A Trip to Australia

799px-Uluru_(Helicopter_view)-crop

I’m flying over Australia. It is 4pm in Noumea and 7am in France.
Are writing and living really compatible?

Way down below I see four murky-green, oval lakes. A patchwork of enormous fields – brown, green, ochre and purple. Roads criss-crossing as far as the eye can see. The work of Titans: this continent is not of human proportions. The earth is red, ailing, it drags itself crawling towards the ocean, desperately, as if it has been on a long quest:

Drink, I want to drink you, she said, immerse myself in you. Look at me, I am dried up, cracked and broken down languishing here like this. I was a red desert.

I was a sierra divided into squares and triangles. A skeleton carried me.

Finally, I see you. At first you are like a dream, a mirage, a galaxy curled around itself, boiling hot swamp, silver mirror, desert of salt and white mud. I surround you, you act cool, like the sky or a milky way that fell to the ground by mistake: who put you there? And why?

The birds are flying too low, and you are too white!

And these roads are too empty and my destitution is solitary. My children gather together on the lovely coasts, the gulfs and the bays hemmed with foam, from where their sails take off in graceful swarms of butterflies.

They have built proud cities there, at the very doors of my distress.
Sometimes I call out to them: the wind, that red demon, blows from the desert and covers them with a shroud of my colours.
It covers the sun with bloodstained clouds. Then, they think about their land.

When I am alone, I get bored, I take the wind’s quill and I trace hieroglyphics on the sand.
Nobody sees them.

Or else, using the wind’s force, I take the mallet and I sculpt the earth: a phoenix, wings spread, a zebra, head lowered, a grotesque pelican and then, weary of it all, I give up – they no longer have any sense these lines, traits, scarification, the scabs of my heart lying open to the winds…

Death is blinding, like a sun without energy, a liquid sun, an immense ball of mud and salt.

The sun pumps out the last traces of water. Soon, not a single drop will be left. A new desert forever: I love you and I am killing you.

(The temperature is increasing: I feel it through the plane window which is burning to the touch). It is 6pm. We’ve now been flying for two hours.

The magic starts to fade.

This desert is a giant, breathing effigy, an anatomical plate. I see its veins, nerves, diverse humours and circulations, lymph and living flesh with its keloid scars of reddish-brown and other white marks (burns perhaps?). Its imperfections: warts, wrinkles and the bumps and scrapes of our good old earth, seen here as we can never see it anywhere else.

Here, she is naked, skeletal, laid bare.
Here, she survives, solitary, hostile, barren, and all her passions are etched on her skin.

Here are the long, black streaks of her suicide attempts. Here is her hair, dishevelled like that of a bolting thoroughbred mare, spirited, when she dreams of her wild love-making.
(Does the earth dream?)

Here is the embryo, that minuscule dot, that labyrinth of new-life-carrying vessels.

(Does the earth dream too of all the embryos, animal or vegetable, like a woman dreams of the stranger forming [strange mystery, monster or marvel] in her womb?)

Here is the placenta, the irrigated matrix of her dream. Here she is going tirelessly in search of food, the manna of the desert, she is looking by casting out, in all directions, her arteries, veins, arterioles and nerves, as delicate as the finest of leaflets.

Look! An outpost shining unusually brightly: microbes standing guard! (Is this the role of men in the desert?) And, all of the sudden, she casts out again further and further, the smaller river then the long, silver river woven from her demands.

For she is greedy, not for herself but for this gestating dream, a dream that she must carry to term.

She stretches out her legs, rips herself open and scratches around herself to bring back to her belly the substance of her chimeras. By searching so hard and wanting it so much, voilà a watering hole, a tiny one, then another, two, three, four, and then no more.

She sculpts the shapes of her desire and her weariness.

Calm returns. Until a new madness takes hold of her: to give birth to her fantasies. Or else go and drown herself in the other immensity, the Pacific Ocean, another great creator of fantasies.
When the earth cries, traces remain, chiselled on her cheeks and shoulders.

The earth trembles and breaks in two.

At 6.20pm: Uluru.
A crater like a hollow breast (perfect circle, very big), with an erect nipple in the centre. And all around, the earth’s great witching hour – she sends her couples in relief into a frenzied jive.
A man embraces her, she seems pacified. Pause.

Further in the distance: a group of rocks, an enormous flock of stones are grazing in solitude.

The foreground is clear: the first one is a woman lying down, pregnant, waiting for her merciful release with her face lifted toward the sky.

Further away again: men huddled together in the foetal position. Are they awaiting death?

Yet more mountains. A woman, her head raised, her long hair flying in the wind. Or that other woman, with a bird on her head, who is violently attacking a monster or is it a man? With contempt and disdain.

And then more: intertwined paintings and sculptures.

And more again: large canvases, a flight of colours, in matching shades, in a volley, violent slashes of colour or a profusion of pastels.

A dragon lying in a dried-up swamp of fire, another phoenix with a flaming crest, wings spread and the train of its long tail (or is it clutching a snake in its claws?)

And still more: a squad of little clouds of light, the first for hours! They move forward, or rather it’s our plane that is moving away from them, but their shadow remains still.

We’ve now been flying at nine hundred kilometres an hour for two and a half hours over this desert.
She (the earth) tells me her story, she writes it, draws it and sculpts it for me.
And her story is also my story:
When, oh when, poor things of this world, will we reach the sea? The water?

Floating veils of clouds go past, like curtains that we pull.
Like water spreading between these steamy isles… Like fog drowning the valley… And now it’s the sky’s turn to tell me his story, his struggle and his suffering.

A great gust of cloud arrives.
I feel nauseous: it is drizzling outside.
Suddenly, I open my eyes: fantastic scenery!
The earth has become the sky, the bottom is on top, everything has been inverted.
All of this is in me, all of this is mine:

So I throw out my octopus tentacles towards you. On this earth, so many gigantic serpents come slithering out at night and hide in her bowels by day!
Monsters from the dawn of time, they climb out to destroy the creature in the black of night.
As for me, I throw these huge green and black rings out to you, eye of the day.
Suddenly, I tense up, overcome by an icy pain that climbs in a wide, circular motion towards my heart. Once again I have lost trace of you, and my stealthy black chargers break free, dispersing in all directions. A faint light radiates the horizon: could it be You?

My tears of salt and blood have dried on my flat cheeks: where is my splendour?
I am she of wind and fire. My breasts have dried up. My emaciated belly is barren!
And yet I conceal gold and diamonds and the powerful uranium that promotes men to the level of gods and the rarest minerals of all the colours of the rainbow.
My misery and my strength.
My death is rebirth!

 

Written by Hélène Savoie translated from the French by Karin Speedy

© Karin Speedy 2010

Reference

Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. ISBN: 978 2 296 11771 6. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010. (280 pages)

Advertisements

Cuttings From a Pacific Garden

Today is National Poetry Day in Aotearoa! New Zealand is celebrating poets and poetry. Here is a poem I wrote in 2011 at a hui in Wellington on Pacific literature. It speaks to roots and renewal, themes that were very important to me at that moment and it pays homage to some of the most influential New Zealand and Pasifika writers. Poets, I love you!
800px-Frangipani_flowers
Cuttings from a Pacific Garden
 
For Albert Wendt
 
I cried for Alistair Campbell last night
I cried for Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
and his house perched
on that windy mountain
overlooking Kapiti Island
and Te Rauparaha.
 
How solitary.
No, I wouldn’t have lived there either
but he had Meg
almost to the end.
 
You introduced me to him, actually.
More than twenty years ago now –
can it really be that long?
I loved him from the first page.
When I say I loved him
I mean his words
his poetry
his magic.
 
I cried for Alistair Campbell this morning.
At 5.27am
my tears had formed little pools
in the indent and crevasses of my Novotel pillow.
 
I thought of those cuttings in your garden
so obviously symbolic
yet utterly disarming.
 
They have grown, survived, thrived.
They are us, all of us
who have loved
Alistair
and Hone
and Epeli
and John Pule
and Patricia Grace
and so many others
and you, of course –
writers from our part of the world
whose stories and poetry
speak to us in rhythms familiar
who speak to us
touch us
move us
make us cry at 5.27am in the morning.
 
Just like those precious yet hardy cuttings
from Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s garden
you nurtured us and
let us grow
strong.
 
Last night
the new generation of Pacific poets
held their Te Papa audience captive.
Their voices
joyous
angry
questioning
poignant
proud
beautiful.
 
Last night I cried for Alistair Campbell.
Last night I also smiled for those poets
and all of us
cuttings from your garden.
© Karin Speedy 2015
First published in ‘Piercing the White Space, Blackmail Press, 41, 2015

Shouting through the Silence

DN Joubert

From Hunter’s Hill Museum Archives, Sydney

As any readers of this blog have gathered, I have a bit of a thing for archives, particularly the colonial archive. Archives house myriad, if mediated, stories of much of our past. Yet, as a mirror of the societies they recorded, they are notorious for their selective exclusions and tendency to allow the voices of the privileged and powerful to resonate through the centuries. This is not to say that others are not there. They are. It’s just that they are not as loud, not as visible and the historian has to work harder to find them.

The exclusion of other/Indigenous/non-white voices was always part and parcel of the colonial project, an epistemic continuation of the everyday violence ‘subaltern’ people experienced during their lifetimes. Rereading the colonial archive through a postcolonial lens often enables recovery of the lost narratives and a retelling of colonial history that highlights Indigenous or subaltern agency and resistance. Historians, particularly those working on slave, convict and indentured labourers and other marginalised groups, engage with fragmented archival material in order to piece together the stories of those who have been excluded from the colonial archive and, until recently, colonial history.

Charroi-Beaufonds-Georgi

Beaufonds sugar factory (near st Benoit, Reunion) at the end of the 19th century, Henri Georgi, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, Wikipedia

In an article that has just been published called “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive: An Australian Case Study”, I deconstruct an 1857 instance of kidnapping in the Pacific by a Sydney-based consortium of well-connected merchants and sea captains, headed by Didier-Numa Joubert. The Gilbert (I-Kiribati) and Solomon Islanders they ‘recruited’ were taken on board an old whaling ship, the Sutton, to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and sold into indenture. In the article, instead of attempting to recover the voices of the Pacific Islanders, I focus on the methods by which their voices were silenced. A close reading of the archival documents available in the colonial archive (in London and Paris) allows me to describe the very deliberate production of subaltern silence and show how particular agents of empire, men with trans-imperial connections, were able to draw on these interconnections, knowledge and experience to create and exploit it.

Map_OC-Oceania

Despite the thorough, cynical and ruthless efforts to obfuscate the voices of the Pacific Islanders on the part of the men holding the power in this ‘transaction’, the gaps left by so many untruths speak volumes. The ghosts reposing in the interstices of the archive can, indeed, speak. While I was writing my academic article, concentrating on teasing out a recipe for the construction of subaltern silence, I was also listening to these ghostly revelations. As I am apt to do, I turned to creative writing to express them, writing a longish poem that experiments with polyphonous voices. It expresses what I understand to be the most likely version of events. And here it is.

Secrets of the Sutton

Her whaling days over
leaky, saggy, weighed down
with blubbery death stench
the Sutton
a Baltimore clipper-built barque
18th century relic
unseaworthy really
receives a cheap lick and spit

She’ll be good
for one more
South Sea
adventure

Villainous voyage
quick fire trickery
fast money plunder
for her slick talking owner
and duplicitous
filibuster crew

Marist collusion
or cynical suggestion
of non-existent missionary middle-men
coconut-oil tales of
short sojourns
on a neighbouring isle
a pound of tobacco
in return
for copra dreams

A pair of Judas beachcombers
fair weather interpreters
embark to aid
the kidnapping mariners

Come hither
strapping young men of the Gilberts
your brown bodies our bread
your muscles our meat
inspect below decks
mind the swivel guns
no we’re not slavers
but we’ll lock the hold
as we haul anchor
and head out to sea

Solomon Islands
ideal dumping ground
for mutinous Micronesians
knife-wielding prospective assassins
according to sailor testimony
one on New Georgia
the other one…

where was it again?
no one can quite recall

tossed out trussed up
no food or water
life expectancy measured
in hours not days

Fourteen Solomons bondsmen
traded for shiny glass trinkets
join fifty-one Gilbertese captives
packed in tight down below
sixty-six days
of suffering and gagging
on putrid dank air
whale flesh planks
unwashed bodies
fear
vomit
human excreta
bilge water slops underfoot

In the cabin are
muskets and pistols
cutlasses and axes
gunpowder and canisters
an arsenal to save us
from native rebellion
to keep us safe from
the savages down there

Disembark the cargo
on the Isle of Bourbon
France’s sugar bowl
in the Indian Ocean
1848 emancipation
leaving a desperate craving
for slave replacements
on boom production plantations

Top price fetched
for fresh strong flesh
Pacific Islanders snatched up by planters
on five-year French indentures
for forty pounds sterling a head
Coconut and tobacco promises
exposed as nowt
but fraudulences…
the seamen decamp
to British Mauritius
where petty jealousies play out
on the imperial stage

Those bloody Frogs!

Governor Stevenson sniffs slavery
statements solicited
but not from the Islanders
muted and left to their cane-cutting fates
yarns spun criss-crossing
fact with fanciful fiction
flurry of indignant diplomatic dispatches

What, they’re not our natives?
Nevermind
Nothing more we can do

Sham enquiry over
scandal hits Sydney
headlines scream high sea irregularities
kidnapping
privateering
slaving
these dastardly acts
damaging money-making prospects
with South Sea cannibals
so ripe for exploiting
furious merchants
pen letters to the editor
their ocean-going
capitalist
dreams
at stake

The captain should swing!

Ship owner Joubert
backed by French consul
deftly dismisses attacks on his honour

Outrageous accusations!
Nothing untoward
occurred on board
a French sanctioned delegate was present
no laws were broken
no harm was done
no persuasion needed
the natives were more than willing
why, they were happy ship helpers
of course they knew what they were signing
those beachcomber interpreters
double-dealing scoundrels trying to scam us
pay them no heed

Lie, defy, deny
expert extrication
establishment players emerge from the mêlée
rich man reputations intact
no charges laid

It was all above board
a legal business transaction

Newspapers fall quiet
blackbirding implicitly sanctioned
Queensland’s future assured

What of the abductees from the Islands?
How did they fare on faraway fields?
Did they find their way back to the Pacific?
Or were they buried an ocean away?

No news of the men
caught in this nefarious traffic
nothing to report
no update
no footnote
the colonial conspiracy
to banish their voices
to hide their stories
to silence the archive
creates
an echoing void of indifference
that violently shouts
the truth
from the page

©Karin Speedy 2016

For further details on this incident see:

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding,” The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.
DOI:  dx.doi.org/ (for those with institutional access).

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857”, Imperial & Global Forum, imperialglobalexeter.com/2015/ (free access to this blog post).

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing subaltern silence in the colonial archive: An Australian case study”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 18, Jul 2016: 95-114.