Welcome to the new series for the Meanjin blog, ‘Art and…’. Each issue, we plan to reflect on our most recent theme by asking our contributors for great examples of art and literature the theme has inspired in the past. This month is politics with Omar Sakr and Melissa Lucashenko.
I just recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent book Between the World and Me, a moving lyrical essay, as much memoir as it is a thorough evisceration of racial politics and the history behind the unjust system we all continue to operate in. Prior to that, I’d read Alexis Wright’s novel, The Swan Book, and here is an Australian work of speculative fiction that relentlessly interrogates our politics and humanity. It is literature at its best, and it should be on every school’s list as far as I’m concerned.
Having said that, writers from marginalised backgrounds often can’t help but produce politically-engaged art. It is a fundamental, inescapable part of our reality that even art which is not intended to be political will be construed that way, will be said to speak authoritatively for [insert group here], as if ours is a hive mind only allowed one mouthpiece on the public stage at any given time.
As far as television is concerned, anything David Simon has done you can count as a great example of art engaged in reflecting and criticising the overwhelming environment it is produced in. I also recently saw Straight Outta Compton, which for a film that’s been in development for so many years and about a rap group popular 20+ years ago, is disturbingly timely in its depiction of art, racism and police brutality.
Google ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and you will discover the following advice: ‘Do not read this book if you are unemployed. Do not read this book if you are worried about the tanking economy. Do not read this book if you don’t like offensive smells, or stale bread and margarine, or the idea of poverty.’
This pithy response to Orwell’s masterpiece was written almost ninety years after the Englishman gave up British imperialism, and set out to become a writer. It’s an impressive tribute to him that his small book about the very poor–some of his first published writing–remains as current and disturbing today as it was back in 1929.
I didn’t know, reading the book as a teenager, that my mother had come close to starving to death in the Great Depression. Our family history was full of secrets, and that mum’s family had (barely) survived on bush food was just another one. But the impact of her secret suffering lingered. Orwell wrote of a tramp companion that
he had not eaten since the morning, had walked several miles with a twisted leg, his clothes were drenched, and he had a halfpenny between himself and starvation.
Reading that at sixteen, the twisted leg and drenched clothes and hunger felt unreasonably near to me, not far, and they certainly didn’t feel like they were long ago on the other side of the world. Great writing does that, of course. It brings us up to the world of the author and puts us squarely in it. But for many Aboriginal readers in Australia today, Orwell’s writing still acts less as a time machine and more as a mirror.
Poverty is pretty normalised in the Aboriginal world, and the step into Orwell’s 5th Arrondissement is a very small one for many First Peoples. The Aboriginal poor are used to the middle classes assuming that they have eaten enough that morning, that they can get from point A to point B in a straightforward manner, that their cars have petrol and their children have lunch. And just like Orwell’s tramps, Aboriginal people who are visibly poor are seen as a case apart. Who, forced to live on the humiliating Basics Card, could fail to agree that
‘It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.’
DOPL is rightly remembered as a book about injustice, and about inhumanity. As I reread it every few years though, I’m always struck by Orwell’s image of the routine cutting of a rope on the London Embankment, upon which freezing beggars leant on to grab a few hours sleep. In that image I see the seeds of his greatest work. The harshness of authority saturates the writing. ‘I will never give another penny to the Salvation Army’ he wrote, after experiencing the temperature of that organisation’s charity. Orwell learned many things in Paris and London in 1928–that ‘the poor are just like us’—that poverty is about boredom and humiliation as well as horror–and most of all, I believe, he was reminded of what his time in Burma had already taught him: that men given power over others will usually find a way to degrade those others and to make them crumble beneath them. Orwell found Big Brother in Paris, along with seventeen hour working days and bedbugs, because tyranny and entrenched inequality inevitably go hand in hand.
Aboriginal people dying of hunger in Australia in 1928 already knew that very well, as do the Aboriginal poor today. So if you are worried about offensive smells or about the tanking economy; if you are unemployed, or if you don’t like knowing that remote Aboriginal communities face forcible closure while our very own gulags on Manus Island and Nauru do not, do not neglect to read this book. It could have been written yesterday.
At the time of writing (prior to the Paris terror attacks), Melissa Lucashenko is a Walkley-award winning Aboriginal author, winner of the 2013 Deloitte Fiction Prize for her novel Mullumbimby. Her article ‘The First Australian Democracy‘ was published in Meanjin’s The Democracy Issue. At the time of writing she had 53 cents in her bank account.
Omar Sakr is an Arab-Australian poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications. He was recently shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize and the ACU Poetry Prize. His poem ‘Election Day‘ was published in Meanjin’s The Democracy Issue.