Monday, September 28, 2009

In Defence of Redheads

I may or may not be a redhead. It shouldn't matter, one way or another, should it? No more than my eye colour or my height or the colour of my shoes.

But it does, to many people, not the colour of one's hair generally, but the colour of one's hair if it happens to be red.

If I were a redhead it is likely that I might have been teased as a child - matchstick, lighthouse, little orphan Annie, all of that - but the teasing is unlikely to have been terribly serious, right, no worse than the teasing every young child endures who earns their stripes at a co-educational school.

Or perhaps it might have been a little worse than that.

Ok, fine, I admit it, I'm a redhead, a ginga, a fanta-pants, a ranga. Please don't stop reading, let me finish, give me the benefit of the doubt.

I am infected with the ginger-gene. Gingervitis. Do you pity me?

I never realised it was an infection until those scholars at gave me something to think about. I never realised I was meant to be embarassed until I went away on holiday with a group of near-strangers and watched the expressions on their faces when they chose for our evening entertainment that particular episode of Catherine Tait - you know the one, it's about a protective shelter for gingers.

Of course I knew I was a minority of sorts. Magazine covers feature blondes or brunettes, not redheads. Features on cosmetics for various skintones or styles for different hair colours generally omit the freckled faces and ginger curls of the McDonald clan.

But it has become cool to poke fun of rangas. Maybe it was always a little bit cool, but it is now the poking-fun equivalent of reality TV, ubiquitous and widely enjoyed (by the baser members of society). A bit of sport. The fast food of poking fun, cheap and readily available.

I read a story not long ago about a couple in the UK with the misfortune of bearing six ginger children. They were forced to move village three or four times in as many years, for no reason other than the appalling bullying the kids endured at school as a result of their hair colour.

One could argue we are the newest minority group in need of anti-discrimination legislation. In fact, we're becoming extinct, haven't you heard?

Truth be told I embrace, me and my ginga friends hang out together and revel in our very gingessence. There are some advantages in redness.

I have observed, for example, through investigatory browsing that most pornsites have fetish categories specifically for redhead-lovers, so there must be some of you out there. And I have been the focus of a 'ranga-challenge' on a boys night out (the challengers were unsuccessful, if you must know, at least with me).

Redheads are sexy, didn't you know? Just look at Jessica Rabbit. Oh, and a German study a year ago determined we have more sex than the average Joe. We must be having it with somebody, and if it was only other rangas we wouldn't be on the verge of extinction.

And being subjected to inevitable teasing as a child gives us a certain water-off-a-duck's back imperviousness to all sorts of verbal jousting and barbs. We can take what we give, give what we take. Redheads are good to be around.

Unless, of course, you step on that hidden fuse and ignite the ginga temper. The myths do not exaggerate. And we can hold a grudge a long, long time. Be warned.

But in my experience rangas rock. Redheads are fun, we are sparky, we are ok with the fact that you can see us a mile away in the sunlight and our skin is almost see-through.

Your life would be boring without us. Admit it, we make you feel better about yourselves.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Adam & Jessie: Chapter 2

The week before, all it had taken was one glance. She had seen him across the crowded pub and stopped, thinking - "that man is exactly my type". Yet had someone asked her what that type was, she would not have been able to explain. When they were introduced, and he shook her hand, they locked eyes for many seconds too long to be socially acceptable. She was dating many men at the same time, deliberately, in order to prevent herself from feeling too much for any of them.

But immediately Adam was different.

She got up and went to meet the dingo. She knelt and patted him, and Adam came to kneel beside her. The dingo sniffed at her, took her arm in his mouth and gnawed at it playfully, ears cocked, eyes sparky. Adam looked at her, then at the dingo – "yeah, she smells good, doesn't she?" he said to the dingo, scratching him behind the ears. "I think so too." Jessie grinned at him.
From the pub they went to dinner. A small South American eatery, he knew the staff by name and they knew him. Perhaps he didn't bring people here often, she thought. The woman manager was openly curious about her, and at one stage commented that she should take a photograph of the two of them. Was the chemistry between them so palpable, she wondered?

A little garden out the back of the restaurant. They stood there smoking, admiring the green surrounds and the twinkling fairy lights. And here they kissed. She was removed, entranced, from the present. For the first time in a year, she felt the coldness inside of her dislodge. It was replaced, gradually, by a glowing sensation. A warmth and a light filling her up from the inside:

He smiled at her.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Truth or Fiction? The Conflation of Genre

Some of the most powerful books I have read over the past years surf the uneasy line between fiction and fact. These are books that have become renowned specifically as a result of their ambiguous trajectory. Books around which controversy has spun a web of intrigue so thick that the authors involved have been lucky to emerge relatively unscathed, personal and professional lives altered but intact.

Last year a strange thing happened in my workplace. Out of nowhere a pile of dog-eared paperbacks appeared in our ‘break-out’ space, lining the windowsills in a haphazard manner. Correctly surmising that these were on their way out, headed for the tip unless someone rescued them, I pounced immediately, picking from the rabble at least one treasure – a well-thumbed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

I had heard of this book. Notably, in an earlier life, a freer life, a life in which I had the time and inclination to watch daytime TV, I had watched an Oprah episode during which James Frey appeared to promote his memoir. I have since learnt that the Oprah episode I watched was the first of two featuring Frey. The second would be very different from the first.

On the episode I watched, Oprah – and her audience – purported to be blown away by the raw authenticity of Frey’s writing. A Million Little Pieces is the story of a 23-year-old man whose out-of-control drug and alcohol addictions have destroyed his life and his body, probably irrevocably. He enters a rehab centre in the knowledge that a relapse will mean almost certain death. His journey towards redemption is fraught with gut-wrenching pain, the development of intense personal relationships, and an unflinching honesty which draws the readers in, totally absorbed. And the book’s real drawcard is the fact that the protagonist is Frey himself.
I couldn’t put the book down. Apparently, neither could Oprah.

Frey won great accolades for the book. The editors at picked it as their favourite book of 2003. The New York Times gave it a rave review. Readers all over America and the globe spoke in awe of this most truthful account of drug addiction and rehabilitation. Frey’s genuine confrontation with pain lent awareness to an issue affecting thousands, millions of people the world over.

In late 2005 / early 2006 investigators discovered that significant elements of Frey’s memoir were untrue. Controversy erupted. Readers felt duped. Frey’s literary manager dropped him. Oprah invited him back on her show in order to ask him a series of accusatorial questions. During the show she told him – point blank – that she felt betrayed. In front of a live-TV audience and hundreds of thousands of at-home viewers, Frey was forced to list the inaccuracies in his book, and to justify every departure from the truth.

Readers subsequently launched a lawsuit against Frey’s publishing house, seeking a refund because the book was not what it had claimed to be. They were outraged.

I knew all of this when I started reading A Million Little Pieces, and I picked up the book as a result of the controversy, not in spite of it. What blew me away while I was reading it was Frey’s ability to write in a manner so honest that the story appears to be unerringly true. Had I not known otherwise, I would have been utterly convinced the book was indeed a memoir. Surely, I thought to myself, the power to write so convincingly is itself an extraordinary gift? The book is fast-paced, gripping, exciting – the alteration of facts makes no difference to the authenticity of Frey’s writing. I was 100% hooked.

A couple of years ago I read another book, equally honest, equally controversial. Nikki Gemmel’s The Bride Stripped Bare is erotic fiction at its best. A bored housewife turns to adulterous liaisons with various strangers - including a beautiful virgin - in an effort to re-invigorate her monotonous (but outwardly satisfactory) suburban life.

The novel was published anonymously. Only after publication did the British press unearth Nikki Gemmel as the author. The frankness of her treatise on women’s sexuality became, with her identification, all at once a controversy of the strangest kind – readers across the world were convinced, once she was found out, that Gemmel’s book was not, after all, a novel, but a memoir. Surely, critics reasoned, there would be no need for anonymity unless Gemmel had something real to hide. And she was, after all, married, a housewife, a mother. Just like her protagonist.
The authenticity sought by Frey’s readers, Gemmel’s readers projected onto her, even though her book was classified as fiction. Such perversity. Are we so much more willing to believe the worst of our writers?

In explaining her wish to write anonymously, Gemmel has said that it is difficult for women to write honestly about sexuality, even in our post-feminist world. She says she views anonymity as liberation, particularly for women writers, and cites Virginia Woolf as saying about women that “anonymity runs in their blood – the desire to be veiled still possesses them.” Gemmel has also said that honesty is the most shocking thing of all – a truth she has experienced first-hand since her own unveiling as author of The Bride.

If honesty is so shocking, why was it more upsetting for readers to discover that James Frey was not entirely honest? Why is it so astonishing to find that writers – whose role, one could argue, is precisely to spark controversy, discussion, debate in society – have subverted traditional notions of genre, blurring the line between fact and fiction, in order to provoke? Isn’t that, in fact, what we should demand of them?

Enemies of Imagination - Teaser
Barbara Trapido writes in Temples of Delight that her hero, the man of letters, Giovanni, ate biscotti, hard Italian biscuits, biting on them, gathering up the crisp crumbs in his mouth before taking between his teeth Alice's nipple and sucking. The contrast of hard and soft, those rough-edged crumbs on pale pink skin.

Clare thought she had found her Giovanni, her Mr Darcy. She fantasised about Jack biting her, tearing her skin with his teeth. As it turned out, she never had to tell him her fantasies - he was Giovanni, he played her body like an electric guitar.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movement and the Transit Lounge

Pico Iyer, in his essay about transcontinental tribalism, "Living in the Transit Lounge", wonders what, if anything, the new Global Citizens feel strongly about. What are the passions we would live for? He asks. What are the ideals we would die for?

Once one removes nationality, patriotism, cultural and religious affiliations from the human equation one is left with ... not indifference, exactly, but an unusual degree of objective evaluation. It is incomprehensible to the nomad, Iyer writes, to want to die for one's country, for example. It is incomprehensible to the cross-cultural person to believe so strongly in any one culture as to willingly sacrifice oneself to it or for it.

But there is something we would die for, live for, something Iyer points to but does not recognise as the essence of the global existence.

It is Freedom.

Freedom to travel without due regard to borders. Freedom to live and work in many countries, freedom to interact with various cultures in their own language, freedom to get up and leave when the itch begins again.

Getting on a plane, for the global nomad, is coming home to all that is most familiar in the transnational life. The airplane, the transit lounge, these no-man's-land non-geographical spaces are the identifiers of our culture.

And we would fight to the hilt if anyone prevented us from continuing to move across the world. Because that movement is the essence of who we are.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Year of Dating Dangerously - Part I

Sitting in the Tropicana Café, a Sydney institution, in Darlinghurst. She was reading a chick-lit novel, unusual for her. Its cover was ostentatiously pink with an illustration of a pair of fleshy bare legs set behind the title.

Sitting on her own, reading such a very pink book, she was probably inviting trouble, and she knew it. She was seated at a window table, and she sipped wine as she read.

Outside, in mirror image to the table at which she sat, was another, open-air table. The trio seated there were separated from her only by the floor to ceiling window she glanced through occasionally. The trio comprised two men and a woman, and the relationship between them was hard to discern. Gradually, though, she became aware that the man seated closest to her was stealing glances at her through the window.

She caught his eye once, and smiled. The frequency and duration of the gazes increased.

Finally the man caught her eye again, then tilted his head slightly to one side in order to read the title of her book:

Good in Bed”, it proclaimed, loudly, garishly.

His eyebrows raised as he gave her a look of mock horror, leaning back in his chair with his hand on his chest in a parody of moral outrage. She laughed.

He turned back to his table and scribbled something on a piece of paper, which he then held against the window so that she could read it:

Are you?” it said.

She laughed again, then gave him the thumbs up and a slightly naughty smile, a wink.

His turn to laugh.

His cheekiness appealed to her, and he was attractive – dark hair, dimples, tall – above all, funny, her weakness. He wrote something else on his piece of paper and held another note to the glass. It said, simply:


She grinned. Why not? She wrote her name and number on a piece of paper and added underneath:

“ – after that, how could I not?”

She held the paper up to the window and watched as the man chuckled and entered her number into his phone. He then wrote another note:

My name is Jake. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

She liked him already. Good name. Good with words. Witty. The whole exchange had been original, different. Even if he never called, this was a come-on she would not soon forget.

And it got better.

One of the friends sitting with him, the girl, was next to write a note, a slightly longer one this time.

Has he told you yet about the 4 ex-wives and the 10 children?” She wrote.

The response:

Who wants an inexperienced man?”

By now the table outside was in stitches, highly entertained.

When they got up to leave, soon after this last exchange, Jake looked at her, inclined his head in an action reminiscent of a Victorian gentleman tipping his hat at a lady, and smiled. She smiled back, waved. Jake returned her wave and then sauntered off with his friends.

Possibilities. The year of yes.

Review: The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler

I love Jane Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was in seventh grade, sleeping over at a friend’s house and staying up late by myself with a flashlight to finish the novel, quietly gleeful when Elizabeth finally accepted Mr Darcy’s proposal.

I have since read and re-read Pride and Prejudice, and have gradually devoured all of Austen’s other novels with almost as much pleasure.

You would think an avid fan of Austen’s writing, herself a member of a book club, would find a book entitled The Jane Austen Book Club enthralling. Instead, I am sorry to say, I just didn’t like it.

By all means, if you are a hardcore Austen fan and hunger for anything even mildly related to Austen or her books, give it a go. The writing is not bad. It is simply contrived. What is it with this tide of books using motifs from the classics to infuse what would be plain and mundane stories with something that might pass for a touch of high-brow?
Bridget Jones’s Diary was better. Because the writing itself is amusing and Fielding doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously, I found the parallels in the framework of Bridget Jones to Pride and Prejudice to be entertaining rather than distracting or just plain irritating, as they become in The Jane Austen Book Club. Similarly, I confess to having greatly enjoyed Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season (not Austen but Alexander Pope is emulated here) – again because it was a little tongue in cheek, a little original in and of itself before borrowing substantially from the Western Canon. In order for a writer to be permitted to improvise from the springboard of the Canon I think it is essential that they first earn the right through innovation, creativity, great writing or – at the very least - a sense of humour wittily expressed through the written word.

Many people have given Fowler’s most recent novel stunning reviews. The Washington Post, for example, ends its stellar review of the book with this line:

“That it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged.”

Again, with the borrowing. It is like the repeated cheapening of Beethoven’s Ninth or Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by their use in pop/techno/dance songs or advertising jingles. The opening line of Pride and Prejudice was once dear to me but now, after so much re-hashing and over-use in the popular media it is beginning to grate. Similarly, when one of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club persists in referring to Austen as ‘Jane’, it is grating – even if this is intended, even if it is critical to the development of that character, it grates like fingernails on a blackboard.
The Jane Austen Book Club follows the lives of five women and one man over a period during which they meet regularly to discuss Jane Austen’s work. At each book club meeting a different Austen novel becomes the focus of discussion. Each book club member is dealing, in his or her life, with significant issues – separation from a spouse, falling in love, homosexual love, the lure of an adulterous liaison – each theme is explored through a character. And each character, each relationship, is meant to reflect – some with more subtlety than others – a Jane Austen character or plot.

The novel is set in California.

Am I the only reader who feels that an attempt to set a re-hashed version of all of Jane Austen’s novels in modern-day California might be a bit of a stretch? We don’t have the literary equivalent of Baz Luhrmann’s directorial genius to turn a classic into a modern cult icon (as he did with the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet). Nor does Fowler have, as Luhrmann did, the excuse of altering aspects of the original text with the liberty permitted by the use of a different medium. Shakespeare never had the medium of film at his fingertips.

Fowler’s novel is accompanied, at the end, by various appendices – synopses of all of Jane Austen’s novels (so you don’t actually have to read them), an admittedly riveting collection of comments by Jane Austen’s family, friends, colleagues on her novels and her life, and the now ubiquitous set of Questions for Discussion. Like that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer creates a coffee table book about coffee tables that actually becomes a coffee table, here is a novel about a book club created especially for book clubs, cheat-tools included. Worse still, the questions are apparently posed by the book’s characters themselves. Questions by the characters about the characters, in which they seek to draw parallels between their lives and the lives and characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

I understand the concept. And yes, the novel is diverting – I was absorbed and read it very quickly – but it feels forced. And the notion of the book, what it is meant to do, the discussions Fowler envisions her readers having across America (and the world?) is, to me, a kind of Austen equivalent to the science fiction convention, science fiction being a genre which does also feature in this book (in the Pride and Prejudice themed relationship, no less – along with Rhodesian Redbacks and an age gap – a Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher age gap, not the traditional Elizabeth Bennet/Mr Darcy age gap).

Fowler says towards the beginning of the book that each of her characters has his or her own ‘private Austen’ – an image or an understanding of Austen (the person, not the books) of his or her own making. This continued emphasis by Fowler and her characters on the author rather than the literature is another annoyance. But I suppose that Fowler is partly right – I too have a private Austen. And she is just that – private.

More Play - Vignette 3: Male POV

He knows as he leans against the bar by himself that he cuts a fine figure. He observes the woman on the other end of the room glancing at him, repeatedly, and takes pleasure in it. He is not concerned by the lateness of the girl he has come here to meet. There is too much to see, the Friday night crowd bustles and hums around him.

He looks up in time to see her trip as she enters the room. Typical, he thinks. She looks dishevelled and he dreads the evening ahead, although her obvious interest in him is endearing. I’ll stay for one drink, two max, he thinks.

'Hi,' she says, approaching him warily.He looks at her. She is clearly nervous.

‘You know what your problem is?’ he asks.

‘What?’ she says, a little alarmed.

‘You don’t know whether I’m a good guy or an asshole.’

She swallows. ‘That’s not true,’ she says. ‘I know you’re a good guy.’

He smiles at her, and thinks: Duped.

He orders her a glass of wine and knows he could fuck her by the end of the evening, and that chick across the room too if he wanted to. Sometimes his life is almost boring in its ease.

He decides to mix things up a little.

'You've been eating garlic,' he says, knowing that the bar inflicts close talking as a necessity.

It hits the mark, high colour rising on her cheeks. But he is not expecting her response. She looks up at him, defiant.

‘I take back what I said before. I think you might be an asshole after all.’

It is the first time she has spoken to him like this and the first time he has felt any attraction towards her. Lust seizes him unexpectedly. He raises an eyebrow, artfully.

‘Really?’ he says. ‘Doesn’t that make me a little more interesting?’

She smiles, and he realises she is not insipid as he once thought.

‘Maybe.’ she says. ‘Maybe I’m a bit of a bitch, too, and you don’t know it yet.’

I bet you are, he thinks to himself. But he doesn’t say it. Instead he turns to the maitre de at the bar and asks for a table in the plush restaurant next door.

‘I thought we might have dinner together.’

She looks at him, thoughtfully, catching her plump bottom lip between her teeth.

‘Why not,’ she says. ‘I have nothing better to do.’

But as he turns towards the dining room he feels something cold on the back of his neck. He puts his hand up to catch it and the golden liquid flows through his fingers. He is too late to catch her wine glass, as it falls to the ground, or her arm, as she strides by him out the door.

The fuck that might have been, will never be.

The New Hardcovers

Remember when you would browse bookstores at Christmastime and linger longingly over the limited edition hardcover editions of new release books by your favourite authors? I do. There is a luxury inherent to the hardcover book that is revealed in the feel of a glossy slipcover which hides underneath it a matte cloth finish, the cover etched into it in gold type.

I particularly loved the uneven pages of roughcut editions. Authenticity always seems implicit in such deliberately unfinished work.

They are disappearing, though, the hardcovers. Have you noticed? They are being replaced by softcovers of a larger size.

This change snuck up on me. I didn’t realise, at first, that the giant-sized paperback was a replacement for the hardcover edition. I bought a number of them, and received others as gifts, and became increasingly perturbed: they don’t fit in my handbag.

The joy of a paperback lies in the ease with which you can carry it. I always have a book with me. You never know when you will be stuck somewhere, deserted unexpectedly. On buses, in queues, during lunch – you will often find me tucked away, nose in a book.

What good then, is the book you cannot carry? A hardcover was special, I used to save them for holiday reading, those luxurious times when I could stretch out on a beach or a windowseat for hours at a time, reading like a cat curled in the sunshine.

But these giant paperbacks do not have the same quality of luxury residing within the pages. They are just abnormally large paperbacks, problematic also because they do not fit on the shelves in my bookcase and they are not easily read in bed with the one-handed grip I have perfected over years.

Booksellers beware: these new hardcovers do not sell books. I regard them warily and walk past, waiting instead for the release of the traditional paperback version in a year’s time.

Adam & Jessie: Chapter 1

She accepted the invitation although it went against every rule in the modern book of women's etiquette. Do Not Accept an Invitation if it is Proffered on the Same Day as the Date is Scheduled For. To hell with it, she thought, I'm going anyway.

Doubts momentarily clouded her vision as she stepped into the Surry Hills pub at which they had arranged to meet. He wasn't there, yet she had planned and executed the perfect entrance – five to ten minutes late, as if rushing from another key appointment. She stepped up to the bar and ordered a glass of house white, determined to look confident and calm even if that was not what she was feeling.

As the barmaid handed her the glass, smiling, Jessie accepted it and handed over a $10 note. A hand on her elbow. A man, crew-cut, t-shirt, unfamiliar said: "Are you Jessie?" "Yes," she said. "Hi, I'm Shane. He's running late. Come and join us."

She walked outside, glass in hand, and sat with the band of strangers who eyed her curiously. She shrouded herself in social charm and made conversation. They were interesting, outgoing – different. A dingo sat on the nearby corner of the street, chewing his dinner of raw meat. Conversation ranged from electronic music to detox diets.

He arrived. He looked different than he had the week before. The shorts and t-shirt had been replaced by an ironed shirt in vibrant hues and snug-fitting jeans. She had forgotten he was so well built. His hair was the same, curly and soft, framing his face as well as his spectacles did. And his generous smile was warm as he sat down on the bench next to her, his thighs bumping against hers as she slid over to make room for him. Her heart surged into her throat but she responded gently, accepting his kiss graciously and enjoying the easy togetherness with which they parried and joked with his mates.

This is going well, she thought.


She sees him, from time to time.

It used to be she would see him out late, too late, past caring. Ships in the night.

First, they pretended not to see each other. Over time, they came to accept one another, eventually nodded or even smiled. Finally there was a joy when they met, unexpectedly, they would stand together harmoniously at the back of a nightclub watching the circus of twenty-something glamazons play out before them. Two lonely ancients, growing older and lonelier still. A mutual recognition of likeness.

And as another year ticks over, things have changed again.

Now they don't meet in the wee hours of the morning. Now it is evening. Now they are sober, almost. New places. Less circus. The recognition, the smiles, they mean more now. Clocks are turning backwards.

Because the chemistry is not gone. If anything, it is more dangerous now. Nothing to blame it on. It is not circumstantial, this time. It's real.

And the future awaits.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Springtime is a problem for me. Restlessness creeps upon me like a fast-growing vine. I can't shake it. New beginnings beckon from every direction.

I've tried yoga, it only makes me more impatient. I've tried meditation, I can't sit still for long enough. I've tried deep breathing, it only helps momentarily.

I need to take up running again, or cycling, else I will surely slowly grow mad before summer is yet upon us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


For the first time in many years I want something so badly right now that I can taste it, it is bitter and strong at the back of my throat like the accidental, lingering taste of a pain reliever swallowed without water to wash it down.

Problem is, getting what I want inevitably closes other doors. Getting what I want means moving overseas again and leaving a reasonably settled life behind. Getting what I want even potentially closes the door on blossoming relationships.

I want to move again. I have moved enough in my life to look forward to the next time I can leave behind the tangled messy web of life that grows like a shroud of weeds around me every time I stay in one place for more than a year or two.

But a part of me now wonders whether it might be time to fight temptation, stay behind, bravely confront that overgrown meadow of my muddy life and clear a path through it to something new and green, sprouting leaves, growing roots.

A rolling stone stilled by moss.