-inducing checkout experience, during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200¥ ($2) lunch combos and were handed 20oz disposable cups with foil-wrapped pizza slices inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, gross side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that a place like Costco was intrinsic to the perpetuation—validation—of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I lived with each time someone’s jaw dropped when I told them that I could use chopsticks, I ate vegetables, I didn’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers were not my favourite food.

Tama announced on the drive home that she would like us all to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.

*

When we got to Tama’s house the next day she met us in her driveway and I presented her with a box of beautifully over-packaged cookies. She disappeared into the house and returned brandishing a bag of perfect red apples, each nestled in its own protective foam netting. I tried to resist, repeatedly refusing them, but ended up bowing a thousand times and putting them in the backseat before we all went inside. I learned another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to the complex practice of gift giving in Japan: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, before you present your gift to the host. Otherwise she will in return give you a gift from her personal stash, an act dictated by custom that will leave you feeling greedy and deflated—you came with a meagre box of cookies and will be leaving with a full stomach and probably all of her apples.

We followed the cooking aromas into the kitchen. Gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught that day by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. I elbowed Aaron and whispered, “Look on the stove,” and he did, then looked back at me, expressionless and shaken. The meat popsicles. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it, even pretend to enjoy it.

While I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, and didn’t wish to seem impolite, Aaron luckily had no such qualms.

“What are those?” he said.

“What?” said Tama.

“Those things in the pan.”

Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said. Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests, and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited to enjoy, this taste of home.

If these are enjoyed anywhere in the world, it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.

Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”

“Yes.”

“From what animal?”

“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”

“Why?”

Now Tama stopped what she was doing—dressing the boneless green salad—and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and nonplussed. I smiled through the silence, stopping only when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a little. “Why why?” she said. Tama was clearly stunned.

This was not the only food I encountered in Japan that had been embraced and marketed as something foreign. Such delicacies could be spotted in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about our favourite foods. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu):

Me:                  What’s your favourite food?

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  No no, your favourite food.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  You mean hamburger.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg!

I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing, that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new teacher. Only later did I discover hamburg on a menu. I ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a greyish ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.

After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?”

Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be: “To hold.”

When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any other hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed mystery meat would be acceptable for a person to leave on the chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoy her Frankfurters I took a breath, closed my eyes and went for it. Distracting myself with thoughts of the awaiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.

Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeing triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter.” I hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, sipped my beer, and got on with my life.

Sep
17

The Happenings

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I think I was pretty bored in my early teen years. One reason was that we lived in a rural setting on Vancouver Island. It was idyllic, but who needs sublime beauty when you’re fourteen. (As a younger child it had been different—weekends and afternoons were spent colonizing the forest and rocky shoreline, my brother and I building entire worlds for ourselves between catch-and-releasing coin-sized crabs on the stony beach and nights spent in our treehouse.) The closest town was Sidney, whose population of ten thousand had a median age of fifty-six, and whose speed limits rarely exceeded thirty kilometres per hour. It was not in walking distance. The best things in town for sub-sixteens (read: non-driving) were a five-pin bowling alley called Miracle Lanes and the Dairy Queen. These were only youth hubs in the eyes of parents, who would hand over a twenty and drop their kids off in town for a Saturday afternoon of what they thought would be bowling and Blizzards, but would most likely be a dime bag, Doritos, and Mountain Dew down by the pier. The older ones with cars would park in the Safeway parking lot at night, loitering and showing off their sound systems.

Another reason for my boredom is that I disliked school. I disliked it from day one. This had nothing to do with the content of the classes—I was able to engage with the material and excelled in all subjects except math, which was a major contributor to my boredom. Negotiating the perplexing interactions with other children stressed me out. As a small child I wore short hair. This and my shyness, combined with a surname that rhymes with hamburger, made me a prime target of the popular mouth breathers. The resulting low self-esteem would follow me until the end of middle school, when I grew tall and willowy and began to resemble an adult, at which point I still didn’t fit in. North Saanich Middle School looked like a correctional facility, which I suppose it was in a way—a brutalist grey cube to contain a few hundred kids aged eleven to thirteen. My theory then was that they wanted to keep us away from the rest of society, hide us, and perhaps in the meantime they thought we’d destroy one another. I began skipping class in grade six, a habit I kept up until the end. In my grade-twelve year I had the highest tardy rate and lowest attendance rate in the school. I marveled over the printout—pages and pages, double-sided—that the vice principal gave me. The trouble administration must have gone through to itemize each of these marked the record in my eyes as an accomplishment.

*

I was fourteen and in my first year at Parkland Secondary. It was a year after I shed my insecurities in favour of a sense of invincibility, a year before an unknown girl in an LA Kings half-zip pullover jacket and a knuckle duster would punch my lights out at a bus stop in front of the school after I refused to give her my bus fare, and eighteen months before I would drop out of school for a year after writing a letter to Principal Bunyan outlining the flaws I’d identified in the system and explaining that I therefore didn’t see the point in my being there any longer. I was a young woman of few words. I liked to wear worn-out Birkenstocks (retrieved on numerous occasions from the garbage can near the back door of the house, having been spirited out of my closet in the night by my father), olive green combat pants, and long-sleeve knits. My favourite food was ice cream sandwiches. I played on the senior volleyball team.

I had recently become friends with Erika, who was similar to me in that she was very tall, born in 1982, and played senior volleyball, and dissimilar to me in that she went to another school, never smoked pot, and attended a Christian youth group. I liked her, and she liked me, and when I was around her and her churchy friends I felt, for the first time perhaps, as though I was a part of something—as though I belonged. They were so nice! And happy! With no traces of apathy! Also, she was normal: she didn’t talk about Jesus all the time, she didn’t wear floral smocked dresses with Mary Janes. Actually, I thought she was cool: she liked grunge, played guitar, and because of youth group she had older friends, some of whom were what I then called hotties. So when Erika invited me to a youth retreat one weekend, cryptically—deceptively?— known as The Happenings, I decided that it sounded like a good idea. I certainly had nothing better to do.

*

I arrived at St Mary’s church hall on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by a short woman with a soft, rosy face and slightly upturned nose, her thighs packed tightly into bona fide mom jeans. She wore battered Reeboks, a Cosbyish sweater (can you still say that, in light of, you know, everything?), and a headband pushing her flat brown hair into a little swell at her hairline. Attached to her sweater were two pins, one that read Peggy and another that read GOD has a plan for YOU. She approached me with a basket of pins that looked similar to her Peggy pin.

“Are you Alison? I think you must be Alison! Welcome to The Happenings.”

I smiled and nodded and pinned my pin. “Where should I put my things?”

“Sure, dear! Just go in this door, turn right down the corridor, and you’ll see Jason standing at the bottom of the stairs. He’ll show you.” Her smile was vast, and I felt very welcome. She hugged me. Our pins touched. I had grown up going to church on Sundays with my family, and it had been nothing like this. There the adults were brittle and judgmental, the hymns austere and funereal, the other kids were weirdos, and the church hall smelled like old coffee and stewed fruit.

I walked down the corridor under the condemnatory eyes of sepia-tinged pastors past, until I reached the stairs.

“Hey. You Alison?” I didn’t answer for a moment. It was a hottie. Already. Six-three, blue–green eyes, square jaw, even a goatee (hey no judging—this was 1996). “I’m Jason.” He hugged me. It was an earnest hug, close and long. He worked out for sure. When he let go, he produced a large green pompom that hung limp at the end of a length of yarn. “Warm Fuzzy!” he said as he slipped it over my head. I looked down at the sad green sphere dangling in front of my sternum, then back at Jason. I frowned.

“What is this?” It sounded like three stern little sentences.

“It’s a Warm Fuzzy,” said Jason, undeterred. “It’s, like, a good feeling. You’ll give them and receive them over the course of the weekend. They represent caring and love.” I saw another kid run past the window wearing a whole knot of these things, ten at least. He looked clownish, and loved.

“Right on,” I said, and followed him up to a small room that had two sleeping bags already laid out on the floor.

“You can drop your stuff here. You’re sharing with Erika and Miranda.”

I thanked Jason. He did that thing that guys sometimes did, like two quick snaps and a clap wherein an open hand meets the closed fist of the other one in a flourish of swinging arms, that somehow seemed cool. He said, “Later,” and walked out. I dropped my backpack onto the hardwood floor, already a little bummed that there weren’t even beds. I thought of my churchgoing grandmother and the two centimetres of bathwater she made my brother share at bathtime when we stayed with her as little kids—somehow sleeping on the floor made sense.

*

“Watches please!” Peggy made her way around the circle in which we all now sat, and I watched everyone surrender their timepieces, tossing mine in with the rest when it was my turn. Erika whispered to me that this was her favourite part, escaping time for two days. I liked that perspective and immediately adopted it. It made it all seem so edgy. A tiny girl with blonde hair, pink-rimmed glasses and a Miranda pin looked on the verge of tears as she rested her watch—the last one—on top of the others. “Don’t worry,” said Peggy. She held Miranda’s gaze. “We’re on God’s time now.”

There was an icebreaker in which we had to introduce ourselves with an adjective that began with the first letter of our first names, and that we felt best described us. Peggy started.

“Perky Peggy!” Her face was more flushed than before, and now that she was sitting cross-legged on the floor her jeans made me think of sausage casings. Porky Piggy. I knew it was unkind, but I couldn’t unthink it.

Energetic Erika.

Musical Miranda.

Generous Jason. I resisted the urge to object to this clear flouting of what I thought were very basic rules.

I chose Authentic for myself. Yes, we all know that it’s an impossible claim for a teenager, but I reasoned that no one could argue with it, although I’m not sure why I thought someone might try to.

I felt badly for Wacky William when it become apparent, moments after he’d spoken it, that he regretted his choice. He patted his cowlick nervously and smoothed the collar of his navy blue polo shirt.

After a rundown of the weekend’s activities—singing, eating, free time and a series of talks—we were given time to get to know each other. Upstairs I sat with Erika and Miranda, who turned out to be our age but was still waiting for gruesome hand of puberty to strike. She wasted no time in getting to the good stuff.

“How do you guys feel, you know, about having strange thoughts?” She wrapped both hands around her mustard yellow Fuzzy and squeezed.

“Like what kind of thoughts?” said Erika.

“The thoughts that are not what God wants you think. The bad ones or the weird ones that maybe the devil gives you.”

Having never thought of my thoughts in such binary or biblical terms, I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had just nodded and said something like I totally know what you mean, to save Miranda the embarrassment that ensued.

“Do you mean thoughts about guys?” I said, thinking of Jason and not feeling guilty for a second.

“No, no, not guys. I mean sometimes, when I’m with my friends at school, I start staring at their breasts, and then I can’t stop staring at them.” Her face flushed and Erika and I just looked at her. She was physically immature, and because of that I could understand her curiosity, but whatever her reasons, I didn’t think it was strange. Before I could say so, two kids lurking in the doorway started to laugh and Miranda ran from the room.

*

After dinner it was time for music. When Jason brought out a guitar I almost melted. I sat on my own on the fringes of the circle. I didn’t know any of the songs. Jason started strumming. He closed his eyes. He began rocking back and forth. People began to sway. He sang a cover of “Flood” (WARNING: before clicking the link know that it is truly terrible, and the video has substantial kitsch factor, and it may get stuck in your head) by a Christian band called Jars of Clay. I was compelled by the darkness of the lyrics: But if I can’t swim after forty days / and my mind is crushed / by the crashing waves / lift me up so high / that I cannot fall / lift me up … and keep me from drowning. I felt conflicted by Jason’s singing. At first I thought he was attempting tricky harmonies, but it soon became apparent that he was tone deaf. This was a major buzzkill. When he finished everyone clapped and hugged and exchanged Warm Fuzzies. I got a brown one and an orange one. He began a new song. This time everyone sang, and by the end of the hour I knew all the words to “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Jesus Loves Me.”

Later, when we went up to bed, Erika and I discovered Miranda’s things were gone. Erika said she heard that Miranda had been picked up a couple of hours earlier. I hadn’t even noticed, and I wondered if those were regular hours or God hours.

*

I woke in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose, skirted my mound of Warm Fuzzies and went downstairs, hoping to pilfer a snack. I followed the dark corridor, the framed faces ghostly, hints of their eyes trailing me. Before I reached the kitchen I noticed a glow issuing from beneath a closed door at the far end of the hall. I pushed the door gently and it opened. Seated in the centre of the room were three teenagers I’d never seen before, holding hands and chanting in whispers. In the corner Wacky William and another couple of kids were bent over a low table, surrounded by scissors and balls of yarn, a pile of Warm Fuzzies on the table between them. Wacky William looked up at me, his eyelids heavy. One of the chanters opened his eyes and smiled at me, then closed them again.

It was the middle of the night. I looked at my wrist as if there were a watch there. No one said anything, so I backed out of the room and went back to bed, my shoulder blades pressed against the polished floorboards.

*

Day two was tedious and I felt disturbed. Breakfast was stewed fruit. William and the others from the midnight Fuzzy factory wore vacant expressions, bags under their eyes. I gave all my Fuzzies away.

The “talks” were little sermons delivered by speakers in their late teens. One about the masks we wear to hide our true selves from the Lord, another about facing the darkest parts of ourselves. This involved asking volunteers to publicly dredge up their worst memories, and opened the floor for others to express sympathy and advice. Everyone would then encircle the person, touching or hugging him or her. Two people left the room in tears. Jason gave a talk on being in a canoe with this father, and the canoe capsized but somehow he was alive.

“I was seriously drowning and the waves were crashing, and I could like, feel him lift me out of the water.” Everyone was rapt by Jason’s account of his near death experience, having clearly forgotten the words to the song he’d bastardized the night before. I looked at Erika and rolled my eyes. She mouthed the word bullshit and smirked.

As the weekend went on The Happenings revealed itself to be a kind of porn—everyone getting off on each other’s teenage melodrama and piety. The more dramatic it all was, the stronger the sense of belonging, even if “belonging” meant hugging it out through crocodile tears to the tune of made-up pain. I was young and more than a bit apathetic, but I felt in my bones that there was something perverse about what I was witnessing. It was clear that my minimal hugging and lack of indulgence in the theatrics of the weekend had made me a pariah. Any Fuzzies I received were pity Fuzzies.

That night, long after lights out, I said to Erika, “This blows, right?”

“It very much blows.”

She wasn’t surprised when I told her what I’d discovered the night before.

“Oh yeah I know, you found the prayer squad. There are people in that room praying in shifts all weekend. They’re praying for us. Plus, they approach kids and tell them they’ve been ‘chosen’ to help make the pompoms. It’s weird. I had to do it last year. It kind of wrecks the weekend for you.”

“Hey, do you want to get out of here?”

We escaped through the window. Erika had left her shoes downstairs, so we each put on one of my Birkenstocks and walked into the centre of Sidney. When I asked her why she bothered with this type of thing she said she didn’t really know—they were her friends and this was her world. “Plus,” she said, “What else is there to do?” We turned left on Beacon Ave and walked the main stretch.

Some grade twelve skids were hanging out in the Safeway parking lot with a brown and gold ’85 Chevy Van, a Too $hort decal emblazoned across the rear window, bass rattling the chassis. I could just make out the tinny classical music playing outside the 7-Eleven across the street, a recent initiative to keep loitering teens at bay. The Normandy Restaurant was shut up tight, the next day’s early bird special in tight cursive leaning against the window. The smell of the sea rode a breeze up from the pier.

“Shit,” said Erika. She slid her foot out of my sandal and nudged it towards me. It was as if she was saying Here’s your bad influence back. A white hatchback turned in from a side street and approached us. We stood still in its high beams and when it came to a stop, Piggy and Jason got out.

“Here they are, Mom,” said Jason. Traitor! We were busted.

*

It turns out I wasn’t saved by The Happenings. Over the years that followed I went on to do far worse things than a midnight meander through sleepy Sidney. I lied to my teachers, deceived my parents, indulged my interest in older boys, went to parties and took hallucinogens with older kids, dropped out of school. But I don’t think I was worse than those youth group kids, the ones who judged, who feigned acceptance, who bullshitted each other, who hugged and hugged. There was no substance there. No empathy. There was a brittle emptiness, a void in which young people practised conforming.

Back at the church I was taken into the chapel and Erika was sent back to the room. I was escorted to a pew and a group closed in on me: Piggy, Jason, and some people I recognized from the prayer squad. They each closed their eyes, put one hand on me, and reached the other up in the air. They were reaching for God. I began to panic, and they began to pray.


[I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, and I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details.]

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