Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings

 

When I think of Bob Marley I think Lauryn Hill’s cover with him for Turn Your Lights Down Low and when I think of Lauryn Hill I think of my aunt. She used to play The Fugees throughout my childhood.

While I’m on this I got my girl L one time! one time!

Hey yo L you know you got the lyrics!

I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style,

And so I came to see him and listen for a while.

And there he was this young boy, a stranger to my eyes,

Strumming my pain with his fingers (one time),

Singing my life with his words (two times),

Killing me softly with his song

Whilst I haven’t listened to any of these artists actively since then, Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley have only very slightly, framed some of the most wholesome interactions with family that I have in my childhood.

This is the same for Marlon James’ incredible novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Winner of The Man Booker Prize 2015, Bob Marley is never mentioned but frames the lives of several people living and working in Jamaica during the 70s. He opens up with a character by the name of Bam-Bam who grew up in the slums. Language, like all creoles, takes on a new and lively form that simply English can never articulate. But James achieves something rhythmic and musical with Bam-Bam, who is my favourite character. He is tough, hard, but sensitive in the world around him covered in death, drugs and machines. Bam-Bam explains:

 “Rasta don’t like when women loose and you both get to midnight raving, and I grab meself and rave too from either seeing it or hearing it, and then you write a song about it. The boy from Concrete Jungle…”

“Gun hunger worse than woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back. At night me don’t sleep. Me stay up in the dark shadow, looking at it, rubbing it, seeing and waiting.”

I haven’t finished the novel, in fact it feels like I have barely started, but the words of Bam-Bam hit me like a ton of bricks. Creole reminds me of grandparents and the struggle they endured to try and assimilate themselves into English. I could concentrate on other characters, and I probably should, but Bam-Bam reminds me of my family. Of my nana whom was pregnant with my mother who had to catch a public bus miles from her home into the city to buy nappies for her child whilst she was in contractions. She then had to walk back, because giving birth in the home your husband built is necessary in Tongan culture. Such struggles of violence can never be fully understood.

If you’re a person of colour please read this book. The violent and rhythmic language will be familiar yet confronting. I am not I am not sure how I feel about a white man lending me this book. I don’t think people understand. Maybe I don’t understand….

“…I could kill anybody and it would be the greatest killing ever and now I didn’t have the greatest killing ever and now red wasn’t the reddest red and blue wasn’t the bluest blue and the rhythm wasn’t the sweetest rhythm and all these things made me sad but also something that I can’t describe and I want one thing. To feel good again and right now. Right now.”

Coloured people are never granted the greatest killing, which is the killing of colonisation for the rise of coloured self-definition in language, art, and society. Such big words have been used many times that they mean nothing…but yesterday I had to listen to an old white man who is fluent in Spanish and Spanish translations…use sacred Spanish poetry to make his poem about sex and death more “meaningful”…and…there is something very wrong in that…a soft killing…white people often forget the damage they have caused and continue to take….there needs to be a space afforded to coloured people…

James’ novel along with coloured music, along with coloured readers, is the frontline step in coloured self-definition…and I hope to follow. It is time to be awarded the greatest killing…in order to feel good again…

Black Lives Matter Rally (Sydney)

“Being black is one thing, but being a black AND female is another. I feel like every girl can relate to the struggle of fitting into a beauty standard growing up, but for black girls it’s a constant battle to fit into your own skin.”

Despite her young age, Feker Yibeltal is a stunning and bright mind on the scene today. (Who wishes to keep this post without pictures of herself or a social media link). When she asked me to attend the Black Lives Matter Rally in Sydney July 16 – I was incredibly humbled. It always feels a little wrong as an outsider in specific social issues to just jump up and offer my support – when sometimes it might not be needed. I have always been very weary of crossing boundaries, so for Feker to ask me to come along and be physically present to a cause that affects her daily life – I couldn’t imagine a kinder gesture in the world.

“[h]ave no mercy or compassion for a society that will crush people, and then penalise them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”

In comparison to Feker, I’m old, tired looking, and very slow in my understandings of social justice. I wish I could have been as strong minded and aware at her age. Because I am not Black and have a plethora of socially structured internalised-racism, it didn’t feel right for me to talk about the rally. So instead I sent Feker a bunch of questions about herself, solidarity with Aboriginals (which is also what the rally was about), and femaleness.

These are her thoughts:

  1. What was it like growing up Black in a supposedly ‘multicultural’ Australia?

Growing up black in a ‘multicultural’ Australia was a pretty unique, but good experience. Being surrounded with people from different ethnicities and backgrounds, you learn new things, which is pretty cool.

  1. Did you experience racism at a young age? If so, how and why?

Yes. Constantly being made fun of because of the colour of my skin, and being told how ‘funny’ my hair looks. Most recent experience of racism was being told I have ‘aids’.

  1. Do you see yourself as part of the Black community? Who is part of this community?

The term ‘black’ can be branched into many different categories as we come from different ethnicities and nationalities. I’m Ethiopian, so for me personally I grew up in an Ethiopian community.

  1. Why did you attend the rally at Town Hall? What was the best/worst thing about it?

I attended the rally to show solidarity for my people. The best thing was seeing everyone unite together and show support, but the worst thing was that we had to unite for such a horrific cause.

  1. Do you empathise with the racism/killing Indigenous Australians face? Would you call your experience of racism the same?

I can’t compare my personal issues on racism to others, especially Indigenous Australians as they are constantly going through a brutal battle.

  1. Have you experienced any other forms of oppression such as queerphobia and/or islamophobia?

No, thankfully.

  1. Despite your social oppression do you consider yourself a Young Australia? If so, what does that mean to you; if not, why?

Yes, I do consider myself a Young Australian, although I wasn’t born here, I was raised here- and Australia will always be my second home, as it has welcomed me with open doors and new opportunities in life that I wouldn’t have gotten if I was still back home in Ethiopia, so I will always be thankful for that.

  1. What is it like being a Black female?

Being black is one thing, but being a black AND female is another. I feel like every girl can relate to the struggle of fitting into a beauty standard growing up, but for black girls it’s a constant battle to fit into your own skin. The media plays a huge role in this as we often see European beauty standards that are being displayed as true ‘beauty’. Our image is represented poorly in film/tv as there are hardly any black girls and if there happen to be one it would often be a ‘stereotypical’ character. This is where people generalise and misinterpret what a ‘black’ girl is and start labeling us. We’ve always been undermined, and told that our hair is too ‘kinky’ or our skin is too ‘dark’. Nevertheless, black girls are made of melanin and magic, and we will continue to prosper and flourish in this derogatory society.

  1. What are your own goals/careers/passions and do you feel Western Sydney/Sydney/Australia is a safe space for you to achieve these goals?

My goal at this point is to finish High School and go to University. I also want to go back to the motherland and help my people that are struggling. No matter where I go in this world today, I will always be exposed to racism. So whether I live in Blacktown, or Bondi, there will always be obstacles I need to overcome, but if I have the right mentality there is no doubt that I’ll achieve my goals.

  1. What does Australia need to do in order to dismantle the roots of racism?

I think it should start with education system. Education is the root of knowledge, if we teach the youth about this arising issue; we are bound to see a change in the next generation.

Photo 1 credit // Photo 2 credit 

 

“When a woman drinks its as if an animal were drinking or a small child…”: Female Writers and Alcoholism

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When you look up writers and alcoholism, there is a dime a dozen of male writers. So it is easy to forget that alcoholism exists no matter age, gender, or race. No matter how many drunken stupors I’ve had, blacked out to the point of feeling taken advantage of, slept near the bowl of a toilet, spat out mean things to friends and family (and my guts), no one has ever turned to me as said that I might have a problem. It took a good conversation with a pretty girl, and a final walk of shame from Newtown to Central and back home, to finally understand not so much of an alcohol addiction, but a dependency (growing since I was eighteen).

I remember my friends asking me sometime after high school, if I was drinking a week just shy of my eighteenth birthday because I was still sad about my ex-boyfriend.

I remember sometime after being twenty and filled with red wine, being raced to the train station to go home alone, after a Central Park fiasco.

“I lost all respect for him when he did that to you.”

“I don’t appreciate you saying that you feel taken advantage of because you chose to drink.”

“You were alright with that sort of thing right?”

It’s easy to forget a lot of whom I am when I drink, and to happily make excuses for my actions because I was ‘under the influence.’

I’ll tell you now that there is no excuse for bad actions.

But I will also tell you now, that you are not your actions (or the acts of anyone else).

No matter how many bottleshops I saw on the way home, and the ones that are lit up in the pathways of my memories, I now realise how wrong it is to look for answers (?) in something as narrow as a bottle.

This Guardian article on female writers and alcoholism is a good read when thinking about how not to make your mistakes your Self, and refreshingly humanising.

French novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras puts it perfectly when she says:

“When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking or a small child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is a rare, serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature….I realised the scandal I was creating around me.” – Practicalities

and whilst I don’t agree with ‘the divine’ sentiment, it is still perfect in saying that the stigma of women who are alcohol dependent is unnervingly sexist.

When a woman is drunk she is either: an animal or a child. There is no in-between for us.

My drunk actions have been seen as more severe by those who hardly know me, simply because I am a girl. I truly believe, that if I was a man making snide comments, insinuating sexual advances, or simply just slapping around with mates; most people would turn a blind eye and I would be easily forgiven. I don’t say this to excuse my drunken actions by basing it on my gender, but I am reminded that sexism is everywhere. A sexism that tells me my weakness is my fault. Even in something as sadly human as mental illness and addiction.

It was grounding to see a list of female writers who have understood their alcoholism – even if, like a lot of people who suffer, these women never reached clinical recovery.

To find answers, maybe about myself, I must stop looking through glass.

Even though I apologise every ‘morning after,’ I’m excited to just stop having them, and to find comfort in people again rather than liquid.

 

I am reminded of an article I saw in passing about the decline of drinking in Australian youth. I remind myself to one day read Olivia Lang’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, and to be more healthily acquainted with the life of Patricia Highsmith and Marguerite Duras.

Langakali – Poems by Konai Helu Thaman

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Here is my connection, my home, and my earth. It has taken me almost twenty-one years to feel that I am a minority (more than you would guess) and to find a deep love of my culture. My island, my home, and my true Earth is small. So small that maps and atlases don’t bother to give my country shape. Yet I am,  I am ‘too skinny’ to be a Tongan. A shape.

As Tongans, we have shape. We are big in heart, in grief, in greed, in worship. My Grandmother was beautiful without knowing much English. She spoke with her hands, when she wove mats or cooked me banana bread. I am excited to learn more about myself through an authored female Tongan, who understands that the rights of women in an island such as ours is small and almost non-existent. I want to compare this poet to my own learnings of the Tongan women in my life.

This morning I had to listen to a white girl tell me that all girls are bitchy: It’s okay, I do it myself I’ll admit it, she said. I used to say the same about Tongan girls. Now I only think about how vile it was to believe that being skinny, and being whiter, meant I was something better. It is one thing to be born a minority; it is another to be born into such a façade of privilege to accept that I am a minority. I know that most of the people who have claimed to love me thought I was too brown or not brown enough, that I was stupid because I grew up in Western Sydney all my life.

It is tiring to try and mimic my oppressors. Konai Helu Thaman is my first starting point. I love the way my nana and pa say her name, in an accent of centuries of knowledge I am yet to uncover. I’m excited to show you all some of the poetic works I have been reading of such a profound Tongan female. The next time I wear my ta’ovala I will wear it with pride. Like the poem Do Not Despise Me I can no longer resent the person I was born simply because They (the White They) told me white was better.

Bluets – Maggie Nelson

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Summary: Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color…

A lyrical, philosophical, and often explicit exploration of personal suffering and the limitations of vision and love, as refracted through the color blue. With Bluets, Maggie Nelson has entered the pantheon of brilliant lyric essayists.

My Thoughts: Thinking about ex-lovers is always a strange sensation, and for me, one that hurts the crown of my head and my shoulders. Places kissed, but also places forgotten. They are broken sites on the body, one’s that for me, must be healed by reading.

The first book I read by Maggie Nelson was Bluets. One I’ve been told is not a good place to start. A piece of advice I got too late. But it is only with it, that I realise how broken the book actually is. But, there is always something good in starting from something destructive – so long as you are ready to become a mender, a tinker, someone curious instead (or rather balanced) of being morosely morbid about your pain.

When I finished Bluets, ironically, on the blue rubber seat of my 756-bus home, I wrote something like this:

I realise lament can mean complaint: but lament is not a complaint at all. It is a song, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” Bluets made me sad. Reading the last few pages, I murmured the words, as I sat on the blue plastic seats of the 756-bus – gasping.

Bluets, to me, is the broken fragments of someone who loves blue, in every shattered shade, who though it, loves to make sense of past loves. Bluets made me think a lot about colour, and why I can’t see as visually as I need, but also why communication has always been a problem for me. I still don’t know what is means to see with my eyes, or to speak from a mouth filled with blood and memories. Anne Carson states that: “when we speak, we are essentially speaking our own autobiographies.” It seems scary to open your mouth and talk about pain.

Bluets is the best at talking about its own disjointed pain in the colour blue:

“115. In which case seeking itself is a spiritual error.”

“203. …if seeing a particular astonishing shade of blue, for example, or [how] letting a particularly potent person inside you, could alter you irrevocably, just to have seen it or felt it. In which case, how does one know when, or how, to refuse? How to recover?”

I am grateful I have many friends so open about their potent past relationships. I have friends who have had their experiences described as being: “baptised,” that their ex-lovers-turned-friends deserve a “trophy,” “Well I was talking to last night…it doesn’t matter,” and most notably: “broken,” “lost,” “stupid.”

It is a great power to break things. It is a great power to see certain things in a certain light, a certain shade. In my own experiences of small, fragmented moments, between and within my own cyclical time, I no longer trust my memories. But I make them nice enough to feel safe.

Nelson sums up the changing of painful memories perfectly when she writes:

“234. For me it is neither. It is simply the way that it is. Whether this accident be a happy or unhappy one, is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.”

Again, I say: But, there is always something good in starting from something destructive – so long as you are ready to become a mender, a tinker, someone curious instead (or rather balanced) of being morosely morbid about your pain.

So…now I am no longer so sure about Nelson’s closed-case ending:

“240. Alright then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed not to be a student of longing but of light.”

All lights, when seen from a certain angle, are points of longing. And each time, you are alive in different ways. But for now, I am happy for my kind of backache pain these days, to be spoken through Bluets. Not a good starting point, but a good, self-indulgent resting place. Yet, I grow tired of flowers.

The Angel In The House

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I’ve been thinking about (too many things) Margaret Atwood’s, “Selected Poems” and Virginia Woolf’s four-page essay titled, “Professions for Women.” The two texts, in my mind, are complimentary due to the figure of The Angel – a figure that once haunted Woolf and Atwood before they killed her. Now, it is very much The Angel that has come to haunt me.

Woolf defines The Angel as a figure who is: “intensely sympathetic…immensely charming…utterly unselfish…[someone who] excel[s] in the difficult arts of family life…[and who] sacrifice[s] herself daily.” The Angel is a women’s (and I would argue all of humanity’s) demon. This beautiful demon is of impossible and all-consuming stature, filling one with the desire for complete perfection. Woolf critically claims that she has killed her angel, and is now free. Yet, she warns all women that the angel appears in many forms, all of them distracting and hellish obstacles from the ultimate goal/title: workingwomen.

There is nothing not to like about The Angel. She is beautiful, all giving, and most importantly, quiet. She let’s bad things pass with a closed mouth peachy and plump. She carries pain in the shape of wings (they help her fly). And yet, killing The Angel, for Woolf, for Atwood, (and for me), is self-defense. The image of The Angel is not a real image. It is something like a sentient shadow, which will ultimately kill me instead if I keep becoming distracted. Woolf has warned me and I hope I have listened enough. Reading “Professions for Women” side-by-side with Atwood’s “Selected Poems” has proven to be very cathartic. Through the new lens this comparison brings, I am able to start planning my self-defense with slow and measured calculation (some would call it murder).

Atwood is famous for giving a voice to women in literature where otherwise there would be no voice. The Handmaid’s Tale for instance, is the voice of Julia from Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Atwood’s poems, however, explore the voice of women generally, women who have always been considered “Other” in comparison to the male “Self.” Her women critique the impossible stature of men and the impossible stature of women pitted against themselves. Atwood’s army of speaking women has killed The Angel, and I wish to join them. All the talking women are loud, and the heralding chorus is astounding:

“Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers

[…]

All those I could create, manufacture,
or find easily[…] 

I search instead for the others,
the one’s left over,
the one’s who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think
                                                of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.”

“I can change my-
self more easily
than I can change you

I could grow bark and
become a shrub

or switch back in time
to the woman image left
in cave rubble, the drowned
stomach bulbed with fertility[…]”

“The other voice

had other knowledge:
that men sweat
always and drink often,
that pigs are pigs
but must be eaten
anyway, that unborn babies
fester like wounds in the body[…]”

 —

“Once by a bitter candle
of oil and braided
rags, I wrote
verses about love and sleighbells

which I exchanged for potatoes […]

There is no use for art.”

“I made no choice
I decided nothing […]

Those who say they want nothing
want everything.
It was not this greed

that offended me, it was the lies […]

your mind, you say,
is like your hands, vacant:

vacant is not innocent.”

“Don’t assume it is passive
or easy, this clarity

with which I give you yourself.
Consider what restraint it

takes: breath withheld, no anger
or joy disturbing the surface

of the ice.
You are suspended in me […]

mirrors are crafty.”

“What do you want from me
you who walk towards me over the long floor

your arms outstretched, your heart
luminous through the ribs

around your head a crown
of shining blood […]

bones, you twist all possible
dimensions into your own.”

Here ends my chosen excerpts from Atwood’s poems. I see them laid out like relics in a war museum. You have appreciated the killing instruments of her army in a chilled and hushed awe. I hope to get back in time before you leave, so I can tell you all about Woolf’s metaphorical library, and how I killed my Angel too.

My Brilliant (?) Career

 

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Somewhat like Miles Franklin, I have barriers when it comes to my chosen gender and the land. However, whilst Franklin was a white female intrinsically connected to the manifestation of the Australian bush…what land am I from? Before I talk about the lack of writing culture in Tonga, I want to give context about Miles Franklin.

Franklin is considered the first Australian “proto-feminist.” She wrote numerous published and unpublished works about the nature of the Australian landscape and the role females play in landscape. She was a transformative feminist. I won’t go into the feminism of her writing about the Australian bush, as it’ll just take too long. However, what I will go into is that Franklin’s ideal of the Australian life. Franklin’s Australian life was viable to anyone, as long as your writing was/is uniquely Australian. Was she thinking of the Indigenous population in the word unique? Migrants too? Probably not. (And not anyone else either, considering only a majority of males won The Miles Franklin Award in the last 20 years). I’ve chosen to talk about Franklin’s ideal space, before critiquing my own, because I’m hoping her unique concept has and always will include minorities.

Space is making itself more and more aware to me. I want to believe that language transcends space. That language is all powerful in its transcultural discourse. I don’t know if I believe that. I am a female and a second-generation half-cast Tongan, living in Western Sydney, who wishes to be a writer. These are the spaces I am placed in and must connect with in order to understand writing itself. My understanding ultimately depends on whether or not I can truly believe writing is indeed transcultural.

I am, in all my forms, a minority. Do you know how many internationally recognised Tongan writers there are? I’m telling you right now you won’t have to bother at all because there is only one, one single Tongan writer. His name was Epeli Hau’ofa, and the Wikipedia page dedicated to him notes him as a novelist and social anthropologist. One? Is everyone fucking serious? Do you know how many Tongan football players there are? Teams of them! I just don’t understand how in years of existing one Tongan is internationally recognised as a writer.

When I type Hau’ofa’s name, I am filled with nostalgia. Here is a name connected to my culture (that I barely know). The conjunction of letters that make up Hau’ofa’s name is every White Sunday I had to memorise a bible passage in a language that was supposed to be native to me. Every letter (Hau’ofa) is also my Grandmother, spread on layers of thin brown paper as wide as the front yard, painting cultural patterns still unknown to me. Ofa is also, in fact, the name of my uncle.

Hau’ofa’s biggest contribution to literature (says Wikipedia) is his fundamental concept that Pacific Islanders, in general, are connected to the sea rather than ostracised by it. Hau’ofa argues that the sea has always been offered to us (Pacific Islanders) for not only the creation of close-knit communities (villages) but also voyages. I want to tell Hau’ofa this concept is completely generic and I’m deeply afraid of swimming. I want to ask Hau’ofa if he knew that colonisation deeply shaped what was once Tongan pagan storytelling into Pacific Christian storytelling. I want to remind him that Tonga is a patriarchy and our storytelling sustains male histories but never mine. I wonder if he was aware…

My connections to anything cultural are strictly from heritage. I am Tongan because my parents and my grandparents are Tongan. I am from Western Sydney because it was the only place my Grandmother could find a home for her migrant family. I am assimilated into white culture because my parents are also half-caste. There is not one person who hasn’t thought it was a compliment to say: ‘You’re too skinny to be Tongan.’ ‘You don’t look Tongan.’ ‘You don’t sound Tongan.’ What is Tongan if there is no literature to prove it? I only now realise how intrinsic culture is to the body alone. (Alright I get it, my way of speech and thinking doesn’t fit into your brown stereotype box, fucking neato buddy).

All of this boils down to the question of, when I pursue academia and writing, do I absolutely identify myself as a Tongan writer? (As Miles Franklin identified as a female Australian writer). Do I talk about Tonga? Has Tonga and Western Sydney shaped me entirely? Are other Tongans my target audience? Do I need a target audience? Do I write for my culture at all? Will that reconnect me to my culture? Is Australia unique enough for that? I don’t know. I don’t feel like I care enough about that branch of my identity…but I do feel a sense of duty…who am I studying for besides myself? My family…who realistically extend to all the children of Tonga who haven’t had half the opportunities I have. I am obliged in the very least to give them a voice…and the one male name (Hau’ofa) that haunts the Tongan Writers Wikipedia page…is not enough.