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Michelle Cahill launches Flood Damages
Flood Damages by Eunice Andrada was launched by award-winning poet and fiction writer, Michelle Cahill, at the Red Rattler Theatre in Marrickville, NSW, on Thursday 10 May, 2018. Below is an edited version of Cahill’s launch speech.
It is an honour and a privilege to be launching Eunice Andrada’s debut, Flood Damages. It is an astonishing collection; one that I have been waiting to read for a very long time, one whose unmasked persona has not had the opportunity to be voiced in Australian literature. The brown, female migrant body has been racialised and denied the validation required to anchor her poetics and her narratives to the discourses of theory or the postcolonial epistemologies of the body. Postcolonial studies in Australian literature has been affiliated with capitalism, industry, and a postmodernity in political postponement. In this sense it has been largely confined to the white settler experience negotiating an uneasy relationality to First Nations and more recently aligning with an Asian Australian poetics that is almost exclusively legitimised by the methodologies of a Eurocentric aesthetics recuperated and prevailed over by white Australian critics. If I reference the term ‘brown’ and ‘white’ I hope this does not offend anyone. Dichotomies will inevitably arise, but this is merely a language for talking about different groups of poets and critics whose identity may or may not be apparent, at a time when privilege, belonging, and the circuits of legitimation need to be considered and re-evaluated.
Flood Damages is that rare book that speaks, without self-censorship, from the heart of the Eurasian woman’s experience of cultural suspicion, racial hatred, sexual fetishisation, historical and moral ambivalence. Andrada articulates this knowledge brilliantly with unwavering poise, remarkable clarity and with an intimacy that is highly skilled and syntactically varied.
These poems work in extraordinary and complex ways as they dramatise the lyrics of diaspora and domicility, of family disruption, domestic and sexual violence with colonial and environmental ravages. From the very first line in the opening poem ‘a series of half truths about drowning’ Andrada performs a striking interrogation with her rhetoric:
‘Can I tell you I loved him because he looked familiar?’
This ocean paid no mind to the bloodline I wore
around my neck. Only eager for the salt of me.
He made a tourniquet from his body.
Swathed it around mine.
He siphoned his spit into my pores.
I floated a while.
The power and accuracy of these lines lie in their ability to convey a brutality performed against the body of the Eurasian woman by colonial hierarchies: ‘because I looked familiar.’
Without exception in Flood Damages, sexuality and risk are paired in heightened ways.
I am struck by the image of the tourniquet, suggesting not merely bondage but blood, and corporeal tampering; and then there is the active image of spit, drawing the reader into a repeated ritual of violence. As readers, we witness the mechanical rhythms of Angelina, an Overseas Filipino Worker, rising ‘from the linoleum’, rolling up her bed and waiting for breakfast ‘in another woman’s house’ when ‘Morning has barely dragged its limbs through the/curtain.’ Until later in that stanza ‘the god is gone from her lips.’
The reader is transported by the juxtaposition of tenderness and precision, of ritual and prayer, which becomes a form of devotion to the poetic task as much as to the speaker’s mother. But equally, while there are novenas, prophets and prayers in these poems, and in their beautifully chosen titles, Christian proselytising is reversed and subverted: ‘I mouthed sins into my fingers/ and waited/ for the syrup of three/ Our Fathers, two Glory Bes/ to settle on the ground’. This parody invokes an active resistance to the conflated ideologies of conversion and colonial exploitation, which historically has been used to structurally organise racist oppression:
those who live by the water die by the water, writes Andrada.
Here, she mesmerisingly disrupts the force of Zephaniah’s prophesy in the Old Testament: ‘Woe to you who live by the sea, you Philistines, the word of the Lord is against you,’ with the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’
The effect is like a puncture or a bullet. She deftly raises images of dictatorship and civilising tropes put to official purpose at the expense of subaltern bodies.
However the wit of these textual manipulations should not distract us from the poetic task at work since Andrada understands that all discourses, Biblical, theoretical, artistic or cultural are forms of knowledge that can be recast autopoietically, as alternative productions. Her forms are chiselled, oracular, yet open:
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’ she writes:
and by default— an open sea which language will not meet me with rust?
Andrada connects the corrosion of languages to something urban and familiar. In this way her physical connection to the world is evidenced in concrete images: the ‘roiling carcass of oceans,’ the ‘selfish tide’ of a mother’s voice.
Water, birthing, baptism, salt, and language are recurring motifs that create formal integration, reorganising a nascent episteme which is free floating and rhythmical in its movements.
The silences and dark grace in Andrada’s verse makes for a poetry that is at once erotic and political, revealing the deepest of ruptures. This is not sensationalism or mere spectacle; it is interrogative, voicing a heterogeneity so intersectional that a transcendentalist or totalising aesthetics tries to blanket it. Creolisation is perceived as threatening to the boundary between ruler and ruled; placing under pressure the notion of nationality as a pure category, conflating and implicating ideologies of communal danger and fear. Historically, culturally and in a range of written discourses, women have been targeted. The dual identity of lover and coloniser is never denied by Andrada. ‘Only eager for the salt of me’ she writes. Here, the metonymy of salt intentionally evokes comparisons that reinforce utility, preservation, economy and consumption. At other times, Andrada’s brooding dialectic pivots with understatement on the images of ‘vinegar’, or ‘leftovers’, recording with chilling faith the lives of ordinary migrant mothers, struggling to nourish their children, while their bones are being broken.
In the poem ‘first creation’ whilst having breakfast, the cooking utensil becomes an instrument of violence, harrowingly observed by the young child-narrator, when there is no ‘television drone to muffle her mother’s shame’:
I am too small for my age Ma always says I should eat more
If the poet’s task is to mediate historical and social narratives that have been foreclosed, then Andrada’s pitch is perfect.
We are ten minutes away from the school if we walk
That is how she ends the poem: inconspicuously; opening its violent subject to all forms of trauma, public and private; reminding us that as human beings sometimes it is simply enough to witness suffering and be prepared to record it. Clearly, this is not the exoticised kitchen or cuisine of multicultural consumption, nor does it embody an assimilated Asian Australian or migrant poetics.
This refusal by Andrada to follow encoded lyrical forms or borrow from the recuperated authorship of the West is invigorating. But in their musicality, their quiet turns and choice of diction we recognise Andrada’s poetics as stemming from a cultural inheritance of Filipino poets such as Jose Garcia Villa, Alfred Yuson, and Conchitina Cruz.
A fine example of her command of syntax and movement through broken time is the sequenced poem ‘last days of rain’. In ostensibly simple lines that shift seamlessly from the concrete to the abstract as they weave their narrative through three centuries of Spanish occupation, and the ‘second-hand anthems’ of forced US military rule, this poem poignantly evokes all the environmental disasters, the grief and abuse suffered by those who are subjugated.
With the immanence of her own knowledge, Andrada renews and teaches us how to restructure poetic epistemes to engage with decolonising through an embodied relationship of production from her perspective as poet, and consumption from our perspective as readers and audience.
Andrada’s descriptions are unsparing; her shifts in tone are discrete, sometimes necessarily jarring, and effectively so. But overall they navigate their subjects and themes, and more impressively their political thinking through the fractured temporospatial frame of diaspora with discipline and fluidity.
The Argentinian literary theorist, Walter Mignolo, from an essay on geopolitics, knowledge and colonial difference writes:
It is no longer possible, or at least it is not unproblematic, to ‘think’ from the canon of Western philosophy, even when part of the canon is critical of modernity. To do so means to reproduce the blind epistemic ethnocentrism that makes difficult, if not impossible, any political philosophy of inclusion. The limit of Western philosophy is the border where the colonial difference emerges, making visible the variety of local histories that Western thought, from the right and the left, hid and suppressed.
To read Flood Damages is to intimately encounter the experience of those whose lives have been dramatically altered by the desecrations of language and marshalled by many forms of violence: colonial, state-sanctioned, domestic, sexual; and yet it is to hear that rare voice of survival, unflinching and unspeakable, calling into question the purpose of contemporary poetics. Most of all, Flood Damages is a homage to Andrada’s mother and to all brown-skinned women who have endured gendered and racialised contingency and economic exploitation simply because of the categories of belonging and exclusion. It is a gift of witness, informed by devotion. But if devotion is the purpose of Flood Damages, equally it invites us to rethink our poetics. It carries us forward into a nascent politics in which poetic epistemology can be reconstituted, and the ground that has been lost by the alliances of modernity and coloniality, by globalism and historical capitalism, can be renegotiated, and won back.
I applaud Giramondo for publishing this outstanding debut. My heartfelt congratulations to Eunice and my thanks to her, once more, for the very great honour of launching Flood Damages.
Walter D. Mignolo ‘The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference’ The South Atlantic Quarterly, Winter 101:1 2002 Duke University Press
Michelle Cahill is the author of fiction, essays and three collections of poetry. Her short story collection Letter to Pessoa won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing. Vishvarupa was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Born in Kenya, she attended primary school in London before migrating to Australia. She lives in Sydney, where she graduated in Medicine and Arts. She is editor of the online literary magazine Mascara, co-editor of the anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets and Vagabond’s deciBels3 Series. She was a Visiting Scholar in Creative Writing at UNC, Charlotte.
Visit Michelle Cahill’s website.