TEXT review

Talking back to a ‘million little violences’

review by Helen Gildfind


The Lifted Brow
Ellena Savage and Gillian Terzis (eds)
Issue Number 29, March
The Lifted Brow, Melbourne VIC 2016
ISSN 9771835566092
Pb 112pp AUD13.95


The Lifted Brow describes itself as ‘a quarterly attack journal’. This stance is evident in its cover-image of a Vegemite jar ‘rebranded’ from ‘Kraft’ to ‘Daft’ in a blatant denunciation of Australia’s white, colonial history. Though clearly left-leaning, there is nothing politically reductive about this journal. Through multiple means its contributors express intelligent and informed critiques, moving effortlessly between the personal and political, the abstract and concrete, the fictional and factual.

The essays in this issue are topically diverse and strikingly well written. Stand-outs include Jana Perković’s insights into both the ‘emotional labour’ (7) of criticism and ‘the million little violences of heteronormativity’ (6): a ‘bruised’ (5) heart renders the critic unable to do her work. Briohny Doyle exposes our culture’s repression of teenage girls’ sexuality through a discussion of seventies ‘baby’ rock groupy, Sabel Starr. Doyle demands a world where teens can explore sex safely ‘without letting skeezy dudes off the hook’ (10). Shaun Prescott uses Kriss Hades’ 1990s death metal group, Sadistik Exekution, to perform his own critique of today’s overly-policed Sydney-for-the-rich, where tenants live in slums and music lives (or dies) via ‘corporately branded music festivals’ (23). Why doesn’t today’s Sydney vibrate with the anger of Sadistik Exekution?It should sound like a war’ (23). Paul Dalla Rosa expertly weaves personal experience, pop culture and critical theory into one unified narrative that gives those from ‘the kingdom of the well’ insight into the ‘kingdom of the sick’ (71, quoting Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor). Taking insight and courage from Sontag, Cixous and Kristeva, Rosa approaches writing as a self-actualising, legitimising, political act: ‘Write yourself. The body must be heard’ (72).

Other excellent essays include Stephanie Van Schilt’s article on today’s lauded long-form television dramas which, she wryly notes, look very much like the traditionally-derided ‘feminine’ soap opera dressed in ‘masculine-crisis drama’ clothing (19). Dion Kagan writes on Patricia Highsmith’s book, The Price of Salt, and its recent film adaptation, Carol. Kaganshows how Highsmith’s high-class femme – not an easily identifiable ‘butch’ lesbian, and not clearly predator or prey – subverts the genre conventions of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction, thus refusing to perpetuate homophobia or pathologise homosexuality. Lou Heinrich courageously criticises how rape narratives – filmed through a male gaze designed to both arouse and horrify viewers – are used as entertainment in our society. Heinrich wants rape scenes forbidden, and though her strong argumentation is undermined by reference to her Christian beliefs – which can delineate ‘clearly’, apparently, between ‘good and evil’ (97) – her ultimate point compels: we can feed the ‘wolf’ of darkness within, or we can starve it. Amy Gray looks at the plight of apotemnophiliacs whose ‘body integrity identity disorder’ (61) makes them vulnerable to back yard surgeons like ‘Butcher Brown’. Fatima Measham cites five hundred years of history to reclaim the ‘fierce dignity’ (50) of Filipino women who are regularly assumed to be mail-order brides, idiots, gold-diggers, or a commodity that signifies white wealth and status. Adam Rivett writes guiltily on the pleasures of ‘Cinema at 20,000 Feet’ (99), whilst the collection fittingly ends with Jean Hannah Edelstein’s personal essay on trying to live a life that’s not geared towards writing personal essays.

The journal showcases images and comics by a huge number of artists, including Merv Heers, Lyra Hill, Mary Leunig, Freda Chui, and Sam Wallman who presents a timely satire of the recent trend whereby adult colouring-in books were outselling books with words. These graphics share space with short fiction, commentary, memoir and poetry by such writers as Ruth Wyer, Stuart Barnes, Wendy Xu, and the poetically verbose, self-named ‘whore’ Regrette Etcetera. David Thornby’s prizewinning ‘Being the Boy the Memoir’ (56) eloquently evokes the real-time disassociating horror of child sexual abuse and its deforming, disabling legacy:

I am a man, and he is dead, and nobody touches my cock and I touch nobody’s… I am terrified of what I ache for, and I ache, awfully, for what terrifies me. This seems unfair: it seems a consequence of being the boy, when now I am the man; I should be free. (56)

One of the most striking pieces of writing in this issue is Paola Balla’s beautifully rendered reflections of a woman with indigenous and Calabrian heritage. Here, the protagonist recalls sex with a stranger:

A hotted up Commodore idles nearby, its red tail lights like red eye at the window, seeping into the exhaust fumes like beautiful bleeding little clouds, red eye mooky taunting me, watching and disapproving while I open myself up to a complete stranger.
A young Italian from the western suburbs, older by about nine years to my sixteen has me pinned onto Yorta Yorta Country pushing me into her until I feel like I don’t exist at all. I fall through the Country like a little dark Alice, falling and falling… (25)

She sees welcome, pity and love in the underworld’s petrified creatures, and later, the Murray ‘laps ever so gently’ (25) nearby. In this way Balla makes us feel the comfort of the land’s impersonal quietness – its never-threatening, always-thereness – and thus emphasises the brutal indifference and violence of the man. Balla’s restraint allows her to say very much with very few words: using contrast, humour and keenly observed gestures and dialogue, she reveals the chasm between indigenous and white Australian experience. She watches the town’s old white ladies, noting their gold jewellery and their obliviousness to its ‘connective purpose’ (27) in the earth. Their oblivious sense of entitlement and privilege provokes the narrator to erupt into anger and accusation, an eruption which powerfully reveals the internal pressure of her prior restraint: ‘I am sad, bitter and wounded and really, really angry’ (28). Why do these white women get to grow old when the narrator’s Nan died at 61? Why are they free from worries about ‘feeding your kids… or knowing how to read the signs when you are going to be raped or bashed…’? (28) Balla’s writerly skill allows her to express deep affection for her people in the very same gesture that she shows how detrimentally they have internalised their diminished status. Of her grandmother, she writes:

‘My big damper nose!’ She’d laugh, mocking herself and pushing her elegant long fingers onto the tip of her nose (which I thought was beautiful like her) squishing it from side to side. (28)

The narrator’s own self-diminishment manifests in her casual reference to her breakdown and sexual abuse as a child: they are mentioned in passing, as if they are ordinary, as if they simply don’t matter at all.

The foil to Balla’s story ostensibly lies in Khalid Warsame’s ‘Australia Day’, an energetic parody that depicts seemingly superficial people ‘celebrating’ a superficial day in their superficial lives: ‘we knew most of Audrey’s friends Face-book-well, which was well enough’ (53). Whilst this superficiality is emphasised by the story’s ‘dot point’ structure, it is undermined by hints of seriousness: miscarriage, death, inarticulable grief and the characters’ constant struggle to both avoid and achieve real human connection. Cleverly, Warsame suggests that the apparent superficiality of his peers’ world is simply that: apparent, superficial.

The Lifted Brow shouts with a chorus of deeply informed, visually and linguistically skilled artists who not only have something important to say, but the courage to say it. Impressive.


Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has had reviews, essays, fiction and poetry published in Australia and overseas.


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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste