Friends have heard me whinge for five long and hard years about my homesickness for the city of sandstone cliffs, frothy waves, and blue skies where I lived for nearly 2 decades before moving south. Even my beloved Sir has come to accept that I need to spend regular bouts up north to avert a permafrost cast of a scowl on my face under the grey winds of Melbourne.
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in NSW, where blue skies and eastern seabreezes reoriented myself into a familiar habitus. In Sydney especially, where the humidity opens my pores, allows me to wear fewer layers, and wander along frangipani strewn streets, I feel like I’m living closer to the surface of my skin, living and moving through more of my body, more of the world, with freer and more frequent encounters with the familiar and the new than here……
But something strange happened this time – which is that I started to get homesick…. for Melbourne. Three days after Sir left me for a week of mad scampering between friends/beaches/cliffs/coffee/art/encounters, I started counting the days and the sleeps until I’d be flying south. I enjoyed Sydney till the very end; enjoyed the generosity of my friend’s hospitality, the conversations, ferries, harbour and beaches, the art, the takeaway food, and even the trains which are better than the privatised shambles of Melbourne’s non-tram transport…..
Maybe it was the lack of decent coffee (Marrickville broke my heart by closing my favourite bean suppliers), or maybe it was more closely related to the thing that really feeds me – which is a type of work. and it sounds crazy to miss work, but in fact the connections and community and possibilities created by the practice I’ve engaged in recently has made me feel that I have a place here, that I love.
This time the heartsinking thud of flying over Melbourne’s flat cityscape was absent, and I smiled, recognising familiar bits from above. Maybe it was the blue skies and glimpses of the bay. Maybe it was the relief of anticipating the four days of cave time that 40 plus temperatures would ensure that I had to have, to stave off any migraines. I find it hard to relax in Sydney, to avoid the allure of nice weather, stunning cliffs, warm waters….. whereas the suburban nest of flowers, pussycats and couches is a place of pausing and reflection…..
Towards the end of the heatwave, I emerged to remake familiar tracks to the markets, and the joys of a chemical sunset at the Altona dog beach where our neighbour took us to go swimming with hounds. I also left the house early one morning, clad in scarf-like raiments, lugging water bottles in my nanna cart, to brave a trainless western suburb transport system and head up to Broadmeadows.
The art group I’ve been helping with were having their first ‘exhibition’ – a 2 hour interlude preceeded by a 1 hour panic of mounting and hanging around 50 works by 10 artists, in the main visitors centre. I frequently find that words are incapable of containing the intensity and complexity of the experience of working with refugees inside detention. Broadmeadows is a ‘low-security’ centre, with the word ‘detention’ removed from its title, replaced with the euphemism of ‘transit accommodation’. Some staff rankle at the current mandate of referring to people inside as ‘detainees’, and my brain somersaults at the perplexities of that neoliberal term of ‘client’ performing a form of political resistance.
The performativity of the word ‘client’ is as part of a politicised imaginary that I am quite actively implicated in through the visits to the centre and participation in events like concerts, and exhibitions, and monthly ‘harmony day’ events. The ambiance feels uncannily like the kind of multicultural hospitality of Latino community events I remember from my early twenties, or even earlier in the reception of Vietnamese boat people to the small rural community where I grew up. Friends inside perform a deliberate acts of hospitality; offering us food and tea. Some of the staff also appear to perform the welcoming function of community workers; organising and facilitating events and visits as a form of cultural exchange, and visitors like me get to play cultural tourist, tasting exotic food, exchanging simple words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in new languages, smiling, handshaking, saying hello, applauding, appreciating……
This seems to be a world away from the news reports of Christmas Island. And yet everyone I meet inside has stayed there, as well as at other crueller centres such as Darwin or Villawood, and they are run by the same corporation that supports and encourages the volunteer art classes and our exhibition. And even in Broadmeadows, my friends whisper small stories of cruelty, bizarre mandates against fruit being given to adults, pregnant women having food confiscated, or being harassed and bullied by some officers. I feel as if I play a bizarre game of two-face, smiling and thanking the representatives of an organisation that is implicitly and profoundly monstrous, stating nice platitudes about the decorative talent of the artists, not mentioning the political content, the self censoring of the political cartoonists in our group, the other silent spaces of sharing words, stories, cartoons, articles and anecdotes that come closer to describing the non-euphemistic truth of what detaining innocent, courageous, heroic people actually involves. Of course it is the latter truth that draws me back, to sit with people, to smile and talk and listen. To wipe away my tears while watching a toddler born in detention, to pinch myself as a reminder that the 10 year old Michael Jackson, the 8 year old Tamil dancing to Bollywood, the lanky 11 year old girl crumping masterfully to Farsi rap seguing into Beyonce, represent both the incredible courage and freedom of people fleeing monstrous repression, and the appalling monstrosity of our government in locking these children up.
And I don’t know what to do, or to say, in any language. I’m crochetting letters of a word in Tamil that I think means “freedom”, because the slow insanity of crochetting an impossible word in a foreign language is the only thing that seems to make sense. It was the word that got caught in my throat while screaming sobbing chants at my friends who were hunger striking last year. These are the same friends who brought my frothy tea and spicy curry on Friday, as we watched a cricket match on the large screen.
Michel Foucault didn’t prepare me for this. Lecturing on the micropolitics of power and the self disciplining regimes doesn’t help me when I find myself closing the door on children running towards the vestibule of the visitors centre. As a volunteer, I am trusted to remain in the visitors centre even when a guard isn’t present. It is assumed that I won’t press the buzzer and invite detainees to sneak outside, and it is assumed that they are compliant and cowed enough not to bother. This seems a world away from ripping down the fences at Woomera in 2002, from the chants of “free, free the refugees!” that I have chanted outside the gates of this and other centres. This is so incredibly weird that I don’t know what to say or do, except to return each week and smile and shake hands, and struggle between languages, and distribute paper and paints and pencils, and do some drawing, and show some techniques, and just be there, and is this what it means to bear witness?
Meanwhile, back in my flowering leafy nest of the cat palace, I go online, and often share emails and facebook messages with friends inside. National boundaries are strangely porous when social media allows almost constant contact. In participating in the virtual swirl of information and opinionated preaching on the interwebs I lose myself, and find myself again slipping between positions and implications. Posting an article on intersectionality and watching the astonishing range of comments from the strangely diverse collection of people who bothered to read my status updates yesterday made me think that Sunday must have been fairly boring for a lot of people in New South Wales. I found myself flailing at moderating a bizarre conversation between old friends, people from my hometown, people inside detention, academic associates, activist friends, artist friends and even ex students.
Part of me wonders why I put myself in such a difficult position, where all my strange and difficult alliances become a topic for public scrutiny. I wince at the misconstrual of a flippant comment made by a loyal and generous friend who is genuinely good hearted, politically aware and progressive and how it feeds the frustration and impotence of myself and my friends into a level of righteous indignation that I personally have no right to claim. I watch myself performing my nerdy fantasy of Hypothetical ring master, Geoffrey Robinson, pretending to mediate a swarm of comments with a pithy remark or pointed commentary, and in reality performing my own edge play; seeing how much credibility I have; as academic, activist, moral agent. It’s a pointless exercise in intellectual vanity. It serves to reinforce and remind myself of the minute capacity for political change that I do have, while sitting and pontificating from my slactivist couch. In reality, i know that the only power I do have, is in opening up connections between people, in making friends in all kinds of strange places and positions, in allowing my friends, colleagues, students and acquaintances to express and share their generosity, intelligence and initiative in tangible actions. My bad habits from student meetings of cutting people down, of splitting hairs, of shaming people for not being clever enough, cool enough, right on enough, political enough achieves nothing, except fomenting frustration, isolation and hatred are a reminder of why I stopped attending political meetings and stopped calling myself an activist.
So now I feel a need to mop up the mess of hurt and confusion. I have to remember that I am implicated in systems of oppression and suffering that do create genuine and unbearable suffering for people that I know and care about and countless others that I will never meet. In my lifework/lovework of making art with refugees, all I can do is hope to find new ways of moving around and through the power structures in which we are all embedded; of negotiating the performativity of compliance with detention systems to help create art that is free or freeing, of negotiating my relationship to national politics as a privileged citizen in a way that may move Australia towards progressive change, rather than creating more fear and hatred.