Walter Mitty

I just saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Directed by (and starring) Ben Stiller, the screenplay was written by Steve Conrad, as based on the famous short story by James Thurber. At its heart, this is a simple story about a lonely man  who can’t stop daydreaming. Walter Mitty has worked for 16 years at Life magazine as the Negative Assets manager, taking care of the negative rolls of film sent in by photographers. The mundanity of his life is constantly juxtaposed with the brilliance of other worlds, other locations – little windows into the realm of the fantastic.

It could be photos of the rugged landscape in Siberia. Or the frozen seas in Greenland. Or the mountains of Iceland, the spreading hills of Ireland. It doesn’t matter that they’re real locations – they might as well be Narnia. The prison of everyday life is routine; its walls are invisible but higher and stronger and more heavily fortified than any brick-and-mortar maximum security facility. You get into it, and you work so hard to maintain the little you have that soon, without you ever noticing, the horizon fades away.

It’s a transparent bubble you’ve created that reflects the surroundings, a mirror trick throwing the same image until it seems like a whole world when really, you’re seeing the same office buildings every day, the same suburbs, the same cafes. This idea is an old one, and stories about breaking out of it, about revealing the limits of the bubble (think The Truman Show) are not new or even uncommon. What sets Walter Mitty apart then?

First and foremost, for me, it’s the beauty. This is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen. It’s just lovingly shot, each scene, each sequence – the production is seamless and effortless and it’s an absolute joy to sink into. Secondly, it’s the subtlety of the execution that struck me. Ben Stiller doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a director (even though he helmed Larry the Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder) but he does a great job here. So much so that you’re never quite sure where the reality begins and the dream ends, once Walter goes off the deep end.

It happens right from the outset, Walter zoning out into increasingly outlandish fantasies but also, the common kind we can all relate to – telling the boss off, for instance – and so when he takes the leap to start traveling and track down Life’s most famous photographer, you’re never certain if it’s actually happening. What adds to this uncertainty are the threads of his life he finds in far-off locales; the Papa Johns in Iceland, a franchise he worked in as a kid; the bit of cake he finds on a fishing ship just like the one his mum makes, and so on.

It’s to Stiller’s and Conrad’s credit and really, the whole production team, that this is never a major concern. You’re every bit as willing as Walter Mitty to lose yourself in the fantasy-realness. In the stunning locations, the unreal skies, the bizarre and extraordinary nature of travel and the people you can meet along the way.

This film is a travelogue. It unfurls a burning zest for life, sums up the wonder of travel, and more importantly – for a film that also has a romantic core – the poetry of being alone in the world. Of flinging yourself at the roof of the sky, into its icy oceans, at its erupting volcanoes – of perching on the edge of nothing and everything and realising the fullness of yourself contrasted against it.

What struck me most powerfully wasn’t all of that being encapsulated, it was the uncertainty threaded throughout. Our relationship with reality and dreams is, for some of us, so tenuous that sometimes, when you find yourself in such places, in these moments in time, you’re utterly removed from it. Some part of you genuinely cannot believe it is occurring.

Some sights I have that will never leave me:

– Thousands of solar panels on the earthen rooftops of Athens glittering in the sun as the plane descended. The ancient temples, the vine-and-graffiti covered walls, old and new mixing together.

– The black sands of Santorini, the brilliant blue of the water, and the cracked, boiling-pink of my friend’s legs; the steep zig-zag paths cut into the cliff-face and the teams of donkeys ridden down them.

– The golden cliffs of Crete and its hidden beaches, its surprisingly aggressive geese and lush geography.

– The fairytale city of Prague, sunset bleeding onto the river, its bridge limned in fading light, statues becoming spectres in the gloom. While above, high up, the castles loom over you.

– The billion lights of New York spreading out before me and the deep black heart of Central Park at its core.

That particular day, I was standing atop the Rockefeller Centre, higher than I’d ever stood before. As someone deathly afraid of heights, it is particularly vivid in my mind. All of them are. And none of them feel as real as the shitty suburban streets of Casula and Liverpool on which I grew up. It is difficult to lose yourself in those moments due to their intrinsic unreality, their larger-than-life flavour, and in an age in which we’re so eager to capture absolutely everything about absolutely everywhere we go, when we live behind a lens, behind multiple lenses, it’s becoming even harder.

Click, Instagram, upload. And you’re done. But that’s not a judgement The Secret Life of Walter Mitty makes – we see a fisherman spontaneously snap a pic of Walter, and it’s a stolen moment we can all recognise, and we also see the legendary photographer he’s chasing refuse to take a photo of the incredibly rare snow leopard.

Life is what you make of it. It can be as beautiful, as secret, as magical and profane as you want it to be. And some times, it’s absolutely necessary to lose yourself in it. That doesn’t just mean in the exotic, but also in the little moments – try not to fade out on your mum when she’s telling you something in the supermarket aisle. You never know how important it could be. These little paradoxes, these contradictions, are very lightly handled in the film; most of the threads are, and none of them are left loose in the end.

It touches on the economic downsize affecting companies, touches on the dreams of kids facing the responsibility of adulthood, on online dating and love, on family, and in the end, reveals itself to be an homage to the people behind the scenes. We’re talking about your editors, your camera-men, your interns, your nuts-and-bolts people that help translate fantasies–stories and exotic locations–into an everyday reality we get to enjoy. Bite-sized and in our pockets. In print and on screen.

Some might complain that the movie is a little too neat, a little too conventional, and it is but everything is so well handled, so capably produced and performed that I didn’t care a whit for any of that. As a poet, slipping sideways into pocket universes, dozing off into the unknown and finding myself staring someone in the eyes, is all too common, so to find this particular condition so lovingly rendered on the big screen was an absolute delight. Easily my favourite film of the year, and how lucky too, to have seen it on December 30, the second last day of the year.

Not the best film of the year – but definitely my favourite, and a very handy reminder to live a little more.

We all should.

Go on, go ahead and chuck a Mitty. (Credit for that line goes to ‘Ree, of Tiny fame :P)

Necromancy 2.0

It was 2pm when my cousin casually resurrected the dead;
he flicked a screen on his phone and up came a video
of grandma in her pink pyjamas
with the metal spider, her walker, in front of her
and her cobweb-grey hair spiralling up in wisps
and the sound of laughter rocketing out the speakers
and he said, ‘Look, your mum gave her a joint’, and cracked up
but I didn’t care, was stunned to see her alive again
so soon, so unexpectedly.

She never had a Twitter.
Never had a Facebook or Instagram.
She was analog; the world digital. Yet
here she was, snared in my cousin’s hands
a stolen moment from her last days. I wonder
if, deep down in her hole in the ground
she is aware of a gap in her memory,
a cut in continuity where that scene once stood
and if we the living have our own blank spaces
where the dead retain whole days
of our interactions in their cold, dirty hands.

Once, you had to eat the moon’s heart
and sacrifice to the sun’s wintry smile
and dance till your hips ached with forgotten grace;
you had to milk the stars and chant the old words
(the words of being and making, of love and hate)
you had to crack open the world
and pinch the Earth’s spread-eagled thighs,
you had to climb the mountains of yesteryear
and swim in the oceans of tomorrow
where the seer-salmons fly into inevitable jaws;
you had to spill your seed into a man and a woman
to cross the Great Divide, and still more
to make animate dead flesh, and now
all it takes is the click of a button.

We have torn down the veil between life, and after,
wrapped it into the spaces between us, strung aloft
by telephone poles and satellites spinning amidst scrapheap
suns and junkyard planets. We call it a Net and weave
careful ones and zeroes into replicas of our selves
to keep the greedy earth from claiming our bones;
we have virtual graves now, eternal and open
to the 3D-rendered sun and wind and our own personal God
to watch over us in our compartmentalised Heavens.

The living will never again be able to put us away;
to cover our eyes with soil and hide our hearts in boxes.
We will never be silenced in the brief span of their years,
and they will never again be at ease
knowing we might at any moment pop-up
in their newsfeed, resurrected by a Like
or Retweet, or casual, careless cousin.

Everyday Magic

I went to visit my aunty today.

It was hot and overcast when I left home at around 1pm. Rail-work was being done, so I knew the trip would be long, but I didn’t mind that. Never have. It’s a point of constant contention in my family that I do not drive, that I am obstinate in my refusal to get a license or a car. They love the damn things, these metal beasts with their black breath, recycled air and leather-belted convenience. Comfort traps, I call them. Corrugated coffins in the making. Consequently, every visit, we have the same conversation.

Comfort traps, I call them. Corrugated coffins in the making.

“Have you got your license yet?”
“Why not?!”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“How can you not want to? How?” Their incomprehension and disgust is palpable. 
“How can you just…walk everywhere? And catch the damn bus.”

Here’s the thing. I love walking. I love the simple pleasure of moving, of feeling my legs at full stretch. I’m a tall guy – being able to move in fullness is a luxury I crave. In that sense, I hate most modern modes of travel, which seem built under the premise of ‘fast and tiny’ but with the paradoxical desire to cram as many people within as possible. Even walking in the city is a hassle most days, with the amount of people crowding the sidewalk. I always feel as though I’m half-a-breath short, as though if I could only just get past this old lady, and that couple there, into that little pocket of space, I just might be able to fit one full step in.

Walking unimpeded is, I think, my greatest pleasure. It’s a rare but simple magic. Not that cars and buses and trains don’t have their own spells to weave, they’re just of a different nature. With trains, especially the longer trips, I can sit in the main carriage, extend my legs, open a book and fall into another world. And that’s perfectly all right with me. So I caught the train to Olympic Park, a bus from there to Merrylands, another train to Liverpool, and a second bus the rest of the way. This bus didn’t go as far as the route I normally catch but that was okay. It was ready, and there, so I took it.

Walking unimpeded is, I think, my greatest pleasure. It’s a rare but simple magic.

It never fails to surprise me how much sensory-memory a place can contain. The bus dropped me outside Casula Mall, a huge building surrounding by an even larger car park, and in front of a dental clinic. As soon I saw it, I felt a flash of remembered pain in my teeth, and my gums ached. I could smell that horrible antiseptic air, could feel it creeping down my throat. And then I was off, and it was forgotten, and the sun was out in full force. I put away my book, a re-read of American Gods, a story full of its own everyday magics, and walked up the hill, over a bridge, and down my aunty’s street.

It’s a walk I’ve taken a hundred thousand times, each time a different age, each time a slightly different shape, so that by now, it’s no longer an expanse of metres to be crossed but a walk through space and time and self. Each trip has laid a latticework of memory and emotion into the cement, into the air, so that now it is heavy with remembered observations and experiences. For instance, I recall one time when, just past the bridge, at the very top of the hill, I got punched in the face by my brother’s ex-girlfriend.

it’s no longer an expanse of metres to be crossed but a walk through space and time and self.

I was only about 10 at the time, just minding my own business, thought I’d go down to the mall to see if my cousins were there and out of nowhere a red buggy car comes screeching to a halt in front of me and out she storms, this tall 16-year-old Latina girl, and says, “when you see your brother, give him this.” And punched me in the face. I’m not quite sure if I fell or if I just stood there in shock. It was as odd a thing as has ever happened to me. Hell, maybe that’s even part of the reason I hate cars.

Her logic was flawed, regardless. The likelihood of my punching my older, bigger brother in the face as a courtesy to her was never strong – I’d only have earned myself another for the trouble. I found him just a little ways down the road and told him and he seemed as perplexed as I felt, and probably a little relieved too. So many memories, so many emotions, all extending in front of and behind me, all being re-experienced in some measure and all from the simple chance that I decided to take the bus that was in front of me this day, and not the one I usually do.

So, I arrive at my aunty’s (and to my point, I promise), and I eat and make the usual small talk. After a while, my cousin arrives and we’re sitting there when my aunty gets up, and goes into the kitchen. From the corner of my eye, I see her standing at the kitchen sink, but my attention is focused on the television and the cricket. I’m thinking, who the fuck can stand to watch this? How is it still a thing? It’s a marvel, really. The camera pans over a half-shirtless crowd, beer bottles and cans in hand, and I think, ah. Maybe that’s it. Then, my aunty babbles something in Arabic, and says ‘Come, ma’shallah, come. Let me show you something. Jalal, Omar, both of you, come.’

My cousin, who still lives here (with his wife, no less), grunts. “What?”

“Come here, now! By the grace of God, come, let me show you.”

So we trudge into the kitchen, and follow her out into the backyard and now, somehow, my cousin seems to have divined her intent. “You’ll see now, you Jewish dog.” He’s behind me, she in front, and I say how I feel like I’m being taken out to get shot. The sun bears down, and the yard is long, uneven, and broken – a mixture of browns and greens. In the middle of it, a large metal contraption sits, empty. Four dull-red (rusted through) metal poles connect to a square that once held a sagging patchwork of smaller mesh squares for vine leaves to grow into.

My aunty leads us to the furthest of the four metal poles, where a fledgling vine leaf plant has only just started to grow. Some plastic blue fibres hang from the top of the structure down, and as we lean in, my aunty points to the vine leaf plant, which has, seemingly of its own volition, stretched out connecting tissue to entwine securely around the fibre. As though it sensed a way up to the sky, and took it. “Look at this, just the other week I planted it, and look how it’s tied on.” It did indeed look like tiny hands had carefully taken one fragile strand of plant and wrapped it around the fibre but I was thoroughly unimpressed. Yet, to my aunty, it was evidence of God, evidence of magic most extraordinary.

Who was I to discount it? Just five minutes earlier, I’d asked her what her youngest daughter was getting up to now that she was married and she said, “Nothing, the usual. Her husband works, she shops and cooks and cleans. Like I used to.” The lack of inflection in her voice, her tired eyes, and general resignation was enough to drive a wedge of ice into my chest. Here was the banality I’d fled from my whole life, and dear god, how it terrified me. I thought of that deadness, and looked at her now, in the sun, staring down with shining wonder at a tiny flowering plant and realised whole worlds spanned those last five minutes.

Here was the banality I’d fled from my whole life, and dear god, how it terrified me.

My cousin, a muscular, bearded gnome of a man – bald head shining – was pointing out a tree he’d planted further back, and exclaiming as though it too, was magical. “Only put it in – how long ago, mum? – a few weeks ago and look at it.”

I nod and smile and actually, it’s not for show. There is a power and a beauty in the ordinariness of growing things – in that we should ever consider ordinary the ludicrous nature of plants and fruits and things flowering, twisting and winding out of dirt to give shape to everything we need. Sometimes, it might be certain nutrients. Sometimes, it might be faith. Another time, I might have scoffed at my aunty, but not today – how could I, when here I stood luxuriating in my ability to time travel, to remember at that very moment:

– ‘Red’, the pitbull we used to own, leaping and bounding around the yard
– The metal beams when they were shiny and new and carpeted in dense green foliage
– My grandma’s plump shape on a step-ladder, pruning and collecting the leaves
– That awful day with the spider and the clothes on the washing line 
– Endless fights, endless BBQs, and small plastic pools

This yard fairly pulses with remembrance, flickering with my past selves, and theirs, and life. So I say nothing and when my aunty takes my arm as we go back inside and says, “Now listen, I want to visit you in Jannah (heaven), so please straighten up,” I just smile.

She has her own kind of everyday magic, and I have mine.

Time For A Change

A poem I posted on my Tumblr.


Stop Liking what I’m saying; stop Liking
what your friend’s friend posts, stop
Retweeting your celebrity crush like
they give a fuck, stop Re-blogging
and hearting and noting and tumbling
or sticking things to a non-existent wall

just stop.
Stop the rot of unblinking eyes
and endless clicking fingers. Stop
sitting there in your squeaky chair
by the window with the shades down;
stop being an audience in your own damn life
stop slaving after someone else’s words
following their every ghostly footstep—

start taking your own steps—
don’t let Armstrong do it for you, fucking leap
for the stars. Start writing your own words,
start singing your own songs, don’t just click
and sit and stare down at your phone screen
while birds paint the sky with their wings
and the wind composes poetry on their backs.

And if your fingers are going to be stuck
on keypads for the rest of your life, make
it matter —share your life, share your everything
capture those birds and that poetry in words
and dance and song and art and translate
your heartbeat’s morse-code into a language
only your loved ones can understand
and then more—just make it yours.

There’s nothing wrong with inspiration,
nothing wrong with highlighting the sparks
of other ideas so long as your own blazes
like the sun beside them and you show us
how and why those embers fuelled your fire
so high and so wide it obliterated the night.
Take back the night—don’t just sweat
on your couch while the memory of stars
gleam on rain-slicked streets waiting,
just waiting for your bare feet

to drum across the asphalt
and broadcast your joy into the clouds.
Don’t just bitch and moan and laze
when your bones ache to create,
to stitch patchwork pieces into collages
of the universe, of your universe and others
colliding and the smile of a little girl watching
it happen. Don’t just be sad
when you read about awful things
when you see cruelty dished out in ocean-loads
and you feel like kindness is drying up

don’t just click on a link, don’t just tell others
don’t just share — ACT. Even if it’s just a line,
or poem or scribble on canvas, even if it’s a letter
you never send, even if it’s to weep for an hour—
do something. Let it take root in your chest
and flower on your tongue, let it inspire you
to create, to move, to stand up and shout
until your voice cracks and the window breaks
and the birds fall in a feather storm
to join the chorus.

Right now crickets are creaking in the street
and the road is exhaling & inhaling cars
in gusting breaths while the walkway lights
beep and clouds cover the skeleton of the sky
hiding the bright nerves of the universe’s mind
but there is a cool breeze floating through
the window and a dozen lamps in a dozen
other windows and a dozen other streets
looking back at me while I pour my hope
onto this page, onto your page

and every other fucking page in existence:
I will not sit still.
I will not be silent.
I will not hate.
I will not discriminate.
I will not ape –

I will create.

Two Funerals In the West

Originally posted on Thought Catalog.

You would think I’d count my first experience with death as August 4th, 2005, when my cousin Samir was stabbed to death by a gang on the streets of Liverpool. Or perhaps later, in 2007, when my dog Princess failed to live up to her nickname ‘Houdini’ and was fatally hit by a car. I don’t, though, not really. Why? The reason is simple: because I didn’t see them go. They were there one day, in the lexicon of my mind, and then they weren’t. Until my 22nd year of life, just over a year ago, I’d managed to avoid attending a funeral. Death was, until then, an altogether apt spectre in my life, trailing ghost fingers down my spine.

Naturally, when we finally did meet in the flesh, it was hideously over the top, as though there’d been a backlog and it all had to come in one weekend.

“Wake up,” he said. “Samir’s dead.”

August 5th, 2005.

I’m shaken from sleep at 5am, and my cousin’s red face swims into view. “Wake up,” he said. “Samir’s dead.” I’m 16 years old, it’s dark, and the words have no meaning. I’d slept at my Aunty’s house that night, as I often did, because she raised me and it’s the only place that’s ever felt like home. Samir, I should say, wasn’t my blood-relative. He was my cousin’s cousin, on his father’s side, but I knew him. Had played with him often, he and his brothers, and as with all outer family relations or close friends, he fell under the umbrella of cousin.

There was talk of a funeral, but I had school to go to, and there was no real suggestion that I should attend. Or maybe there was and I’ve since glossed it over—maybe I was too afraid to face it then. I went to school in a daze that day, and used these words to great effect: my cousin was stabbed to death. As if I had any fucking clue what death was. I didn’t, but the comical shock it elicited was somehow gratifying; it told me this was real, and big, and important even if I couldn’t feel it within the void. I didn’t know how to react or how to feel, and mostly took to curling up on my bed overcome by the sensation of powerlessness, of stasis. There was nothing physical to hold onto, however, and it kept slipping away from me, this appropriate feeling of grief, and it faded.

What makes my  escape from the tangible reality of death all the more remarkable is that I was a macabre teenager. All my life, I’ve been afraid of death – not just my own – but especially of moments like these, losing family. I would lie awake at night and envisage funerals (the Western kind, with open caskets, a priest, and lots of suits). My fear was multi-faceted but the central question I asked myself is this: would I cry? It’s a question I have gnawed into ragged knots ever since the day my cousin was hit by a car when she was three, and I was five.

She was hit, but survived. Everyone cried that day and everyone remarked that I didn’t. I didn’t know what was happening, didn’t really understand what all the flashing lights meant, or why my aunty was out in the street in broad daylight wearing her bubblegum pink PJs, and screaming all the while. From then on, I’ve felt uneasy in my own body, questioning its traitorous responses. I’d lie in bed, and picture grandma, eyes closed, face still and grey and tears would well – sometimes, I even let them fall.

I needed to prove to myself that I cared, that I could feel just as much as anyone. I’ve always been the reticent sheep in the family – not black but not white either – more inclined to books and small spaces than the explosion of movement and colour and life that encapsulated my family. I ought to have been more afraid that I’d use up the allotted tears for each death, that there wouldn’t be enough to fill the gap.

In 2007, my beloved dog Princess passed away. I don’t remember the date, though I’ve been frantically searching through old social media platforms for the blogs I know I left behind but I cannot find them. I cannot remember the date. In truth, I had to look up the news report to be exact about Samir’s death as well. It’s almost as though a film of forgetfulness has descended around these moments, these dark spots I do not want to know about, do not want to experience bodily.

It’s almost as though a film of forgetfulness has descended around these moments

I sent my brother a text as I wrote this piece, I asked if he knew the day our dog died. He replied, ‘I don’t remember the day tayta died are you serious lol’. Tayta is Arabic for grandma. As it happens, I do remember the day—both days—if not the specific date. I was at UTS by this point, and I got the call from my brother, ironically enough. ‘Princess is dead,’ he said. His voice had a bluntness, an ugliness that seemed to ooze out of the phone. It was a ludicrous sentence, a ridiculous proposition, a crass joke, but he repeated it.

And when I went home, she wasn’t there anymore. No funerals for a dog, of course, Mum scoffed. I wondered then if they threw her in the bin, the way they did her stillborn pups a few years back. I remember the bright blue plastic bags they put them in, before dropping it in the garbage, but not much else. I’m surprised I’ve retained even that bag, truth be told. I never saw my dog again, was never able to mourn her properly, though I think about her often.

Death, at this point, was nothing but an absence it seemed, the kind that would not go unremarked upon between friends but equally wouldn’t be of great concern. Sometimes, it happens, and people fade from your life, only for you to find them again in a little cafe down a side street in the city. “It’s been a while,” you’d say, and they’d agree, and you would catch up, a conversation which would span a minute, maybe more, before ending with a vague promise “to do it properly sometime soon.” That’s how it felt for Samir, and for Princess—open ended. As though any day now, I could turn a corner and they would be there.

Last year, everything changed.

I went to two funerals, one on the heels of the other. Two deaths separated by a day, two slabs on metal gurneys – one small, one medium-sized. It was the end of Ramadan, a time of celebration, now forever shaded. One of the deaths was expected, at least. My grandmother had been quietly dying for several months, her leg black and putrefying from a blood clot. It was on fire from within, the flesh sloughing off – my first real sight of death and it was appropriately grim. It was kept wrapped under clean white bandages, however, safely out of sight. That way, we could all ignore it was happening, unlike the wooden-quality of her yellowing skin, or the vacancy in her eyes, or her shrinking mass. She was smaller every time I saw her, as though God was inside her chest hacking away to whittle her down because death’s door is only so wide and only so high and she had to slim down to fit through.

She was smaller every time I saw her, as though God was inside her chest hacking away to whittle her down.

The doctors said “any minute now” but it was months before she went – months where she didn’t recognize anyone, lost the ability to use words, couldn’t walk or do anything it seemed, other than smile and occasionally laugh at the antics only she could see. In those months, we cared for a stranger, and we grieved for her and I had more time than I could ever have wanted to become intimately acquainted with mortality. I treasured every fragile moment with her, even as part of me longed for it to be over – the strain it was putting on my aunty was awful to behold.

But grandma, as always, knew best, and she waited. Waited for Thursday, August 16th, 2012, when my cousin’s wife gave premature birth to a son, Jamal, who lived for only an hour. I got 
a text from my cousin asking if I was going to be at the funeral Friday morning. I felt my heart seize and the sorrow that had been building through months of living death finally crested within: whose funeral? I sent back. To this day, I don’t know why I asked, as if it could be anyone other than grandma but he replied: my son’s. I never thought my first funeral would be that of a baby—I’d been preparing myself for just the opposite.

I took the day off work, dressed as formally as I could (I don’t own a suit) and made my way down to Lakemba Mosque. I saw some of my cousins, along with an uncle, loitering around an alley nearby. I said my hellos, and we stood around in grim circles peppered with the occasional grunt. The grieving father, my cousin, my actual blood cousin who was more brother than anything else, came into view and I went over to him. Up till that moment, I was operating on a familiar blank cruise control, in some distant backseat not fully conscious of what was occurring. When I saw him, saw that grief had redesigned his face, had done things with it I never thought possible, a part of me broke.

We embraced, and he said, “Do you wanna see him? Come.” I didn’t want to, not at all, but that other operator still had control of my limbs and I followed him as if in slow motion. His eyes were red, and he was crying as he pushed past two thick plastic door-flaps and into a cold room with metal drawers. On a gurney in the middle of the room lay a tiny bundle wrapped in white. Around it, a circle of bearded men, staring down at finality. At a baby. My cousin went up to his son and he cried and he kissed him, again and again. It was difficult to remember that he was only 23, and that his son only lived for an hour.

It was difficult to remember that he was only 23, and that his son only lived for an hour.

“Enough,” my uncle said, and took him away. “Haram.”

Haram, meaning wrong, meaning not-okay, not okay to show grief for your dead son when he’s gone to a better place. Not okay to begrudge him his place in Heaven—to weep so openly, to grieve so freely, made the recently departed linger, made them feel bad. That’s what they thought, anyway. It made a twisted kind of sense, I suppose, but I didn’t like it. Didn’t like this cold room, or the tiny child, so still on its metal bed, its fingers smaller than any I’d seen. The baby was placed in a little coffin, and carried into the mosque. Most of the men here were dressed in tracksuits, in baggy clothes. It was an impromptu funeral, after all—all Muslim funerals are, they have to be, with their 24 hour deadlines. I was the most formally dressed—what did I know of any funerals, let alone Muslim ones? I only had TV to go on, and popular culture had not prepared me for this, or the row of Nikes outside the mosque door.

We prayed inside (or I tried to, scrabbling for prayers and words I’d long since forgotten), and then drove to the nearby cemetery. My cousin was still crying, and I was glad of that. Didn’t want him to hide it away, didn’t want to see a blank face. He wept and we buried his son a few feet above his grandfather’s grave. The hole was already prepared, so shallow it took only moments to fill. I thought to myself then, I need to see grandma one more time, she can’t have long to go. I’ll see her in the morning, I decided, but the next day could not bring myself to go. I felt sick and heavy inside and at around midday, received the call. She’d died that very morning, at 11am.

One of the things I never factored into my morbid fantasies was the practicality of public transport as a vehicle for grief.

See, I don’t have a license and don’t drive – I ended up crying on the train ride from the Inner West to my aunty’s house in the actual West, and on the bus too. I earned myself many a sidelong glance but I didn’t care. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to make a spectacle of it. Wanted to show the world how much I hurt, to make it memorable. I wouldn’t let this simply fade into the back of my mind, wouldn’t let this be another ghostly brush with forgetfulness as it had with those first few absences in my life. My aunty’s house and outer street were packed with cars: the grieving had fallen upon it like a black cloud of desiccated vultures. I walked in the front door, and navigated my way through a sea of old crying women, squat and earthy beneath their black hijabs. Someone pointed to a room and said, “she’s in there.”

the grieving had fallen upon it like a black cloud of desiccated vultures.

She was on the floor, dead.

Just like that.

Wrapped in a white cloud, but on the floor nonetheless, as though she were asleep or had just fallen for a moment. Here I was face to face with death and death, I found, had a face that I loved. Love still. Death always will. I was not afraid, then, or timid, or disgusted. I kissed her clammy forehead, and knelt by her with my aunty, and cried. The coroner came a few hours later, and they put her on a stretcher, and covered her with a bright blue tarp. Then she was gone. I’d cried so much by this point that my face ached, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up somewhere, but my time with death was not yet done.

Phone calls were made and agitation began to shiver through the still heaviness of grief. Where were they taking her body? How long would they hold it? It had to be buried within 24 hours. It turns out she was heading for the morgue in Glebe, and they would hold her over the weekend. Now everyone was up in arms—they couldn’t do that! This is a matter of heaven and hell, a matter of holiness, and souls suspended.

This is a matter of heaven and hell, a matter of holiness, and souls suspended

So I ended up in a car with one of my cousins, chasing the coroner’s van which had my grandmother’s body. As he drove, my cousin was on the phone with the police, asking them to tell him please where the van was, and what did we have to do to get the body back? It was at Liverpool Hospital for the moment, and so we sped there, skidding on rain-slicked streets in the slowly falling night. My cousin jumped out and went to the police station; there was a form he needed to sign. But by the time he got back, the van was on its way once more to Glebe, and he was on the phone shouting at a doctor, at someone at Lakemba Mosque.

I was in the passenger seat, reading one of my favorite fantasy books, the Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan. I return to this series in times of great distress, and I figured if chasing through the streets of Sydney after my recently departed grandmother doesn’t count as distressing (to say nothing of morbidly surreal), nothing would. A Muslim doctor agreed to meet us at Lakemba Mosque and provide a death certificate, and the coroner’s office agreed to provide the body, so we converged there.

It was dark and cold in the now familiar little alley behind the mosque, and the scene had the feel of a shady drug deal. Eventually, the van pulled up, and grandma was wheeled out in her bright blue body-bag and deposited with a thud on the gurney. I stood shivering in the dark as the final details were arranged. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I felt at that moment—that the loss I dreaded and feared most of all should end up so prolonged, should give me so much time to adjust, was both a blessing and a curse.

By the following morning, she was ready for her funeral, lovingly cleaned and attended to by her daughters, friends, sisters; all the women in her life. It was a bright day, and men and women thronged around the mosque. Many people had turned out for this farewell, and it was a beautiful sight to see just how many had been touched by this great woman’s lifespan. On top of which, it was Eid, the holy celebration marking the end of Ramadan.

Which was another problem in itself—nobody was working at the cemetery, the Muslim gravediggers being otherwise busy with their own families. “Just give us the tools brother, we’ll fucking dig the hole ourselves,” I heard my cousin say. That wasn’t necessary, it turned out, after money changed hands. At the cemetery, we formed a corridor for the body to pass through, and my grandfather led the way, silver hair glinting in the sun. He was the first to throw earth over her body, and we all followed. It wasn’t the quiet, ritual funeral in hallowed halls that I’d expected all my life. Nor was it the hurried, haunting little funeral of my baby cousin, with too few people attending. It was out in the open, on a beautiful day, with hundreds of people getting their hands dirty to pile rocks into a grave.

It took months for the rough pile of boulders to become a smooth stretch of lawn with a marble headstone, and it took over a year for me to be able to write any of this down. I’m not sure what any funeral should be like, in all honesty, but I know they are necessary. I can still feel the sweat running down my back and sides as I stood beside the empty grave; I can still feel the dirt rubbing between my fingers; I can still feel the grief like molten lead in my gut. The absurdity, the formality, and the often uncanny casualness of it all, needs to be remarked upon, to be experienced. In that way, you can take a little of their death into you and they can live on, unforgotten.

The Value of Waiting (Writing)

Note to Self/World: I’m writing this as much for future-me as I am for you, dear fickle Interwebs (won’t you let some of those struggling cocoon-people out of your sticky grasp? No? Okay, well, I tried.) Let’s get right to the chase: I have no patience. Wait, that’s not true – I have patience enough for others, I just don’t have any for myself. I am, in many respects, my generation’s poster child: the early-to-mid 20s Bachelor-of-Arts-toting media professional, suffering from an acute inferiority complex, a paradoxical burning certainty of greatness, and an unfortunate addiction to unnecessary parentheses. (No, really, it’s a thing. Or maybe it’s just me.) Oh, and I just upgraded to a Masters in Creative Writing, otherwise known as holyfuckmoredebtohgodwhy, so there’s that.

Occasionally, I write things and occasionally, I try to publish said things. Now, right there, we have a problem, as nobody ever achieved their insanely unlikely dreams by giving it a go ‘occasionally’. And if you have, fuck you. It’s got to be an everyday grind or at least a dedicated weekly effort. (See what I did there? I also love sliding scales.) This past year or so, I’ve actually been managing that fairly well. I’ve put in the hard yards, worked the 9-5 job, saved, and studied full-time to boot while writing. Things are going OK. Not great, but more than fine. And yet… I itch. Not just because I need to shower more, either, I mean within. I want to move, to see the world, to write novels and short stories and poems and movies and comics and fucking everything. 

I have an insatiable urge to write, to tell stories, and with that comes an equally powerful desire to share them. To connect with people – to give them the kind of release that stories regularly provide for me. The kind that kept me off the streets and saved my life, again and again and again. I’m not alone in this need to connect. Has there ever been a more reflective, multi-skilled generation of storytellers? Even if the stories are only memoirs interspersed through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram – even if the collage is fragmented across mediums and devices, it’s still there, and we are more aware of ourselves and others in the context of narrative than we’ve ever been before.

The desire to be seen, to be heard, is powerful beyond measure. I feel it acutely every day – not because of the internet –  but because my mum was high pretty much every day and I was often invisible to my family. The internet and social media have, however, equipped us with all the tools to readily observe and record our lives in obsessive minutiae; to be, in effect, our own documentarians. Our own historiographers. It both feeds our desire, our certainty of self-importance (not always a bad thing, in and of itself), and leaves us desperately convinced of our own insignificance. Always wanting more. We’re crack-addicts for Likes and Retweets in a social media slum-heaven where the drug is reassurance, the currency popularity.

Fuck, I wish popularity paid the bills. I really do – even though I’d probably still be poor, actually – because then I might have a glimmer of hope that the ubiquitous writer, the digital media clones, might actually get paid a decent wage. Instead, I find myself writing things, stories or articles, not listicles (fuck you Buzzfeed and your many-limbed numerical spawn gradually eating away at the English language until we’re all reduced to nothing more than a GIF of an adorable sea otter sucking on a dildo) without any real means to get them published in a paying market. Now, I have nothing against Buzzfeed really or my delightful digital media clones, but it seems to me that the great content creators that keep this engine chugging are mostly unpaid. A few of these websites have a tiny core group of paid staff and then let the rest of us go nuts in an orgiastic feast of despair and self-loathing.

Case in point: Thought Catalog. Thousands of posts, a mix of articles and listicles, based not on quality writing in exchange for money but a free-for-all in exchange for “exposure”. There have been a whole host of articles recently exhorting the need for artists and writers to be paid appropriately and for young writers not to buy into it, not to undercut their future selves by giving their work away, so I don’t really need to comment on it except to say, actually, I’ve done it before and I may have to do it again. I am a young writer; I’m 24 years old, and I have a voice – a perspective I desperately want to share. Though, deep down, it began from a need to be seen and heard, it has morphed into a critical and utterly necessary release.

Several months ago, I read an opinion piece that lashed me into furious response and immediately sent it off to the Sydney Morning Herald. It was published, and that simple act proved to be disproportionately outstanding in its validation. For once, I wasn’t just an unthinking consumer of the everlasting bullshit of mainstream news media; I had crossed the line. I was being heard and seen, and yes, it prompted truly awful, racist, and personal attacks but it also engaged people with subjects I’m passionate about: education, racism (ending it), community, and the power of reading, of stories. It was unpaid and it didn’t matter. A few months later, I wrote a poem encapsulating how I felt about the rhetoric surrounding Australia’s asylum seeker “debate”. The debate is for show, as both sides have been engaging in no-holds-barred human rights violation for years now, in what may go down as the most depressing race to the bottom in our history.

Again, on writing it, I felt that same powerful need to parachute it into the world – to get it out of my mind, off my chest and into the weightless domain of the internet. I could have waited. I could have sent it to various poetry journals. I looked at a few and the paying journals all had response times of around six months. Six months! That’s an Ice Age in this millennium and my need, my clawing-for-breath had no concept of six months. It had to be now. If ever there was a tag-line for my generation and indeed the next, that must be it: it has to be now. Then, of course, there was the election to be considered, and I thought (in my hilariously optimistic but ultimately ridiculous and depressing fashion), I should get it out there before people vote! Maybe I can make someone think twice? Maybe not.

sent it to the ABC’s The Drum and it was published the next day, to my fevered delight. Responses! Views! Oh, yes, and the racism and the personal attacks. Check, check and check. Still no money though. My urgent impulse faded, clarity returned, and I returned to my usual journal-hunting. Those very same journals increasingly seem to have big name authors and writers on their hands, with even longer response times for unsolicited work, which prompts the thought: but they don’t need those column inches, do they? Surely not… and suddenly, their shouts from high on their published pedestals takes on a different note. Don’t buy into it, they said. They may very well not want to rely on those column inches every bit as much as you want to steal them. But the game is rigged now and we all know it.

Worse, I don’t really see a way out of it. Just last week, I found myself reflecting on death, on my grandmother’s recent passing, and the role and differences in funerals across Western and Islamic culture. It was an incredibly difficult piece, and it spans some 3,140 words. It took several hours to write. Writing it woke the quiet heat of grief within and I wanted nothing more than to get rid of it, to have someone else read it and feel what I was saying. I found myself trawling the internet again. Where could I send it? Could I actually aim to get paid for it? I should, shouldn’t I? I was in a daze. I must have tried a dozen places, and somehow ended up at Thought Catalog. I’d seen a few of their posts come up on Facebook recently – fuck it, I had to do it. So I sent it off.

A few days later, once more becalmed, I rewrote it, and it was much better. This time, I sent it to Overland. I thought, here, I have something substantial. Something I’ve worked on. I noticed that Overland has two categories for its Essays – online and print. Online carried a payment of $50. Print, $400. A $350 difference and I still, still asked the editor to consider it for the online category too. Money didn’t matter. I just needed to be heard, needed to be read – the relief is visceral, a whole body experience. Ultimately, I totally forgot about the Thought Catalog submission until they emailed me to say ‘Congratulations! Your piece is up!’ That came as a bit of a shock, actually. Usually, you get asked if the piece is still available to be published but there it was, just out there on the web.

I’m not shitting on Thought Catalog here, either; ultimately the need I had was sated, and the decision to send it was mine, so it’s all good. However, with hindsight, the placement of my work bothers me. Nothing hit home harder than seeing my work alongside an inane list of 10 Reasons Why Potato is God’s Greatest Creation – made all the more worse by the fact that I read the damn thing because I fucking love potatoes. My 3000+ word piece exploring grief and my own relationship with death and the rituals we have around it was no better than that list. In fact, it was worse, because no one wants to read about death when they could be reading about potatoes. Fact. Also, the sheer volume of content they produce every day is astounding. Be prepared for your work to be buried, fast.

So, I’m left with mixed feelings about the shrinking options that face new writers. On the one hand, you want to build a respectable platform of published work, and the more paid-for work you have, the more credibility you have (also money). On the other, there are times when nothing matters more than being heard, being seen, and expressing your pain/joy/love as fully as you know how. The only advice I have for myself is to think before submitting next time, not just about how it will reflect on me or my future prospects, but to consider how appropriate the platform is for the piece.

Sharing work with friends might be a sensible step to take first, allowing me to think more clearly before I try to publish it.Really though, what I’m trying to say here is that sometimes, it’s more complicated than simply free vs pay, print vs digital or anything in between. It can be difficult for new writers to navigate a viable path through the mire of media these days – I wish I had the answers but I don’t.

If you do, be sure to let me know, because I’m still trying to find my way.