Views through the tram window >>
Two little ravens opposite the St Kilda East Cemetery on a verge beside the tram. One collects fine, dry, curly, grass, checking back for the best pieces, and trying to fit more and more in its beak. It does this with care. The dry fluff meant for a nest contrasts with the bird’s glossy black feathers.
A man eats sauerkraut from a plastic container backlit by the sun, digging with his fingers like a tiny earth mover.
Men move rocks with yellow bulldozers between the train line and containers. The containers are piled on top of each other and face the orange horizon toward the docks.
“Russia is a land of women Homers,” Petrushevskaya has said, and it is this informal narrative tradition of ordinary Russian women which gives shape to this novel.
Such women as the protagonist, Anna, who move us throughout day and night, through the piecemeal actions that patch her story, herself and her family, and who pull us into a bleak drama of family tensions that are quite often comedic. Anna is a struggling poet whose adult children continue to depend on her and use her. And it is through this window that Petrushevskaya’s language shows the striations and micropolitics of the Russian state.
Petrushevskaya’s novella has elements of purposeful realism brought into the domestic sphere. There are many details of Russian poverty, and yet there are glimpses of a life lived, Anna’s engagement with language, for example; her performance at readings. “The time: Night” is repeated throughout the novella and becomes like a rhythmic refrain, in which Anna unspools her thoughts about her family members, a different register each time. Aesthetically, it becomes linked with indoors, the place where she can write.”The time: Night”: and now a further narrative progresses that is not exactly linear.
Even though Anna’s voice is forthright, I think Petrushevskaya’s work has postmodern tendencies in that Anna does not present as a traditional subject. From the beginning it is clear that she is writing to her family from beyond the grave, and is a decentred/deconstructed construct. The conceit here is that her poems and narratives are on scraps of paper and telegrams. Character development is also disruptive in temporal peaks and troughs, and the novella tends to blur the line between tragedy and comedy. However, the force of affect is apparent in Anna’s desire to both connect and sever relations with her family members, and this is perhaps a sign that the gendered subject is in motion in a new way. This is most exemplified by Anna’s harsh questioning and refusal of the ‘mother’ role and, in turn, by her melodramatic swooning over her grandchild, Tima.
You need courage to look in the dark, and even more to pull out what you find. Not only that, you need guts to be able to think about what to do with these things when you’re putting the globules, pixels, sparklets — however different — together in a room. I’m writing several articles and while some of these draw on my PhD research, I’m getting that research bug again and wanting to write afresh. But along with the excitement of the new, comes a little uncertainty about writing the new material.
I found this, written in the early stages of my thesis:
“I see what my supervisors meant when they said you get better at living with the uncertainty and anxiety of research as you get on and it never goes away completely. You just have to sit with it, write through it or over it. What is worrying me is that I may have become so reliant on language that I may not be able to find my way back to a sensing sound, compositional approach.”
There are two things here. One, I was surprised to find that I am in need of this very advice (really?) — after the euphoria after passing a PhD! The cycle of research continues, though at a faster rate. Two, I may have had times where I was writing more than I was making or playing, but I always I return to experimenting with sound and producing music. My body is fitter than it was and now I am playing the flute with more resilience. In general, even though my seizures continue, I feel very connected to sound and musical ideas. And to get back to my opening point, although there is uncertainty with bringing divergent ideas together into an argument, I am writing through it whenever I can.
Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim has spoken about feminist issues concerning the African and Arab world since the 1950s, active in the women’s and anticolonial struggle in the Sudan. Her political streak soon became evident in secondary school when she started her own wall paper (like a paste up) called Elra’edda, meaning “Leading Girls”, which explored women’s rights issues, democracy and the oppression of colonialism. After school she joined the Sudanese Communist Party and became an active member, opposing the Abboud military dictatorship; she also became editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Mara (Women’s Voice). In 1962, she published Our Path to Emancipation, which articulates a Sudanese feminist history and praxis — an approach that moves beyond the toppling of sexual oppression, to consider the configurations of society that form collective and individual experience (Abusharaf 2004). The work was important and was often debated within the Sudanese woman’s movement.
Decades before the contentious and unjust debate on the veil in the West, Ibrahim introduced a conceptual framework for the Sudanese Women’s Union stemming from her belief that:
Women can be veiled but liberated. The equation of the veil with male supremacy is shortsighted and narrow. The veil does not oppress women, but politics and oppressive regimes do.
Ibrahim knew that taking off the veil wouldn’t result in liberation, rather empowerment would come through economic independence and, education. The other element that mattered was habit, social relations, and tradition. In a 2003 interview, Ibrahim states that “changing deeply entrenched traditions and norms are far more difficult than changing governments.” The way to counter this is to engage in engage in critical thinking about oppressive practices. What is significant is that emancipation means “transcending culturally sanctioned oppressive practices”: a ‘woman’s movement’ — a movement of multiple women that a freedom fighter might lead then — is about women gaining “the culmination of (..) consciousness about their grievances as a sex. It is also a manifestation of the increased recognition of their rights and the significance of coming together to organize for change.” (Ibrahim 2003). In other words, consciousness raising. Ibrahim also points out that although education might be one road to liberation, it is not the way to necessarily change the status quo (Abusharaf 2004). She mentions that a large number of educated women were not members of trade unions, for example.
I have given only a fragmented view of a woman’s life, but this is a reminder that there are remarkable feminist thinkers and doers who are not part of the academic west, who have evolved their own theories and practices in cycle with the politics of context. I would like to read Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim’s texts Our Path to Emancipation and Our Harvest in Twenty Years when they become available. Her (1996) journal article “Sudanese Women’s Union: Strategies for Emancipation and the Counter Movement” is available (open access) here — it is worth reading in her own words.
Corellas in the conifer eat the budding cones at the tip of the tree. Binding bird and bite – I see them and hear them first in the distance, crest-less cockatoos. Two of them reach for the tree’s crunchy fruit, and then a third hangs upside down bending on a tree spindle. Large white birds with naked heads. And a call somewhere between a cocky’s, a waterbird and an old human, graceful in her frailty.
There is the ripe and slightly damp stench of cow dung near a row of dusty white signs and narrow shop fronts. Bright sari-ed women clash. They walk together along a gravel road with cows and vehicles. The woman who sold me the leaves to feed the cow and the little girl begging in a dirty emerald green salwar kameez are further down the street, like tenacious jewels. I am apprehensive, under a happy, bold exterior; I’m about to seek paths alone. Groups of young men make kissing noises at me when I pass. I nut out my journey north on tiny timetables, sleeping in uncomfortable three-tiered bunks on no-frills night trains with strangers, or sometimes in a ‘ladies carriage’ if I can get one. I wait in a bus stop with a few Indian couples and families at midnight drinking steaming masala tea. In the northern mountains, where it’s cooler and the Ganga is almost aqua, I take a flute lesson on the roof of a white stuccoed building with my teacher, and our sounds are carried by a friendly breeze. I wash in my guesthouse’s cold water using a bucket and feel utter contentment. I talk with travellers — some enamoured with India, and, an Englishman, for whom the love affair has soured. I meditate with a group and become friends with an Israeli girl. We go to meet the Maharishi lounging noble as a sphinx on a wicker chaise lounge. Sari-type curtains drawn over the windows in his small hut colour the morning light a deep magenta. I am nervous when I step into his other world and I’m not sure of the protocol; the Maharishi is an ageing presence with with his long white beard, furrowed brown skin, but he also seems to retreat as a mole does. We kneel before him briefly and leave. Later that afternoon, standing on a footbridge in the sun over the rushing river I pinched myself — was that really the wise, charismatic man the Beatles fell for? I also learned about diplomacy as my friend told me about Israel and the defence force she’d had to be a part of.
A month and a move. Changing suburb is like waking up. Like getting hurt, moving crab-like and sunning yourself in the heat of the day. Draw this, hear this taste this? The firemen are gardening today and the other morning fooling around on a segue. Planning is difficult when there is all this to look at and then the bustle down the road is bursting with vim. Markets beckon. Every day the firepeople test their gear at regular intervals, but moments become sonic details, a harried boxing object, the bounce-echo of basketball irregularly played, mostly male voices rising up together in a cry to their engines, water draining. They go out when the community calls. In the summer months, their community is needy and must be reassured as well as saved. Siren tests fold over sensor sounds and truck sirens. The trees squeak with the sirens today, the first thirty-eight degree day of summer. Winding windy.
I was curious about early English prosody and wrote an example poem. In medieval times, to be born under the sign of Saturn, was to move slowly and to be gloomy, as it was the slowest planet in the sky at that point and the farthest from the sun. As time in the western canon went on, references to the Saturnine character came to be about the melancholy, the morose, the dreary, surly, or the mysterious. I didn’t really know this until after I wrote this poem using Old English line as a formal guide. I might develop this Saturnine idea in a more focused way (a character, for example), but that is another story.
Spiralling swamp a Saturnine lope,
mud mends your cuts gained in the mangrove.
The wind is a wound slaps wet through the twigs,
gasp in the gloaming a grim opening.
She could not stand the stranger’s face staring with its twisted expression. Turning to her companion, she said, ‘do something’! Her boyfriend looked at the man with his grimace and spastic limbs, and, feeling revulsion punched him hard about the head several times. The stranger’s body fell on the brown grass. Dry leaves crinkled in the north wind. The couple watched the man convulse, little spurts of life ebbing away. They could hear a tram in the distance, and suddenly became aware of their own breath.
Based on a report from The Age, 1904.