I picked up Omar Sakr’s Son of Sin in mid-August. I’d heard him speak at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival and, on the strength of his energy and candour, bought the book, his first. Saqr is the son of Lebanese and Turkish migrants to Australia, Muslim born and bisexual. He came out to his mother – the woman who told him when he was a teenager that she’d break his legs if he turned out gay – at the beginning of 2021. By then, Saqr was earning good money from writing and knew that his ability to support his mother would temper her response.
While not on my doorstep, much of Son of Sin is set in Western Sydney, some 30 kilometres away. It offers a window into a world beyond the shopping centres, overt multiculturalism and its associated food. There are the familiar themes of estranged parents, abusive mothers, extended family, and violence, through which a queer Muslim youth – the fictional character of Jamal leans heavily on Saqr’s own past – tries to navigate a path pulled by his past, faith, family and love. I should have breezed through it, yet I could only read a few pages at a time. Because, for all the beauty with which it’s written – Saqr is also a poet – it’s a difficult book, as much for the content as the unremitting pain latticed through the work. There is simply no let up, no rays of sunshine to give periodic relief to the reader.
I don’t like giving up on books. There is an inherent sense of satisfaction in finishing a book, akin to that of completing a task one has set of oneself. For the most part, I struggle on with the difficult ones, as I did with Gillian Triggs’ biography, Speaking up, which apart from the first chapter about the former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s early childhood, focuses almost entirely on the tedium of the law. I can think of only two where I’ve not gone the distance: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and – my apologies to Hilary Mantel fans – Wolf Hall. Dawkins’ work was too technical for me to get my head around, and Wolf Hall’s plethora of characters required constant fingering back to the glossary to see who fitted in where. It’s not a matter of density either; I’ve easily engaged with William Shirer’s The rise and fall of the Third Reich and found Ron Chernow’s whopper on Alexander Hamilton, a man I previously knew nothing of, fascinating.
I decided to persevere with Son of Sin, finishing it at the weekend. There was a form of redemption at the end, a hint of the coming together of mother and son, even if I had to plough through 275 pages to get there. When I’ve had time to process its messages, I expect I’ll think more favourably of it. Stories of Western Sydney need to be told, no matter how confronting. Almost paradoxically, Saqr is now married with a young child. His legs are intact.
Half way into a month-long trip to South Australia, a few things stand out. Drawers slide easily out of cupboards. Laundry can dry on the day on which it’s washed. When stepping onto a patch of lawn, one’s feet don’t sink into the water table. Of course, the dry runs with which Croweaters are so well acquainted must inevitably come to an end, as they did today in Port Lincoln. And while locals may have been dismayed at today’s steady drizzle, 10-15mm is a piddling amount compared to what east-coast Australia, now limbering up for a third consecutive La Nina cycle, has to put up with. By Friday, all will have been forgiven or forgotten as azure skies and sunshine reclaim their rightful place.
I don’t want to go on about the weather, however, when I can talk about seafood, seeing as we’re in an area billed as ‘home to the cleanest, freshest and most sought-after seafood in the world’. On the way in to Port Lincoln, we stopped off at Coffin Bay, a well-known oyster production area on the Eyre Peninsula. We’d previously heard about, but never tried them, possibly because they make it to Sydney in very small quantities or are too expensive for the average pocket to come at. At source, they’re affordable and super fresh. We settled on two dozen, already shucked, from a Japanese-style vending machine where all you have to do is punch in the number of your choice, pay, and a small ‘door’ is unlocked to reveal your meal. They were our entrees last night and, well, let’s say they were so good, we agreed to have some more before moving on.
Smoked fish is something we used to see in abundance in Sydney in the 80s: flanks of trevally, tailor, snapper, the odd piece of tuna. It was succulent with just the right amount of salty smokiness. I’d forgotten that such delicacies existed until we crossed the threshold of Port Lincoln’s The Fresh Fish Place yesterday. There, basking in trays behind the glass counter, was a choice of smoked swordfish, mullet, snook, salmon, morwong, blue-fin tuna and others. That was our main course sorted.
At another seafood outlet in Port Lincoln this morning, I spotted something I hadn’t seen for a long time: oyster knives for sale. Now, I have an oyster knife in Sydney, but the design of the modern implement is more streamlined and likely to inflict less damage on the oyster meat. I had to have one. We, or rather I, could now shuck our own Coffin Bay oysters. So, it was back to TFFP for two dozen, unopen, which we’ll eat tomorrow night.
Back home, I also have a left-handed leather gauntlet. I acquired this many years ago after accidentally slashing the base of my left thumb when the oyster knife slipped. We’d already paid for the oysters when I asked the fish monger at TFFP if they stocked one. They didn’t. ‘Try a tea towel,’ he said, by way of compensation.
Trawling through last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, I was pulled up by local author George Haddad’s piece on going to the barber. While it ranges broadly across childhood haircutting experiences, gender issues and the machismo of suburban barber shops, a single disclosure struck a chord: for Haddad, as for me, one of the most significant things to have come out of Sydney’s extended lockdown in 2021 was that we learned how to cut hair.
I remember the first time I wielded the Wohl clippers – purchase price $50, including eight different-sized combs and battery charger – on M’s months-long growth of shag. It was September 2021 and he was sitting on a chair with a towel draped across his shoulders, cape style, in the middle of our back yard. I’d been instructed to do a number five on top and a number three on the sides. As M waited for me to apply the first cut, I contemplated my admission into the world of barberism.
Almost a year later, life has pretty much snapped back to normal. M and I continue to pursue the staples of our day-to-day existence: lap swimming at the local pool or beach, shopping for groceries in store, going to the movies and dining out at restaurants. We see friends and family with whom we unconditionally exchange hugs. All is as it ever was. Sort of.
A notable exception has been travel.
With the opening of Australia’s international borders from late 2021, travel was heading back to a semblance of normal. Yes, there were requirements for international vaccination certificates, Covid-specific insurance, and – depending on one’s destination – PCRs or RATs to be completed, but these contingencies were manageable if taken care of well ahead of time. Like many, we chose a ‘safe’ destination for our first foray into a Covid-infested world. We worked hard at staying well by avoiding contact with anyone in the weeks leading up to our departure. But while Fiji was relatively disease free when we booked our trip in January, by the time we got there six months later, Omicron was widespread. The resort owners at our second stop had recently emerged from isolation, their daughter was quarantining, and a staff member who had welcomed us on arrival tested positive the following day. Those were the ones we knew about. We’d probably have been safer staying at home, but I wouldn’t have missed that trip for quids.
Back on that September day last year, I was cautious at first, then realised that even the worst hair job can be rescued by a few months’ regrowth. From that first flourish of the clippers, I became adept, if not on a par with a trained barber, at least good enough for my handiwork not to earn public ridicule.
When it came to my locks, the Wohl wasn’t an option. I watched a few You Tubes on how to layer semi-curly hair, concluding that one didn’t need a Certificate III in Hairdressing to do a half-decent job. After my first attempt with the scissors made me look like Adrian Edmondson in The Young Ones, I knew that I was a one-trick pony. I decided to wait out the lockdown until Enzo, my regular hairdresser, was back up and running. To his credit, he made no comment on the state of my hair.
The Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious, given annually to a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases. The winner pockets A$60,000, while those on the shortlist take home $5,000 each. Since its inception in 1957, the Miles Franklin – like most major literary awards – has been distinguished by works that have the imprint of a traditional publisher. That changed in 2022.
Michael Winkler had some form coming into the Miles Franklin: he’d already been widely published in Australian newspapers and journals, and had won the 2016 Calibre Essay Prize for a nonfiction short story, The Great Red Whale. However, when it came to finding a home for his book, Grimmish – in his words ‘…a weird bricolage of wild fiction, memoir, found texts and questionable jokes…’ inspired by the 1908-09 visit to Australia of Joe Grim, an Italian-American boxer with a high tolerance threshold for absorbing physical punishment – none of the publishing houses were interested.
As rejection letters multiplied in his inbox, Winkler came to a decision: he would self-publish his novel. He’d been down this path before and knew it wouldn’t be easy. With a print run of 500, he set about campaigning to get the work noticed. In a leap of faith, four independent bookshops agreed to take copies, two of them in Victoria – his home state – and one each in Hobart and Brisbane. He posted copies to influential writers whom he thought might find the book interesting. Some of them praised it on social media. J.M. Coetzee wrote a generous letter to Winkler, referring to Grimmish as ‘…the strangest book you are likely to read this year.’ Helen Garner said that ‘…Grimmish meets a need I didn’t even know I had.’
Enthusiastic reviews followed and the book became one of the five best sellers at Winkler’s local bookshop, Brunswick Bound, and made the top ten at the other Victorian store. Then Grimmish made the long list of the Miles Franklin in late May. All literary hell broke loose.
People he both knew and didn’t know – well-known authors, academics, reviewers – started emailing their congratulations. Winkler’s Twitter feed ran hot with positive feedback. He was asked to do an interview and a reading, and pen something for a newspaper. A work that was years in the writing became an instant hit. As if that wasn’t enough, a month later the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced: Grimmish was on it.
Winkler didn’t win the Miles Franklin. But just as his print run sold out, Sydney publishers Puncher & Wattman offered to include Grimmish in their stable. Their edition is now on bookstore shelves, and several international publishers are understood to have expressed interest. None of this would have happened without Winkler having had the tenacity to bring to print and champion a story he believed in. The endorsement of his efforts is ‘…a thumbs up for every battling writer who has backed their efforts through self-publication.’
In the split second it took to hear those words and realise their implication, I kicked myself. In preparation for my first international flight in more than two years, I’d been obsessed with the essentials of Covid-era travel: possession of international vaccination certificate, proof of Covid insurance and in-bound RAT booking for my destination, Fiji. I kicked myself because, for the first time, I’d forgotten to put the tools for my underwater camera housing in checked luggage.
The young man with shoulder length locks and an absence of facial hair motioned for me to move to a stainless-steel bench where my camera bag had assumed the status of a bomb about to explode. I instinctively reached down to unzip the pocket where the tools were.
‘Ma’am, you are not allowed to touch the bag.’ Did this highschooler think I was going to poke him with an Allen key or take a shifting spanner to his head? I pointed to the pocket. He removed a red and white plastic Grace Brothers bag, a leftover from the last millenium. In my eagerness to demonstrate the harmlessness of its contents, my hand involuntarily hovered over the opening.
‘Ma-am, please do not touch that.’
I looked at my watch: it was almost three hours until my flight would depart. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘so what are my options?’
‘Well, we can hold these items for you until you return. Or we can dispose of them.’
What?? This was no time to instruct the kid in the finer points of camera housings, but I wasn’t about to put up the white flag yet.
‘Sorry, that’s not going to happen,’ I said, looking him square in the eye.
He stared at me moon eyed, his mind likely ratcheting over the chapter on recalcitrant travellers in the baggage screening training manual.
‘How about I go back to the check-in counter with the tools and ask to have them put in checked luggage?’
‘Uh, let me see.’ He walked across to a woman watching items pass through the screening device. As he delivered my request, her brows started to knit in a Frida Kahlo line across her forehead. She looked in my direction and her eyes narrowed. The Cruella de Vil of baggage screening was limbering up to deploy her favourite negative. I thought how I might go about replacing the tools when I got to Fiji.
After what seemed like forever but was probably no more than half a minute, the kid walked back to the stainless-steel bench. ‘Ma’am, you can put these items in checked luggage.’
‘Great!’ It was that easy.
‘Um, Ma’am, you need to talk to Border Force over there’ – he gestured to a bank of kiosks – ‘before you can go to the departure hall.’
Five minutes ago I’d passed through one of those SmartGates that use facial recognition and ePassport technology to check one’s identity. Although I was still in the airport building, theoretically I’d left Australia. If I wanted to put my camera bag in checked luggage, I had to re-enter the country. For that, I needed the co-operation of Border Force, the arm of government that oversees the movement of international travellers.
Border Force…two words that strike terror into a citizen’s heart. These are the people who intercept asylum seekers arriving by sea, and blow up their boats. They have the power to force travellers to hand over their phones and pass codes. Their activities are sufficiently entertaining to have sustained a TV series over 15 seasons.
I walked across to a kiosk occupied by a smiling male officer. I explained what I needed and waited for him to wave me through.
‘That fellow over there is who you need to speak to,’ my congenial interlocutor said, pointing to a tall man with thinning hair and half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose. The man was engaged in conversation with someone – a passenger who had, perhaps, secreted a flick-knife in their alimentary canal? – and was not smiling.
I mustered my most apologetic face and moseyed on over to Mr Grimface.
‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ he said, mouth corners firmly planted in the downward position.
The stream of departing passengers had thickened in the last 10 minutes. I wondered how many were routinely snagged at the scanner, either unwittingly or otherwise. How many of them had handed over or thrown away their belongings for the sake of boarding their flight?
‘Okay, what is it?’
‘I need to get into the departure hall,’ I said, pointing to my camera bag and the tools which, miraculously, I was now able to handle.
‘We need to do some paperwork. Come with me.’
He led me to another kiosk where he pulled out a form with rows and columns. About ten handwritten entries had already been made on it – fellow offenders, no doubt. I tried reading the form upside down as he entered my details. His script was small and tight. A handwriting analyst would have plenty to say about it, I was certain.
‘Okay. You can go back to the departure hall now, but when you return you will have to come to one of the counters to do a manual exit.’
I was back in Australia! I checked my watch: 15 minutes lost so far, plenty of time yet. I visualised myself in the lounge with a drink in hand. Maybe two drinks.
My heart sank when I saw the queues at the Fiji Airways counter. As I waited behind a returning family with enough luggage for a small village, I remembered that my camera bag had no security. I was about to consign thousands of dollars of equipment to checked luggage with nary a lock in sight.
It took ten minutes to get to the woman who had checked my bags earlier. I was heartened by the fact that she remembered me. I inquired about gaffer tape to wrap around the bag. She disappeared behind another counter.
‘This should do,’ she said, brandishing a roll of tape used to tag luggage for its intended destination. She wrapped several strips of it over the bag, adding a few ‘Fragile’ tags for good measure. I figured a small child could unpick the lot in under sixty seconds.
I returned to the border security kiosks and made for the nearest one. The woman looked bemused as I trotted out my story. Maybe I was her first case of misplaced camera housing tools. ‘You can go now,’ she said, ‘enjoy your trip.’
I checked my watch: I’d managed to leave Australia twice in thirty minutes.
When I started my first blog, In Search of Harris, ten years ago, I wanted not only to write about my story but be open to ways of bringing new information to the journey. Sharing to my other media seemed like an obvious way of broadening the net.
Back in 2012, one could share posts to a Facebook Profile. I found a ready audience among my ‘friends’, many of whom go back to childhood and knew my family. At some point, Facebook decided to limit auto sharing to a Page, so I set one up and invited my ‘friends’ to follow me there. A few did, but not enough; nor did my Page attract many new followers. While this was disappointing, what really annoyed me was Facebook’s relentless exhortations to take out paid ads. I pulled the plug on the hated Page. I could still share posts to my Profile, it’s just that this had to be done manually.
As Facebook is where I am most active on social media, by association engagement has been most robust there. At times, my blogs have generated more hits on Facebook than on WordPress.
I have also been sharing to Twitter, a platform I’ve been on since 2010. My reach has been pitiful, testimony to my almost hermit-like existence on Twitter. I don’t see that pattern of behaviour changing any time soon.
With the creation of Someplace in Sydney six years ago, I added LinkedIn to the mix; by then, my other two blogs had become dormant. I was hesitant about sharing to LinkedIn, being mindful that my content could be regarded as ‘lightweight’ and that topics such as ritual buffalo slaughter in Indonesia might seem out of whack for someone known primarily as an urban planner to my 330 followers. But I gave it a go anyway and thought I was doing well to attract hundreds of ‘views’ per post. What I realised later was that these views were of the preview pane only and that fewer than five of my contacts at any time bothered to read the blog content.
Towards the end of April, I decided to consolidate interaction on Someplace in Sydney to WordPress. A handful of my 200 Facebook friends were already following me here and I let the rest know how to sign up. An additional four took up the offer. Many whom I’d thought were dead certs, weren’t.
At the same time, I stopped sharing posts to LinkedIn.
While traffic has decreased, I feel that the quality of engagement has improved. It is much easier to manage everything on a single platform. I still post on LinkedIn but am more focused now on what my followers are likely to find relevant as well as interesting; I’ll sooner tailor content to make it ‘LinkedIn’ friendly than willy nilly share a blog post as is. As for sharing to Twitter? The irrational part of me has clung to that habit, but I’ll be breaking it with this post.
An opening line can make or break a story. According to this post great ones bring out the character and situation immediately and have a definitive voice and tone. They avoid passive or florid prose, clichés and dull content. Below are some of my favourites.
‘‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in need of a wife.’ This immortalised line from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a slow burn whose knockout punch is delivered in the last phrase.
‘I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.’ Becoming, Michelle Obama’s engaging 448-page memoir, is all about doing better, its tone firmly established with that first sentence.
‘My mother taught me exactly one thing and it’s how to make brisket.’ Nobody will tell you this but me, Bess Kalb. Jewish readers will get this straight away.
‘If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.’ Magda Szubanski, in Reckoning: a memoir, uses her Polish father’s wartime activities as a springboard for coming to terms with her sexuality.
‘Towards the end of 2020, an old friend and I went for a walk and reflected on what a motherfucker of a year it had been.’ In Turns out I’m fine, stand-up comedian Judith Lucy, menopausal, her career in the doldrums and the world going to hell in a handbasket, is about to move in with the love of her life. What could possibly go wrong?
‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is one of the staples of my childhood. It is not the opening line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel – Paul Clifford – about a highway robber who, during the French Revolution, cheats death by running away to America to marry his cousin. Rather, I associate it with a spotted white beagle who sets aside a career as a World War One flying ace to become a famous writer. Sitting on the roof of his kennel, he studiously taps away at a typewriter, producing the world’s shortest novel.
‘It was a dark and storm night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up. A light snow was falling, and the little girl with the tattered shawl had not sold a violet all day. At that very moment, a young intern at City Hospital was making an important discovery. The mysterious patient in Room 213 had finally awakened. She moaned softly. Could it be that she was the sister of the boy in Kansas who loved the girl with the tattered shawl who was the daughter of the maid who had escaped from the pirates? And so the ranch was saved.’
This simple, yet beautiful tale packs mystery, drama, class struggle, pathos, medical intrigue, a love story, kidnapping, an escape, and a happy ending into its tiny frame. Those who were kids in the sixties will recognise the hand of Charles M Schulz, creator of the comic strip, Peanuts.
My Settlement Journey is a collection of personal stories of settlement on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Storytellers from Tibet, Germany, Japan, Czech Republic, Italy and Colombia met with volunteer writers from the local community to share their stories about how they overcame the challenges of settling into a new country.
I joined this pilot project back in 2021. Apart from being one of the writers, I was also an editor, which meant that I got to read all the stories. Suffice to say that whatever obstacles, pitfalls and prejudices I faced as an immigrant, they were nothing compared with what these extraordinary individuals have had to deal with. Every time I read and reread their stories, I am reminded of how brave, strong and determined people can be.
A link to the stories is here. I hope you enjoy reading them.
‘A big announcement, like huge’, read the subject line. I plunged into the body of Anthea’s email about her memoir course, discounted by US$500 to a price ‘I won’t be offering…again in 2022’, available for the next three days only. A clock recorded, in real time, the passing seconds, minutes, hours and days until the deadline ran out. There was information on a payment plan, course content, a testimonial, more exhortations to sign up and several links leading – like the tourist-accessible tunnels of Mao’s underground network in Beijing – to a place where sales took place.
Less than twelve hours later, email number two arrived. In a bid to narrow the field of competition, Anthea took aim at the academic program of her alma mater, an Australian university, for its practice or workshopping. In her opinion, work being critiqued by people who had never been published, and whose feedback ranged from bland to pointless, was a waste of time. In discrediting her program, she’d also swept mine, provided by another Australian university with a similar academic focus, into the orbit of her condemnation. I saw this attention grab for what it was, but it got me thinking about workshopping.
I came – and still come – to workshops with fears and expectations about how others regard my work. Will my peers be kind or cruel? Can I put my ego to one side while I hear their feedback? Will what they say make my writing better? In the early days, I spent hours reconciling every comment in the belief they’d come from a place of authority. They hadn’t always, but it would take a few years, both in the giving and receiving of feedback, for me to realise two things: there is choice in what to accept, and no-one will be offended either way. I became more adept at sifting comments, based on a simple rule: take on board what improves the writing, and discard the rest. This post deals neatly with finding equilibrium along the feedback spectrum, a key takeaway being that if two or more readers say the same thing, you know there’s an issue that needs fixing.
A year after I finished my program, feeling somewhat adrift, I joined a writers’ group. I’d been writing in a vacuum and, while one piece was published without the benefit of external critique, I missed those extra eyes that could pick up what I’d failed to see. This can be especially valuable before pitching work, remembering that you only have one shot at it. Like my university program, workshop sessions are moderated by a facilitator skilled at directing feedback to where it is most useful. Memoirists and nonfiction writers are a small percentage of the group, but I’ve found that useful criticism is not limited by genre preference and that there are enough members whose capacity for critical appraisal can add value to my work. They’re a really nice bunch, too! That said, I don’t workshop everything with them; at 20 plus members spread across 24 hours of meetings per annum, there isn’t time. I decide which pieces of writing need more help than others, and take it from there.
While Anthea has skin in the memoir game, her primary purpose is selling courses. Four more emails arrived in my inbox, each designed to wear me down. They were impressive, but I’m sticking with my writers’ group for the time being.
It’s Sunday morning in Sydney. My weather app tells me there’s only a one per cent chance of rain today which, considering that much of Australia is still in the grip of a La Nina cycle, I guess I should be thankful for.
I have an almost pathological dislike of winter, not helped by living in a Federation house. These turn-of-the-century-era dwellings are the earliest manifestation of a vernacular Australian architecture, and they are quite distinctive. Ours has full-brick walls and high ceilings. It is wonderfully cool in summer, requiring little by way of artificial cooling. In winter, it turns into a fridge. We’ve done what we can to draught proof the place and, apart from layering up, we rely on an electric heater, throw rugs and blankets for warmth. We negotiate access to these lifesaving devices with our two cats.
I use a few mind tricks to get me through winter.
The first is to count down the days to the winter solstice: 16 as of today, woo hoo! From then on, I tell myself, the days will get longer. It doesn’t matter that they’ll get colder before they get warmer, the important thing is that summer is coming. Eventually.
Navel oranges. Compared to valencias, navels are juicy and sweet, and free of pips. We go through mountains of them in winter.
Red wine. Maybe it’s that reds work better with hearty food. Whatever it is, red wine always tastes better in winter. Lots of it.
Guavas and lemons. Since the felling of the neighbour’s 15-metre ‘weed’ whose canopy covered most of our back garden, our fruit trees have produced bountifully. There is nothing like the flavour imparted by a home-grown lemon stuffed inside the cavity of roast chicken. I can’t remember when last I priced a commercially available guava, but it wasn’t under a dollar a pop at the time. We have an informal agreement with the pests (birds, fruit fly) whereby they agree to focus on the fruit that we can’t get to, leaving the rest to us. We’re still finessing this agreement.
Truffles. During last year’s lockdown, we bought two of these black nuggets. Over the next 14 days, we had truffles with home-made pasta, truffles with boiled and scrambled eggs, truffles with lobster tails, truffles in risotto, you name it. You can never, ever get tired of truffles, trust me on this. With the local season only just having started, I’m holding off buying until the end of the month when the best will start coming through.
Travel. Now that Australian borders are open, I can leave whenever I wish. And what better time to go to Fiji than in July? Can’t wait!