Actually, it was an ex-bar, the renovated former Barkly Hotel, which is now host to the west-side Lentil As Anything. I took my friend Ali to show him a place where he could take his family, or invite anyone for a meal or a coffee without having to pay anything. Indoor places are important in these bleak, freezing Melbourne August days. And being able to sit and share food and sociality is super important when you’re feeling the brunt of social exclusion policies.
Here was the idealised demo version of Footscray, where its warm multicultural Womintjenka heart beating strongest. It was full, and warm, unlike the grey wind whipped Barkly Street. Old white dudes with a range of accents and Bulldogs beanies beckoned us in. Hipsters in a range of garb and hijabs served us coffee and cleared tables. Couches and tables were occupied by every shape, size and shape of human imaginable. It was like the passengers of the 220 bus on happy gas. Ali recognised someone from “the camp”. A group of Asian-looking kids in school uniforms bustled around, cleaning the windows and tables, looking like they were on a school volunteering excursion. Ali and I sat next to an old Aussie Lady, warming our hands on our cafe lattes, and he was gobsmacked, He said he couldn’t believe this place exists, that people do charity work here, and that people can eat for free, or pay what they like, and that it works.
I had to blink away the tears in my eyes, and tell him more stories, like about the owners of the Retravison (now Betta electrical) across the road. How they were boat people from Cambodia 30 years ago, and how their daughter studied law and is a famous writer, writing about the lives of her parents, coming here, and working so hard to make a better life for their children. Walking along and weaving new storylines around Footscray, making a circuit from train station, to the markets, to lentil as anything, to the halal butcher, back to the station, where he was taking some meat back to his wife and kids on a train and a bus back to the AMES hostel in Tarneit aka semi rural suburban scrubland half an hour from Werribee. Broadmeadows seems like Paris by comparison. We spoke about our pasts, our families. He asked about the slang expressions like “Aussie”, told me how his friends in England say “Innit”. We laughed nervously about lesbo porn when I outed myself. Then I relaxed and told him about my partner. He told me about Pakistan. We both sighed about Syria.
Readers of this blog will know that I’ve been visiting the MITA detention centre peripetatically for most of this year. I resumed regular visits once the crazy season of marking 150 essays came to an end, by which time things had changed quite a bit. From being a fairly small centre of only male detainees -many of them long term, it has now expanded to include a constant whirl of families, arriving by boat, and spending a few weeks or months before being despatched to community detention. community detention consists of 6 weeks in a hostel in Maidstone, sunshine or god only knows where, with a case worker trying to find them rental accommodation affordable on – wait for it – 60% of Newstart. Those caseworkers must be magicians.
Meanwhile the micropolitics of each case, each person; who stays in for how long, who gets released, where they go, what they do afterwards…. are… intense. Absolutely intense. Wonderful, moving, brilliant, terrible. Homi Bhabha springs to mind. the crazy everyday shifts of local cosmopolitanisms, listening to Iranian rap music blaring from a car that gave me a lift home from Footscray station, driven by a guy working in a meat-packing factory, which he nervously admits to Aussie visitors, because most of us seem to be vegetarian. I come home brimming with stories, blurbing to my partner, and hearing them buzz all night so I don’t sleep afterwards.
I scribble them down and I want to sing and shout them to everyone in the world, right now, because the wonder of these peoples lives, the sheer miracle that they survived sea journeys, left countries I can’t imagine, and are now here in this little world of Melbourne that I’m slowly falling in love with, is just astonishing.
I stop then, I pause…. because of a niggling discomfort. About representation, and who has the right to tell whose stories. Let me tell you another story to explain what I mean.
I met another volunteer at MITA last night (I met quite a few – queer as me, and we queered the Tehran corner of MITA, discussing lesbo-dramas in English while our friends discussed things I don’t understand in Farsi). Anway this visitor came up to me half apologetically confessing about having accepted the drawings of a highly accomplished artist detainee. He’d asked for payment, and she’d agreed to pay but “not realised he wanted money immediately”. She told me she’d had them framed, and was wondering if she should offer him money now, you know, fifty bucks or something. I felt about as sick as I did hearing about the gassing of families in Syria yesterday. I imagined her home, with hundred dollar frames around the drawings by my friend, who I joke about as ‘teaching me to draw’, because he is that good. I imagine her boasting to her friends about this being ‘by a refugee I know’, using the drawings to boost her symbolic, cultural capital, and not saying how she took them for free, and still hasn’t paid him, 12 or 18 months later, and I feel sick thinking about it so I stop.
Meanwhile, as the kids of flooded the visitors centre, demanding paper and crayons and attention, and doing drawing after drawing and writing their names and giving them to me, including the girl in the wheelchair (a visitor) who could somehow communicate with an 11 year old detainee, who couldn’t speak any English – so I had to get my friend to translate for her….. doing drawings of dinosaurs and butterflies and birds and faces and hands and giving a drawing for every drawing I take, because I never ever ever want to be one of those white people who think they are giving something by venturing into new territories to take even more things from people who have almost nothing. And so I haven’t asked for any art from my friend the artist, but I’m hoping to take him to shows and spaces where he can negotiate to sell his own art, not as charity, but as the skilled work it is.
Another friend gives me poems and stories. I give him illustrations in exchange. I forward them to friends who will publish them, because his words need to be shared. I’m not reproducing them here, because they are worth more than that. What I want to do, and hope to do, is share stories and words and tales and hope, and give people the hope and skills and connections so they can tell the stories that only they have the right to tell.
Meanwhile back on the ranch, I’m still protesting, writing letters, and the usual palaver to try to ward off the abjectly obscene cruelty proposed by our government. I hate them, I really, really just hate them so much. I can’t bear to stop and sit and dwell on this hatred, so I turn away and work at reminding myself just how many decent, generous people there are.