To get to my grandfather’s bookshelf we first had to remove the strata of life-giving impedimenta that had built up over the last twenty years: oxygen tanks, IV drips, a hospital-style care bed; a certified, handmade icon of Mary and the infant Jesus, a Mary-shaped bottle of Lourdes miracle water, and another icon of Mary and child – Vietnamised now, with black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, dressed in the traditional silk robes of pre-colonial, independent Vietnam.
The prize at the end of our work was significant, for me at least – my grandfather’s battered paperback copy of The Sound and the Fury. Of course, identical copies, mass-produced and in better condition, could be found in any English-language secondhand bookstore around the world, but this copy had a power the others hadn’t; it reified something that had long felt fraudulent. Like letters patent, the book granted me access to the intellectual aristocracy: I was not, after all, the son of IT workers, of destitute boat people become middle-class suburban philistines, but the grandson of a thinker, a man who had taught himself English by reading Fisher’s History of Europe and The New Economics: Keynes’ Influence on Theory and Public Policy and The English Constitution – and Faulkner and Greene and the King James Bible.
Not that the object of my search was pure vanity, or snobbery (though it certainly had more than a trace of both). Instead, it was a salve, a bandage over a wound that had threatened a cherished childhood dream – a fantasy that we’ll call universalism. In the grips of that fantasy I had believed that the school library was open access, that there were no borders in the life of the mind save those of capability and curiosity. But then, somehow, through a thousand and one little signs, I began to understand – and, more importantly, to feel – the distance between myself and the authors I took home with me to read alone in bed when the house was still and the lights had gone out.
I became plagued with the same question that dogs Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me: who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? Who is the Faulkner of the Vietnamese? I might, as Coates did for a time, retreat into identity, into nationalism – the secessionist response. From here on, I will only read works by (Vietnamese/black/female/gay) authors; I will not seek safe passage through the library’s borders but instead fortify the barricades. But I was unwilling to pay the price of secession.
For one thing, I like Faulkner and Tolstoy; reading them, Yoknapatawpha County and Imperial Russia did not seem so far away, nor its citizens so different from me. Which, of course, is the allure of the dream – that from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, I have access to a universal consciousness, whose depth of thought and feeling, and whose capacity for love and shame and sacrifice mirrors my own. My grandfather’s copy ofThe Sound and the Fury meant all that to me and more – it meant I did not have to wake up from the dream, as I had begun to fear – that I could, echoing Coates, say that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – and Faulkner is the Faulkner of the Vietnamese.
To read the rest of this piece, visit Cordite where it was originally published.
‘WHEN YOU DON’T like whoever is in charge, you can vote them out. Right?’
It’s two in the morning, and I’m standing in the middle of the street outside my hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The speaker is a young xe om driver – one of those ubiquitous motorbike taxis that dart in and out of the traffic like busy mosquitos – and though he’s only twenty-six, the same age as me, Cuong has a wife and two children. On the ride from the canal-side bar back to my hotel, Cuong told me that this is his third job: during the day, he splits his time between working as a mechanic in a local garage and as a porter at a medium-sized hotel.
Eventually – as they all seem to here – our conversation turns to politics. Cuong gives me his interpretation of Australia’s political system: democracy, to him, means you can kick out the government when they do a bad job. He compares this to the situation in Vietnam, where there is no opposition party, no elections, no open criticism of the government. Instead of getting the boot, the government here is untouchable, regardless of their performance or the wellbeing of the people. The inevitable result of such immunity is corruption, at every level of power.
‘The police here are very bad,’ says Cuong, sounding angry. ‘They can stop you for no reason at all. And then they’ll just keep you there, on the side of the road, until you give them money.’
On the bigger political questions, Cuong is more fatalistic. Before my arrival in Vietnam, the international news had been all about the Chinese Government’s unilateral move to place an oil rig off the disputed Paracel Islands (which the Vietnamese Government claims lies within its exclusive economic zone) in the South China Sea (a further sore point for the Vietnamese Government, who would rather it be known as the Eastern Sea – for a while, Lonely Planet’s travel guides were banned in Vietnam because they referred to that particular body of water by its Sino designation). The incident stirred up the uglier side of Vietnamese nationalism, with mass demonstrations culminating in pogroms that saw scores of Chinese-owned – or at least, supposedly Chinese, but often Taiwanese or Korean – businesses burnt or destroyed and left up to twenty dead. But when I ask Cuong about the sea dispute he simply shrugs his shoulders.
‘That’s a matter for the rich,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t concern the poor.’ After a pause he adds, ‘Unless there’s a war with China. Then it’s us who will be fighting.’
Conscription aside, Cuong’s primary concern is corruption, a topic he keeps circling back to. The fact that we vote for our leaders in Australia strikes him as particularly important. Who would vote again for a corrupt leader?
By this point I’m conscious that we’ve been standing in the middle of the road for half an hour, undisturbed by the occasional xe om which skirts easily around us. But Cuong presses me for an answer to his question. ‘That,’ he says, referring to the endemic corruption, ‘would never happen in Australia, would it?’
My mind turns to ICAC and the NSW parliament, to the influence of mining lobbyists, and the periodic scandals surrounding police drug squads. But it feels churlish to disagree so I nod my head. That’s right – nothing like that ever happens in Australia. We’re a democracy, after all.
This article was first published in The Monthly. Buy it here.
About halfway between Tennant Creek and Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, Michael Williams signals for us to pull over for a toilet break. He directs me to a spot by the Stuart Highway where a squat brick memorial commemorates the northernmost point of an expedition led by John McDouall Stuart in 1860 to find the centre of the continent. “A lot of massacres around in this country,” Williams says. “Some fellas got shot, some whitefella got speared. Named the highway after him.” He reads aloud from the memorial’s plaque. “‘Hostile natives and illness forced the party to return.’ See that there? We’re hostile.” He laughs and we get back in the car. Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published in issue 22 of The Lifted Brow. Buy it here.
I don’t know how to think about these things…
On the one hand, I am distinct from you. I am distinct from my father and I am distinct from my children, were I ever to have any. My existence is discrete, bookended by a birth and a death. I am hermetically sealed from the outside world by my skin, by which I recognise myself in the mirror: an individual, a subject, not you or him or her or it but me. I am the bearer of rights and the holder of tastes. I assert my human right to self-expression. Read the rest of this entry »
This article was first published in the Sex issue of The Lifted Brow. Get a copy here.
I literally stumbled across Tom Grant for the first time in the living room of my Flemington share house. We’d had a big party the night before, and I was groping my way to the bathroom when I tripped on something amongst the broken glass and the empty goon bags. Tom was wrapped in our filthy rug, sleeping with his mouth half open. Later, when my housemates and I were half-heartedly cleaning up around him, one of them nudged his prone body and whispered to me, “that’s the boy wonder, Tom Grant.” Read the rest of this entry »
This article was originally published in Issue 2 of the New Philosopher. Buy a copy here.
It has been 65 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the world has witnessed a proliferation of international human rights treaties and organisations. The language of human rights has become the dominant moral language of our time. Yet that has not stopped the atrocities, from Rwanda to Syria, nor uplifted the wretched of the earth. Have human rights failed? Read the rest of this entry »