Review: Against Disappearance (edited by Leah Jing McIntosh and Adolfo Aranjuez)

Much like Liminal’s previous outing in short fiction, Against Disappearance is a collection from First Nations writers and writers of colour longlisted for the inaugural Liminal and Pantera Press Nonfiction Prize. Both identities trouble the whiteness of Australia, a nation founded on the myth of terra nullius and exclusion of people of colour. “The enforced disappearance of cultures is often framed as natural or inevitable,” McIntosh writes, “If nothing was here, then nothing could be murdered — or so the logic loops, bloodied hands wiped clean.” So, Against Disappearance does what it says on the package: it resists the forces that would disappear selves, peoples, cultures.

All the writing in this collection are short pieces of nonfiction. What thrills is the sheer exuberance of approaches. To show how the past emerges into the present, why not have cascading footnotes as in Kasumi Borczyk’s Private Performances in the first section, Inheritances, stepping back through time to their mother’s upbringing under Chinese domination. It’s not even clear exactly where or when this history takes place, the point is not the specifics but the process by which the present sits on the past.

Nothing here goes uncomplicated. For instance, there’s memoir, as in Lur Algharabi’s You Either Die a Refugee Or Live Long Enough To Become A Diaspora Writer, a title which suggests the purpose of the piece, to resist the very idea of memoir or at least a certain kind of it. “I started to dig into my past for misery because my supply was running low,” she writes, exposing a prison that the diaspora writers of the title might find themselves: “to erase refugeeship, we take on profitless careers that require us to examine our own pain”.

I challenge you not to be excited by Hannah Wu and Jon Tjhia’s layering techniques, one derived from calligraphy, the other from lists of items and their provenance, to similar but different ends. For Wu, calligraphy is “not creation or originality, but … a practice of teaching, passing on and inheriting”, but in the end it becomes more about silences, her mother considering “writing as discipline, as a form of withholding … of coping at a time when speaking openly was not always a possibility”. In Tjhia’s Present And Accounted For, a thing is “a gathering of its ancestors”, but he also resists the temptation of a tidy image:

I like when air bends light. I like that geological feeling you get when a freeway takes a ill in its stride. A casual vivisection reveals the ground’s layers. Don’t worry! On flat land, concrete slabs face the road with a repeating pattern, made to disperse the echoes of a thousand small explosions. In this way, crushed and reconstituted rocks impersonate real rocks, but also they are kind of real rocks. If there’s a metaphor here, find it yourself.

Next comes a section titled Archives. An archive, or the as it is often written, is not neutral; it is a product of how, who by and when history is recorded. Gunai/Kurnai writer Veronica Gorrie and Bundjalung writer Barry Corr articulate how this is particularly fraught in Australia, where the archives have been used to control and surveil Aboriginal people while obscuring the culpability of settlers. André Dao wrestles with what archives do for stateless and dispossessed people, considering how the UN Global Pulse records migrants crossing the Mediterranean. “The hand is writing, is law, is the record, is force, is violence, is coercion. And the shape is the void where a person might be,” he writes. Lucia Tường Vy Nguyễn takes this idea further as she considers face recognition technology, seeing in it echoes of the pseudoscience of physiognomy. In response she plays with other pseudosciences like astrology and palm reading: “Toying with empirical methods of meaning-making,” she writes, “Offers an antidote to an world rendered meaningless by rampant exploitation and policing under the same hand. Read the palm. Bite it.”

To make something opaque is to colour it in (to go against disappearance), but it can also mean to obscure, and the writings in the final section, titled Opacities, are the most challenging technically and demanding personally. Most of them ‘toy’ with memoir and personal experience. In An Ifugao Speaks, Grace Ugamay Dulawan searches for what can’t be expressed in writing as she constructs her family’s indigenous Filipino genealogy. Writing for her is colonial; “how did we see ourselves before they saw us?” she asks. Also an island story the collection ends with Frankey Chung-Kok-Lun’s exquisite Island Bodies, in which he weaves threads through time and space, drawing together the histories and extinctions of Mauritius, where he grew up, and the Galapagos.

There are threads that move within this collection, from one writer to spark a resonance in another. One is a kind of withholding. Mykaela Saunders interrupts her story about her Uncle Kev several times to say, “I won’t write any more about this because I don’t want it in the archive”. Refusal can be resistance; single or simple stories can be extracted, become resources to be exploited. It demands more of us as readers, asking us to infer what is unsaid, or maybe not at all, accepting there are place we can’t go.

Another is the limits of words, a perennial theme of writers, but here sharpened by the abuse of writing by colonial powers. If you find the writing here dense and abstract, I think that is part of the point. These writers are exploring the limits of prose, crashing up against them to delineate the edges, like a bat using echolocation in a cave. What glimpses there are beyond these limits thrill with possibility.

Gay rating: 3/5 for queer writings on transition and gender identity.

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