Of time and space and the universe

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A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (first edition, published 1988)

I read this book years ago, and didn’t understand it. Recently, I saw the wonderful film, The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and his wife Jane.

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I was aware, when I saw it, that it sanitised Hawking’s relationship with his wife, and glossed over his affair with the nurse who was to become his second wife. But the acting was superb, and it was a moving and fascinating portrayal of an extraordinary man and his remarkable wife. So I was inspired to return to A Brief History of Time, to see if I understand it any better.

Reader, I don’t. But I am persevering. Bits of it make sense to me, and I am hoping that somehow, by osmosis, it is seeping into my understanding. He seems to be circling round the question of whether there was/is a creator of the universe or not, and I get the feeling he’s working his way to a no. His mind is fascinating, not just because of his brilliant theoretical intelligence, but because he is good at constructing an argument by looking at all the possible answers and then ruling them out, one by one, until he arrives at what he considers the best fitting hypothesis to the mystery of why we are here and how the world was made. I suspect that in the end I will feel as much of a vacuum as I did when I watched his series on the universe (with voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch) on SBS. When I watched that, it was much more obvious that he was seeking to disprove the existence of a creator or the possibility of life after death. I kept wanting to say ‘but….’.

The other thing that fascinates me about him is his relationship with his first wife. I read her biography, Travelling to Infinity, which is beautifully written and gives us some of the substance of his material and emotional life, which tends to be overlooked when one travels through space and time with his almost disembodied mind, and of her struggles to create a family life revolving around him without being sucked into a black hole.

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An almost impossible task, for his intelligence is forensic and relentless. It is as if the increasing paralysis of his body, his matter, has allowed the enormous energy of his mind to expand, just like the universe he describes. E = mc2. Jane had to separate from him and create her own life, rather than being the moon to his earth.

The next book on my list of re-reads is Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics, written in the same era as A Brief History of Time. I’m hoping he will give me some substance for my conversations about matter and spirit. I”m also going to read Hawking’s memoir, My Brief History, for I”m curious to know about his life from his point of view.

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Of food for the planet and for our plates

TheThirdPlate_JKFThe Third Plate by Dan Barber is a book that explores and celebrates a revolutionary way of growing food and of cooking and eating it . Revolutionary, yet old. Perhaps many of our revolutions are that, when you consider the etymology of the word, from the Latin, revolvere, ‘roll back’.

Dan Barber is “the Chef of Blue Hill, a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within the nonprofit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.” He is renowned and awarded as a chef, and The Third Plate is on the New York Times bestseller list.

First, an explanation of the title, from the New York Times review:

This cryptic title alludes to Mr. Barber’s whimsical response when a magazine asked him to show, in a sketch, what Americans would be eating in 35 years. Mr. Barber drew three plates illustrating the recent evolution of the American diet.

The first showed a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with steamed baby carrots. The second reflected the farm-to-table values that Mr. Barber has championed for years, with grass-fed steak and heirloom carrots grown in organic soil. The third plate, a look into the future, offered a slab of carrot “steak” with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.

The dominance of vegetable rather than meat, and the emphasis on using all the parts of an animal, not just the prime ones, are clues to this way of producing food, where animals are adjunct to growing grains and vegetables, rather than the top of the hierarchy, and the balance of nature is respected. Here is an excerpt from the book’s web page:

While the ‘third plate’ is a novelty in America, Barber demonstrates that this way of eating is rooted in worldwide tradition. He explores the time-honored farming practices of the southern Spanish dehesa, producing high-grade olives, acorns, cork, wool, and the renowned jamón ibérico. Off the Straits of Gibraltar, Barber investigates the future of seafood through a revolutionary aquaculture operation and an ancient tuna-fishing ritual. In upstate New York, Barber learns from a flourishing mixed-crop farm whose innovative organic practices have revived the land and resurrected an industry. And in Washington State he works with cutting-edge seedsmen developing new varieties of grain in collaboration with local bakers, millers, and malt makers. Drawing on the wisdom and experience of chefs and farmers from around the world, Barber builds a dazzling panorama of ethical and flavorful eating destined to refashion Americans’ deepest beliefs about food.

The title is a criticism of his own practice as a chef, and that of the farm-to-table practice that has become the catchword for alternative food production and eating (away from processed, packaged, imported foods, chemically grown and genetically altered, machine-processed, denatured, altered, sterilised, lifeless…). Farm to table has moved to grass fed, free range, organic, heirloom varieties, locally grown where possible. All good, but not good enough, according to Barber, for this reason:

“The larger problem, as I came to see it, was that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.”

So Barber set out on a quest, which took him to Spain, where a radical farmer raises wild geese who graze at will on local acorns; happy, relaxed birds, the farmer swears, produce fatty livers; in contrast to the force-fed geese of France. Barber attests that the wild geese livers’ flavour far outstrips that of the artificially fed geese. Also in Spain, a seafood chef converts him to cooking and eating lesser fish than the endangered bluefin tuna and sea bass, and parts of them normally thrown away. As for grains, Barber devotes  a lot of text to wheat, and discovers that wheat grown as a monoculture, bred to increase yield and milled to produce stable white flour that can be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, by stripping it of the germ and bran, has resulted in a product lacking in flavour and nutrition; efficient, but lacking the germ, “the vital, living element of wheat and the bran”, an essential source of fibre. Barber explores the qualities of ancient strains of wheat, like emmer and spelt, grown in synergy with grains like oats, rye and barley, and discovers the promise of a renaissance in locally grown grain, grown in small amounts as part of crop rotations, a middle way that combines heirloom varieties (high in flavour but low in yield) with improved modern, regional varieties that are selected for disease resistance and flavour.

And so the story goes on, weaving together dozens of smaller stories, yarns with passionate, pragmatic farmers and experimenters who have in common a passion for the land, for nature’s diversity, and the joys of producing and eating fresh flavourful food. Barber is a great story teller, and engages with colourful, eccentric characters who could talk the leg off an old iron pot. The story is masterfully told, and one can take from it some inspiration and hope for ways of growing and preparing food that don’t destroy the nature that feeds us. Yet, as his New York Times reviewer points out, he is “up against the massed armies of modern agribusiness” like Monsanto and the commercial interests of the industries of farming and fishing that are working to deplete and exhaust, perhaps extinguish, the life forms we depend on.

What the book advocates is no simple solution. It is a way of producing food and preparing and eating it that respects the food’s origins and the connection of all life. As diners, we should accept what our local environment offers us, not demand food out of season and out of place, like oranges from California or frozen berry fruits from China. His emphasis, as a chef and restaurateur, is on cuisine, but one can step back from the end result, the plate, and look at the process, and apply it to the way we produce food, or, if we don’t own a garden or plot of land, to the way we shop for it. Looking for wholeness, for vitality, for diversity not sameness, for freshness and flavour, not cheapness and reliability. A way of living that honours agriculture that’s in harmony with nature and uses the by-products of a plant or an animal rather than discarding them. A revolution, which is in some ways, a return to the way our ancestors grew and ate food.

A good read, and an important book which is sure to spawn many conversations and inspire some changes in the way we live.

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Memoirs of oppressed minorities: Still a Pygmy by Isaac Bacirongo and Michael Nest

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 4.26.33 pm Still a Pygmy is Isaac Bacirongo’s memoir, co-written with Michael Nest. It is a remarkable story, the first memoir by a Pygmy author ever published. Isaac is a BaTembo Pygmy who grew up with his family in the forests of the Congo, where Pygmies have been regarded as an inferior race for centuries, and have tried to keep their identities secret to avoid oppression. But how, you might ask, have they been able to do this, given their short stature? this was certainly the question uppermost in my mind when I began reading the book. I didn’t find a direct answer, perhaps because to Isaac, his stature is not the most distinctive thing about his identity. Before I review his story, I’d like to address the stature question. An article dated August 2014 in National Geographic tells me that the pygmy phenotype is controlled by genetics.

Both the Batwa people in the east and the Baka in the west are commonly referred to as pygmies….

When the researchers looked more closely, they found that these genetic differences weren’t just random chance …  [that is] that the first Batwa and Baka people just happened to be short. Instead, these genetic differences were somehow benefiting the individuals living in these rain forest environments. It’s an example of convergent evolution, Barreiro says, in that the same trait (short stature) evolved independently in several different populations.

When they looked at when these mutations might have happened, Barreiro and colleagues found that they were relatively recent events, having occurred separately in both the Batwa and the Baka. This showed that whatever factors were selecting for short stature were fairly strong and could exert their effects relatively quickly.

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The answer, then, remains indefinite. One can only surmise what it means to a Pygmy who adapts to living a settled rural or urban life, to be significantly shorter than the average. I think the fact that Isaac does not reflect on this in his memoir is interesting; it was, it seems, the least of his worries. The sub-title of his book is ‘The unique memoir of one man’s fight to save his identity from extinction’. Identity, for Isaac, is not expressed in terms of physical appearance. The things that were important to him, as he emerged from the simple forest life, were education, independence from familial and tribal expectations, and the opportunity to create a stable and prosperous family life for himself and his wife and 10 children. A thoroughly ‘modern’ man, in fact. His life moved from the familial focus on gathering food to one on jobs and education. Goals that are little different from those held in common in much of the world.

Isaac emerges from the story as a strong personality, one who has taken many risks in his life, who has made choices that went against the culture of his family and tribe. Such as choosing a wife who was a town girl, who, complained Isaac’s mother, wouldn’t be able to catch fish or collect firewood; she therefore hired successive witchdoctors to try and kill her (unsuccessfully). Before he made this daring choice, Isaac had put himself through school; he was the only one in his family to get an education. It didn’t come easily; he was supported by a kindly professor for a time, but when his benefactor became ill, Isaac was unable to repay him for his board, because when he went home hoping to sell his chickens, he found only a handful left. His family had eaten the eggs and some of the chickens. After year 10 he was forced to drop out of school and work as a primary teacher; then he started a small business, selling banana wine, but this was not enough to keep a wife and family. After he married his wife Josephine, he saved enough to buy some land and build a house, and diversified his business. There was money to be made selling pharmaceuticals, which were in short supply and expensive. He sold them illegally, and managed to keep trading by bribing the officials. And so he went on, practising as ethically as he could in Mobotu’s corrupt regime, where restrictions were circumvented by bribery.

One good thing that Mobutu did was to declare that Pygmies were citizens, although they weren’t officially recognised until the mid-1970s (cf. our own Aborigines). However, Mobutu did nothing to improve or change the way Pygmies were disadvantaged. When the economy collapsed under his rule in the 1980s, life  became more and more difficult. Mobutu had passed a decree that he would reign as president for ever. When Isaac had an argument with his neighbour, declaring this was idolatry, he was reported to the secret police and arrested, beaten and confined to a cell 50 by 50 centimetres wide. He was freed as ‘an irrelevant Pygmy’ and returned to his entrepreneurial life. Despite all the challenges, he was successful in feeding and educating his large family. But the Mobutu regime, under international pressure to democratise government, became more violent and lawless, and neighbouring Rwanda’s racial conflicts were spilling over into the Congo, with Tutsi refugees’ attempt to go back to Rwanda by force erupting into the Rwandan genocide which started in April 1994.

Isaac and his co-writer narrate all these events in a straightforward, readable prose that keeps you turning the pages. The motivations for reading this book will be curiosity, the desire to understand how it feels to be of a minority race trying to fit in in the modern world, without losing your identity and self-esteem, and what it meant to live in countries like the Congo in the late 20th century.

In brief, this fascinating story takes us with Isaac and his family as he became an activist for Pygmy rights to education and pride of citizenship; he even joined in writing a history of his people. The new Rwandan Tutsi regime invaded the Congo, there were massacres, Isaac was arrested again, and the decision was made to flee. He and his family were refugees in Uganda, where Isaac worked for a while as an interpreter on a corruption investigation into the UN-HCR. Granted a humanitarian visa, Isaac and his family resettled in Sydney.

It would be lovely to say that his expectations of paradise were met. Sadly, though he and his wife have managed to buy a house and educate their children, life has been fraught by problems of teenage rebellion, the mental illness and death of one of the children, and Isaac’s difficulties in finding a job that recognises his immensely varied skills, compounded by his worries about the suffering of his people back home. One can only congratulate Isaac for his bravery, determination and resourcefulness, and the wisdom of his closing words:

We are all human and you are just like me. What we have in common is the capacity for thinking. There are always things I can do that you can’t do, but we all have the ability to learn. What we have in common is the aspiration to discover new things in life.

It is humbling and inspiring to read this story of courage and intelligence and fidelity to humanitarian values, and I want to congratulate Isaac and his co-writer Michael Nest, and Finch Publishing for their publication.

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Pompeii by Robert Harris

I got this book from the library when I went to reserve Enigma by the same author — a fictional biography of Alan Turing, the genius who led the team that cracked the Nazi naval code. I want to find out more about this enigmatic man and his life which ended in tragedy, after seeing the powerful film, The Imitation Game, with that flavour-of-the year actor, Benedict Cumberbatch,  in it.

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I don’t read much historical fiction, though I was so impressed by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall that I read them twice, almost without stopping. They are very literary in their construction, in that the narrative voice and the characters are finely tuned and vividly imagined.

Pompeii is fiction of a different order. It is plot driven, and the characters are sketched in with light strokes, rather black and white. The hero, Attilius, is the water engineer or Aquarius who sets out to solve the mystery of the failure of fresh water springs in nine towns around the bay of Naples. The chief villain is the wealthy and corrupt ex-slave Ampliatus, who runs Pompeii and owns most of the property. Most of the minor characters are either venal and corrupt or weak, apart from the lower classes, slaves and workmen, who are undefined outside of their labour. There is a love theme, but it is in a minor chord, though it becomes Attilius’s main motivation once he has accepted the inevitability of the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of the towns and most of the population. Corelia is the good, brave and beautiful daughter of Ampliatus, and we are left uncertain whether she and Attilius escape the cataclysmic destruction of raining ash, pumice, rocks and fire that engulfs most of the populace and the buildings.

The ending, of course, apart from this nuance, is inevitable, so the action plot’s main tension is in wondering when the eruption will happen, and whether the central characters will escape against all odds. For those with a curiosity about the destruction of this part of Roman civilisation in 79 AD, and an interest in the science of vulcanology, there is much to enjoy in this book. Harris is able to weave factual details and physical action into his story while keeping up the momentum and the suspense. It kept me turning the pages, though I had little interest in the epigraphs from vulcanological treatises at the beginning of each chapter. It was certainly good enough to sustain my motivation to read Enigma.

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Revisiting classics: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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I confess I haven’t read this book till a couple of weeks ago, even though it was published in 1989 and awarded the Booker Prize, and made into a highly acclaimed Merchant Ivory film in 1993 (which I did see).

When I started to read it, I wondered if I would persist. I was bored and felt stifled by the monologue of Steven the butler, the narrowness of his outlook, the snobbery of his perception of self and the wealthy and privileged men he worked for, his emotional repression and self-denial, the self-importance of his definition of himself through his position, his aspiration to be “a great butler”, undermined by his fear that he is not one; though one wonders if this is false modesty. The one focal point of tension and irony is this very narrowness and fragility of his identity, as he worries about the series of small errors he has made in the last few months, ”all without exception quite trivial in themselves,” and his inability to rise to the banter that his current American employer, Mr Farraday, tries to engage him in. Not only is he lacking in emotional intelligence and empathy, he has no sense of humour. It’s not just a clash of cultures — the English class system with the American brash, practical outlook — it’s Stevens’ lifelong training in self-abnegation and reverence for tradition and “the professional standards” of his position as a butler in a “great house”.

He embarks on an “expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days”, suggested to him by Mr Farraday who is returning to America for a few weeks. Stevens’  purpose is to visit Miss Kenton, who had served as housekeeper in grander days when Lord Darlington was the owner, and who has recently written to him hinting that her marriage is over, and that she is considering returning to the Great House. His ostensible plan is to invite Miss Kenton to return to the much reduced household and help run it. As his trip unfolds, and he ruminates on the past, on his previous master, Lord Darlington’s ambiguous dealings with the Nazi movement prior to World War II, and his own relationship with his father and with Miss Kenton, it becomes clear that this is a voyage of the heart. Clear to the reader, but not to Stevens.

There are a few moments of truth for him, when he is forced to acknowledge his heartbreak on discovering that after all, Miss Kenton has decided to stay in her marriage.

… these implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.

But of course, he does not tell her this. Instead, he turns to her with a smile and agrees one cannot turn back the clock, and utters soothing words as they part and her eyes fill with tears.

Another moment of truth is when he acknowledges to a retired butler he falls into conversation with on his return journey, that Lord Darlington

made his own mistakes. … He chose a certain path, it proved to be a mistaken one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?

Yet, he remains trapped in his own constructed identity as servant:

After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Such was his world, and such it remained at the end of the day. Hence his resolve to practice bantering, to please his master. “It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform.” He hopes to be able to pleasantly surprise him on his return.

So little change happens. He gives up his constricted dream of a constrained relationship with his ex-housekeeper, returned to her servant position, and resigns himself to learning new ways of performing to please his master.

Why do I resist this book? It’s not just the stifling class and privilege system and the lack of redemption in the ending. Yes, it has irony, it allows us to see, through clever insertions of conversations with others, how limited and starved Stevens’ worldview is. It’s the severe monotony of the narrative, the lengthy disquisitions in stilted prose on the class system et al., the lack of humour, life, passion.

I have read many reviews on Goodreads which rave about this book. Me, I’d rather read Jane Austen any day, if I want an ironic portrayal of privilege, class, romance, heartbreak and pride — and prejudice.

 

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Revisiting classics: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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I read this book soon after it was published, and loved it. For years I remembered it as a classic, a quintessential Australian family saga. I think I read it once more a couple of years later. Now, 16 years after it was published, I’ve re-read it. Some books, for me, hold their magic; I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twelve times, and I”m sure I’ll read it again in a couple of years’ time. I enjoyed re-reading Cloudstreet, but my attention faded towards the end, and I began to flick pages over to refresh my memory of what happens. I made myself go back and read it word for word. But yes, I did get bored. I think I’ve outgrown it.

First, let me say I’m not going to refrain from revealing the plot, as the book is widely read, often set as a school text,  and many reviewers have discussed it in detail; there are 787 reviews on Goodreads.

Perhaps I felt a little distanced from it because my own life has changed so much since the first read; I have moved away from Perth in Western Australia, where most of the story is set, and I have moved out of the framework of the bourgeois family, finally. Also, a couple of years ago, I edited a PhD thesis critiquing Winton’s fictional representation of women as sexist, patriarchal, and generally belittling. I am simplifying a complex argument. But when I read this book again, I could see this was true, while recognising that the roles of the main women in the story — Oriel, Rose and Dolly — are true to the period, 1940s to 1960s. I’m still not sure if Winton has a view of women which transcends this stifling domestication and reduction of women; I’d have to read or re-read his other books to decide. Certainly there is not a female character in this book who steps outside the frame. As for the men, they are all, in different ways, lost; only Fish finds himself, and that only by leaving the human world.

The Lamb family come to live in the rambling old haunted house, Cloudstreet, and the rent they pay keeps  the Pickles family going. Oriel Lamb is short, boxy woman, a matriarch, who rules her family and is a control freak. But she has a heart of gold, and is the rock of the family. Rose is Dolly Pickles’ daughter; she has her childhood stolen from her by her mother, who uses alcohol and casual sex to escape the frustrations of married life with Sam, a chronic gambler, who loses four fingers on one hand in a boating accident, and gambles away everything he earns. Rose stoically takes on the mothering role in the family, and hates her mother for it; she becomes anorexic in her teens, but comes good (except for a relapse after a miscarriage) when she gets a job and marries Quick, the oldest son of Oriel and Lester Lamb. Marriage, for Rose, though she eventually eschews the little nuclear family house in the suburbs and returns to the family fold in Cloudstreet, is her salvation from a life of despair and loneliness.

Despite having to share amenities in Cloudstreet, the two families are like oil and water; the Pickles are messy and dysfunctional, rattling around and outside the casing of the bourgeois family like dried peas, living separate lives from each other. The Lambs are close knit, hard working, with old-fashioned values; though the children are rather a mixed bunch, and the minor children in both families are little more than names; they are not embodied or developed, as are Rose, Quick and Fish. Quick’s childhood is blighted by his younger brother’s near drowning, which he feels responsible for. Fish, who had been the life of the family, the handsome, funny one whom everyone loves, becomes a perpetual child, with the sound of the river in his ears, and the longing to return to it. The book opens with a preview of the penultimate scene, a joint family picnic by the river, narrated in a voice which we come to recognise as that of Fish, not as a child or the simple man he becomes, but as a whole person-to-be, with wisdom and insight, a kind of prevailing spirit about to be freed from the limitations of space and time, worrying for and loving ‘those who go down the close, foetid galleries of space and time without you’. Fish the man is reunited with his lost spirit at the end. He can only ‘truly be a man’ by drowning again. In the last-but-one scene, he is in ecstasy as he enters the water:

And a hesitation, a pause for a few moments, I’m a man for that long, I feel my manhood, I recognize myself whole and human, know my story for just that long, long enough to see how we’ve come, how we’ve all battled in the same corridor that time makes for us, and I”m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you all this, and then my walls are tipping and I burst into the moon, sun and stars of who I really am. Being Fish Lamb. Perfectly. Always. Everyplace. Me.

This passage whips out the rug from under my critic’s feet. It is a breathtaking concept, that Fish, that perhaps all of us, only become fully human and perfect as we die. It is the opposite argument to that of Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.

There is no hint in Beckett’s world that death brings liberation for the spirit. Time and life are abominable, and death is night. The difference between an instant and a lifetime is only a perspective. Perhaps the perspective of the gravedigger is the truer perspective. Whereas, for Fish, immersion in the river is his escape from time, but the echo of his voice sounds throughout the book, and at the end, we realise that he is the narrator, the voiceover. It wasn’t until I finished the book the first time that I fully realised this, and I had to go back over it to grasp it. The passages in his own voice are fleeting and infrequent, but there is no doubt he is there, behind the scenes, watching it unfold, the game of life, his endgame.

I think, on reflection, I like this aspect of the story best, and it is this that I will carry with me and that may, one day, bring me back to revisit.

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After the Last Ship, by Audrey Fernandes-Satar

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This book, published in 2014, is a poetic and highly polemical autobiography of the journey of the writer’s family from Goa in India to Mozambique, and ultimately, to Australia. It is not straight memoir, not is it pure theory. It combines personal, poetic reflections with history, theory of diaspora and identity, and art. The fact that it weaves theory with the personal story in words and pictures and that it is published by an academic publisher puts it in that hybrid category of auto-ethnography, and may mean that its audience is limited to those interested in a theoretical approach to the personal. Yet, if you just read the personal passages and look at the wonderful images of the author’s art work, it is a moving and original narrative that allows the reader into the very heart of the experience of displacement, dispossession, loss, alienation, and also of hope, survival and healing. All are mediated by a strong, courageous celebration of identity born out of loss of identity, and protest against the fascist, patriarchal values and actions of the Portuguese government and their colonial policies.

I have written a couple of posts about this book; see https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/tag/audrey-fernandes-satar/. I will not review it, as I was its editor. I am close enough to the story to know the pain and labour of the author in producing it. I celebrate its publication, and hope it will get the readership it deserves.

A recurring theme is the grief of separation from the writer’s grandmother, who remained  behind in India. Here is a short poetic passage that takes us into the visceral, sensual moments of love and belonging, refracted through the mirror of separation and loss:

The Kala Pani

She turned to me

I knew that look in her eyes

Resolute, full of wisdom

You must go

She said

You must go

This is the last ship…

I never touched her again

Embraced her again

Or saw her again

Or laid my head on her lap again

On her sari

Or smelt her again

Or laid my head on her sari

Her lap

The smoke of fresh chapatis on her clothes…

But the smell of coffee lingers

Sem retorno

Repetition and sensual imagery of food, smells, textures, tastes, and the recurring motif of Kala Pani, the black ocean that forever separated the little girl and her family from their origins and history, bind this loosely constructed narrative together. Living in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, was not easy, especially after India reclaimed Goa from Portuguese control. Audrey’s family, like many other Goans living in Mozambique, still under Portuguese rule, were vilified as being apatrida, stateless,  employed in menial jobs, and condemned to live in houses on the outer fringes of town, infested with rats, without standard amenities. Despite everything, she did well in school; but getting there and back required all her courage. There were streets she and her sisters were not allowed to go, as people of colour:

The shouting of abuse went on most days. The rantings of their abuse insinuated that they knew who we were, and that we were in some way inferior to them and as such, they could enact their power and drive us off the street. They were entitled to this. This was a war raging against us. We were children on our way to school. White Men, Women and Children enacted this senseless war against us. We were powerless, thrown into it by the way we looked, the colour of our bodies.

Strong images in her art work are hands and feet; worn by hard work and by endless walking:

I look at the soil on my feet black red many grains

Between lands

There is a place it’s not the same I grasp my stick of charred charcoal

The one I am used to draw with

Between lands

There is a place where I am still not ready to say goodbye to her my grandmother and walk past the gangplank

There is a place soil on my feet black red many grains

We could stay here between lands there is a place

Between lands

We could stay.

Audrey and her family now live in Australia, have done so for many years; she is an accomplished artist, has a PhD (this book is developed from her thesis) and researches questions of colour, race, diaspora, identity.  This book is her achievement, testimony to her survival and triumph, living between lands, in a place where she can stay. These are issues we need to reflect on, as our country’s policy makers talk of border protection and utter warlike words against the desperate people who seek a place of refuge.

 

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