This is one of those columns that I read semi-regularly especially when friends and colleagues are giving their response, but it’s not one I ever thought I’d be asked to do. It’s uncool to admit you’re excited to be asked, isn’t it? I’ve never been cool: am absolutely thrilled!
Truthfully, since developing chronic c-PTSD symptoms in 2019, my reading isn’t as voracious as it used to be: do people with PTSD in disciplines where they are expected to consume a lot of information in various media talk about the brain fog? I’ve cut down from reading maybe 1.5 books a week to perhaps one a fortnight, if that.
I understand that my way of looking at reading and how much of it I can do as if there is an eternal list to get through (to be gotten through!) isn’t exactly feasible, healthy, or in keeping with disability-friendly practice. Much like trying to read through literary canons, it’s ridiculously exclusionary, pro-capitalist, and very ableist.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading recently, and my impressions.
I’m going very slowly through Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, because it is a difficult read though I understand I’ve no right to feel that way, as a settler. There are issues Moreton-Robinson discusses which pain me as they are also very applicable to communities of colour, depending upon what ethnic community mainstream media has decided is its ‘bad guy’ du jour.
I don’t generally attend Invasion Day protests, but my personal form of protest is to read literature produced by Indigenous Australian voices (of course including Torres Strait Islander voices). It makes me both sad and angry that this is the kind of book which deserved attention outside academia when it was first published. I was an undergrad twenty years ago, and I know if I’d known the book existed, I would definitely have wanted to read it as my knowledge of social injustice and inequality expanded outside my personal life experience. To commemorate its twentieth anniversary of publication, it is only starting to attract this attention. I fear that the attention paid by white feminists now to Moreton-Robinson’s book is performative. ‘Look at this stack of political and diverse reads I’m going through’, as posted on Instagram. Can you tell I’m trying to avoid using the work ‘woke’ here?
What I’d like to know, out of genuine concern for First Nation peoples, is when non-intersectional feminists read this book, is it genuinely encouraging them to confront how they participate and benefit from white male-led societal power structures? Are white feminists giving Blak women agency, helping with resources needed and signal boosting how others can help but allowing Blak women and their communities define and action welfare and education on their own terms.
I’m not an innocent when it comes to anti-blackness in feminism. As a person of colour, I know there are brown communities which are incredibly anti-Bla(c)k. How does this make us as well-intentioned as white feminists, non-intersectional feminists? Many communities of colour are no stranger to colonisation, which makes anti-Bla(c)kness in our communities all the more unforgivable. In identifying as a mixed-race brown would-be intersectional feminist, I feel like I still have so much to learn. Sadder so is that this book is celebrating its twentieth anniversary of publication, and so little has changed in terms of the white feminist. Ironically mirroring patriarchy, they are still so reluctant to listen to Indigenous Australians, and less so women of colour. We all need to work to get to the level where we can trust that we will be listened to, and be trusted to deal with community issues which directly affect Indigenous women, and women of colour. If the system is reliant upon getting financial aid and ‘clearance’ from structures of power based on patriarchal models, how on earth are we going to be able to let these communities help themselves?
I devoured Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen because I’d been excited from day one to hear that she had a collection. Evelyn’s new poetry collection is not something I want to finish in a rush… because there’ll be no more to read! Evelyn’s creative practice, and passing down of knowledge not otherwise accessible to those who may not have had the privilege of, say, a tertiary education focussed on critical thinking, embodies what it is to be a true intersectional feminist. I can send her messages on social media platforms and whine about how difficult it is as a person of colour, or how difficult it is to find my foundation match, and she’ll understand why that will mean something to me—especially if somewhere in your ancestry, you have the heritage of your colonisers. Especially the foundation match bit! I shouldn’t have to mention this, but her intellectual mind is not to be underestimated. I admire her for her fierceness, humanity and humour, and cutting social commentary, all of which is evident in her début collection.
But no, I’m not always reading about race! Another book I recently finished is Die, Vol. 2: Split the Party, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles. This is a comic book serial where some childhood friends, a group of tabletop role-players, somehow end up getting stuck in a game they create as grown adults because the fantasy world they create becomes real to them. I prefer to read these serials as trade paperbacks, and they force me to not only focus on the text (which of course is usually speedy to read), but to read it in context of the illustrative art, which is just as integral to the storytelling. Sequential art was not something I really thought of as aimed at a reader like myself (I did make the mistake of thinking all comics were superhero mega-worlds but I find those a bit boring… sorry! Of course there are exceptions) till first discovering From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which is not merely an historical and speculative biography of who Jack the Ripper may really have been, but becomes creative non-fiction in it being steeped in psychogeography. Blew my writerly mind when I first read it, and I think of it as highly influential, just in opening my eyes to the amount of research done, and then to see that incorporated visually.
Admittedly, I try to use illustrative texts as a break from ‘serious’ reading, but in all honesty, they’re just as bound to inspire me to write as much as reading non-fiction or poetry. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with different recordings of W. A. Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria because I’m looking at it as an alternative way to explain that having the condition Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder is feeling exactly like the Queen. In this famous aria, she is trying to emotionally blackmail her daughter Pamina to kill Sarastro, and to drive home how serious it is that Pamina commit this task, the Queen brandishes a knife, to make it known she’s prepared to possibly kill her own daughter if she refuses this request, and at the very least disown her. PMDD symptoms when experienced acutely are very serious (life-threatening, even), and it can put its patient in the position where they are able to enact emotional abuse upon loved ones, but also be completely unable to control the impulses, again, due to neurochemicals. They also escalate very quickly, where you can feel quite ‘reasonable’ one minute, but experience hesitation if you ask them a question as negative, and erupt in a manner not nearly as extreme as the Queen of the Night’s towards her daughter, but finding that such reactions align closer to reality than complete fiction. I got a recording of The Magic Flute as a teen one Christmas and understood that the Queen was just very, very angry and horrible all the time, but didn’t pick up on the rapid and extreme fluctuations in mood and emotions. There’s still research being done on PMDD, and it’s likely that my primary pre-existing, undiagnosed mood disorder masked my PMDD symptoms (one generally experiences the symptoms as soon as they begin to menstruate, which in retrospect is obvious to me). The Queen continues to fascinate me because despite her heartlessness, she has some of the most sublime (and technically difficult) vocal parts in the entire opera. As babies babble when learning to speak for the first time, maybe I’m horrendously biased in that I see music as proto-literary artistic expression and communication. Watch a string quartet who have performed with each other for decades and hopefully you’ll catch a glimpse on why I feel so strongly about this!
Lastly, I recently participated in an online experimental workshop run by Free Association called ‘Intrusive Thoughts’ (which seems darkly humorous when such thoughts are your mind’s second voice if you have any chronic mental health issues, as I do). The suggested reading for the first session was a short extract from Sigmund Freud on ‘negation’, and Vernor Vinge’s essay ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’ (which is fascinating, and readers familiar with this territory will see the spots where it’s dated dreadfully!).
It’s terrifying, deeply thought-provoking, and assumes we will need to be able to create some perfect form of capitalist, non-disabled, heteronormative, white patriarchal oasis to survive AI overtaking our intelligence. I’m really attached to the notion that this ‘oasis’ will never exist, or fail only because as long as the human brain remains composed of organic matter (unlike a computer), we will make mistakes. As humans, sometimes we don’t even realise why we do what we do; sure, they can fit us out so physiologically we’re invincible, but humans and their neurochemicals and hormones! Will AI ever get to the stage where it understands what makes a ‘good day’ for a human, or a miserable one for another?
For a panel on poetry, games, and play for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival, I’ve started reading Brendan Keogh’s A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames, and finding that poetry and videogames have so much in common! I know poetry is often looked upon as some form of ‘higher’ art which is, frankly, bollocks, but I’m biased due to my background in a tertiary music institution which has very clear definitions on what is ‘high’ and ‘low/popular’ art. If people were more open to the notion, I think they’d see that poetry, with its fixed forms, meter, stresses, and line breaks, can be very much like decoding a puzzle, which is… a game!
Another book I’ve started is Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays in preparation for a panel for the Emerging Writers’ Festival ‘Storming the City’, chaired by poet Andy Jackson, with fellow panellists Roz Bellamy and Heidi Everett. Before he retired, my father was a psychiatric nurse and often explained to me as a child and throughout my teens that people with psychotic features as part of their mental illnesses needed more understanding and compassion. To someone with no experience of any chronic mental illness, it gets lost that you don’t just wake up and suddenly experience extreme psychological distress. Often the acute distress and its manifestations appear gradually, at varying paces.
While I’m thrilled to read a woman of colour writing about her experiences of misdiagnosis, and the unfair stigmas attached to any mental illness with psychotic features, it’s still a little disappointing to read that she ascribes to the ‘high/low functioning’ dichotomy. All chronically ill and disabled individuals deserve an equal amount of love, compassion, understanding and basic respect. These classifications do nothing but to make those with chronic illness and disabilities, as well as their carers and loved ones, less likely to dismantle internalised ableism. I still judge myself when I need to spend days in bed, unshowered, despite it not being something I can help, but that does not mean I think I’m ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ when I’m well-groomed, able to cook and function in the outside world. It just means it’s a good day.
Lastly, I know my father said this as a joke, but as the person most responsible for beginning my total love affair with words and reading (I started learning around the age of three), it only seems fair and respectful to share that he is reading Ian Rankin, which he jokingly suggested I share with Meanjin’s readership. The joke is on him because I’m more than happy to do so. Learning to read at such an early age is such a gift. Throughout my non-writing life, I was never really alone as long as I had a musical instrument and decent books to read. I am actually jealous of the fact that he can read for enjoyment, though well-deserved in retirement given his occupation.
Once you start to work with words, it’s hard to read purely for enjoyment: I am always reading with what I call a ‘serious fun’ hat on; many of my books are annotated with pencil scrawlings, have underlined and starred passages, and definitions of words I don’t know the meaning of (not afraid to admit it!). I’ve become more open to different ways of consuming words, though because of the way my mind works (and the need to physically handwrite notes); I remember a book best when it’s a physical object in my hands. Due to some past medical procedures, there are books I’ve forgotten I’ve read (in email serialised form). Only due to their being recorded as ‘read’ in smartphone apps do I know I’ve read them. When I read, a book anchors me to time and place, as a reminder of what was going on in my life. I feel fortunate that this means what I read is also an alternative life narrative, or journal of sorts.
Gemma Mahadeo came to Australia from the UK in 1987. Their work has appeared in print and online, both nationally and internationally. Their most recent work is an award-winning videogame with Ian MacLarty called If We Were Allowed To Visit, and they will be a participant in the upcoming ‘Storming the City’ programme run through Writers’ Victoria where they’re looking to finish their first poetry manuscript. They’re also a founding member along with CB Mako, Hannah Morphy-Walsh, and Pauline Vetuna in The Disabled QBIPOC Collective. You can find them on Twitter at @snarkattack or Instagram @eatdrinkstagger obsessing over cats, beer, tea, cheese, and being a failed musicologist.