Sunday, 2 April 2017

She wore yellow velvet

It is the first weekend in April, Week 1 of Camp NaNoWriMo and I'm wandering through old memories.  Something about writing while my virtual cabin is on fire - how I choose to picture my camp - has incendiary thought bombs going off in the heat.

If I hadn’t set my heart, finally, on writing, I would have been a fashion designer. I feel the frustration at a career denied most acutely when I see badly dressed women on tv.
God, in that off-the-shapeless-shoulder monstrosity, she looks like a boiled spud in a serviette.
Aren’t we all judgmental of clothing, ours and everyone else?  Isn’t it part of the deal of people wearing their personality as their sleeves, around their hem lines, shouted or whispered in their colour choice and expressed in the drape of fabrics worn somewhere from head to toe? 

Growing up, my clothes were second hand or mum made them. My finery was all made by mum, with the exception of a 50s suit I found at a second hand shop. It consisted of a matching short jacket and a tight skirt in hound’s-tooth tweed with medium sized dull green buttons. It was too hot to wear most of the time. The lining stuck to my skin on even a cool day, so I only occasionally squeezed into it to stroll up and down the quiet street I lived on, on the edge of town. I wore it once, three doors down, and the mother looked surprised at how dressed up I was to babysit her four year old.

Fabric was hard to come by and I will never know how long mum had the piece of soft yellow velvet fabric, dotted with tiny rusty brown sprigs of flowers and stalks.  It bore two outfits.

The first outfit made it’s appearance at a tennis camp I travelled to down south. I had never been away from home before and it was the first time I had a bag packed with only my things. I had my tennis whites, pyjamas, two sets of tshirts and shorts, and because they had said on the brochure, a swimming pool was on site, a set of bathers and the most extravagant piece of clothing that I have ever owned: a poncho, made of yellow velvet with yellow fringing, to wear over my bathers.

I am certain no one had ever seen the likes of it before. I paraded around the pool in my poncho. I had one of the most powerful serves for a boy or a girl at the camp, so my poncho was apt under the circumstances.

A few years later I was at the all-girls boarding school where flashyness was frowned upon.  There was a uniform for most waking hours, at school, for sport, in the pool, and especially while off the school grounds. There was a summer and a winter uniform. The only time I was destined to be out of uniform at the academy of dead dreams was at the end of year dance where boys from the all-boys school down the road were being bussed in for two hours.

We practiced dancing amongst ourselves for months while I fretted about what I would wear.  My outfit came together in a rush and I was delighted when the parcel arrived from home with the most stamps I have ever seen used in one place. 

Mum had saved enough of the yellow velvet to make one skirt, lined in pale pearl silk, with a zip at the back and a waistband fastened by a small mother of pearl button.  I had a long sleeve champagne hued silk blouse which I tucked in and I braided my hair, one long rope beside each ear and coiled them around my head. Included in the parcel from home was a pair of white sandals with big silver buckles.  But I had other ideas.  Months before while scouring a second hand shop for books and fashionable wear, I came across a pair of high heel shoes that sang to me.  They had an inflexible wooden base, thin red straps and added two inches providing I walked carefully.  I had smuggled them into my school suitcase and the night before the big event, my friends and I brought out our contraband accessories.  

When it came time for me to slope down the hall, disaster was broadcast in the sound of one of the straps snapping on my shoe. Oh no, I cried inside.  I tried tucking the frayed edge under my foot, but it escaped and hung grotesquely with every step.  I tried sticky tape and glue overnight, but clag was never going to repair my shoe.  My best friend offered encouragement in the last hours before our debut, as I perfected a new gait that cleverly concealed my broken shoe.

No one asked me to dance. It never occurred to me then and I'm still not convinced, but surely it wasn't my brown skin?  My hand made skirt? Or the dragging of my left foot in shoes that made me taller than most boys?

I blame the shoes. The rest of me was fabulous.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

On caring

At some point in the conversation, I clarified, so the choices are 'dead' or 'terrified'?

Yes, she said.

Well, I'd have to choose 'terrified' wouldn't I? Dead is pretty final.

She asked me to think about it, over the next little while.

My decision was required minutes later, as it turned out.

I had barely returned to the bench seat which would have been so much more comfortable if only a few inches deeper.

We'd been discussing recipes and the odds and sods of life for an hour or more. But on my return I had a new topic of discussion.  It is testament to this stage of our life that we can discuss life choices as calmly as any other topic.  With our raising, our dips and  our turns into confusion, and finding our way to a deep well of revelations, we now trust and care for each other in all things these days. Sisters who are our mother.

They wheeled me in and the theatre stood by as I was asked for my decision. I said what I wanted, and what I meant was: I know the risks, and I choose death over time spent being terrified, and now I expect you to do your job and make choices that don't kill me.

Cut forward to half an hour after being discharged, we were sitting at the dining table watching the Oscars. Australians have a delayed telecast for those who want to watch the Oscars in peak hour viewing hours, so every news site had already spoiled the result.

We watched the announcement of the Best Movie award, the kerfuffle between Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway, and then the cast of La La Land climbed up onto the stage. The whole time, I am thinking, my god, when do they find out it is all a mistake?

The appearance on screen amongst the stars, of an unknown wearing a head mic and a worried expression was the first sign something had gone wrong.

Then others stepped up and sorted it out, culminating in the most memorable Oscars night ever.

And I thought someone, somewhere is 'dying' behind the scenes. 

I am glad they weren't working in my operating theatre. :)

Monday, 20 February 2017

Review: Umbre (Shadows)


HBO produced 8 part series
New to SBS OnDemand

This review is riddled with spoilers.

Adapted from an Australian series, Small Town Gangster (which I can’t recall seeing), HBO made the decision to adapt an Australian story to a Romanian setting: Bucharest to be exact.

Umbre translates as 'Shadows' in Romanian.

I’d been drawn to watch Umbre after reading it’s irresistible marketing pitch – it’s a crime series, in the style of Breaking Bad. 

First impressions were good, getting straight into a scene that was both intriguing and set the tone for the entire series.  The palate is dirty yellows and greys.  The opening scene gives us our first sight of our star, and it’s always good to see actors that are unfamiliar.  

A good start from the opening scene, and then boom – the characters started to speak.

Now, I know there are many conversations between men that I'll never be privy to, and I may not really understand the camaraderie between men.  But in Umbre, the dialogue strongly suggests that when men get together, the talk is ripe for misogyny.  Ripe? According to Umbre, it’s rancid.

According to Umbre, they say things out loud in Romania, that obviously never in 50 years of Australian tv has any screen writer been game enough to write for our admittedly sanitized tv land.

A steady consumption of Nordic-noir with increasingly eccentric female lead detectives had obviously lulled me into a false impression of European gender relations.

In Umbre, references to women are horrible.  Beyond horrible.  It made the show nearly unwatchable.  But the production values, and damn it, the story, was interesting.  I wanted to see what was going to happen.  Would one man finally go to far and have his tongue ripped out by a woman who’d just had it with the foul banter?

The sheer awfulness of the dialogue abates a little or maybe one becomes numb to it, once the show’s style has been bedded down.  There are some casual references to female sex slaves that are pretty rank. And then the main character hits his daughter in the face, in one touching scene of fatherly concern.

Bloody hell. 

Amongst all of this there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, despite my revulsion at the ongoing mistreatment of women.

The lead actor - Serban Pavlu - is a big name in Romanian theatre.  The main character, Relu, is somewhat of a devoted family man, trying to provide for his family.  Here lies the similarity to Walter White, as slim as it is.

A huge bloke, I can’t seem to recall Relu ever changing expression, and this includes the first episode where he and a number of other men are hairy backed and full frontal naked.  But he grew on me and it helps that he is taller than most with a distinctive stiff backed walk, so it was easy to pick him out in every scene.  Should I mention that the cast are mostly dark haired and/or olive skinned?  Not really important I suppose, but the difference from the all beige colour chart of Australian tv is hard not to notice.

The stand out performance that crept up on me was the old Uncle.   He’s the kind of uncle that lives in the shed down the back, watches a lot of porn and is well known to the local prostitutes.  Not the kind of uncle that I am familiar with, but he is engaging, if slightly repulsive. 

Filmed in 2014, it was HBO’s first foray into producing a tv series in Europe.  There’s been no mention that I can see, after a quick internet scan, of a second series.  I’ve wondered why over the past couple of days after binge-watching the entire series on Friday night.

Granted, there may well be others wondering what the fuss is about, as they steadily consume porn and don’t blink an eye at the exploitation of sex slaves and underpaid workers imported from eastern European countries.

Or maybe the question should be, who isn’t aware of these practices that are blithely depicted in Umbre?  Which country, which city, which sleepy little country town hasn't swept aside concerns about what happens in their parks, their truck stops and their back streets?   In polite company, most would decry the dehumanization of women and children, but honestly what are they doing about it, besides contributing to the demand for these ‘products’. 

Domestic violence is most generally condemned, but women and children continue to die even in the nicest, most affluent neighbourhoods of the most advanced countries.  

They die a lot more often if they are black in Australia. Though black men will say on national tv, they can't sit there as a black man and let that kind of slur go unchallenged.  They need to sit there, and listen and learn how their purse mouthed silence, and deflecting of the root causes of death for so many black women in numbers that increase each year, is a form of collusion.

Is Umbre a comment on that hypocrisy?  Is it meant to unsettle European audiences? Does it mirror the crime and debauchery that the US continues to spread around the world, with their enchanting sound tracks, their ethereal opening credits and their cliff hanger endings?

Is Umbre just a little too real?  

Is it simply too ugly to capture a large and devoted audience?

In the end, what I found grated the most was the depiction of Relu’s wife.  Perhaps it was too much to hope for that in such a male-dominated series as Umbre, at least one of the female characters had some dimensions to her.

Which leaves me with the final thought – who was the intended audience?

I can’t deny the possibility that it may appeal to some viewers that the predominantly male cast didn't wax their bodies into glistening fake tanned perfection, and the killers rarely used guns.

If Umbre is only targeting male viewers, that brings the makers up well short of the audience a big budget production requires.  If this was the intention (which I somehow doubt) they got what they paid for.  It feels like observing a group of foul mouthed men, as they stumble, maim and kill their way through a sweaty, grimy and pointless existence. 

In regards to the crime and corruption, frankly that’s how I pictured a country that I really only know about via grainy news stories of the Romanian Revolution, and many years before, the sublime athleticism of Nadia Comaneci.

Despite one scene shot in what looks very much like a Bunnings, I had to wonder, if what I saw in Umbre, with its mix of wealth and poverty:  is this the aftermath of a country recovering from a turbulent past?

The IMDB site rated Umbre a 9.  I’m not sure how that happened.

Ignoring the dialogue for a moment, it’s got enough going for it to garner a high rating. But the violence and marginalization of women was too much for me. 

I have a high threshold for violence, though have been known to fall asleep during Game of Thrones from sheer boredom. I watched the entire series of Umbre after being drawn in by the story, after all.

But would I recommend Umbre?  I’m not really sure how I’d go about that.

‘Umbre… it’s all kinds of horrible but there was some comic relief, until the best character dies.  But if you can’t handle one more Nordic crime series, travel to the dark side and give it a whirl. 
And if you can't rethink your deflection of the reality of black men being largely responsible for the death of black women, it's exactly your kind of show.’

Saturday, 14 January 2017


Something about Christmas reminds Dad that it’s been a year since he last asked where my book is. He has somewhat revised his approach: less interrogation, more befuddled amusement. Thanks Dad.

I told him I had completed some work. Commissions, short stories and the like. He has no interest in the commissions I take up from time to time.  I think he thinks it’s a distraction from the real work. It’s all real work Dad. Every single piece of writing is as good as I can make it. That's how it works.

For a while now, I’ve been invited to write a piece of micro fiction from time to time. How to describe micro fiction?  Writer’s pain wise, it’s about a 7.  When an editor says, 750 words, or 500 words, or 36 tweets, that’s what I deliver.  Or used to. It’s not worth the pain anymore, and I will tell you why.

I would get the final work in, then months later check the publication to discover every time that every other bastard had run over the word limit.  I include myself as a bastard – actually scratch that. I am a nerd. An over-zealous high-achiever who will work my eyeballs thin scouring the page looking for the words to slash to bring me in under my limit.  There are always too many words. There is some pride in finishing, absolutely spot on the word count. But I suspect no one cares.  I figure I would recognize people who can’t keep to the word limit. Their words would trail from their shoe like a piece of toilet paper.

It’s not their fault. The fault is all mine as I am far too invested in the word count.

And then a commission comes along that is really cool.

For example, the splendid edition of Cordite Poetry Review that came out in October 2016.

The edition would feature 25 of us – Indigenous writers from Australia and India.  Poetry, plus my 500-word micro fiction, would be translated into a Dalit (Indigenous Indian) language and also appear in English.

The invitation to submit came at around about the time there was fair bit of media about conflict between different Indian groups. It’s a bit hard to follow if you don’t know who’s who.  

I found parallels with the Australian scene. When outrage is afoot, what exactly are people’s agenda? As evidenced by these days of waning social media interaction,  the regular diet of online blackfella outrage has spluttered into a hair ball and we're fast approaching the tipping point where nonIndigenous people will 'take it from here'. 

But in India, I detected the tensions were considerably higher than a bit of sounding off and dabbling in edgy cultural debates. It's in the writings of individuals and those who identified as being of a particular group that a disturbing picture of present day India emerged. People had died. People were being chased down and killed in the street. Universities were not safe places, not by a long shot. 

I followed many threads across the internet and eventually found that what resonated the most was the creative work.  Though the National Commission for Backward Classes, a Statutory Body under the Minister of Social Justice & Empowerment, is not part of a work of fiction. It really exists. But in general, the fiction, the poetry was a better means of understanding the Indian people and their culture.

Indigenous peoples around the world exist within a dominant culture with much in common, and then again with differences that make me glad I live on the Australian continent. It’s not perfect here but I have liberties that they can only dream about in India. Or maybe they think we are the ones bereft? This self-examination has been one of the many rewards of immersing myself in a 500-word short story.

And then I put it all aside and the thinking part of writing the piece commenced. If it is being translated into another language how to write the story in the first place?  Flowery language is out. I do like an artful turn of phrase but that could go horribly wrong in a translation. It also could not be heavily dependent on punctuation to navigate nuance.

A form of writing I really enjoy is to imagine myself an alien, how would I describe myself to other kinds of aliens?

This is the pleasure of writing for a new and defined audience. I guess I should do it all the time, but I committed myself and zeroed in on 'Indigenous-to-Indigenous'. And then I sat down to write, freely.  Agonizing though short commissions have been from time to time, they've given me a reasonably sharp eye for word lengths and I’m a fan of the traditional short story structure so it kind of gets there in the end.

I see people write a short passage and call it 'a short story'. I can only look away.

And then I sent it off, marked the scheduled release date in my diary and moved on.

Months and months later, the Review arrived. I had not expected the beauty of the form of an Indian script.

And then I read the piece submitted by the Indian writer who translated my piece. And then I scoured the internet for more examples of his work. I was not prepared for the breadth and depth of his work.  I was ashamed I’d been so pernickety about the word count, even if it was drama played out only in my head.

There can be no greater honour than for another writer to translate your work into their own language. Surely?

I wondered, what did he think when he read my little story. Does he get me? Does he know I write of our condition, and not my version of the faddish dystopia permeating popular fiction, which will quickly pall as people realize it is no longer that fantastic a premise?

Final thoughts:

My words must stand on their own in any language. I never know where they will end up.

And imagine my joy when I was invited to submit for 2017 publication in several new anthologies from publishers overseas – two of them have a maximum word length of 7500. Oh happy days! Pain level 5.

Editorial: Mridula Nath Chakraborty and Kent MacCarter

And you can read my work here...