My piece ‘An Uneasy Alliance’ published in Kill Your Darlings

KYD18-3D-HighResolution-741x1024Issue 18 of Kill Your Darlings is now online and available in bookstores, and includes an essay by yours truly. I’ve really got my geek on in this one! The piece’s premise is that ancient murals and myths, tool-toting chimpanzees and a science-fiction motif are all trying to tell us something (cue paranoid music score).

It was a tough one to write, I suspect because it’s more ideas based than what I’ve written previously. It touches on the fields of archaeology, history, cinema studies and geo-engineering. Thanks to Jacob and Imogen for their feedback on early drafts of this one.

Here is an extract:

My heart sped with the thrill of discovery and the delicious undergrad naiveté that whispers Maybe, just maybe I’ve made a…but I quickly came down to earth as, scurrying through the books, I realised that others had noticed the same correlation.

Connections have also been drawn even further afield, with the Mayas and their Popol Vuh. There it is written that early humans were spoken to by their maize grinders, cooking griddles, plates, pots and grinding stones, which, in revenge for the way humans had treated them, crushed their owners’ faces, ground up their flesh, landed on their heads and flattened their bodies. The correspondences across time and space suggest that this Revolt of the Objects, as it is usually called, is an ancient American myth.

I contemplated the reproduction of the Moche mural: headdresses, clubs and weapons sprouted arms and legs and chased after people, attacked them and dragged them by their hair. Chaos reigned on the walls as humans were domesticated by the tools they had created: one man grimaced in pain, another stumbled as a shield attacked him. The militaristic Moche were thrust to the bottom of the food chain by the technologies responsible for their regional dominance – their most important tools – just as the Huarochirí informants and the Maya had imagined their ancestors were.

I closed the book and leaned back in my chair. The neon lights were casting a clinical sheen across the desk and there were murmurs drifting from the stacks. Sometimes a piece of the past flies through time at just the right angle to cast new light on the present. Images from a steady diet of pop-culture rose in my mind: cool, terrifying robots, humans in farms and the planet a wasteland. It seemed that the modern, Western imagination to which I was subject wasn’t so different from this ancient American one.

Read the rest at Kill Your Darlings.




Back on the language wagon

I spent this morning practicing the pronunciation of the following sounds:

ch, chh and ch’;

k, kh and k’;

p, ph and p’;

q, qh and q’; and

t, th and t’.

The first ones (except for the ‘q’ and ‘t’) sound much as they do in English, the second ones are aspirated (just as the ‘ph’ in ‘uphill’ is aspirated) and the third ones are glottalised (a short popping sound). The difference is important: according to my teacher, while tanta means meeting, thanta means rubbish and t’hanta means bread. For me, the p’ requires particular effort; the t’ took me a little figuring out in terms of which part of the roof of the mouth the tongue pops against (it’s further back than the t in Spanish; moving the tongue even just a little forward changes the sound completely). If you want to know what Qheswasimi (also known as Kechwa/Quechua/Runasimi) sounds like, start this video at 1:00.

I know I won’t be able to learn much in ten lessons, but I can feel the rusty language cogs slowly kicking into gear, and it feels good, the effort, especially the slow struggle that is recall, the process of transforming what my brain interprets as ‘sound’ into something it recognises as ‘word’.

There are actually no irregular verbs in Qheswasimi (yippee!) because it is an agglutinative language. But agglutination has its own challenges. To form words, you add affixes to the stem (which never changes). So in Qheswasimi you take a word stem, and to it you add suffixes that mean, for example, ‘plural’, ‘past tense’, ‘diminutive’, ‘limitative’ (i.e. ‘only’), ‘place of origin indicator’, ‘knowledge through hearsay’ and/or ‘knowledge through personal experience’, among others (see more here).

The kind of Quechua I’m learning is the southern variant — Quechua isn’t a language but a language family, with variations among its languages that are not quite as different as those among the Romance language family (which takes in Romanian, French, Italian, Catalonian, Portuguese, etc.), but are comparable to those among the Slavic language family (Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Macedonia, Bulgarian, etc.).



Notes on Quito, etcetera

A ponche vendor whose face cracks into wrinkles when he hands me the plastic cup, and who slaps P on the shoulder and throws his head back, laughing, after P attaches a miniature stuffed koala to his trolley door. Quietness, stillness, respect. Elderly men seated beside each other in the Plaza Grande, one with parasol extended above him and his friends, and, elsewhere in the historical centre, a barber in his seventies whose shop houses studded pedestal chairs with gold curlicue footrests, an aftershave atomiser bottle and framed black-and-white photos that sit skewiff on the discoloured walls. His customer is as old as he and has just arrived by way of a bow-legged gait. He leaned on his daughter’s proffered crooked arm as his adolescent grandson loped ahead, ear buds in place.

Listening to M, who is the reason we are here, with the feeling of wanting to sit, cross-legged, at her feet. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in Spain, and still this feeling. Trying to express myself on her topics of gender and feminism and how these intersect with environment management, about identity and perspectives and cultural difference — and the constant hovering of frustration, of falling short. About obstetrical violence, and the high maternal mortality rate in hospitals here, about the exorbitant cost of giving birth in a private hospital, especially if there are complications, which has her worried (she touches her stomach). About trying not to swear here, and failing. The missing home desperately. About offering therapy, often free, because she knows her clients don’t have the money (never mind that she doesn’t, either, that this is why she has moved half way across the world). My wanting to stay right here, to have time warp and stretch so that I might.

Watching Ecuador draw 0-0 against France, in a plaza, all the TV screens of the bars turned out to the street. The swell of the yellow-clad crowd every time Ecuador comes close to kicking a goal. The man with a white, yellow-sunglasses-sporting hare draped languidly across his right shoulder; it looks down its nose, front paws dangling neatly down its human’s shirt front. A woman at the plaza drawing close; Could she join us for a little while? She can’t find her friends; there are so many people; she is alone. The anxiety lifting off her, soon eased by her flutter of conversation and her animation, the effort at extroversion a bid to caer bien. Police with German Shepherds. Their expressions a constant frown. They nod the once, slowly, when members of the crowd approach and ask to pat the dogs.

Leaving at dawn.

~     ~     ~

Now, nearing the end of our second day in Arequipa for, let me count it now, the sixth time in ten years, a confusing flatness, a still-waking-at-3 am maladjustment and a looking around and thinking, Oh yes, this. Opening up Brian Castro’s Stepper (1997) and falling headlong into it:

It was a long flight from Sydney and my heart is beating strangely…the plane shuddering too much and I, drifting in and out of bad movies thinking about Victor Stepper. In the Narita terminal, yellow chrysanthemums cascade between the escalators. Rub my shoe against the back of my trousers. A return was always a loss.

That last line, hitting me between the eyes.


Of monsters and the moon: research meanderings

I’m thinking about the Moche’s moon monsters, which I’ve been researching from an archaeological perspective to see where, if anywhere, the monsters might lead. Some tidbits, nothing to hang my hat on yet: the moon monster never confronts the Fanged God as other monsters do; that god never beheads the moon monster as it does other monsters; it is often atop a crescent shape and surrounded by star shapes; and it is probably of non-Moche origin, but in earlier cultures it lacks associations with the moon, so its moon-ness looks to be a Moche invention.


Now to find out if there is anything in folklore or recorded myths about them. (Chronicles? Will start there; I know of at least one chronicler who wrote about the north coast.)

Moon monsters elsewhere? Just monsters elsewhere? I’m thinking something associative, imaged-based; I can feel that faint sparking at the back of the mind, an itch, a tingle of yes, this.  Tracing the various iterations of monsters, the idea of them, and how they have been represented?  There is also a conch monster. A conch monster! From the ocean; an instrument, too, the conch, used in ceremonies. And there was a moon-sea goddess, more important for the Moche than the sun god because of their reliance on the ocean. And the moon may have been wrenched out of the space that then filled with the particular ocean beside which the Moche lived.

And this, which I keep coming back to, from Ted Hughes: Continue reading

Letting go and all that

M. C. Escher, 'Drawing Hands', 1948

M. C. Escher, ‘Drawing Hands’, 1948

Having just this moment heard the final word about a piece that will be published in July, I’m in a head space of thinking about publication, about the way it is, in its putting a piece out into the world, also a kind of ending, at least privately.

No more restructuring, rewriting, researching, checking, altering, tinkering. Your relationship with the piece, in terms of the possibilities you have of sitting with it, thinking through it, engaging with it, changing it, is over. That relationship can be tedious, even frustrating, but it’s still one you love. And so, while it’s an exciting prospect, that of putting the piece into a space where it might find readers, it also engenders a small sense of loss. It’s a bit wistful, or something. Not unlike nearing the end of reading a book, really, in the way the relationship you have with that book, in terms of the unfolding narrative, at least, will soon draw to a close.

It might be the time of year that’s contributing to my thinking this way. I’ve just administered a final exam, which always brings attention to the passing of time — the subject over, the students, at least some of them, moving on and away.

So I remind myself that I had moments of really struggling with this piece, of trying to wrangle it into something worth the hypothetical reader’s investment, and that this was, at times, hard. Maybe because it is more ideas based than what I’m used to writing, more research heavy, but at some stages it really did get the better of me. Better to think of that, I guess, to breathe out and say, It’s done, for what it is.



Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man

I wrote a review Carman-Coverof Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man a few months ago, and the issue that it’s in has just gone live at Mascara Literary Review.

I was so blown away by the book when I read it in January that I wanted to have an excuse (and given how busy I was at the time, I really did need an excuse) to think about it, and about the reason behind its many effects, some more. Thankfully, Michelle Cahill was enthusiastic about the prospect of a review.

Here is the beginning:

Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man, a formally innovative bildungsroman, is composed of eight story cycles set in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs. The shortest of the cycles are the most experimental; these alternate with longer, more structurally conventional ones. The idea of the narrator as a version of the author is foregrounded from the first sentence, when the narrator tells us that his name is Luke.

In the opening story cycle ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ the sentences are short but, given the way they reel from one topic to the next, the effect isn’t to slow the reading down; instead, the sentences come like rapid-fire bursts that pepper the reader from every direction. The collection’s novel-of-education intentions soon become clear: the narrator recounts, in quick succession, different sources of wisdom—certain poets, children’s authors, musicians and films—alongside the often contradictory pearly words themselves, without ever making clear to which of these, if any, he subscribes. Thus there is the sense of the narrator throwing himself into the world, absorbing what comes into his orbit and seeking out whatever catches his interest, but not necessarily settling on anything concrete just yet. There is a breakneck energy, here, the impatience of youth, the feeling of needing to know now, of pushing boundaries and of a constant, insatiable thirst for knowledge. The confusion that is the world—its immensity and its perplexing incongruities—is also highlighted through this structure.

The reader’s narrative expectations are interrupted at every turn. The narrator’s associations are often unpredictable; the story appears to be going in one direction but then heads in another, often in the space between one sentence and the next. It’s worth taking a detailed look at the first five sentences of the second story of ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ to see the considerable degree to which this occurs.

Read the rest.

Also, you should get your hands on a copy of An Elegant Young man right now.