romesh dissanayake filed from Melbourne just before Australia’s referendum vote
A black rescue greyhound is pacing up and down the hallway downstairs. Her paws are clacking on the floorboards. It’s the zoomies. She’s making that noise. She wants me to launch her squeaky toy over the garage. As far as Princes Park. As far as Rathdowne Village. Because she just wants to run.
Doesn’t it feel like everyone has left or is thinking of leaving?
I’m here because, I don’t really know why. Because it’s Australia? Chasing mangoes and watermelons as usual… Typical. The suburb I live in is a 20 minute tram ride away from the city. A suburb where the streets are hella wide and learner drivers with L plates do laps round the neighbourhood. I’ve seen nervous training instructors pull up to the intersection. One hand on the dashboard. The other on the steering wheel.
The suburb feels quiet, reserved and closed off. Somewhat sketchy at night. Walking home alone, you can’t help but be on guard. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a person, twitching and shouting, walking down the street at you, is on a handsfree call or is strung out and wired. Most of the time I can call it. But people just like yell into their phones over here. So at night, when it gets dark, it gets a bit harder to tell the difference.
I’ve seen lines outside Soi 38 go out of the parking building. I’ve seen people who look like AI art walking around. Dressed head-to-toe in Balenciaga. I’ve seen people smoke meth on the trams. I’ve seen a chair thrown through a shop front window. I walk around drinking my taro milk tea. Boba. Snacking on fried skewers. “Join Us for a Bite” playing in my ears.
It’s nice over here. Really. I like it.
It’s just more. More Lankan food. More buffets. More bakeries. More roast paan. More. I go get Sai Oua and grilled fish balls with spicy tamarind sauce from SBT Thai Grocer whenever I go to the city. I just sit there in the draughty outside courtyard of the QV, waiting for the Writers Talk at the Wheeler Centre to begin. My fingers shrivelled and dry, my mouth on fire, the tip-of-the-nose sweats. Snacking on sausage.
It’s mid-September in Melbourne and, apart from the occasional patch of mild weather, it still feels like we’re in winter. It’s rainy and cold. The sun’s setting so I’m wondering if I should walk to Barkley Square to see if Kmart sells books because I’ve run out of things to read. I’d read a microwave manual at this point if I have to. I’m that desperate. It’s so tricky when you want to read but don’t have a book that you love. And a stack at the library ready for pick-up that you’re never going to get round to reading.
I’m just craving good sci-fi that slaps. Like Octavia Butler. Or Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenya. Or even Uncle Arthur C. Clarke will do. I especially love sci-fi set in the past. Alternate histories. That uto/dystopian feel is the only thing I can relate to right now.
A couple of weeks ago I went through a late nineteenth century phase for some reason. Specifically, France. The Dreyfus Affair. Zola. The Belly of Paris. Les Halles. I walked around imagining market vendors rolling in their carts filled with cabbages and turnips at dawn. And drunkards stumbling home after a late night out. But most of all, Lamplighters. Dutiful Lamplighters. At the end of their shift. The amber morning glow. “As well as a ladder, the lamplighter carried a pole with an ignition lamp and a hook at the top. They used the hook to pull open the lamp window, pull down one of the chains to open the gas supply and use the lamp on the pole to light the gas.”
Paris in the late nineteenth century. A time when a whole workforce of Lamplighters were slowly being phased out. Reared redundant. Which kinda feels like sci-fi to me.
The times we live in. Everything feels all up in the air at the moment, doesn’t it? The ground beneath feels unsteady. The pace of this city throws me. And sometimes I feel so smol. Sometimes I need to take a second and tap out. All I can do is just go about completing my little tasks. Packing my lunches. Visiting Nan out east while she’s still alive.
Most, if not all afternoons lately, I’m writing. Or trying to write. Or editing at snail’s pace. Staring blankly at the flowers on the dresser. Waiting for my opponent to make a move on chess.com. I’ve been multitasking and code-switching in familiar but heightened ways. That’s what having deadlines will do to you. Be careful what you wish for, etc, etc.
Over here we’re in the midst of a referendum: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Before the start of each Film Fest movie I’ve been to this year, an ad campaign on “Why I’m Voting Yes” plays and us left-leaning millennials in the audience give a subdued and loud-but-not-too-loud whoop and clap. Between fistfuls of Maltesers and popcorn.
Walking around Brunswick there are picket signs on peoples’ fences on how they’re voting Yes, yet the lush green state of Victoria, with its vast cities and shires, remains mostly silent on the issue. And I gotta say, not that I can vote over here anyway, but I don’t think we can pretend to live in neutrality any longer.
The ‘We’re one people’ narrative is laced with injustice. Back home we’re seeing the dangers of a similar kind of libertarianism unfold before our very eyes…
It’s hard to know what to think. Where to stand. Who to trust. I can’t help but feel like politics is just for those of us who have too much to eat. I know being over here, the privilege I have, to dip my toes in and out, and knowingly sit on the fence, is a privilege those who this referendum really affects don’t necessarily have.
Both the referendum and our elections are set to take place on the very same day: October 14. A date when both countries will shift. But in which direction? Who knows. People want change, but what that change looks like depends on who you talk to. What can I do but tell you all back home what’s been happening with me lately? And not all that much else.
Elections every three years give me mad anxiety. It’s so noisy at the moment huh? It’s so hard to keep up. I’m here doing my best to not spiral. To keep my skin somewhat moisturised. To have a real cute time. But, problem is, not everyone’s got the same agenda. Some of you really are lurking online, aye? Some of you really are hounding Shaneel for no reason. Yanfei Bao still hasn’t been found.
Though I’m weary of how white supremacist capitalist patriarchy subsumes all critique of itself, it’s Trans Rights. Land Back. For now and forever.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart 2017, reads: “Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
“This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
“How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”
It’s important here to ask questions like, Where do I derive my sense of nationhood from? To what people do I belong? For me, it’s all about the intersecting communities through which we all drift, collating experience. The only way to bring about change, to turn the tide, is to bring that ‘Triple the Vote’ energy to the change you want to see in the world.
Even if everything feels off at the moment. And McDonald’s just doesn’t hit the same way. Even if nothing feels absolutely positive about our countries right now. And we’re as divided as ever. And it’s hard to have hope. I’m still going to try to do something about it. Because Nan didn’t raise me defeatist.
The sun is setting through the skylight. I need to go downstairs and soak some rice. Marinate some cucumbers in shio kōji. Set the timer and take the dog for a walk. I need to ask someone in the group chat if they can get mirin for nasu dengaku for dinner. I’ll get some enoki mushrooms from Lunar Mart for our miso soup. And a spicy pork steamed bun for the walk home.
By the time you’re reading this, it’s probably already happened. And we’re living in a new world. From where I am right now, imagining the near future feels impossible somehow.
What kind of country am I going to come back to?
How are we going to change?
Who is going to bring in the new day?
If it’s going to happen as the polls say it will, to our modern-day Lamplighters, I say: May you have had your glory days in the setting sun. May you be recognised for all of your efforts. A golden eight-day chiming clock and a pat on the back out the door. I hope you know that your time will come too. May you willingly and gracefully bow out. Though you’ve banked on the disenfranchised and indignant, there are those of us waiting in the wings with a new kind of technology.
romesh dissanayake was commissioned by Joanno Cho, who is guest editor at ReadingRoom this week, and has commissioned work from three Asian New Zealand writers. Yesterday: her own contribution, a brilliant and intensely felt memoir of being teenage in Auckland. Tomorrow: Angelique Kasmara on her Indonesian dad