TEXT review

Maybe the book has to bite you like a dog: Southpaw’s displacement

review by Helen Gildfind


Southpaw Journal Issue 1,
Melbourne, December 2011
ISSN 1839-7867



    Falling objects go down, go south
    Flying objects go up, go north
    And that is how my contest
    With the globe came into being

    – from Globe, by Ali Jimale Ahmed (3)


Southpaw is ‘a journal of writing from the global south’ aimed at encouraging ‘south-south’ dialogue (1). The journal’s editors, Alison Caddick and Chris Beach, have used the theme of ‘displacement’ to shape the journal’s first edition, claiming that colonialism and globalisation have made displacement ‘overwhelmingly an experience of peoples of the South’ (1). In content, the journal’s writers primarily focus on the ‘negative’ experiences of dispossession and enforced exile. However, the journal’s variety – its many literary forms, its visual art, and the diversity of its writers’ backgrounds – shows how even the most wounded human soul can draw profundity and beauty from the rubble of their experiences.  

Ali Jimale Ahmed’s Globe (quoted above) opens the collection and perfectly compliments Kevin Murray’s essay on ‘The Idea of the South’: both writers demand that readers question the equatorial line that splits their globe in two. To gaze South, Murray argues, is to comply with ‘a bipolar world with an historically asymmetrical relationship between imperial powers and their colonial subjects’ (7). Murray emphasises how arbitrary the North-South divide is when he explains how the development of painting resulted in both the ‘ascendency’ of the ‘vertical’, in art, and the ‘culture of the map’ (8). Maps, he explains, take a ‘horizontal’ and connected experience of the world and transform it into something vertical, something detached from us which we can only experience by travelling our eyes ‘up and down’ (8). Murray shows how verticalism and developmentalism have rendered the South both ‘below in space’ and ‘before in time’ (11).

Murray’s essay is the first of many in the journal which explore the power struggles at the heart of displacement. In ‘Baguio of My Heart’, Danilova Molintas recounts how her childhood home has devolved from a green idyll to an overpopulated city that smells like ‘shit’ (18). The insanity of her homeland’s ‘relentless drive’ towards development (19) seems epitomised by the gesture of one mayor (whose own name means ‘confused’ in Filipino, 19) who cuts down a century-old tree and replaces it with a concrete imitation. Molintas’ yearning for Baguio’s ‘past charm’ (23) pours from genuine grief, but her nostalgia also reveals how the displaced can be unable or unwilling to empathise with the displacement of their displacers. 

Kendall Trudgen recounts his time in Yolngu country, where the Northern Territory Government’s ‘Intervention’ has forced a ‘huge power shift from the local to the central … from locals to immigrants’ (28). He shows how the Yolngu have struggled for decades to regain the stability they had before they were dispossessed of their legal and economic autonomy. (Djambawa Marawili, whose painting Djunungayangu is the cover image of this edition, resists ‘pretty’ pictures: ‘I want people to look at my paintings and recognise our law’.) Like Murray, Trudgen sees a Western, economically rationalist image of society – where ‘success’ is measured by ‘mobility up an hierarchy’ and where ‘wellbeing’ is measured in material rather than ‘spiritual and cultural’ terms – being imposed upon Indigenous Australians (33). He calls for white Australians to walk as though they are ‘immigrants in someone else’s land’ (35).

Martin Plowman’s ‘Traveller’s Guide to High Strangeness’ (which discusses Southern experiences of UFOs) and Yeeshan Yang’s ‘Dining With Plastic Boots’ (which recounts a forty-something Chinese lesbian’s struggle to enact her anthropological fieldwork in Suihu village) each offer insight into the quirkier – but no less important – sides of cultural and political life. Plowman shows how a person’s interpretation of the impossible offers direct insight into the ‘great web of meaning’ that constitutes their culture (41). Yang introduces us to the ‘vain and eccentric nouveau riche’ who arecarving up China, openly expressing her disgust at the (losing / gaining) ‘face’ games that characterise the power dynamics which shape Chinese society (71). Meanwhile, Karen Lazar evokes the anger and horror of a man whose health has been displaced by a stroke, whilst Aliza Amlani’s time in Colombia makes her realise that displacement is often a ‘tactic’ used by companies and governments to ‘steal’ land and resources (134). Finally, Batool Albatat shares her fifteen year old self’s recount of being smuggled by boat to Australia after fleeing the first Gulf war. Her child’s point-of-view emphasises how terrifyingly arbitrary the world must seem to those fated to endure such journeys.

Southpaw’s poets include Liang Yu-Jing, Takako Arai, Juan Antillón, Álvarro Marín, Amina Saïd and Shu Cai. Luis Gonzalez Serrano’s work is particularly striking, revealing an El Salvador where ‘children eat each other / and the malnourished become adults’, the ‘rain yawns and the earth snores’, and men laugh ‘instead of killing’ and kill ‘instead of crying.’ In Serrano’s world, a man doesn’t travel, he flees: he ‘forgets himself everyday / knows everything but saw nothing.’ Serrano attacks an ‘obese’ Melbourne – ‘a town desperate for an us-and-them’ – and yells in frustration at the corruption that has torn open the veins of Latin America: ‘what I want is instant change / the madness of fingers clicking’ (44-7). Donna Abela’s poetic radio play ‘Aurora’s Lament’ is also compelling, introducing us to a Filipino woman who grieves for the lover who has ‘dumped’ her ‘like a dog’ (149) in the ‘tin crypt’ (148) of old caravan in coastal Australia. Aurora’s cry ‘Why was I exiled? What did I do?’ resonates with the entire collection, as does her migrant status of being ‘heart-crushed’ and yet alive (141, 152).

Southpaw’s prose includes Tony Birch’s exploration of one man’s shock and stasis as he mourns a dead child, while Karen Jennings presents a couple’s struggle to survive after urban development exiles them to a nowhere land. Eerily, the ‘ribcage’ of a stadium takes on flesh as the couple disintegrate: when the woman gives birth to a deformed child, she only recognises its ‘animal cry of something terrifying and lost’ (55). Ruth San A Jong’s ‘Confessions of guilt!’ also speaks to the universal, showing one woman’s determination to shape her own life in Suriname despite her internalisation of her husband and family’s damnation of her: ‘I’m a real bitch’, she says (98). Paul Maunder follows Stan around Cuba where he hopes to be ‘reborn’ as a true socialist. Instead, he finds what every fundamentalist is – perhaps – truly looking for: human connection. When a woman seduces and robs him, but then strokes his head until he sleeps, Stan realises he’s the happiest he’s ever been (107).

It is a brave thing to launch a new journal in a world that already has so many and which seems to be turning its back on printed text. However, Southpaw’s original agenda and the diversity and high quality of its contributions promises to spark the interest of anyone who cares about how they are positioned in and by the world they live in.



Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and is currently working on a collection of short stories with the assistance of an Australia Council grant.


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo