In My Home I Don’t Belong

I’ve been gone nearly as long as I lived there. Like the cliché, I left as soon as I could, at 17, heading south for university. I only applied for degrees that would put at least a day’s drive between me and the place I grew up. Fifteen years on, it’s only curiosity or the odd wedding that can lure me. It’s been two years between drinks, this time.

I was feeling dislocated from life. I wanted to run. God knows it would have been cheaper to fly to Singapore or Indonesia or New Zealand but I wanted to go somewhere that felt small and familiar.

On Wednesday, I rang the only friend who still lives there that I am in regular contact with.

“Can I come and stay?”

I was on a plane Friday morning, travelling back. Back north. Back there.

***

It wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It was just … small. Isolated. Brisbane is an eight hour drive south. Townsville is ten hours north. Nothing bigger or more exciting interrupts the drive, except the odd place to stop for a pie with mushy peas.

In the small plane, in the cloudless, electric blue Queensland sky, I fly along the coastline. Civilisation thins at the Sunshine Coast and then it’s just cobalt sea and brown land. Even though it’s only 9am, I’m getting sunburned through the aeroplane window. I press my nose to the glass as we approach. Central Queensland was in drought for all of my remembered childhood. To see it cast in tones of green makes this view completely unrecognisable. Long brown rivers that were dry twenty years ago now snake through expanses of green. This isn’t the patchwork of neat paddocks of different crops and livestock of the south. This is grazing land, all of it. It is so utterly flat but for an enormous mountain range that rears suddenly from the landscape, with a town of straight, wide streets built at its feet. This is Rockhampton.

***

Rockhampton is like the Truman Show, insulated from the outside world not just by incredible distance but by its own shell. This shell is a shimmering mirage of heat that traps the population. Upon landing, I immediately become a source of water, sweat springing and trickling from every pore. I stay coated in this glistening dampness for my entire visit. The airport suggests I might like to spend my time here visiting a crocodile farm or the bullring.

All my teenage insecurities come flooding back when I come here. In this way, I travel back in time. I wasn’t good at sport, I tried really hard at school, and did band and choir and musicals and debating. I was terribly uncool. Unaccepted. At least I didn’t panic and get a fake tan before this visit. Ahead of my last visit I did, and my sweat carved white rivulets through my orange topcoat.

***

Rockhampton is a regional centre for industries that thrive on remoteness: cattle and mining mainly. There’s huge support for the Adani coal mine here: locals are desperate to find a way back to the excesses of the resource boom, desperate to stop the good times disappearing, clinging to the sweet nothings promised by what would be one of the world’s largest coal mines. If you try to bring up the environmental impact on the nearby Great Barrier Reef, or that the Chinese economy is no longer a rapacious consumer of our raw materials, or even that investment in renewables is a more sustainable project, you’ll be told you don’t understand what it’s like in the real world.

Anti-abortion and One Nation billboards line the roads. The locally-produced, Murdoch-owned newspaper skews popularist and the only other paper available around here is the Murdoch state publication, which adopts a fiercely anti-intellectual tone. Nothing progressive permeates the Truman heat dome, resulting in a parochial and suspicious mindset. You can’t go into a newsagent and buy any paper that would use the words ‘feminism’, ‘indigenous affairs’, or ‘climate change’ without massive doses of scepticism, derision and condescension. They think Rockhampton is the real world. Whenever I visit, I am stunned by how completely different it is. My views find few allies here.

***

The friend I’m staying with has a heart of gold and a nonchalance about everything, which I find incredibly comforting. He’s one of those characters that could exist in any small town drama who, without fuss, can quietly see the truth about any situation. He’s been a meatworker since we left school and has been saying that he’ll move to Brisbane next year for just as long.

Everybody likes him, which means while I’m with him I can be assured of running into an excellent representative sample of the local population, resulting in conversations that have my friend shooting me tense glances and me clenching my teeth and taking deep breaths.

Here is a list of things that I try to carefully, but unsuccessfully, persuade my conversational partners of:

  • That gender and sex are different and why genitals are not relevant to gender (the Courier Mail’s front page that day was having a “political correctness gone mad” implosion over Queensland removing gender from licenses).
  • That Australia Day is a fraught and traumatic concept (mainly, the divide was over whether or not to boycott Triple J’s Hottest 100 due to their capitulation to lefty pressure).
  • That Indigenous Australian culture is far from primitive.
  • That the commodification and exploitation of women’s bodies in Southeast Asia is a really serious issue, therefore calling out “how much?” to your Asian neighbour is not funny.
  • That referring to anyone that isn’t white as “they” reveals subconscious – if not overt – racism and discrimination.
  • That a circulating Snapchat video of a disabled person is exploitative and dehumanising.

What the hell is this place? How can a group of white men sitting around a table defend their constant incidental use of sexist and racist language?

I ask how people voted in the postal survey on same sex marriage. And everyone, bar one guy who had never enrolled to vote so didn’t receive forms, shrugs and says it doesn’t bother them. They wanted people to have the same rights (this electorate had voted for changes to the Marriage Act by a small margin). I proffer that it was great they could recognise legal barriers to equality, but what about social barriers evidenced by the fact that most gay people I knew from Rocky had only come out after moving far, far away.

“But paying people out is a sign of acceptance,” is the reply.

***

I plan short trips to Rockhampton, partly because I cannot endure the heat for more than a few days but mostly because I always feel great sadness here, amongst those who stayed. The future seems to stretch out as flatly as the landscape. Staying in a town like this you’ll always see the same faces in the same bars. The passing of years are marked by the same sporting events amongst the same teams, by weekends spent piggin’, huntin’ and fishin’. Everyone says how boring it is. But to leave? That would be rejecting comfort and certainty. Many have left, of course. And I can’t work out a common privilege or characteristic amongst this diaspora. Perhaps a desire to be a part of a bigger world? A comfort with being a small fish in a less predictable pond?

I don’t fit in here. The insecurity of my teenage years was born from trying to contort myself into a mundane ideal, reacting to omnipresent social pressure. Now when I come back, having lived away from that pressure to be less intellectual, less argumentative, less independent, my time in my home town is teeth-grindingly, eye-rollingly, tongue-bitingly dislocating. It’s like playing a video game as a different player: the physical space is so familiar but my new certainty of self makes me being here in this place feel radically different.

I don’t know where the real world is: if it sits beneath that hood of heat that surrounds Rockhampton, or in the messier cities I feel more at home in. But when politicians utter their inane soundbites, or distance themselves from progressive politics, I know who they’re thinking of. I hope places like this are the last bastions of patriarchal certainty and white confidence: surely truth and cosmopolitanism and human rights can permeate even the most remote locations? But much of Australia’s politics seem to be made for this audience. Maybe to know the future is to know Rockhampton’s version of reality.

***

On Saturday night we go to Rockhampton’s second-nicest bar. One of the guys exposes his penis to me. Everyone laughs. “Hashtag me too,” I mumble, darkly. No one gets it. It’s time for me to go home.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

An Interview with my Mother

On Christmas Day, my mother and I had a brief spat. The point of friction was that I was enjoying a re-run of Mean Girls and, as the time approached 7.20pm, I hadn’t turned over to the ABC yet.

“Can’t I just get it up on YouTube for you later, Mum?”

“But it’s the QUEEN! We’re missing THE QUEEN’S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE!”

This illustrates the clash of cultures between a mother and daughter separated by 45 years of age. My Mum seriously still cares about the Queen.

***

I was an accident. At 45, my Mum had two sons (aged 20 and 23) who were somewhat on the cusp of leaving home. Then, the surprise of her lifetime happened. At her age, she was discouraged from continuing the pregnancy: the risk of my being disabled was 1 in 5 and Mum found herself negotiating for my life based on hypothetical scenarios. But with the fierce determination she is often underestimated as having, she signed up for the commitment of bringing up another human.

Her own mother had passed away a few years earlier, and had apparently mused that she always thought my mother would have a little girl. A demure, sweet and shy little girl.

I asked my Mum yesterday how she would describe me. Impetuous. Headstrong. Driven. Bossy.

It’s ironic that my name’s Hebrew meaning is the pleasant one.

***

I feel like we both love each other very much but there’s some invisible elephant between us, preventing the truth and honesty that comes from vulnerability. I feel that this might revolve around the question of “what it is to be a good girl”. Can I explore this with you?

– Email to Mum, January 2018

I decided to sit down with Mum and talk about the gap between us – not only of generations but of social norms.

We talked for hours. Primly, with pen and paper readied and having messaged me at least five times in advance of our ‘casual chat’ asking how she could prepare, Mum sat with excellent posture warily bracing for the inquisition. We talked about growing up in a big country town in the fifties, marrying in the early sixties and raising children for the next forty years.

***

Did Mada (my family’s name for my maternal grandmother) enjoy being a housewife?

Oh no, she hated it. Absolutely hated it.

How did you decide upon your career?

I was told to do Commercial (a course of useful secretarial skills, like shorthand, typing and accounting) and I cried myself to sleep.

But there was no resistance?

No, we just accepted it. 

***

Her posh girls’ school seems to have emphasised ladylike behaviour as much as it did education. Demureness and deference is how Mum describes it. She still tuts disapprovingly at female presenters sitting crossed-legged – a 1950s reflex she can’t shake. She still pathologically puts herself second to her husband and her children.

I can think of at least a dozen opportunities I have missed in life because I didn’t want to offend . A job at the school, teaching music… I guess I didn’t want to make a fuss.

Mum mentioned being terribly aware of the toll the Depression and World War II had taken on her family – a father fighting in PNG, a mother raising children alone terrified of invasion, of having to share an egg, a luxury, with her brother – I wonder if the vividness and immediacy of that parental sacrifice made it harder to challenge the set course of social expectation.

So many stories Mum told were laden with heaviness of duty, of lost opportunity, of barely concealed sadness. Of female teachers, ‘spinsters’, who had never married when so many men didn’t return after the Great War. Of insecurity from illness – deadly influenzas, the commonness of death in childhood. Of accepting, and getting on with it.

***

How did second wave feminism and the sexual revolution affect your life?

I wasn’t terribly aware of it. If it wasn’t in the Women’s Weekly I didn’t hear about it.

Have you read Simone de Beauvoir’s the Second Sex?

No. I don’t think that came to Rockhampton.

***

When we turned to talking about me, Mum’s internal conflict became clearer. She yearned to give me the education, freedom and confidence that she was denied, yet the impact of these things scared her. She was a product of her time, and had found safety and comfort in the roles she was given.

What worries Mum most is my anger.

In her life, if someone caused her offence, if someone did something to her that she didn’t like, she felt she had little recourse but to sit and fume. In an era where women teachers were only offered temporary contracts after marriage, in an era before No Fault Divorce, many women held very precarious positions. She wouldn’t want to be unladylike (that would lower her social worth), she wouldn’t want to make things difficult for my father. So whenever I challenge ideas, engage with controversy, speak up about disenfranchisement and inequality, demand respect for myself and my body, Mum worries. She worries I’ll be punched. She worries what people will think. She worries that I’ll make things difficult for my husband. These worries tell me everything about life in country Queensland in the 1960s.

***

After our talk, I pulled out my copy of The Second Sex. I underlined phrases that mirrored my Mum’s matter of fact description of the expectations of womanhood during her life. That marriage was to be a woman’s fundamental project. That, unlike men, women were unable to choose personal liberty (or, not without significant personal cost). That society chose for her (and she felt she had no recourse but to accept) her place as a deferential woman.

For as long as I can remember, my Mother has been the person who has given me most love, who I perhaps care about the most, and yet from whom I feel a profound separation; as though we were two animals of different species staring blankly at each other, marvelling at each other’s oddities. I have come to realise that it is not merely our 45 year age gap that causes this curious distance, but the inevitable generational conflict between competing ideas of womanhood. What Mum made it her life’s mission to be, is precisely what I rail against.

***

Mum, I feel as though your lifetime has been weighed by the mantle of a very different expectation of womanhood, and that I challenge that. And you worry for me, and try to reign me in.

I guess I should also say: As you caution me, you trigger the societal judgement that I try so hard to writhe free from, and make me doubt myself. I know I try to drag you forward, and that terrifies you. For who are you without being Dad’s second? Who could you have been had you not been forced to do Commercial when you were a musician in your heart? My impatience is born from seeing your potential, and the potential of all women, when that cloak can be shed. But equally, what you have achieved has been incredible and inspirational. You – like many women of your era – carry the emotional burden for entire families, for a generation of men who can’t express themselves. You have nursed and carried and cared. You are resilient and inexhaustible.

***

How are we similar?

Well, we’ve always had the music in common.

Mum started teaching me to play the piano as soon as I could hold myself upright. She has the discipline and patience to still practice carefully every day, to have spent 18 years collecting the music I had flung across the room in a frustrated tantrum.

At Christmas I gave my mother a book about the forgotten women of music. She would appear intermittently to give impassioned summaries of the chapter she had just read, still stewing over the injustices and losses to music of erasing women performers and composers.

I smile. I love that she shares this with me. That when we catch up she’ll always have a story that starts with “did you see/read about … [something to do with feminism]”.

She’s reaching across the chasm to me, and in sitting down to interview my Mother, I am reaching out too.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Diary of a Traveling Ghost

Transylvania, Romania, May 2017

Something must happen to me in the plane. I cannot emerge from long-haul travel unchanged. I disappear into myself, in that darkness, through those lost days and nights and emerge quieter, simpler and more watchful. My normal instinct for inserting myself into every scene and every conversation as a lead actor evaporates, and I become a quiet audience. A voyeur. A ghost who likes to watch. Quietly slinking through the lives and homes and habits, feeling, touching, learning, leaving no impact.

I have been told I look like I’m from this part of the world. I search for myself in the faces, expecting to find home or heritage. What I find in the faces is signs of great wear. Skin looks tired, more creased, more worn far earlier than I am used to. I realise I haven’t seen anyone I would bundle as middle-aged: the path from young to old doesn’t seem to have any rest stops. It is no romantic stretch (but one backed up by economic and social data) to think that life must be a bit harder here. And if it’s harder here now, what must it have been like twenty years ago, pre-EU membership, thirty years ago under one of history’s great insane dictators, seventy years ago under a largely forgotten Fascist leader who rivalled any for brutality.

I notice young people doing unskilled jobs, jobs usually done by migrants in the West. Young people with tertiary educations don’t drive cabs where I come from. I am struck by how ethnically homogenous the work force is – there don’t appear to be many migrants here. Then I realise, Romanians are the migrants for everyone else in Europe.

Our small local bus is driving through a faded story book. The snow-capped mountains form an enormous backdrop to the utterly flat countryside. Pitched rooves sag comfortably onto houses that could have been built centuries ago, the sharp spires of Romanian Orthodox churches the only disruption to the uniform height. Despite being the connection between two major regional towns, our bus will happily stop regularly, sometimes giving people a lift of a few hundred metres. This gives me ample time to stare out the window at a lifestyle confined to the past in my world: a horse-drawn plough in a slightly dilapidated field; a person working alone with a hoe; the complete absence of large-scaled mechanised agriculture. Then we pass a drive-through Subway. They don’t have those in Australia.

Bucharest, Romania May 2017

I love hardcopy maps. They make me feel like an omnipresent spirit circling a city from above, wondering where to swoop. I task my husband with asking our small pension for one and, after a lengthy search on their part, he returns with a map carefully marked with brothels and strip clubs. This either says everything about Bucharest’s tourism industry or everything about my husband.

After the architectural, cultural and human destruction wrought by Romania’s Communist regime, I expected Bucharest to be a grim, concrete, wasteland. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful cities to become lost in: quiet, clean, happily shabby here and there, and filled with surprising parks which are cool and well-used by youth and elders alike.

I could live here.

We discard the brothel map.

Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldova, May 2017

Regardless of age, all women in Romania and Moldova wear thick, flesh-coloured pantyhose. It is boiling hot. Is this a comfort thing? To avoid chaffing and rubbing of shoes and thighs? Is it modesty – the hose providing a fig-leaf for the short skirts and high heels beloved by the local teens?

With their open-toed sandals and thick hose, older ladies wear bright headscarves. Older gentlemen wear brimmed hats that seem too small as they sit perched high on the head.

My husband, as quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Australian as a kelpie, tall and brawn and bearded and snappily dressed in colour and tailoring (though toned down at my suggestion), is as out of place as a flamingo at a pigeon party. For a start, only Orthodox priests seem to wear beards. His beard worn with colourful shorts has garnered some odd looks from passing priests. And, as at 5’2” I am comfortably tall amongst the locals, his 6’2” seems unnecessary. Even in the height of summer, shorts are rare here. Triple denim is ubiquitous.

I saw a Zara in Transylvania. I wonder how long it will be until what looks weird to me will look weird to them. How long till they discard the scarves and the hose and the small jaunty hats for whatever Zara is selling?

Is capitalism the new colonialism as it sweeps in and displaces time and heritage with the new and the cheap? 

Chisinau, Moldova May 2017

We are staying in a grand Soviet-era hotel. Hotel Chisinau. There are two lifts but only one works at a time and then it can only travel in one direction. Well, this is what my charades with the dedicated lift operator tells me. This is ok, because I tried the lift once and it stopped at random intervals for random periods and it was small and terrifying.

Each wing has a dedicated well-coiffed lady in blue. She pops out to show you to your door.  I visited other floors and no matter how silently I entered the long, expansive hallways, out one would pop. The lady in blue proudly shows you to your bed and pulls back the duvet to reveal your top sheet neatly folded underneath. I cannot explain this opportunity for self-action.

Finally, breakfast is a complicated dance of pre-ordering the night before from a choice of three dishes. In the morning, one visits reception to obtain a ticket where you confirm your choice from the night before (but if you haven’t made such a choice the night before you will be banished, without breakfast), and take your ticket to the restaurant in a dungeon (possibly a former wine cellar) where you exchange it for your meal. It is a pleasant and communal method of food delivery. To accompany breakfast is a large television displaying writhing, lingerie-clad women. Rationing, scrupulous fairness, and utilitarianism still reign in Hotel Chisinau and I couldn’t be happier.

Tiraspol, Transnistria, May 2017

As one who loves to travel, and as one who tempers their addiction between hits with quick fixes of travel writing or documentaries, I’m really bothered by the apparent profundity of everyday experiences when cast through a white gaze.

In short, how can I visit places and not be a dick?

Today, I’ve heard people complain about the quality of coffee. Only instant is provided by the hotel in this unrecognised, breakaway region which lauds Lenin and Soviet-style Communism. Not sneering at what others have, and appreciating what they do have, is a good start to not being a dick.

I also momentarily removed my ghost guise to chastise a tourist in a church who was sneakily taking photos of both the church and its attendees despite warnings not to. I don’t care, he said. You’re a dick, I said.

Odessa, Ukraine, May 2017

I’ve just realised I haven’t seen a single gym, or yoga studio since leaving Vienna three weeks ago. I haven’t seen anyone running either. I guess there are other things to do with your time here.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2017

There’s a natural process that occurs when the traveller knows they are nearing their time of departure. The energy for adventure quietens. The mind seeks reflection and quiet: to absorb all that it has seen and learnt. I’m sitting drinking coffee not even ten minutes from my door. Sam is getting a haircut. We are transitioning from invisible ghosts who roam a city trying to know all its secrets back to normalcy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m gone for months or weeks: as the airport lounge nears, so too does this transition.

The anonymity of the wanderer is waning. For weeks I have worn no makeup, dressed in the same clothes. I have two pairs of shoes and no perfume. A cheap pair of earrings and three items of makeup for the one or two ‘special events’ I have attended. I become a person I barely recognise when I travel. As she begins to enter her hibernation, I think, ‘I must wax my eyebrows when I get home’ and start questioning my certainty that these sneakers go with every outfit.

I walk everywhere here. At home I’ll hop in the car to drive 200m to the shops if it’s cold or hot or nearly dark or maybe looks like rain. Here I won’t countenance public transport for less than 3km. There’s no reason to rush after all. My chronic illness doesn’t vanish – of course – it just doesn’t matter if I stop a million times to sit and watch. Or if I need to rest and spend a day within 20 metres of my bed. I am in suspended time where the world is just for me, the voyeur. The city will keep on performing its part and it will be there for me to watch when I am ready.

But all too soon this ghost-like suspension will evaporate. As desperately as I try cling to its cobwebs, it will disappear as the texts resume and the chores resume. Connectivity to reality will puncture my invisibility and I will be seen again.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

A Non-Compliant Woman

Our lives are full of shoulds. For women, these shoulds act as the hands that form and shape a lump of clay. Like clay being formed into something suddenly respected as art, we are pressed into behaviours that see us recognised as ladies. This pressing begins so young, and is so omnipresent, that it becomes an intuitive and unthinking framework for every interaction. Like how we’re so used to stepping out of others’ ways, deferring space. Like when we’re told to smile, deferring our faces.

When we start challenging these shoulds, it’s uncomfortable, it’s shocking and it’s scary – for us, and for others. These shoulds are in fact, compliance. Compliance with a world that wants to bind and conscribe our behaviours, voices, bodies and ambitions, veil them beneath manners, politeness and contentedness with the progress we have made from being the chattel of fathers and husbands.

‘You should write happier things,’ says my mother, worried about the emotional and societal implications of my ‘complaining’ all the time.

I have started watching for acts of everyday compliance – instances where I subsume my preferences or comfort for another’s. They’re everywhere. But this has become much more than proving that if I don’t move from the path of oncoming pedestrian traffic I’ll get shoulder-checked five times a day.

I understand now the myriad ways I have complied my entire life. I understand why a barely known middle-aged man rested his hand high on my seven year old thigh. Why a guy refused to wear a condom when he had sex with a friend of a friend. Why so many of us yield to accepting what is done to us even though it makes our blood chill. I understand that we have been moulded and pressed and shaped so that we are compliant and cannot resist. I need to push against the hands that want to form us into something prettier and nicer and quieter. I am trying harder and more consciously to be a non-compliant woman.

Since I started my micro-movement of non-compliance, I have been terrified of the consequences of pushing back. ‘You’re going to get punched in the face one day,’ my mother has oft said following a small act of perceived surliness or, as I like to call it, standing up for myself. I’ve been screamed at. Ridiculed. Glared at. But what I take these reactions to show is the genuine and deep-seated fear that men have when we challenge the expectation that we’ll comply.

Some examples:

1.

I hadn’t seen him for a decade, yet every few years he’d crop up on messenger and just check in and say hi. Somehow, I would fold into myself and become 16 year old Naomi, on the cusp of her first heartbreak. Anxious to do everything right lest I made something go wrong. I was so eager for his approval. I was so eager to keep him happy and not upset him.

As each conversation ended and I morphed back into 30 year old Naomi, I’d feel sick afterwards. So unaccustomed to this role of subservience, of ego-stroking. Is this what it feels like, really, underneath all the superficial male-awarded affirmation, to be a cool girl? To comply?

So it went until he caught me on a day when I was grumpy, busy and NOT in the mood to listen to white boys playing four chords on the guitar and expecting me to swoon.

‘You’re still into music aren’t you,’ he asked. ‘Wanna listen to a song I recorded?’

‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I would find it awkward. You know I’ve taken music seriously my entire life. I’ve performed professionally. For a brief moment it was going to be my career. I tend to want to offer constructive criticism. If you enjoy playing that’s great. You don’t need to know what I think to enjoy music and I’m worried that what I think won’t be what you want to hear.’

This honest response unleashed a flood of comments that I was a stuck up bitch with massive tickets on myself and that I was incredibly rude and by the way I was really unattractive.

I just really didn’t want to listen to him play the guitar.

 

2.

‘You should get a job here!’ A smartly-dressed older man beamed at me.

I broke from the conversation I had been maintaining in my head while I waited in the queue to return his comments with an expression that said, ‘Huh?’

‘Here, at Priceline! You’d look gorgeous in their pink uniform.’

I looked down at my orange, undoubtedly food-splattered shirt and to the woman behind the counter wearing a pink blouse and a humiliated expression.

‘Pretty in pink! You should get a job here because you’d be pretty in pink!’

‘I have three degrees and an important government job. But I’ll throw all that away for the chance to be pretty in the uniform of your choosing.’

‘It was just a compliment! You don’t need to be sarcastic.’

I’m guessing the correct reaction was to laugh merrily and accept his gaze.

 

3.

I was at a wedding, a handful of friends and I taking a break in the fresh air from the furious dancing.

‘Do you guys have a lighter?’ An unknown wedding guest approached our group.

‘Sorry, none of us smoke,’ I said. ‘But those guys over there were just smoking so perhaps they can help out?’

‘Are you trying to get me to fuck off?’ My new acquaintance demanded aggressively.

‘No, I was trying to be helpful. But now you’ve spoken to me like that you can certainly fuck off.’

The atmosphere suddenly shifted. His body language morphed into something larger, squarer, and stronger. His eyes narrowed on me. I saw his hand tighten around the beer bottle he was holding. Women are very, very finely tuned into these atmospheric changes.

Just as it seemed he would explode, my partner calmly said, ‘Mate, she was trying to help and you blew up at her.’

Suddenly, our friend was on more familiar footing: how two white guys sort out a little problem.

‘Oh yeah no worries mate.’ He shook my partner’s hand.

‘No hard feelings love,’ he said to me, ‘give me a hug.’

‘No thank you,’ I said, offering my hand instead.

‘I just want a fucking hug what the fuck is wrong with you.’

It was a friend’s wedding, I was already weakened by one small round of resistance. I listened to the damn guitar and gave him a hug so he would go away, so I didn’t get hit and so I wasn’t rude. It was easier.

Why not just be nice to people instead of assuming the worst? Is what I want not valid? Especially when my niceness is exploited by intentions that are clearly not the best? Why is it so much more horrible to be truthful and honest, to be a non-compliant woman, than to allow myself to be formed into something quieter, meeker, smaller and unhappier? So what if the guy told you to smile where you were in your head about a serious issue? Well, raising a defiant eyebrow might be the first step to having a framework for saying what you really want, what you really feel, when it really matters. I send a question back: why is the scrutiny not directed at those who uphold the shoulds, who react angrily to non-compliance, who exploit the expectation that someone will acquiesce to their wants, who assume we won’t ask for more than we were given. Are not they the ones who should be doing things differently?

For many women, facing the condemnation of non-compliance is too terrifying because our social worth is bound in the approval our every action is given (or not) from men. Not complying will get you yelled at or dumped or hit or raped. So they just listen to the damn guitar. It’s easier. It makes them go away. But it hurts our souls and binds the fabric of compliance even tighter. I imagine that non-compliance allows us to stretch fully, to be radiant and brilliant and powerful without limit. And to imagine the true possibility of a womanhood without shoulds is terrifying in the most beautiful way.

To look into the eyes of someone who has asked me to submit to their expectations of my femininity, and refuse, is the most powerful act of womanhood. I feel adrenaline and power and strength race through my blood. Then afterwards, the shaking, rage filled tears of doing what I know is right despite criticism to calm down and not overreact; despite snarling, warm, drunk breath spewing insults at me; despite the fear of being hit – or worse. Non-compliance is more anguishing the more intimate the hands that press my compliance are, because it is shattering a relationship that was built upon my compliance, and I see that, to some people, I am not loveable when I say no.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Living at college in ignorance and bliss

In Latin, alma mater means nurturing mother. In so many ways, the residential college I attended was my nurturing mother. It was also the sexy older sister: seemingly confident and knowing, yet knowing so little. I started to become who I am today at college and those three years in the early Noughties are the crucible of my longest, strongest friendships, of my identity as a powerful and unapologetic professional woman.

But, ten years later, the shadows that lurk uncomfortably in my memories are hard to ignore. And it is this underbelly that has been exposed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities: students who lived at college are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. And my personal experience suggests that a pernicious and resilient culture of insularity, socially constructed behavioural norms, socially encouraged high-risk behaviour and secret traditions must be addressed before colleges can truly be safe places for young people.

Released in August 2017, the AHRC report presented damning findings: around half of all university students (51%) were sexually harassed on at least one occasion in 2016, and 6.9% of students were sexually assaulted on at least one occasion in 2015 or 2016. Overwhelmingly, men were the perpetrators. Overwhelmingly, the perpetrator was known to the victim, likely a fellow student.

The survey also uncovered attitudinal and structural barriers to reporting assault and harassment, victim dissatisfaction with institutional responses when reports were made, and very low confidence amongst the survey set that enough was being done to protect students and support victims.

A particular area of concern highlighted by the AHRC report was that college students (that is, students who live on campus in residential settings owned by or affiliated with the university) represented a disproportionate number of victims: seven per cent of the survey respondents identified as living on campus, but they represented 34 per cent of students who had been assaulted.

I was not surprised. I knew those insular halls would hold the worst secrets. And I was sickened: not by the figures, but by the memories that immediately attached themselves to these figures, tugging at my conscience. Daring to be remembered beneath those happy images of friendship, and debauch parties, and sunny antics. Daring me to remember my complicity. My role as victim. My role as bystander. So here are the things that I think combine to create a more high-risk environment for sexual assault and harassment in Australian colleges.

Insularity created a permissive environment both for crimes occurring and perpetrators being protected. It created an over-confidence in our safety. I moved 700km away from home to attend university and my parents insisted I stay at college. They thought it was safest. There were about 1000 collegians all together and there was a sense we all knew each other if not personally, then we certainly knew people in common. At the very least, we knew what ‘type’ everyone was based on the college that had become their family.

From across a crowded first day lecture theatre, the ruggers and jersey that we always wore (often without shoes), the single book and pen carried (as we were so close to home), marked us out as instant allies. You’re a Jabba? I go to Women’s!  A friendship was instantly established based on mutual friends, upcoming parities and legendary rivalries. From the lecture theatre to parties and bars: what did it matter if you went home with a random guy you’d never met before? You probably knew a few guys in the hallway and you were only 200 m from home anyway. I rarely socialised with non-collegians. They thought we were weird.

The AHRC report highlights something I knew to be true: organisational contexts can play a role in increasing violence – especially sexual violence – against women. The report points to ‘all male residential colleges’ as being of particular concern. In my experience, the all male colleges were able to amplify the behavioural norms of hyper-masculinity. In the social microcosm that is the college community, we absorbed mutually created social roles and rules. We played them up and we perpetuated them. I knew of one young man allegedly sexually assaulted by his supposed brothers because it was rumoured he was gay.

Reference to his assault became a popular chant at inter-college sporting events. These colleges, so steeped in a regressive and binary view of gender, remain incredibly out of step with progressive society. While plenty of evidence exists for the ongoing importance of women’s only spaces (both for safety and ensuring opportunity), all male colleges should be abandoned by society, for in some dark and forgotten corners of these residences, a musty, out-dated and violent form of patriarchy flourishes like a fungus.

These college-constructed gender norms dictated our relationship experiences. We knew what consent safe sex were in theory. But in practice we didn’t know how to own our bodies. There was a hazy area between having fun and things going too far that none of us really knew how to negotiate. I was once pressed to do something I didn’t want to do. My demurs were couched in that faintly Victorian language that marks one as a lady not wishing to seem easy, not wishing to offend. Now it would be clear: this isn’t something I’m into so you need to stop and back the hell up. Right now.

At the time, I thought, ‘what an incredible compliment that he wants me so badly! I mustn’t ruin this and embarrass myself by coming across as frigid’.

I escaped because of a distraction. This is why – with their captured audience of young people at risk of sexual harassment and assault – colleges must teach consent beyond getting a yes out of someone eventually. That’s not consent, that’s acquiescence. Consent must be be vocal, ongoing and enthusiastic. For the latter to happen, colleges need to encourage embodied sex positivity: for all genders, for all sexualities. In that environment, I couldn’t be enthusiastic any more than I could forcefully say no. Enthusiastic is as bad as frigid in a patriarchal world.

As the AHRC report notes, college life is drenched in booze – tickets to parties where endless home-mixed drinks were served out of garbage bins; free busses to bars that offered $2 spirits.  We were in our homes with our families though, so we felt safe despite our high-risk behaviours. So many times we rescued each other and laughed about how crazy we’d been.

In hindsight things were not right. The whispers when one girl didn’t return for a second year. I heard something about her passing out in a room with a bunch of guys, about her waking up saying she hadn’t wanted that to happen. No more questions were asked. It seemed shameful and undignified. We were collegians – leading lights of the future. We didn’t get into messes like that. Now, I see clearly what really happened ­– a culture of secrecy, an expectation that we would drink to excess, boys trying to prove their masculinity with sexual conquests, girls not knowing how to say no.

In these socially pressuring environments, it is easy to see how consent would be distorted by an expectation to participate in tradition. Mascots were a symbol of these ‘hallowed rites’. My college had a doll as its mascot. Each college would try to steal mascots. If successful, that mascot would be subject to some mildly humiliating photo shoot.

A few years ago, my friends and I reunited our college’s centenary ball, the old and the new smooshed together in a grand ballroom. We were shown footage of our mascot’s recent demise. Mary – our mascot, – was strung by the neck and dangled out of a window. Residents of the men’s college were screaming sexual obscenities at her. She was dropped to the ground and a ute drove over her repeatedly. She was set alight and the assembled crowd jeered with college pride.

I shook uncontrollably and tears of rage filled my eyes. This was nothing to do with college pride and all to do with sexual assault. Yet, important person after important person (all quite famous) rose to the stage for speeches, promising vengeance on this apparently light-hearted prank. That’s the final thing wrong with the colleges: they’re self-perpetuating. Each generation goes further than the last in the pursuit of holding up the traditions, the rules and the roles we were sworn into. Colleges need to step back and critique these traditions and games. After eight years away from the college environment, I could see this problematic behaviour for what it was.

At college, I learned that women could be celebrated for their wisdom and professional success. Ambition was championed. Opportunity seemed limitless. I loved college. But. To look back on these years is difficult. With maturity, self-confidence and a better grasp of feminism, I see how toxic many ingrained behaviours and traditions were. Colleges derive their cultural strength and endurance from insularity, privilege, money, elitism and deference to accepted behaviours. Colleges spit people into society who believe this is ok.

Colleges must take responsibility for ensuring ongoing sex positive consent education, disavowing lingering sexism and privilege, critiquing and reviewing traditions, and creating a culture of belief and support for victims. My instincts are that the situation is much worse than the AHRC report tells: the college community has a way of protecting itself, of creating and sustaining culture. Those close to the problem may not realise the truth of what is going on for some years, if indeed they ever do. It took me ten years after all.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.

Gefilte fish for whom? Remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe

I joked that my recent holiday itinerary read like Hitler’s ‘To Do’ list. Poland. Ukraine. Germany. I didn’t intend to spend half my holiday kneeling at sites of tragedy, but when you find yourself in the vicinity of places that echo notoriously through history it seems impossible not to join the procession of modern-day mourners. But as much as I was confronted by sombre monuments of grief, in other places I found myself searching for evidence that anything had happened at all. Eastern Europe, it seemed, is locked in a macabre waltz of remembering and forgetting. Who is remembered and who is forgotten, what events are enshrined in human memory and which have turned to dust, seem to have everything to do with building a story we – the victors, the bystanders, the inheritors – can live with.

Remembering

The day before our scheduled visit to Auschwitz I said, ‘I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

My husband replied, ‘I’m worried about you going to Auschwitz’.

‘Why?’ I asked, expecting a beautiful desire to protect me from the pain of being in such a place.

‘Because you’re going to get angry at people and I’m going to spend the day trying to ensure you don’t get angry at people and then trying to calm you down after you get angry at people.’

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

But compelled by my Jewish family history and the insistence of Polish tourism, I disembarked at Auschwitz. I cutaway here to a scene from the film, The Reader – based on Bernard Schlink’s brilliant meditation on the culpability of every day Germans, the tension between generations, and Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its crimes.

Ilana

[Auschwitz survivor, speaking forty years after her liberation]

People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness…? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.

My notes from this day, which I thought might form the basis of this piece, were a torrent of misdirected anger. Frustration with tourists who scuttled to take photos of piles of shoes that belonged to people who burnt in Auschwitz’s ovens, with those who took sombre selfies no doubt hash-tagged ‘#neverforget’, with the hungover group of guys in personalised buck’s trip shirts. I wanted to force these people’s faces to the light and scream, ‘you just don’t get it, do you?’

Then I had a drunken conversation in the pub with a guy who listened to my rant and admitted he had taken photos in Auschwitz because he simply didn’t know what else to do. He was so shocked that the robotic motion of raising his camera was his way of engaging with the unimaginable and controlling his grief. As I reflected upon this, days later, I realised my furious, lashing temper was my own reaction to not knowing what to do. I turned my bile upon those around me for there were no Nazis upon which I could unleash my grief.

Forgetting

The next day I went to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, the area Jews had been permitted to live from the 1500s until they were interred in an overcrowded, policed ghetto in 1941. Poland’s Jewish culture had been the world’s most significant for many centuries, before being destroyed during the Holocaust. From a pre-war population of 3.5 million, today the entire Polish Jewish community is thought to be around 20 000. Or, as the ever-informed Krakow cab driver told me, ‘there are very, very few Jews who live in Krakow today.’ So I was surprised to turn a corner into the heart of the Jewish district and find Little Israel: lively stalls hawking menorahs and fridge magnets of Rabbis, and cafes trumpeting kosher menus and Krakow’s best gefilte fish – a Passover staple of cold, ground fish balls.

This wasn’t a sign of a local Jewish revival – this was a cynical play to the thousands of foreign Jews who come searching for their families. This was a performance. The creation of a sellable culture that barely exists in Poland’s reality and is still struggling for acceptance in a country with lingering anti-Semitic prejudices.

A week later I was lost in Warsaw. Google was trying to send me into a very secure apartment building. The map the concierge had frowned over before marking, tentatively, with a question mark, matched my location exactly.

‘Want ghetto?’ a shabbily-dressed man barked at me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to respond.

‘Want ghetto!’ he repeated, more insistently. I nodded. He set off quickly. I trotted behind him, I guessed I was meant to. We crossed a few car parks, and turned a few corners. We came through a back gate of the apartment building Google had sent me to. ‘Ghetto’ he said, pointing into a very private looking courtyard. Then he left.

And there it was. A small sign pointing to an ominous and incongruous hunk of wall, enclosed entirely by an apartment building. ‘Remnant of Warsaw Ghetto Wall’. This wall had violently deprived the liberties of nearly half a million Polish Jews. It had starved them of their freedom, dignity, work and living essentials. It was enormous –nearly double the height of the Berlin Wall. And it was so hidden, so forgotten. I couldn’t believe how lost it was.

Author with the Warsaw ghetto wall

The author at the Warsaw ghetto wall

Nothing comes out of the camps. I worry that museums of death – Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields ­– with their overwhelming statistics, overshadow the personal and the individual. They create a giant mass of ‘victims’ distinguishable only for their mass suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Victor E. Frankl writes of the consumption of prisoners as a literal human resource. Stripped of dignity and humanness, prisoners were used until their bodies were no longer useful, stripped of any bodily items (hair, for instance) of enduring material value, disposed of, and replaced. I could not participate however remotely in allowing people to become numbers and resources.

I followed Ilana’s advice and went to literature. In every country I visited, I read the testimonies of survivors – not just Holocaust survivors, but victims of Communist repression too. I wanted to remember the people and not the regime. They had names, not just shoes left in a pile in a concentration camp. I want to remember these people not by their deaths, but by their lives. Where their memory burns is not in the monuments of their deaths built by their murderers but in their stories, if we care to listen.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Finding My Family In Europe’s Least-Visited Country

We’ve pulled up at a church sandwiched amongst houses. This part of the city, with its winding, incredibly narrow, cobbled streets, feels like a village. There’s no trace of the belching Ladas (the ubiquitous Soviet-era car) and noisy trams that jostled along the wide street we turned off a few minutes ago. A few people have stuck their heads out of their windows to watch with interest as our van awkwardly negotiates the hills and tight corners. Taxis don’t come here apparently.

My non-English speaking driver has offered entreaties to my non-Romanian speaking self before rushing into the church. Are we in need of salvation? My driver and I are certainly searching. A woman clad in the bright floral headscarf typical of the region accompanies the driver from the church, gesticulating in all directions. We take off, but have to stop again for directions through this labyrinth. The driver exclaims and I see what has given him reason for confidence and relief. A wall, probably eight foot high, is ahead of us and on it is painted a large Star of David. With a big tip he leaves me, and I’m alone. It is completely still and silent. I guess this is what I was looking for.

**

Kishinev, Bessarabia, 1905. A part of the Russian Empire. Jews are permitted to live here. Permitted. It is an uneasy existence as a Jew in Kishinev: newspapers are openly anti-Semitic, restrictions bind Jewish life directing the whats and wheres and hows. Then, the tenuous permission is suspended.

**

I’ve had this madcap impulse to return to my family’s zero hour – where it all began – and say ‘thank you for leaving’ for as long as I’ve known their story. I realise the dodgy logic of this: “thanks for getting out of here. I just came back to say that”. To go there and say, yep, this is pretty grim. You made the right call, even if that call led to a life of dislocation, tragedy, otherness, hard, hard, hard work. If you hadn’t left, your descendants almost certainly would not exist.

So here I am. I’m in my grandfather’s birthplace. A city that has passed through Russian, then Soviet rule since his departure – the history noted in the change of its name from the Russian Kishinev to the Romanian Chisinau. But what seemed like a noble quest when I set off to visit Europe’s least visited country has now lost its romanticism. I feel a little bit daft, awaiting my emotional epiphany here in the silence on a beautiful summer’s day.

**

The Russian Empire in 1905 is a volatile place. 1905 is the beginning of the end. It could have been a sudden collapse, but the Tsar’s reforms assuaged the ferment enough for the end to drag on another twelve years. But in 1905 people are angry and uncertain and they turn upon the Jews. Violently. These attacks are called pogroms. There are many of them across the Russian Empire. But some of the very worst are in Kishinev. The attacks are ferocious. They are described as savage, as slaughter. The bodies pile in the streets. A family by the name of Barenboim decide that now might be a good time to leave.

**

I used to like to drink milk with my dinner. I was eating sausages at my father’s cousin’s house. I wanted milk with my dinner like I was used to, so Mum scooped me up with my plate and deposited me outside, in the furthest corner of the yard. Well this is odd, I thought, as I enjoyed my sausage and milk picnic, oblivious to the meaning behind my mother’s pragmatic solution of how to serve milk and meat together in a Kosher household.

I knew it was odd that I had a Zeda, not a Poppy or a Nonno or a Grandad. He was Russian, I’d say, proud of the exoticism. I was 9 when Zeda died. I was alone standing under a tree in a cemetery on a hot Brisbane day when over came the kind of family who say “you were just a baby when I last saw you! I bet you don’t remember me”. Sorry, my baby memory was pretty poor. Then: “Have you had your Bat Mitzvah yet?” Umm what? I mumbled that I didn’t know and they left me alone. I began panicking, am I not allowed here if I haven’t had a Bat Mitzvah? I remember seeing my brothers and father gripping their rarely-worn yarmulkes to their heads; eventually they borrowed hair pins from me. Tiny hats and bobby pins. Stones instead of flowers. Unfamiliar writing that apparently bore my name. Even decades later, I remember the tension I felt that someone so familiar to me was being farewelled in a way I did not understand, for if this was a part of him, it must be a part of me. And it was a part that I needed to know better. It was the reason us Barnbaums were here after all.

**

They fled, Yitzhak and Rivkah and their brood of small Barenboims. They fled from Kishinev to Harbin, China. How far. How impossibly far. They waited for certainty. They waited two years until some family were accepted by Argentina. They were accepted by Australia. How impossibly far. They boarded a boat for the bottom of the world, hoping that distance from home meant distance from persecution. They disembarked at Brisbane where their name was recorded as Barnbaum. How impossibly far.

**

How do you pay tribute to people who have been all but eradicated in a country that has no desire to remember they even existed? That’s what has brought us to the gate of Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery: a place so forgotten that one must be looking for it to even see it. In a city that once had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, this is nearly all that is left of Jewish culture.

I knew it would be overgrown and in ruins – after all, the community that mourned those buried here exists in too small numbers to tend these graves – but this is like Jumanji. Vines clutch every tombstone. Wildflowers and trees grow unchecked. Paths are impossible to make out. I am in complete silence and completely alone. I am frozen by fear, by the surge of panic I feel facing how determinedly forgotten these people – my people? – are; of how scary and precarious the place looks. In a terrible way, it is incredibly beautiful. My earlier cynicism gives way to agonising sadness that all these people are so forgotten; that a community as large as this could disappear.

The day I left Australia I scuffed around in the garden looking for a rock worthy of travelling so many miles to be laid as tribute. A star rock, if you will. But, as it transpired, my garden was mysteriously bereft of stones with a certain je ne sais quoi so to Moldova I have carried a rather uninspiring collection of pebbles. Stones in Jewish culture represent the permanence of memory and I look for somewhere to place them (I’m awaiting the sort of divine intervention I don’t actually believe in to tell me where). By the rear wall of the caved in synagogue, I raise my camera. Through the view-finder I see something my eye couldn’t: a grave scarred by a swastika. I can see the graffiti has been scrubbed, but the paint clings to the engraved Hebrew words. It is on this grave that I leave my stones. I will not forget. You are not forgotten. This place is not forgotten.

**

This strange little family from a strange little country lived, as refugee families often do, a life of extremely hard work, sadness and a fair bit of confusion: like when their first enterprise was to grow pineapples, not knowing that the first crop takes some time to yield – more time than they had money to wait.

My Zeda lived until 92. I knew him as an elderly man who emanated kindness, patience and wisdom, and who was never without a book in his hands. A gentleness and intellectualism that belied a hard life doing hard manual labour. I know him through the beautiful furniture he made, that filled my grandparents’ house and now fills mine and my brother’s. All beautifully hand-tooled. All with secret compartments for hiding money for that next emergency. I feel a stab of pain for what horrific memories or fears he must have had to build those safe places. When we emptied the house after his death, we found thousands of dollars hidden over an entire lifetime. He just wanted to protect us, I guess. To know we’d be ok. So that’s what I said, kneeling with my hand on the cold, stone of a ruined synagogue in the middle of a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Europe’s least-visited country: it was worth it. We’re ok. We exist. And we remember.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program.