We are regular visitors to Kangaroo Island, a nature-lovers’ delight that lies 14 kilometres off the South Australian coast. Much of our time there is spent trying to atone for the environmental damage caused by our European forebears. Swathes of the vegetation have been cleared due to almost two centuries of European farming. Thousands of sheep have grazed on this cleared land for much of that time, and European crops have replaced much of the original flora. The crops have been fertilized for years, and now that we allow the land to remain fallow, noxious weeds take over, fueled by the remnant fertilizer in the soil. Our mission is revegetation, trying to reverse some of the damage from farming.
On our most recent visit, one of my jobs was to uproot the weeds. The task was impossible given that they sprawled across the land as far as the horizon, so we focused on a small fenced-off area. We dared not poison the weeds because they could be consumed by endangered bird species, such as the white-bellied sea eagles that nest nearby. For the same reason we never use rodent poison, but instead trap mice in buckets of water.
I donned my gardening gloves and grabbed the weeds by their roots, pitted my body weight against the plants, and uprooted them and before discarding them onto the weed pile.
Meanwhile my partner Alex was busying himself planting yet more trees. He was somewhat disgruntled because his boat was being repaired in Yaringa, near Melbourne, after being dismasted in Bass Strait. He gazed longingly out to sea, but seemed to regain a sense of contentment when he was planting trees. For him, planting trees was not a chore, but rather a consuming passion. He made deep holes in the rocky ground with his fencing crowbar, delicately coaxed the seedlings out of their containers, pushed the roots into the hole, pressed the soil back around the seedling, and made a berm around each plant to trap water. Then he drove stakes into the ground around each plant, and encircled them with either a corflute tree guard, or a wire cage, or both. These measures were necessary to protect them from marauding possums and kangaroos, which would otherwise devour the plants overnight.
There is only so much revegetation you can do without hankering for some relief. Alex was content to plant trees from dawn to dusk but I pressed him to take me on a day excursion. Besides, coming to Kangaroo Island was not just about our earnest efforts at revegetation; it was also meant to be a romantic getaway. Our first outing was to Seal Bay, where the attraction was not in fact seals but rather Australian sea lions. We drove there, now an official tourist destination, and entered through the park office. We walked along the boardwalk with the other tourists, many being international visitors, and gazed down at the sea lions enjoying lying in the sand in the sunshine.
Back at the revegetation site, we resumed our routine of weed-whacking and planting for the next few days, by which time we felt we deserved another outing. This time we chose to visit American River (named after visiting American sealers in 1803) known for its picturesque harbour and fresh seafood. But for me, American River was less about the view and the seafood than spotting sea lions. I had spied one on a previous visit and was hoping to see some again. I walked onto the boat ramp near the shed where the reconstruction of the Independence schooner was taking place. (The Independence was the first ship constructed in South Australia, in 1803, commissioned by a visiting American shipmaster and sealer, Isaac Pendleton.) I walked past the door to the boat shed, because as much as I would like to claim interest in the history of local shipbuilding, my real interest was in finding a sea lion.
I was not disappointed. Behind a ‘Resting Seal’ sign explaining that you were required to keep a thirty metre distance from the sea lion, we found what we were looking for.
I glanced into the lagoon, and spied the sea lion’s mate, proudly flipping his body around in the water, before he scrambled onto the shore to demonstrate his supremacy in this territory.
An American tourist next to us asked Alex, “How far is thirty meters?”
He replied, “About one hundred feet, which is twice the distance we are now!”
We all walked backwards trying to preserve the thirty-metre distance between the sea lion and ourselves.
It was mid-afternoon and there were still hours of daylight left, so we decided to visit the nearby eucalyptus distillery. Before entering the building our attention was arrested by young kangaroos, known as joeys, hopping freely around the outside of the building. We entered the premises and purchased some eucalyptus products, and as we left, approached one of the joeys.
Kangaroo Island, like many parts of Australia, has dead wallabies and kangaroos alongside its roads, victims of road-kill. Because kangaroos are marsupials, some of their young may be found alive inside their pouch, even after the mother has been killed. Those finding the road-kill may drag it safely away from the road, after ensuring that no approaching cars are in sight, and then remove the joey from its mother’s pouch. The joeys we came across had been rescued in this way, and hand reared. Unlike most kangaroos, they had no fear of humans. I knelt to pat one of the joeys, and then he gently raised his pointy face to my ear and whispered in it. Then he raised his lips to mine and brushed them against me.
“Don’t let him!” urged Alex. “You’ll get germs from a wild animal.”
I let the joey tickle my lips for a few more seconds, before heeding his urgings. I had been kissed by a kangaroo!
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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Poet, creative writer and teacher Adam Aitken talks about cross-cultural identity, and the challenges of travel, writing, and belonging with Keith Lyons.
Adam Aitken is a London-born teacher and writer with a PhD in creative writing. He migrated to Sydney after spending his early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia. His poetry and prose have been widely anthologized. He has published poetry, chapbooks, essays on Asian Australian literature, book reviews, and was co-editor of Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. The story of his mixed heritage is featured in his creative non-fiction work One Hundred Letters Home. In this exclusive, he shares about the challenges of writing, identity and place.
You were born in the UK and have spent most of your adult life in Australia but tell us about your early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia.
It was a very happy childhood, and I was spoilt by everyone, except my mother, who was chronically anxious every time my father appeared. I was unaware of it at the time, but they were not happy together. I remember my fourth birthday in Birkenhead Liverpool. Then we moved to Southeast Asia. In Thailand, my father was almost always absent. I had good schooling in Kuala Lumpur, at a Catholic pre-school run by the Good Shepherd order. I remember my first day, I was illiterate in prayers and scared of the large carving of Jesus crucified and bleeding from his crown of thorns. Around seven, I went to an international school in Bangkok, which was great except for the bullying I received from an American kid. After he hit me on the head with his sneaker, I reported him, and he was publicly shamed. There are few worse things you can do than insult someone with your shoe, especially by touching the head.
What was your experience like moving to Australia when you were still young? How did your sense of identity or ‘home’ develop?
Worse, the racism in Perth was total, violent, totalitarian. Teachers were complicit. Nothing was done about it. My brother and I were once howled out of the school as we went home. I am afraid that when I talk about the worst aspects of ‘Whiteness’, I remember that time. My father was again absent, unable to get a job he liked and implicated in a civil adultery case involving another couple. We left for Sydney after a year. My poem ‘The Far East’, is an attempt to record that kind of trauma.
When did you first discover that you liked writing creatively, and in particular, writing poetry?
About aged 14, after six years living in Sydney, I started to enjoy my English classes. I had a fabulous teacher Rick Lunn, who I think became a successful sci-fi writer. I will never forget the magic of listening to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘. After that I had access to David Malouf’s library in Sydney, when we stayed at his flat for a few months. I discovered the alternative reality that books provide. I bought a typewriter and enjoyed the process of typing on paper. A few years later I attended a poetry reading at Exiles Bookshop in Sydney and was enchanted by the strange glamour and seriousness of the writers. Martin Johnson, John Forbes, Gig Ryan, John Tranter were all there.
What early recognition or encouragement meant you saw being a writer as a career option?
At my primary school, I wrote a poem about a forest walk we did, and on seeing a sea eagle, and that was read to the whole class. At high school in Sydney, a poem or two made it into the school magazine. I think the English Master also recognised me and encouraged me. I was lucky to grow up in a time when creative writing was still valued but not necessarily seen as a vocation for which tertiary qualifications were essential, but at Sydney University, I enjoyed lunchtime poetry workshops when there were no creative writing courses to do at all. I met practising writers in a very informal atmosphere and so ‘being a poet’ seemed a comfortable choice. My mentors were real writers but there was no pressure of assessment. The goal was to get poems into magazines. This happened when I was in 3rd year. I had great lecturers who loved poetry. I was published in Southerly. I featured in an issue of Chris Mansell’s Compass. It was a thrill to have a few pages in a well printed and produced ‘zine. I also read at what was then the largest reading in Sydney, The Harold Park Hotel. Probably Sydney’s most dynamic place at the time, and since.
How did you develop your mastery of the craft, own voice and style?
I baulk at this question as I am not sure how I can define my voice or style. Certainly, early imitation of other poets, practice and attention to poetic technique (metaphor, simile etc.) helped me develop the craft. Listening to poetry out loud helps. Revising and trying out new versions. It’s like writing music. I also have a very good ear for languages so pick up stylistic and prosodic patterns quite quickly. I listened to early advice about metrics and line endings and spent a lot of time reading traditional verse and learning the metres and forms (ie. sonnets), even though I don’t apply them much these days. Writing ‘in the style of’ is an enjoyable exercise and imitating others is fun, even though it can be unoriginal. I tend to allow a line or sentence to suggest its own metrics, then use that to write a draft. I am very much more into allowing content to dictate form.
What do you think is unique about your work, that makes it distinctly yours?
In terms of the questions of form and craft, I don’t think there are many Asian Australian poets who had a traditional training in English Lit, augmented by Modern American literary influences (like the Imagists, Ezra Pound, and the New York School). I was there in the early days of postmodern theory. I was starting out during the ‘Poetry Wars’ in the ‘seventies. I also studied linguistics and became an English language teacher. I was there in the heady days of the Sydney early ’80s. I think this gives me a kind of technical awareness of language and grammar, form and genre. I am probably one of most well know of migrant poets for having been recognised since then. I was fortunate to not have to work so much and so I had plenty of time to develop my craft. On a personal level I don’t know many other Australian poets who have had my parents who were literary enthusiasts, and both culturally eclectic. Of course, Thai heritage has given me a lot. Few Asian Australian writers have had a childhood like mine, or possibly the eclectic experience of reading as I have had. I don’t know of any Asian Australian writer who has explored their cross-cultural heritage as I exhaustively as I have in both poetry and memoir.
How do you communicate through poetry something very personal, to an audience that is on the outside?
I received a ‘New Critical’ dogma about the poem being an impersonal object, but it did not stop me reading Sylvia Plath or Frank O’Hara. I begin by thinking about how the personal could be interesting to someone I don’t know. Attend to the particulars and details of the personal, and to avoid sentimentality. Be as brave as possible as to the trauma of an experience and celebrate the positive. My own preference is to avoid histrionic outbursts, something a learned writing my memoir. Again, the particulars and exactitude of description work better than bare statements. I do still hold to the dictum of showing, not telling.
One of the characteristics of your work is attention to detail. Does that start with being observant and taking notes? How do you then find the most poignant moments or parts?
I often know I have a poignant subject, but often writing leads you to it. The previous answer is relevant here also. I don’t do a lot of notes, but I do a lot of drafts that grow into larger structures. What seems poignant early may pale into insignificance later, so I do a lot of revisiting of old notes and drafts. I often take note of dreams and reflect on what they might mean. I have always been interested in painting, photography, and films, (which I studied at Uni) so I do spend a lot of time thinking about what is ‘in the scene’, what the detail is, how close ups and panning work, what a montage is. As a child I liked to look through microscopes at insects. As far as grammar in concerned, I am fascinated by how grammars work in other languages, and in the etymology of words.
How do you go about writing a poem?
Again, often I start with a fragment, a line, a phrase, and go from there. Sometimes, I set out trying to describe a scene, a photo, a painting, an experience of looking, whether that be looking at a film or a view. Interior monologue or talking to myself and putting thought onto a page helps. I occasionally address a theme, most often at the instigation of a journal issue callout. I also have a long running series of satiric poems written in the character of an avatar, though I sometimes doubt that these amount to anything lasting.
Is poetry about finding meaning and making sense, or looking at something from different perspectives?
The Cubist method has a lot going for it, and I don’t really make the distinction between making sense and the various means we use to perceive of something. I do struggle with the fragmented poem that does not seem to find meaning, that I can’t find the sense in, or that lacks context, a heritage, a precedent in a more powerful text. But that is part of the job, to struggle towards meaning, using what is at hand.
How different is it writing an essay or review, does it use a different part of your brain or a different process?
Well, audience and purpose are more important in an essay, though not as important as I often thought. A review should help a reader decide whether to go and read the text, and I am pragmatic about this. I find writing essays almost impossible now, because I don’t have the patience and attention span needed. Essays and reviews (arguably) have strong generic patterns to follow, whereas I write poetry without constraining myself too strictly to generic considerations. Long forms are exhausting, and my eyesight is deteriorating and so long sessions at the computer are unpleasant.
If the financial rewards from writing aren’t great, does being a writer mean you have to hold a ‘day job’ or other income streams (teaching) to enable you to write?
I have always earned most of my income from teaching English as a Foreign Language, but since COVID, I live on savings. In the space of my career, grants and prizes have only amounted to about a year or two of an average income salary. I admire my peers who are full time creative writing academics but still manage to produce books in between the admin and marking. I’ll be taking up a Visiting Writer job in Singapore in 2024, and I am very much looking forward to that.
How useful have awards, being shortlisted for prizes, and residencies been to your progression as a writer? What specific things have been springboards into new worlds?
Apart from allowing me to take time off from the day job, residencies and grants have helped me to keep going and to believe in myself and has added some motivation for many in the community of like-minded poets where I live now. It is interesting to follow up on what writers have written after a stint in Rome for example.
Residencies help you reside for a longer time than average in places that you can explore. The most difficult residency I have had was probably the Paris Studio, even though I found writing time. I was overwhelmed by ‘Paris’ as a grand subject and theme and had to learn to look for the personal relevance and the original detail again. My stint as Visiting Writer in Hawai’i was powerful, as I had to rethink my use of English and my relationship with the local scene. Working with creative writing students there taught me a lot and brought me into a new way of writing that was alive to vernacular American and local patois.
Certainly, winning a postgraduate award to do a doctorate in creative writing cemented my self-belief while giving me four years of income and time to write my memoir and a thesis on hybridity and cross-cultural desire as a theme in Australian writing. My most productive period was funded by an Australia Council grant that allowed me to live and write for a year in Cambodia. While time and freedom to read and write is unarguably valuable, it allows writers to defamiliarise their surroundings. I was challenged to really question my own privilege as a w\Westerner, and as a relatively wealthy Asian Australian living in a poor country. I was already familiar with the history of the region, but the time there allowed me to have encounters with the real actors (and their descendants) in that history.
How has travel in Asia reinforced/challenged your sense of self and personal/national identity? Do you feel like an Australian, or more of a global citizen?
Travel always brings up questions of where you come from, and where you are headed, but most importantly you begin to situate your identity across a range of places. I am talking about Thailand and France, which have personal family ties. I have spent a lot of time learning French and Thai, in order to be able to feel more at home with people in these places. I feel more intimate with these regions, but not at all with places like the UK, where I was born. Obviously, Sydney is my home, and Sydney is not Cairns or Melbourne, places with which I have a lot less intimacy. I think Sydney was once more of a community, but almost none of my closest university friends live here, and a lot of writers I know have moved elsewhere.
I don’t believe that I personally can embody the concept of a Global Citizen, which is a fiction unless you are rich enough to be able to go where-ever you like and whenever you like and can afford to live anywhere.
I recently flew back from Bali, and the crowd at Denpasar airport were for the most part Australians — somewhat diverse, but also unfamiliar to me, people who would probably not want to hang out with me!
In your memoir One Hundred Letters Home what did you learn about your parents and yourself?
I learned that having intended to explore my mother as the leading agent in our lives, I became drawn into my relationship with my father. He took over the book as a subject, and I learned how complex he was. I learned also that there was a whole stretch of his life that were off limits to me, and I didn’t know enough to write about them. I learned that writing about parents can be a frustrating way to get to learn about yourself. I did learn a lot about my own attempts at identity transformation, I mean the attempt to ‘become a Thai man’. The book is self-analysis, though I did not intend it to be limited by that theme. I think I learned more about intergenerational trauma that is specific to Australian men who were born last century, and of course, more about ways of writing about the father-son relationship that move beyond Freud.
I also learned a lot about my father’s ancestry, that he was descended from an Army family, even though he had been an anti-Vietnam war Moratorium activist. I learned how his branch of the family had been rich, but that a lot of the wealth had never come done to him. I learned that I am the descendant of the founder of Victoria Brewery, or VB. I also learned that my great-grandfather was a survivor of Gallipoli and the Western Front. My father never told me any of this. I also learned that my maternal great-grandfather had been a Protestant Minister of the Australian church, and that he was a pacifist and a teetotaller.
How does writing challenge the status quo/ colonialism/ stereotypes? Was your first poetry collection seeking to challenge Marco Polo’s narrative?
Writing should, in some aesthetic way ‘contaminate’ the status quo, while calling out the conditions of oppression. Naming the invader, and resisting is the intention. Methods can vary from diction and descriptions of outright violence to underhand subversion. Poison the invader’s food, dress as them, but turn it to your advantage. My first book Letter to Marco Polo was a way of putting together poems about foreign travel, as I had spent a year in Thailand and the title of the book seemed obvious after I had written the poem that goes by that title. I liked the casual postcard style of address, – ‘Dear such-and-such the natives do this and that…’ Then it was easy to parody the renaissance ‘travel’ genre (which is a fantasy genre for sure), and it felt like a duty to write my own questions of travel, and to add ‘reality’ to the encounter by re-casting the traveller’s gaze as that of a lost son returning to his ancestral home. My encounters with my mother’s family were life-changing and Letter to Marco Polo was a snapshot into that encounter.
John Kinsella has commented on how my recent poems enact the colonial voice in order to undermine it, which seems paradoxical. He refers to these lines in Revenants (2022):
I read my father’s letter on Hong Kong,
how he loved it:
the heat, the beer in bottles, the tailoring, the freedom.
I imagine him reading Somerset Maugham
with the temperature at 105. Waited on by one silent Chinese boy (sic)
who lights his cigarettes.
Eastern food, and chopsticks. If you can’t use them you can’t eat!
Dense traffic and ceaseless din.
John Kinsella saw me draw attention to colonialism through citing Maugham, and quoting his and my father’s language, only to undermine it, which is a form of irony. John explains it better than I can:
“He contests the language of bigotry (always seeking to ‘centralise’ itself) through the ‘borrowed’ or ‘quoted’ language, as he does through the evocation of a bigoted colonialist and lauded British writer such as Maugham. A colonial positioning takes place and then is undone. The aligning of ‘tailoring’ and ‘freedom’, and the lighting of the cigarettes in the arrangement of master and mastered is painful and unaugmented. It is what it is. The chopsticks line is configured against the Western cliché of density and noise. This weaving of the marginal into the central dialogue of colonial behaviour and colonial imposition is polysituated into the fact of inheriting the array of experiences and impositions, and acting and enacting out of conflicting experiences. Aitken’s poems de-centre racist discourse. They break the binaries. That is not to say that Aitken is aligning his voices as either ‘subaltern’ or ‘master’, but rather attempting to deconstruct the language of such experience without owning that experience.”
It makes some sense to think of this approach as a tactic of mimicry and soft parody, I suppose, rather than a didactic approach.
What’s your process for bringing together work created in different places — such as in Revenants — to create something that is linked and unified?
I had originally intended to put together poems only situated in France, but then I found I wanted the poems situated in other places. Early drafts did not achieve much linking and unification, but Giramondo’s editor Lisa Gorton and I worked through drafts to find something more or less unified. What were unifying tropes were linked to how my father’s travel and my own were comparable: we had both travelled to Asia. We were both foreigners in alien territory and I wanted the book to work on one level as an elegiac dialogue with my father who died in 2017. Memory and the return and siting/sightings of the spirit, of the revenant, were emplaced, embodied and situated, and every place in Revenants has some allusion to the idea of a return of the past. In a way I am mining a post-romantic pantheism. Or perhaps, it’s the spirit, or mana, or the Dreaming (though I am wary of appropriation here!)One can return to a place and feel the past come back through that place, just as one can read a poem and it evokes their presence by quite simply addressing the dead. I speak to the tombstones; I tell my monsters to go away; I speak to my father as if he were listening etc. Of course, in the end the book is tonally and stylistically consistent despite the intertextuality. The unity has to do with editing, the order of the poems, and compression of the lines themselves. I use quoted material economically, but there is quite clearly a ‘lyrical’ pulse to the whole collection.
What are you working on next?
There are the dramatic monologues I have collected over the last 11 years, but also more poems that did not fit into Revenants, but still seem to have legs. I have just returned from three months travel in Thailand, Malaysia and Bali, and I haven’t really written anything related to that yet. I spent time in around 35 hotels, so this suggests a framing device and maybe a new title.
For aspiring writers, what’s your advice?
I have often felt like giving up, but I remind myself that not writing is like death. Persistence but also having a supportive network, especially if you are putting together a book. It’s very important to have trusted readers who are also critical. I don’t react so much to unhelpful reviews these days, though I asked ChatGPT what adverse criticism my poetry has generated and it listed ‘overly experimental’, obscure’ and ‘difficult’. I have always fretted about not connecting with readers, but there are readers for all kinds of poetry these days. My advice is read a lot.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
they have drawn epistles, narrative cannonballs, dispatched correspondence and reprints
prose before puberty what place would you want in the future..?
Having drawn from many artists, poets, scientists, eccentrics eventually falling into your own house of writing, now I ask how to sit properly or eat before using the cutlery? Am I entitled to this family?
I read books given to me, bought for Christmas and ones I bought myself for true keeps.
Lots were passed down from my older sister Danielle the year I turned 13; the early 70's.
Woman of the Future by David Ireland. I was given this by Danielle with the words, 'this book reminded me of you '.
Althea, the protagonist with a brain full of ideas and the body of the androgen, metamorphosis into a leopard near the end. Besotted I was, I imagined Althea around the places I played. She walked with me to school and stayed with me until I layed on the grass later in the year, with a new fascination; The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. Given to me for my 13th birthday my grandma asked me what it was I liked so much about Freud. I think she thought I was too young to be reading such a controversial composition.
Carefully recording my own dreams, pen in hand, I held a ton of notes in a scrambled batch of excercise books.
My bedroom was strewn with paperwork and pictures of favourite artists. My school work lay around somewhere. I knew how to find anything in a split second.
Oh teachers of the plain high school I attended. I'm sure you meant well but you had a hellraiser on your hands not to mention one up and coming intellectual who was also an existentialist. I wrote an essay on the subject and the teacher didn't believe that I had written it, accusing me of plagiarism. I swore black and blue that I didn't but he gave me a 'D'. Other teachers weren't so hasty in their appraisal, knowing fully well that I was a special case, either doomed for failure or going places with the mind of its own. Right, wrong.
Grieving for years I drank my heart out, writing songs that succeeded traditional melodies using chromatic scales as a base for a tune. I was onstage, my only home. Reality didn't interest me; writing songs about my predictions did. And I was always right. The psychic nature of mine was always accurate.
And so on until I died.
An autopsy revealed that I had consumed a number of barbiturates, heroin and cocaine. My stomach had swollen to the highest value. So I was cremated, indeed the first fire I had ever been to. No, the second.
Once I was running out late, my ex husband following me. As I turned the corner I saw a huge amount of smoke coming from the chemist store. I ran into it, engulfed by fire all around me: burning hell. It looked so strange, like an orange sky lit up for Guy Fawks Night. Quickly I ran across the street without seeing him again and back at home, my clothes worn and black.
For pennies, opals, amethysts and Onyx, my black queen you are the devil and dance of Eden. Fantasy of becoming someone, something, to look for the next new free styler is a hard department at all times. Open only at certain times. It takes luck to know when. Capacity full they say. Not true.
All welcome at the house of fame and glory.
Black Queen knows.
Mimi Bordeaux likes drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in Melbourne Australia. She writes dark prose and hybrid poetry.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Keith Lyons from Christchurch discoversthat the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.
If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.
Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.
In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.
If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.
One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.
The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.
I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.
There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.
My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.
However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.
A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.
Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.
During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.
An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.
I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.
In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.
During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”
In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.
There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.
The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.
That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.
I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”
As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.
As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.
However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.
But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.
As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.
As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.
Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.
This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.
It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.
My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.
When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.
The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.
Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.
Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
/ for the cupid charges his dart / but to dodge love / for eros is invisible without a lamp /and who the hell knows who we’re really marrying / and venus was angry she had to come down to earth / for kenosis is giving up being god / living between the dark / the night lapping and the shore smacking her lips / the birth of my divine child / my husband promised to return / but the river nile is also the waterfall of the styx and i was sad so many babies had to die /
/ the nurses showed us how to experience death / and we all had to be prepared / but psyche brought her life and her lamp / but the light made his body glow / and i wasn’t ready for god back then / so i dropped the knife and the oil and burnt my own wings / or webs and i wonder how i could have despised my own wedding ring /
/ palm oil has cleared so many forests / but never give alms whilst ascending from hell /for my mother and father will climb on top of my body and we shall both drown / i left my parents but i was rejected by them first / and left bread as crumbs / so he grew out of the water / but an overgrown cupid / there was a door and a yellow light / the boy and a door and blood / my son and a door and i buried his head in the sand / for he drove a dodge dart and the jocasta complex /
/ for so many men say they can tend gardens but in the summer they let their flowers dry up / so i told him to assemble a steering wheel / made out of felt and robin hood green / for mothers must steal from the grinch and let their sons feed from their hands / so i handed him over to my husband / for the father is the son / mutatis mutandis / his wings outstretched on god’s table / the blood and the nails that strengthen the stable and how the fountain lights / his mountain climb /
/ i thought she said montecristo and i was on the train heading home /
but as i was about to exist / i realized i had forgotten letters / photos of my child when she was young / and i had to stop myself from falling out / the train had walls / and the backs of passengers / for i wanted her to be pretty and pure / to wear a poncho because of my indictment of winter and the fall / hail stones as small as baby teeth and the union of demeter with persephone /
/ only alone / i had to go through lake monogrista / when will the goddess become a woman / energy which embeds will not floar up / above the ceiling / a maze or village roads archetypes or archangels made of white marble / suspended and upside down / for this map and where do i cross or sort out the corn to make flour / the eleusinian mysteries /
/ heilagr bread and i prayed for akeru / for when i’m not sure if what i’m seeing is real or conducive to evolution / wassilissa the beautiful / the black grains and the wild peas / a pestle and mortar like pen and paper / then a grain of earth in the poppy seeds / i prepared kvass on her table / her tongue / small flame heating her lips / pointy fire of a hybrid flower / she had down syndrome / and told me i had been waiting a long time to ask a question /
/ so i gave my child money for her tooth / and for charon a drachma under her tongue and i took her letter / and i hoped she would only ever find the box when she grew /for to have pistis / she made me see a light outside / daylight candle and she was in a cradle in the branches / but to admit she is really here / for newborns were saved and to rock in the wind / but for all their dead weight / or faith that she was a fait / and my fate / to breathe / her out / to life /
TANTUM ERGO SACRAMENTUM
/ limbs / sacred animal / in the ground / i dig with my fingers and my toes / nails like roots / my back / spine rises / snake charmer and out of the casket / when i ask psychoanalysts questions they often say / how does that relate to what we’re talking about / me and peek a boo with the clock / and the whole point is missed and an altered sensorium /
/ so my husband pulled a chandelier out of the ground / arms out of the soil / the colour of spoilt iron / he told me it had sunk with the titanic / ostensorium / in miss havisham’s house / made out of flight light and rock / he swings in my room / he said for those who will hold both order and chaos / or tell the truth and for the stunting of our time / that lovemaking and the tragedy of it / triadic and in christo /
/ for he who acquires patience / discipline to maintain the meaning of ritual / not a single offering will be missed / a man’s joined hand / veins like rope / upright sconce / within his skin / rivers green / yellow strength in his candle / in his body / burdens / burn like a forgotten forest church / for to know the same man since / baring our child / dark garden of gethsemane /
/ he now knows not to move any paper for they are my lifeskins / for my mouth is volubly mute / not to move a single body or a single letter / my altar and my cup / my holden host / golden moon and how our son impailed / the hour of adoration / for i would rather he climb as fragile as a looking glass / tread on me carefully instead /
THE BLACK STEAM TRAIN RATTLES OUR BACK DOORS IN WINTER
/ snake of moses / rose branch to the apple / round as stone / its mouth did speak and the soul was satisfied / so whole he grew / fed his interregnumfrom the birth cord / extended his arm from the ground / took of his body and ate /
/ i was in the desert / for where i grew up and live / bridges wired up like cages / and the silos because the sky / sheets of steel / and our sense of responsibility / for our own lack will give us a life sentence and a prison cell / and i have always felt worried because during the war / and he could not yet cry / for suffering sedates and shuts the eyes /
/ working mechanical shark / iron box crashes / debris of his body / sea ash / how the smoke sits thick like clouds when i burn my wedding ring / the ticking clock and the next train / snake railway / and to trespass the halo of her body / but i was always good at diving in and unhooking the bait from my mouth / o soporific soul and my auseinandersetzung /
/ he hadn’t slept for days / how a man had to watch the child’s head come about 325 wordsengthen off / how he was given a broom to sweep his parts up from the ground / because when he was a boy / but then his mother died / and the easiest way to kill a man’s woman is to send him to war /
/ so there was a border / or the edge of a road / for the vestiges of my old intransigent world / a lily as white as his hand in the sand and as i lay down my clothes / for one must take the time to mourn our absences / my army clothes / his school uniform / because he was now larger than me / i couldn’t yet see the enemy / but to climb / a tomb hollowed out the next word / and we reveled in what he lay /
/ i had to stay with my ear close to his roots / and to run / river of dust when i could detect where they were / our old linen garments / submerged and lifted out of the river / i told my mother to wash our clothes because / it is more comforting to confront death and to know her then / for when your mother will not know you /
HABENTIBUS SYMBOLUM FACILIS EST TRANSITUS
/ fowl sowl of men / mouth of men / sour bowl / i’m sorry / for she wears the devi cloak / how words are left to hang like jowls / uphill road / light forest / crevice of light / cervical and a cat’s eye / the color black is a deep empty hole / both in each other’s soak / for our bodies warm and the nights black / digesting the plaited crop /
/ i always had long births for i hold onto my children for too long / my body / my boy / every six months / the indian lady would sew back my eye / she said i must be patient and i was not to move / and my husband asked me how he was to learn patience / so at the hospital / i asked to have my dream interpreted / she gave me chopped apples in a ceramic bowl and i had to eat them piece by peace / so when i let go from the substructure of the world /for some people cannot live if they are not sticky inside a web / so i remember to smile even if the felicity doesn’t exactly belong to me / breasts of milk / nipples made of pearls /
/ when a mother’s suffering is manifested into her child / then i must unglove and evolve my mother / for it is our children who remain hidden and who always validate the truth /
/ so i took the time to bathe myself / and i remembered the first time my children were awed by their own hands / a leitmotif or iteration / for to see my one body / white as soap / all belonged to be /
Annie Blake(BTeach, GDipEd) is a divergent thinker, a wife and mother of five children. She commenced school as an EAL student and was raised and, continues to live in a multicultural and industrial location in the West of Melbourne. She enjoys experimenting with Blanco’s Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Logic to explore consciousness and the surreal and phantasmagorical nature of unconscious material. Her work is best understood when interpreting them like dreams. She is an advocate of autopsychoanalysis and a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne, Australia. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.auandhttps://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.