Check and Check Again

Have just finished reading UK writer Zadie Smith’s fifth book, Swing Time. I found it interesting but unmoving. A myriad themes are left flapping about in a circular and aimless wind. The novel is (amongst many other things a love letter to dance), written like a memoir on the part of an (annoyingly) unnamed narrator.  There’s a flatness to the storytelling plus an earnest tone to the whole thing, creating a sense that everything should mean more than it does. The social and political detail is interesting but I didn’t care about any of the personalities in the book. Too many parts and not enough whole.

I don’t intend to review Swing Time here; I mention it only because there is a glaring and quite astonishing mistake in her portrayal of one of the minor characters.

The themes Smith touches on this book include racial and socio-geo-political inequality. Despite writing in so much complex detail when it comes to ethnic subcultures,  Smith’s characterisation of Bahram, the Iranian owner of a pizza parlour, is right out of whack. He’s an unpleasant character, this Bahram. He’s bad tempered and racist. But that isn’t the issue. My problem is that he identifies as an Arab. At one point Smith even has Bahram waxing lyrical about Arabic culture.

Smith, who you’d think would surely know better, has conflated Persians with Arabs, a remarkable mistake. Persians are not Arabic: they are different ethnically, culturally and linguistically, although they share a religion and an alphabet.  All the Iranians I’ve ever known (I’ve taught English to many Iranians and was married to one) spend half their days explaining to people how they are NOT Arabs, in the same way Belgians spend their lives pointing out to everybody else how they’re neither French nor Dutch, or Portuguese that they aren’t Spanish.

There’s a complex tangle in the small segment of  Swing Time featuring Bahram,  around some convoluted, racially inspired loyalties on the part of the ethnically diverse staff members at the pizza joint while they’re watching Wimbledon. There’s something I missed at the point where the narrator takes umbrage and walks out of her job, but who cares?

Smith has another, African, character, later on in the book, chasten her narrator for casually implying in a conversation that small African countries are inter-changeable, which makes Bahram’s identifying as an Arab even more anomalous. I also don’t understand how this inaccurate characterisation got past all the readers, editors, proofers and so on in the book’s final stages.

I have a fantasy that Smith herself once worked for an awful Iranian boss and that writing him up like this, profiling him in the most offensive way possible, is her revenge.

It’s the sort of thing I’d do.


Community and Bad Eggs

I’ve just come from performing in a theatre/dance/community production called SHORE in Narrm by Emily Johnson and Catalyst. Part of the inaugural First Nations Arts Festival at Arts House, Shore in Narrm was a very lovely, connected and gentle thing to be involved with. The production featured several events culminating in a public feast where everyone was to bring food to share. We were asked to bring a dish, something traditional we shared with our family of origin.

Bit tricky, this was, for me. Fish and chips? Friday was fish and chips night in my mostly non-Catholic family (only my grandfather and stepfather were RCs – both sexual abusers of children; now isn’t that a funny thing?) Fish and chips, however, is an expensive option these days when it comes to catering a feast. The sort of feast taking place here involved things like salted myrtle butter with wattle-seed damper, home-made dukkah created from home-grown, home-dried ingredients, possum and wallaby sausages (New Zealand possums; relax), couscous with garden nettles, all served on indigenous style platters made by local potters out of clay dug up in the area and fired in local kilns. Beverages included mulled ryberry and apple-juice and mint tea made from native mint plants.

In this kind of culinary company Watties Canned Spaghetti on toast wasn’t going to going to cut it, nor would supermarket mince pies and mashed spuds served with over-boiled cabbage and peas. Canned peaches and ice-cream was a family favourite and might been nice but the logistics of getting it there would be difficult to manage. Also, round where I live in Melbourne’s inner north it’s hard to find canned peaches with the traditional ratio of added cane sugar to fruit: 87%/13%.

Ice-cream was already being supplied by Emily Johnson. There was much talk about Emily’s ice-cream which was to be made following a traditional Alaskan recipe. (It seems incongruous that people surrounded by ice and snow would invent an ice-cream but there you go.) This ice-cream, a favourite of her family’s, as she tells it, is usually made with seal blubber. Or fish oil.  Word spread fast and as you might imagine there was a fair bit of anticipation. Emily spoke at the feast and explained that after much experimentation and several telephone conversations between Australia and Alaska, she devised a modified version of the ice-cream using vegetable oil. Pomegranates, another departure from tradition, I assume, were also involved. (I can report that the ice-cream was perfectly tasty, if unusual.)

What could I bring to the feast? Boiled eggs was a safe, although humble, bet. Then I remembered that my grandmother, or my mother, or someone, used to draw faces on boiled eggs when we were kids. I did that for my kids, at least once. I meant to, anyway.  So I boiled up nine eggs and got out my felt pens (which are called textas here), and drew faces on the eggs. I managed to crack one of the eggs by pressing too hard with something called a painty pen. (That’s what you get for owning a drawing implement with a name that’s one letter off the word ‘panty’.)

I had to think about the faces: not as simple as you might imagine. These were all eggs of colour, so avoiding any suggestion of racial stereotype was something to be aware of. Pretty girlie faces with red lips, round pink spots on cheeks and big spidery eyelashes would have been downright sexist and demeaning to women. Male-presenting faces would have been easy to do with beards and mustaches and bald pates but what a gender-heavy clutch of boiled eggs it would be if they were all blokes/trans-men. I didn’t imagine androgynous faces on eggs would be terribly fascinating and m-f transgender faces would have required, well,  pointing out, so that they wouldn’t be taken for ordinary girlie faces, and that was more work than decorated boiled eggs generally require. So I decided to do male- and female- presenting faces but make them generically old looking. There isn’t enough general representation of seniors out there and I do feel (somewhat) strongly about this. I drew wrinkled visages and called them ‘elder eggs’ although I had to hope that my old-faced brown eggs wouldn’t offend any actual elders, of whom the afternoon would be graced by several.

Off I went with my eggs to the feasting. When we arrived we given a postcard to fill out with the ‘story’ behind our choice of dish, to be included in a zine about the feast. We were also given tiny hand-made clay holders which looked like small vulvas in which to put a card informing people what was in the dish. (The holders were made, as we heard later, by potters crushing balls of clay in their fists so each holder comprised a hand-print of its maker: a beautiful detail, you’ll agree, and a telling indication of the thoughtfulness given to the whole occasion.) Anyone could see that these were boiled eggs with faces drawn on them but in the spirit of joining in I filled out a card, anyway.  During lunch I sat at a table with my friend Susie who peeled an egg for her son while holding him on her lap. It’s quite tricky to peel a boiled egg with one hand while holding on to your child with the other but he insisted on her peeling it, no-one else. By the time she’d finished he decided he didn’t want it after all. Kids, eh?

Someone else had brought boiled eggs too but they were curried eggs. My eggs (indulge me here), were perhaps, a tad more interesting. And, as it happens, my boiled eggs were a bit different, as I found out this morning when I ate the egg I’d left behind, the one that been cracked on top. For starters the yolk had a grey ring around it which happens when you boil eggs for too long, rendering them flavourless. That was bad enough. Standing in my kitchen I ate the egg in an absent sort of way while talking to my son about the dramatic nature of an episode of Outlander we’d watched together the night before. Now here’s a thing – as a result of becoming so mindful during the whole SHORE experience over the last fortnight I was focused intently on our conversation. My son and I were experiencing such a nice moment of confluence and connection that I didn’t want to distract myself by noticing that the boiled egg tasted bad. Rather than disrupt my train of thought to register this I kept eating it. Whether this is a reflection of the over-feminised social conditioning of my upbringing, where I’m unwilling to interrupt a man, even mentally, while he’s making a point, even if that man is my own son, or (more likely), it’s an indication of my inability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time, I hesitate to venture, but I ate the whole egg and only afterwards thought ‘oh’.

‘Oh’ ‘s right. That egg reverberated sulphurously and explosively through my digestive system later in the day while I was at the library. I’m lucky that I live in a civilised place where public libraries include public toilets on the premises. Worse though, was the thought that all the other eggs might have been bad too and that my contribution to a positively perfect afternoon, where untold care had been taken and preparation undergone to create an experience of community and abundance, might have given some unlucky person (or people) a horrible dose of the squits.



Curiosity takes you to some odd places

Just come back from a fun night: the launch of the new Casey Chambers & Shane Nicholson CD, Wrack and Ruin. They weren’t the curious aspect of the night; you couldn’t find a  more natural couple; they were just totally brilliant and unpretentious. I know nothing about country music and was there on  false pretences, this time being a reviewer for Australian Stage Online.  But my curiosity (read nosiness) gets me into some fun events. I went by myself tonight; at first I wished I had brought someone along but sooner or later you find someone to talk to.  Casey and Shane are  the  real thing. I had that confirmed by a bloke called Ben who runs a syndicated online radio country and western show. He should know. You can get onto his radio show  via the web:

Anyway, this Ben said that these two put Australian country music on the map, or something,  and that they were totally good. Me, I got stuck into the free wine, ate the finger  food and enjoyed the music.  I told Ben about my wonderful sad-core doom-core country crooner/songwriter friend, t.k. bollinger, and about Basement Discs. I feel a slight pain when I don’ t make it there on a Friday lunchtime. When I do go, I am astounded that there is still room to breathe.

What’s nice for me is that the combination of sheer bloody ignorance, lots of white wine and the ability to ask questions leads me into the best conversations. I talked to Casey Chambers for a bit until her publicist came along and told me I should set up a proper interview; I talked to the lovely couple who own Basement Dics (yay, yay and yay!!), I talked to the chick who was babysitting Casey and Shane’s newest child, I talked to the radio bloke Ben, a bloke called Warren, and even met Michael Gudinski, sort of, briefly. Had a good chat with the Warren bloke about how our kids are into the same music we were 35 years ago but they don’t want to know what we think of it; they want to discover it for themselves.  We agreed that the best thing was to step back and shut upski. My 15 year old put all my Bob Dylan cds onto his i-pod last night. Is there a way of expressing to him what Dylan meant (still means) to me? Tell you one thing: he doesn’t want to know.  This kid isn’t a reader and has no interest in what I think of Dylan as a poet. But hey, he’s listening.

A year or two ago I took my sons to a Snuff Puppets party with my friends Mel and James (they’re in their mid-30’s). We were all, three generations of us, rocking away to the same music.

But the venue tonight… You come off Flinders St and find yourself in an odd version of a ye Olde Englishe Country Hunting Lodge. But an utterly eccentric,  displaced bluestone version in Melbourne’s cbd. You walk in the front door and are confronted by a lioness and a polar bear. I took pictures – lots of people did. Have never seen so many animal heads in one place before. And how friggin huge are moose!!! There were two massive mooseheads dominating the room upstairs where the performance took place,  in the company of various deer, boar, warthogs and even a cheetah. Odd, very odd. Downstairs with the lioness and polar bear were peacocks and some brown bears, one with a kepi cap and a sash from the Franco-Prussian war or the Boer war or WWI or whatever. Heaps and heaps of dark wood panelling, big carved cupboards, untold paintings of hunting scene, more and more paintings, and huge mirrors in gilt frames.

When I arrived I thought it must be some gentlemen’s club or some such but no, it’s a private residence owned by some dude called Peter who is currently nursing one or four four broken ribs. That’s what I overheard. I also heard that while the Chambers infant was being looked after in a big room downstairs  that Him Upstairs turned the light off, plunging the posse and the baby into complete darkness, as a way of saying that he didn’t want them down there . Someone else said he (the owner) was old enough to remember when India was still subject to the British.

Love my life!

Let’s see if I can put the photos from my phone here … I’ll do that later