Extract from ‘The Journey Home’, a memoir by Sivashneel Sanjappa, runner up for the 2017 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing

5. Questions and Answers

 

For every impossible question that had floated up inside Roop’s thought bubble, there was a very real answer, if one cared to find out.

Was it Roop’s childhood kingfisher that had visited him that morning?

It was not.

Kingfishers don’t live that long. Roop’s childhood kingfisher died well before it could reach its natural lifespan. It died from a dynamite that exploded while it had dipped into the ocean in search of its lunch. After it exploded, the fish died and floated up to the surface. The fisherman collected them and sold them at the Municipal Market that weekend. The kingfisher died and was carried to the beach by the incoming tide. It was lodged in the roots of a na-ivi tree, where it decomposed slowly. Weeks later, The ebbing tide took away its feathers and bones.

It had had three little eggs in its nest, tucked away in the thick of the tiritiri, the mangrove forest. They hatched shortly after it died. The hatchlings starved to death within hours of hatching. Over the years, the entire population of kingfishers in that tiritiri vanished. The Municipal Rubbish Dump on a nearby shore regularly sent an army of plastic bags, nylon sacks and such to the roots of the mangroves. The leachate from the growing pile of decomposing garbage seeped directly into the lagoon, where it travelled up the roots of the tiritiri and suffocated the mangrove trees. The kingfishers, along with the mudcrabs and the herons either died, or migrated to new homes.

The tiritiri that guarded the lagoon near Roop’s current village was intact, but for how long? The beach there had been leased to an overseas investor, who was planning to erect a new marina. Gossip went that he was planning to dredge up the entire lagoon, with the tiritiri, to make way for construction boats.

The kingfisher’s call may soon become a myth.

Did Roop’s butterfly survive its first flight?

It did indeed.

After it disappeared into the canopy of the rain trees in the Library Gardens, after Roop and Zarina went home, it embarked on its life as a free butterfly. It fed on the nectar of many flowers. It fluttered over the tops of the trees, over to the gardens in the villages close by. It mated with many other butterflies. It laid many eggs and, at the end of its life cycle, died a natural death. It lived a short, fulfilled life.

Roop would have been happy to know this. Had he not released it from the jar that morning, it surely would have died a wretched, captive death.

Where did Tinisha, Mrs Murthi’s wedding hairdresser, disappear to?

Well, they fell in love.

One afternoon, a man named Manoj, a regular customer of Tinisha’s, came to the salon for his usual haircut. Tinisha’s heart beat a little faster around Manoj, as it always did. They flirted with each other in their usual, uneasy, secretive manner. Then, out of the blue, Manoj put his hand on Tinisha’s hip. Tinisha took his hand and led him to the back of their salon, behind a short wall.

Tinisha was a lucky point-five, perhaps the luckiest of all point-fives in Fiji. They experienced a first kiss, on the lips. The loving embrace of a strong man. They lay on top of Manoj for some time, caressing his bushy eyebrow, while the Sugar City dismantled itself at the end of the work day and people went home to have family dinners.

 

Tinisha and Manoj eloped to a small, distant village. Tinisha took him to their brother’s house, which had been vacant since he moved overseas six years ago. They lit a little fire in the backyard and walked around it seven times, thus marrying each other like Bollywood sweethearts. They lived a brief, blissful married life.

Two weeks later, two men came to the house with cane knives. One of them was Manoj’s tavale, his wife’s brother. Gossip had spread quickly, and because gossip was a more accurate source of information than any media channel, it wasn’t hard to track Manoj down. His tavale had come to take Manoj back to his wife and two children. To remind him of his responsibilities, to hold him accountable. To chastise him for the shame he had brought to their family. TO set him back on track.

They beat Manoj up and took him away in a blue van. Before leaving, they locked Tinisha inside a clothes cupboard.

Tinisha spent a day figuring their way out of the cupboard. They managed to break it open from inside. They took a bus back to the Sugar City and waited outside Manoj’s workplace. When Manoj saw Tinisha, as he emerged at the bottom of the flight of stairs that led to his office, terror contorted his face into a grim mask. He pulled Tinisha aside. His forehead was bruised and he had a bandage around a finger. He told Tinisha he had moved on. He begged Tinisha to leave him alone. He asked them to move to Suva or somewhere and start a new life. Then he ran to the kerb and jumped in a taxi, which disappeared into the afternoon dust.

Tinisha, shaken, heartbroken, downtrodden, took their wig off and threw it in a public rubbish bin. They took the bus back to the house where they had got married. They stepped back into the cupboard they had fought their way out of earlier that day, and hung themself from the railing with a wire hanger.

Some weeks later, their body was found by a neighbour who couldn’t handle the stench from rotting corpse any longer. The police tried to contact Tinisha’s overseas brother, but to no avail. Tinisha was burnt in a public crematorium.

Gossip travelled around the country, like a Sunbeam Bus, that they had moved to Suva and opened a stylish new salon.

And, finally…where do bijuriyas go when they’re not dancing at weddings?

Where does lightning go after it has struck?
No one knows.
No one cares to find out.
However, as Roop put his brain to sleep late that night, Shilpa the bijuriya sat on a secluded beach a few villages away, gazing at a gibbous moon.
A couple of hours after Roop and Zarina had finished eating their BBQ and drove off, Shilpa had arrived at the Library Garden. They had taken their ghaangra off. They wore a short skirt and crop top. They had reapplied their lipstick, which glistened under the street lamp.

Two women in similar clothes stood at the edge of the garden, keeping an eye on passing cars. Shilpa asked them for a cigarette. One of them handed Shilpa a half-smoked Rothman’s cigarette.

A shiny Mitsubishi drove past and slowed down. The tinted windows were rolled down. four sets of teeth appeared, floating, inside the van.

The back door opened and one of the passengers, a man, urged Shilpa in.

They were given a cold Fiji Bitter stubby. They sipped it quietly. The man next to them t           ook their hand and slid it into his pants. They massaged the man’s crotch quietly. The man unzipped their fly and shoved Shilpa’s head into his crotch. He held their head down.

It stank.
Still, Shilpa serviced the man’s crotch.
The van drove out of the town, down a windy road, to a secluded beach. The men got out.

Shilpa adjusted their wig and got out of the van. They dropped to their knees, and serviced the four smelly dicks. One at a time, two at a time, three at a time.

           They spat out each one’s ejaculate onto the sand.
One of the men, who had the unmistakable overseas aura about him, handed them a $20 note.

Shilpa kicked up a fuss. They demanded $20 for each smelly dick.
“We didnt even fuck you bitch,” they said, and drove off in their van.
“Saala maichod bhatiyara,” Shilpa shouted at the van. They threw a piece of dead coral at the van, but it missed. Shilpa sat on the beach, and watched the gibbous moon touching the ocean, ever so gently. The tide was out. The exposed tiritiri roots jutting into the sand like stiff, sedentary snakes. Little crabs crawled from one hole to another over the wet sand.

Shilpa felt angry, guilty. They hadn’t needed to be a whore that night, they had made enough cash at the wedding. Why had they taken to the street then? Maybe it was dancing in the lap of that beautiful boy with the piercing eyes and bulging eyeballs at the wedding. The force with which he had pushed her off. The disdain, the violence — it had aroused Shilpa, brought their point-five juices alive.

They waited for daylight to break, but fell asleep presently.

They were woken up by the prongs of a crab-spear poking their shoulder. A woman with a big afro like a halo and a charcoal-shined face was asking them if they were alright. The tide was flowing in, lapping at Shilpa’s feet.

“Isa, what you doing here?” the lady asked in Fijian. Shilpa replied, in broken Fijian, that they had been stranded there. The lady introduced herself as Siteri. She didn’t ask Shilpa for details. She invited Shilpa to her house.

It was a tiny tin house, surrounded by coconut trees. Siteri lived alone. She said her children lived near the town, and they visited her sometimes.

In the backyard, water was boiling in a big pot over a fire. Siteri fed more wood into the fire, then plunged the one crab she had speared earlier into the boiling water.

She rolled out a woven mat on the floor of her house. Shilpa sat down.
They drank tea and ate some boiled cassava.
Siteri said the tiritiri was dying. Back in the day, she said she would have filled her basket with crabs. She would have had enough to give some to her neighbours. Now the white vulagi who bought the beach wanted to dig it all up. She said the whole church was praying to God to save their village.

Shilpa asked Siteri about the charcoal. Siteri told her that it protected her skin from the sun.

When their clothes had dried up, Shilpa thanked Siteri and took their leave. They walked up the dusty road, following Siteri’s directions. They boarded a bus at the junction. The bus was empty, the bus driver didn’t charge them.

Later, around mid-morning, Shilpa arrived at the shack that she rented from a pimp. She shared the shack with two others. One was Julie, a street girl who had been forced to the street by her husband and then abandoned by him when he found himself a younger wife. The other girl wouldn’t tell them her name. She was Chinese, so Shilpa and Julie affectionately called her Ching. Ching barely spoke to anyone. She had been brought to Fiji on a student visa and given over to Shilpa’s pimp. The pimp said someone was coming to take Ching away soon, when her student visa expired.

Inside the shack, the bucket in the middle of the floor had filled up with the previous night’s rain (which had leaked in through a hole in the roof) and flowed out. The mattress was wet. Julie was snoring on one end. Ching wasn’t around.

Shilpa took their wig off and fell asleep on the wet mattress.

 

6. The Much Needed Holiday

 

As Shilpa fell asleep, a few villages away, Roop sat up in his bed and stretched his arms. He cursed himself for waking up so late — he had probably missed the kingfisher’s call at dawn.

Other than the chickens scratching about on the lawn and the mynahs chirping up in the trees, the only other sound he could hear was the radio in the kitchen. An announcer was announcing funeral notices.

Mr and Mrs Murthi had gone to Sunday Service at the Big Church. Mrs Murthi left the radio on to ward off would-be burglars. She took this extra precaution even though Roop was the lightest of sleepers,

Roop flung his bedsheet off and went to the bathroom. He undressed and studied himself in the mirror. His stubble was overgrown and needed shaving. His unruly hair looked as though it was full of dust. As though dust would fall out if he shook his head.

Veins stood out in his thin arms. The hollows in his collar bones could hold a tablespoon of water each. His ribs were visible in his chest. The one thing he had retained from childhood was his small, round belly. He sucked it in and it disappeared. Then he exhaled and it was back, a little kangaroo pouch. Further down, his penis was limp. The foreskin was shrivelled and pointed slightly to the left. His balls hung heavily, as though gravity pulled them more forcefully than the rest of his body. Perhaps gravity was humiliating him for being a twenty-eight year old virgin.

His bum cheeks also hung low, like ripe pawpaws waiting to fall off the tree.

He turned the tap on and stood under the cold water for some time. Then he dressed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The radio announcer had finished with the funeral notices, and played a jolly Sunday morning song:

Khush rehne ko zaroori, kya hai bolo yaar?                                                                                    Khushi toh milti hai jab, mile kisi ka pyaaaar

To be happy, what do we need friend?                                                                                              Happiness comes when we someone loves us.

Roop sat down at the dining table with his cup of tea. Yeserday’s newspaper lay open on the table. It was turned to page 13.

TWO MEN IMPRISONED ON HOMOSEXUAL CHARGES, the headline read in bold print.

Roop read the article. An Australian man and a Fiji-Indian man had been found engaging in homosexual behaviour in a hotel room. The Australian homosexual had called the police after he found all his money missing after the Fiji-Indian homosexual made a run with it after their ‘encounter’. The police came and seized the Australian’s belongings. On his digital camera, they found the recording of the ‘disgusting acts’ the homosexuals had filmed. Both homosexuals were arrested and the court sentenced them to prison.

Fiji had been one of the first countries in the world to have a bill of rights that specifically illegalised discrimination based on sexual orientation. But still two homosexuals were in prison. They were charged for filming sex, that is producing pornography, which was illegal. Still, the article made it clear that the two homosexuals were disgusting. The Methodist Church leader was quoted as saying that.

           In a few days, the Australian homosexual would be released and fly back to his country. The Fiji-Indian homosexual would remain in prison. His wife would beg a garment factory owner for a job so she could look after her little son and daughter.

It wasn’t by coincidence that the newspaper came to be lying on the dining table, conveniently turned to page 13. Someone had left it there, for Roop to read. Roop had found a similar newspaper article when he had come home during uni break in 2000, some months after the May 2000 civilian coup.

That time, it had been about John Scott. He was a half-Fijian half-white man who grew up in New Zealand. He had returned to Fiji and worked as a volunteer, and eventually became the Director of the Red Cross. After the ministers in parliament were taken hostage and kept captive in the Parliament House, John Scott had been most active in taking provisions in for them, checking on their health. The country had been awed with his generosity, his bravery. That he risked his life for the hostages. Media channels had praised and applauded him.

Then, one night he had been discovered brutally murdered in his house. His young lover, a kiwi man had also been murdered. The post-mortem results confirmed that the two homosexuals had been subjected to vile torture before being hacked to death. But even before the post-mortem results were released, even before the accused murderer had appeared in court, a senior police officer had made official statements about the case. He said the accused, a young Fijian man, had been abused by John Scott. That John Scott had lured him away from his rugby career in high school with alcohol and drugs. It had mentally disturbed the accused and drove him to this vengeful act. Several months later, the accused was sent to a mental institution and not charged with murder. John Scott, once a generous and brave hero, bowed out of history as a disgusting, alcoholic, drug- addicted homosexual. His body, and his young lover’s body, were both taken to New Zealand by their families for proper funeral services.

Roop finished his tea, and threw the newspaper in the bin. He turned the stupid radio off. Zarina came and picked him up.

Then they drove to Village 4 to see a film. She had been hoping to see Brokeback Mountain, for the rave reviews it had received. She said movie tickets in Melbourne cost $20 Australian dollars. In Fiji, they cost $5 Fijian dollars. Roop told her that Brokeback Mountain had played in the cinemas for exactly two days. Then some members of the Methodist Church of Fiji had marched through the streets in protest, demanding the cinemas stop showing it. It was now banned in the country. Zarina was furious. “When will this country move on from these foolish things?” she asked.

They decided to watch the remake of Umrao Jaan.

In the thirty minutes they had before the film started, Roop went to the Internet cafe next to the cinema and printed out the application forms for an Australian tourist visa from the Embassy Website.

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Extract from ‘This is How to Build a House’, a memoir by Jessie Tu, runner up for the 2017 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing

PART 1

ANOTHER COUNTRY
‘Memory believes before knowing remembers.’

William Faulkner, Light in August

 

(i) Youth

When I was growing up, my father often told me to find a man who would love me more. Find a man who will love you more than you could ever love him. As though it were a competition, as though you could measure love, put it on a scale, graph it, draw charts and predict growth or recession. Calculable. Everything was measurable. He felt the need to quantify things. Everything had currency, as long as you knew where to look, how to decipher it in numerical components. That was how he saw the world and the world saw it fit to bend to his will. After experiencing the grief of losing a relationship with a man I loved, I came to understand, albeit over several years, what my father meant by this. I understood that he wanted to save me from the hurt of loving, of being the doer, not the receiver. The operator, the labourer. The less worthy. The love-er. My mother, being the more beautiful of them, possessed more power. Beauty had the highest currency. For men like my father, marriage and love was a sport of acquiring the highest beauty and he was prepared to pull the highest strings of heaven and hell to obtain her, to garner her approval, to profess a conquering. His value came from the ability to make the right choice in marriage. But later in life, I saw how he became tired, exhausted, could no longer put her needs first and I saw how she’d scowl him for it. Infatuation turned into love, into need, and finally into some dark, unspoken defeat. In the end, their history was not enough to disregard the resentment they developed for each other. “Once you spoil a child, there is no turning back time,” my father once lamented. “I did too much for her.” In the pursuit of his duty to fulfil the life-narrative he was given, he lost himself. He turned into a man mourning for a boyhood that never existed, and my mother realised she could do nothing to absolve his trembling grief. Her beautiful face – that exquisite bone structure, perfect lips, soft eyes, careful expression and tender neck, could not save him. My father became cruel and quick to judge, spiteful when my mother was not in the room, complaining about what she lacked and all that she had not become. “She’s sixty-one-years old and still cannot read a map!” On one of our frequent weekend road-trips outside the city, my father would use the bent street directories, crinkled at the edges, folded and refolded to the common pages of the city, and our tiny corner of western Sydney. When we got lost, my father would stop by the side of the road and bark at us. We were inadequate. We understood this at a very young age. My mother knew this too. She had never learnt English. She did not know how to recognise the letters, the names. Each time he stopped, he’d pound the limp directory onto the steering wheel, strip his glasses off, his shoulders a dark shadow, and curse with force from his lungs. In the backseat of our eight-seater Toyota Tarago, we learned to stay silent and still. My sister would take my hand and squeeze it, as though to say, “It will pass. Hold on.”

When I was younger, his periods of silence buried the house in some invisible smoke, heavy, something I could not name. There is no name for the thing we care about the most. He’d go outside and stand in the middle of the backyard and I would forget he had a face. From behind, he looked like the arch of a tunnel leading into a black mountain. He would stand for hours at a time, and all around him the world would wane. I wondered what he was thinking. I sensed in the state of his silence that he was far away, that we could not reach him, that we did not have the strength to will him back to us. He knew the pain of not being enough. I realise now, as I approach my thirtieth birthday, that my father had struggled with inadequacy too. I sensed too within him, valley deep variegations of an internal life I had no access to.

“Epigenetics,” my diary told me. “Perhaps it was the grief of all that insubstantiality he felt that was passed on to his children.” I was back for the third time in under two years, back at my parent’s home, clearing and re-clearing space for the things I did not need but could not bring myself to throw away. The plastic box of diaries – from when I was twelve. I took them out, one by one, and dated them. – Book 1. Book 2. Book 3 and so on, until I reached Book 32. 1999, it began. Then, 2016. I read them and believed I was discovering someone else’s life. The person in the pages was talking to me, and it felt right to listen to what she had to say. “Maybe all the anger, all the grief of my father is pouring through the cells in my body. Invariably, there is no use trying to fight it. I am always sad. And I am always sad because of him.”
On the final page of a long and over-sentimental recount of a failed romantic encounter, I copied an extract from Melina Marchetta’s book ‘Saving Francesca’ – “Boys don’t like sad girls. So stop being so sad.”
Perhaps my father and I both knew the power of beauty – that we didn’t possess it, that it would always be beyond our reach, so we spent much of our lives trying to make up for it. If we didn’t possess it naturally, we would acquire it another way. He once told me, “Don’t be the one chasing the boy. You’ll never be enough. You’ll always suffer more.” By then, I’d known already that I would glean the same fate as him, that my disposition – something I knew from a very young age, was to be the greedier one, the one who would fill more barrels of tears. I was always wanting something better. Lover sounded more interesting. Loving seemed to involve more creativity, required more skills, more resourcefulness, asked for something more challenging than being loved. To love was to ask something of myself. To improve myself. To change. To throw myself out of myself. The pursuit seemed more noble. Giving felt bolder than receiving. I fell in love at eighteen, with an Australian boy I had been friends with since the beginning of high school. He was the first boy I brought home. We had dumped our bags in my room and emerged seconds later to take our bikes out for a ride. My father was home early. He did not know about the boy, or that I would be bringing someone home that afternoon. When he saw us, his expression was mauled with a strange sort of disgust. In that moment, I felt his anger sear through me, something my small body was not able to handle. But I received it, and still feel the residue of it simmering underneath my breath today, at times as evident as blood in the mouth. My father was ashamed of me. The boy extended a hand to my father. My father did not look at him, simply stared at me with that unforgiving piercing disgust, and then turned his back to us. I hate the memory of that day. Because that day, I learnt that I needed to live two lives in order to keep the love I’d accrued over seventeen years. I needed to split myself in two. Weeks later, when he’d calmed down, I asked my father why he was so angry at me. He told me that men only wanted one thing from me, and that he didn’t want to see his daughter be stripped of her body. “When you give yourself to a man, you are ruined.” Was this the way he was taught to understand sex and love? That it was the boy who took something away from the girl? My mother remained silent on the subject of love. I once asked her how she knew she loved my father. “I thought about him all the time,” she said. I sat on the couch beside her, transfixed by her beauty at fifty-nine, waiting for something more profound, more insightful. But nothing came out of her mouth and she got up slowly to bend down and wipe the floor. When I was older, she’d tell me that when I was in primary school, after dinner, I would sometimes sit beside her on the TV couchand teach her new words.

“You laughed at me each time I didn’t pronounced a word correctly.”
I don’t remember my own cruelty.
Once, when I was making a car insurance claim after a minor accident, I pretended to be my mother on the phone. The operators demanded oral approval from her because I was under twenty-five. “She doesn’t speak English,” I told the operator.
“I still need to hear her approval, madam.”
“But how? She doesn’t speak a word of English.”
“Can you please translate to her that she approves of you being the benefactor and just have her say, ‘Okay’?”
I was in the car, alone. My mother was overseas and it was the final day I could make the claim. “Fine. Let me get her.” I pushed the phone at arms-reach away from me and mumbled a random string of words in Chinese, then put on a deeper voice and pretended to be my mother. I spoke a line, then answered myself in a deeper voice. I had to cup my left palm firmly over my mouth to suppress my laughter. My mother did not sound like how I was portraying her at all, but the operator did not know this. It did not matter. If only someone had a camera to film it. When I hung up, my heart subsided to its usual pace and I drove home in a state of elation mixed with guilt. I did not like the dishonesty of what I’d done, but it had to be done. I recall all the times I had to translate for my parents when I was a child – the electricity bills and insurance forms and tax returns and school fees. We didn’t know what voluntary contribution meant, so we paid up, always – scared to ask questions. When my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure, the doctor sent a three page print out in the mail on what foods to avoid, what exercises to do, what medications to take and how often and how much travel he was allowed to take per year. I was petrified of making a mistake. At eight years old, I skimmed through the medical terms and nodded as my father looked at me, waiting for me to explain it to him. He was waiting on me, and I was waiting for my intelligence to catch up so that I could be useful. I hopped over words I didn’t recognise. I was good at hiding my incompetency. In the end, the only part I could confidently translate was the section on recommended exercise.

“It says you should walk thirty minutes a day,” I said.
“Every day?” he looked at me with bulged eyes.
“No, of course not.”
“But you just said that’s what they said I must do.”
“It’s saying you should. You don’t have to.”
“Okay, good.”
“And you can swim or run too.”
“No thanks. What else? What about the other two pages?”
“Have you got the medication?”
“Yes, here.” He handed me a white palm-sized box and it felt like he was handing over his life. I had no idea what it is and no idea how to pronounce the name printed across the box in large capped blue font, but I nodded and pretended I knew. Despite the pressure of making sure my father did not fuck up his health – I enjoyed the momentary authority he gave me over his place in the family. As I grow older, he relied on me less, perhaps he could tell I’d been a fraud all those years.

 

*

(v) Scar

One day in May 1987, a few months before I was born, my father received a phone call from his father. He told him to return home immediately.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Just come back this instant.”                                                                                                         My father had been at a conference in Tai-Chung, an hour’s drive from their home in Chung-Hua. It was late in the afternoon. He was stuck in a winding traffic jam. When he finally reached my grandparent’s house, it had been two hours since the phone call. When he opened the front door, my grandfather began shouting at my father. He cursed and spat and pointed his finger at him, yelling repeatedly ‘I hate you! I hate you!’ My father stood at the door, shoe laces still tied, keys still wedged in the sweat of his palms. When he asked, “What did I do?” my grandfather did not explain. He continued. “I just hate you! I hate you for what you’ve done!” My father stood at the door and let the violence of his father’s voice punch him in the chest. He couldn’t understand why his father was so angry. But he would not make it worse by fighting back. My grandmother sat on the kitchen table, silent. She kept her eyes on her hands, did not look up, as though she was ashamed of what her husband was doing. But she too, was angry. She could not look at either man standing beside her. When the screaming escalated, my grandfather said, “I’m so angry, I could to hit you with this cup!” My father, unable to contain the frustration and battering, stepped in front of my grandfather, grabbed the cup off the table and slammed it against his forehead. Blood came streaming down his face. My grandmother scrambled for a towel and started shouting at my grandfather. “Stop! Stop! This is all your fault!” At the hospital, when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he told them he’d run into a wall. My father still bears the scar on his forehead. The six stitches he had that day have disappeared, but the single white line still runs vertically down between his brows, a mark from that day, as clear as a fine paint-stoke. He once joked that he was the ‘older, Asian Harry Potter’.

Later, he found out from my grandmother the reason they were so angry with him that afternoon. My grandfather had ordered my mother to set aside three boxes of walnut biscuits for my uncle. My parents ran a small grocery and dried-goods store near the local train station. My uncle would come by their shop in the afternoon to pick it up. He was on his way to an important business acquisitions meeting; he must have it. In the chaos of the twilight rush hour, when my uncle finally did visit, my mother forgot to give him the biscuits. She’d been busy with running the shop herself and trying to manage three young children upstairs where we’d lived. She was also two months away from giving birth to me. She was tired, large and exhausted. But in Taiwanese culture, when you did not comply with your parents-in-law, you were seen as malicious, selfish. They thought my mother had deliberately chosen not to hand over the biscuits. They became resentful and blamed it on my father. It was, after all, the husband’s responsibility, the wife he took. My grandparents disliked all their daughter-in-laws, except for my mother. But after that day, they put my mother in the same box as my aunts, and they began to despise my father.                                                                                                                    “Shame on you for marrying such a woman!” they told him later. My father, at thirty-three, could not escape the deluge of conflict. He could not make both his mother and his wife happy.
“Do you know which question I cannot bare?” he asked me once. We were both a little older, and I’d come back to interview him for a book I was writing.                            “What’s that?”
“If your mother and wife are drowning in a lake, who would you save first?”

My father had lived a life set out for him by his parents, never straying from the expectations placed upon him, never stepping outside the rules constructed by his society, found himself still bound, still not his own man, constrained by a duty to please and serve his parents, to forever perform the roles given to him with whatever dignity he could muster, to guard his integrity by oppressing it, to honour his parents and their struggles by dismissing his own self-hood. Between the world and my father, this was how he found his footing. He fought against himself to please and found love through obedience and submission. He finally understood that day, the cruel punishment for divergence, but it was a divergence he had no control over. My father, who once carried me to bed when I fell asleep on the couch – knew love this way, by the fulfilment of other people’s desires. My father understood too, the loneliness of a yearning to be freed. His hands were bound. The obligations became too much in the end, and he ran away with his wife and children. He ran away to the safety of anonymity and homelessness, to a country that would not punish him for marrying the wrong woman. A country neither he nor my mother had ever heard of. A country called Australia.

 

*

Excerpt from ‘Almitra Amongst the Ghosts’ by Rafeif Ismail, winner of the 2017 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing

         Houah Maktoub, your grandmother always used to say, it is written. She firmly believed that everything that will ever happen had already happened, that distance and time were no obstacle. You used to sit by her side, in the shade of a veranda overlooking a courtyard, in that house surrounded by tall walls painted white, with its metal gate that was green with age, always open. You listened, your fingers sliding across the imperceptible thorns of the okra you handed her which she expertly cut for that night’s dinner as she told stories she had grown up learning, in the village on the island between two Niles. Stories of family, friends and legends, she had weaved them together like a dark Sahrazad. It is where you first heard of Mohamad, the village boy who lived on the edge of the savanna, who cried, Tiger! Tiger! Tiger in the grassland! Until no one believed him, and his whole village was massacred as a result. And of Fatima, who sang so sweetly that a ghoul stopped the Nile for her, so that she may retrieve her lost gold. Of the spirits in the rivers, those on land and ancestors who whisper in dreams, reaching out from some other world with warning and advice; years later, you will learn that quantum entanglement posits that two more objects may exist in reference to each other regardless of space time, and think on how much physics sounds like her folklore and faith. At your grandmother’s side you learned of a world three parts unseen and believed in it. Now those days seem hazy and distant, and there is a space in you, that twinges like phantom limb, as though you lost something you did not know you had, somewhere along the invisible borders between what you thought was home and here.

 

#

         Your house is like every other, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room and it’s full of ghosts. You see them pass across your father’s eyes as he stares at a wall, seeing a place that is not there anymore. They follow your mother into the sunlight as she gardens, they inform the heaviness of her step, the creaking of her bones – she is trying to grow chilli, aloe vera, and a lemon tree, much smaller than the one that grew in your old home, that doesn’t seem to want to flower. You see the ghosts on your way to the bus stop, where every day without fail in the space of a single step, the street becomes dusty and you can smell sandalwood in the air. It is almost as though if you walk down that road, you would see your grandmother, sitting outside that large green gate with a big wooden bowl at her feet, cutting okra. The ghosts thankfully don’t follow close behind you at school, although they linger at the edges of the classroom, in the shadows of the trees dotting your school oval. You get used to them over time, those flashes of scent, of memory and you learn how not to react the same way you learn to not hide under your bed when you hear fireworks, or jump every time a car backfires. The dreams are more difficult to control but as the years pass you form an understanding with yourself and those haunting you.

#

         It is 2016 and your newsfeed had been full of stories from the Orlando massacre, and suddenly the world is tilting much further along its axis, and gravity seemed much stronger, every breath feels like a battle. You do not attend the vigil to commemorate the victims and survivors. You cannot bring yourself to leave your house. Adrift from your body, you feel trapped, unable to look away as the news shows people becoming hashtags, becoming tombstones. You finally understand why your mother cried that day two years ago, when you, eighteen and giddy to the point of intoxication tried to find the words to explain something you did not have the language for, when you tried to tell her about Dunya.

         “Everyone feels like this way about their friends at some point!” She had screamed, when you’d both lost your tempers, yours in frustration, hers in something closer to desperation ” It does not mean you act on it.”

In your stunned silence you had offered no response.

“This will pass” she had said “and we’ll talk no more about it.” Ending the conversation. The distance between you grew, until now, where it feels like you are standing on opposite shores of the same river.

Now you see her words for the plea and prayer they were. There is so much that is unspoken in that ghost house of yours, the silence is often straining to bursting as it rings on every wall but like bullets, words can ricochet and fragment, so you all keep your silences. You had called Dunya earlier that day, tired of navigating minefields in your living room. She had deactivated her social media accounts earlier that week, always much more practical when it came to dealing with grief, better at avoiding it, putting up walls and daring it to come closer, you on the other hand, soak it up like injera does mullah, your comfort food, until it becomes all you can taste. Travelling to meet her is the first time you are out in the sun in days and everything is just a bit too bright, the bus crowded enough that you have to sit next to someone.

 

#

         It is sometimes easy to fall into the dream of this country, to walk towards that mirage of blind equality and for a moment forget that your life has always been shaped by the actions of others, from centuries and continents ago to just now, as you walk on to a bus and strangers with frightened eyes uncomfortably avert their gaze and shift as though shielding themselves, praying you don’t come near them. As always, your embarrassment comes unbidden, rushing through you, pricking your skin like tiny okra thorns and your every moment automatically becomes an apology. You remember that so much of you is not your own. Maktoub. But not the way your grandmother believed. No. In this nation people assume they can write your story from beginning to end, and wait for you to fall into place on the stage that has been set, it is why every conversation scans like a hostage negotiation, with your humanity being the item that’s up for deliberation.

Once, when you were fourteen and Dunya was still just one of the many girls you meet in passing twice a year during an Eid barbeque and your futures were not yet this possibility, there was a boy who walked home with you every day after school. You talked in a way that you never did on campus. Those conversations became the very best part of your day. He was different and made you laugh. He called you beautiful, for a black girl and you kissed him. It would not be the last time someone would pay you a provisional compliment, nor the last time you would accept it. Back then, you had not yet realized, that those who view your beauty conditionally, undoubtedly felt the same towards your humanity.

With Dunya, you found a love without stipulations and it was at once both a revelation and revolution. She walks proudly in the streets with her dark hair beneath brightly colored hijabs so obviously herself and it terrifies you that she may not come back one day. As report after report makes its way onto your newsfeed of attacks on women who look like her, like you – you pray more fervently than you have in years. Even if you’re not sure who you are praying to.

 

It’s one of those dime-a-dozen, cannon-fodder days that roll on lazily through the summer, with a too hot sun and clear skies when you meet her, under a jacaranda tree in some park, you’d found when exploring the city. Its biggest attraction is that it’s located several suburbs away from where you both live. You have both learned to compromise. You speak English with American accents and Arabic with Australian ones. You hold hands but only in places where you cannot be seen, because gossip spreads faster than bushfires and neither of you would survive the burn. Yet in those compromises of all that you are, you still carve out spaces for yourselves. You sit for hours under the shade of that tree, and remember stories from an ocean ago, and Dunya reads out loud from her favorite book. You listen to the cadence of her voice, as she recites poetry the way she was taught to recite prayer, it is almost undistinguishable from singing.

 

And there is a way to describe this moment, the shade, the tree, the breeze; this brief respite from the world – in the language you were both taught as children – Al dul al wareef. There is no companionable phrase in English. That is fine, there are no words for who you both are either. In the language of your grandmother and your parents, the one you now speak with an accent – love is described by forces of nature monstrously destructive and divine, and in all of that, is possibly an explanation as to why in that language the words for breath and love are indistinguishable by sound. It is probably why songs only croon phrases like ‘You are the Nile’ ‘She is like the Moon’ and ‘you are the hawa coursing through my veins’.

         “So speak to us of love, said Almitra,” Dunya quotes in Arabic. Stories like yours don’t have happy endings, not any you have seen. But you are not only beautiful in your tragedy. One day you will write this story, and speak of love. It might be read under a different sky. It might have a happy ending. Just for now though you think, your eyes drifting shut, I can keep living it.

Award night 2017 bigger than ever

We are proud to announce that the Deborah Cass Writing Prize has received a record ninety-one entries this year. The 2017 award night is on Wednesday 13 December. We are honoured that Nyadol Nyuon, a writer and litigation lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler, will present the award.
The Award Night is open to all so put it in your diary and tell your friends!
Deborah Cass Writing Prize Award Night
Wednesday 13 December, 6-8pm.
Level 2, 39 Little Collins Street (between Exhibition and Spring)
Speaker: lawyer and writer Nyadol Nyuon.
For the first two years we took entries only from Victoria but this year we opened our horizons and solicited new writing from migrant writers around the country and were thrilled with the result. Entries came from ACT (2), New South Wales (20), Queensland (8), South Australia (6), Victoria (43) and Western Australia (7).
Christos Tsolkias, Alice Pung and Tony Ayres are the esteemed judging panel again in 2017.
The winner will receive a cash prize of $3,000 plus a three-month mentorship with an established writer. The winning manuscript will be presented to the publisher Black Inc. There is also the opportunity for publication of the winning excerpt in Mascara Literary Review.
This week we will be announcing the shortlist for 2017, so sign up to our mailing list here to stay informed about our entries, get invitations to our events and become part of our growing circle of friends.

2017 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing goes national

The Deborah Cass Prize is now in its third year and is going national. This is a prize for writers with a migrant background who are relatively early in their careers.

In the first two years, the prize was open to Victorian writers and attracted a high-quality field of entrants.

The inaugural prize was won by Moreno Giovannoni for Tales of San Ginese, a book of tales about an Italian village, which will be published by Black Inc. in 2018. Melanie Cheng, who was runner-up in the first year, recently published her first collection of short stories, Australia Day, which are about belonging in contemporary Australia.

Jean Bachoura won last year’s prize, for Night Falls, about a young Syrian-Australian man, largely set in war-destroyed Damascus.

Three of Australia’s leading writers, Christos Tsolkias, Alice Pung and Tony Ayres, are the judges of the prize again in 2017. The winner will receive a cash prize of $3,000 plus a three-month mentorship with an established writer. The winning manuscript will be presented to Black Inc. There is also the opportunity for publication of the winning excerpt in Mascara Literary Review.

Due date & general criteria

Applications will be due before 5pm on Monday 16 October 2017. Applicants will provide a writing sample of no more than 3,000 words, which may be a complete work or part of a longer work. The writing may be fiction or non-fiction prose. Applicants must be either born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas. You can submit applications here.

Deborah

The prize is in the memory of Deborah Cass. The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Deborah Cass became a prize-winning professor of International Law at the London School of Economics. After diagnosis of cancer, Deborah left her academic career and focused on creative writing. She had a number of short fiction pieces published, but was unable to realise her aim to complete a novel. With generous support from family and friends, this prize aims to help someone outside the mainstream find a voice for themselves.

We are taking tax deductible donations now!

We have just registered the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing with the Australian Cultural Fund, which enables us to take tax deductible donations. The ACF site makes it easy for you to make your donation online.

The campaign is running until Monday 17 July. Our target for the fundraising campaign is to raise $8,000, which will pay for the prize to continue this year.

This is the third year of the prize and we are starting to see it really bearing fruit. Our first year’s winner, Moreno Giovannoni, and Melanie Cheng, a runner-up in 2015, have had their manuscripts accepted for publication.

Tax deductibility is a great enticement at this time of the year, when people are doing their tax returns, so it is a timely opportunity for you to reach out to family and friends who might be interested in supporting literature by Australian migrant writers.

The Australian Cultural Fund site has easy links for you to share on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Please pass on the campaign site to your contacts.