In Kathmandu

The ABC recently aired a story about “paper orphans” in Nepal.  These are children who are orphans only on paper, their status “invented” by orphanages to attract money, or sponsors, from wealthy countries like Australia.  According to the ABC, Australians are “still funding and volunteering at orphanages, unwittingly perpetuating a multi-billion-dollar global industry that exploits children for profit.” 

I know something of this first-hand. 

Kathmandu was my first overseas destination. I travelled there in May, 2004.  My partner at the time, S, had already been there for a couple of months, and this was her second time in Nepal.  She’d fallen in love with the place and wanted to go back and do some work in the orphanages.  She had one in particular in mind and this was where she went when she returned.  While she was there I was busy working in a factory.  I’d graduated from university at the beginning of the year and took the factory job because I needed the money to travel.  I wanted nothing else than to see S again in Kathmandu and help her in whatever way I could.  And I was thrilled to be going overseas.

During my first few days in the city, reading the Kathmandu newspapers, I learned a great deal of the political situation at the time.  In fact, I was shocked to discover that for the last seven or eight years there had been a civil war.  More than ten thousand people had died in this conflict. There were political insurgencies, communities broken apart, and people fleeing their homes.  I read of sixty teachers being abducted from schools in the district of Udayapur, in the east, and there were stories of children being taken by insurgent Maoist groups and trained in the ways of a “People’s War” against the urban bureaucrats.  

This conflict was chiefly between the Maoists, who wanted a republican state, and the King and his royal army.  Out in the streets I heard that Maoists were targeting trekkers for money.  Later, when S and I were in Pokhara, the locals denied this. Maoists were bad for business, of course. But all the same, the stories were getting through. And the following year, by the time S and I were gone, the political situation would become much worse.  There would be a coup.  Not until 2008, with the establishment of a secular republic and the Maoists now part of the political process, would there be a peaceful resolution, and an end to the world’s only Hindu monarchy.

S had been doing some good work at the orphanage, which was located in Banasthal, a district in Kathmandu where the Bhachaa river runs. When I arrived the river was little more than a canal of filthy water and littered with garbage.

S had taken me there to meet the children and the two women running the place.  There were other people behind the scenes but I could never figure out who was who.  S and her friends, other tourists, one a Swiss national doing research for a PhD on international relations, knew far more about the place than I did, or ever would. 

At the orphanage I saw how S was already quite attached to one of the children.  Her name was Geeta. From overhearing conversations I discovered that Geeta was being mistreated and was sick.  She had a terrible cough.  It was sickening to have to listen to it.  But Geeta had never been taken to the doctor.  There was always a lot going on behind the scenes.  S and her friends were constantly talking about the orphanage, making plans, coming up with ideas.  I was on the outside, on the edge of all this.  It was difficult for me to know what was happening between S and her friends and the orphanage.  Nonetheless, I tried to keep up and trusted S.  I supported her.  I was in love with her. 

Spending time with many of the children at the orphanage was a joy – “Sir sir, have a sweet dream” they would say when I waved goodbye in the evenings.  One day S revealed that she was planning to relocate Geeta to another orphanage.  But first we’d have to take her to the hospital for tests. We were all so worried for her health.

After a few long, exhausting days at the hospital, we finally received a diagnosis for Geeta.  She was very sick and had tuberculosis and other related complications.  The doctor who gave us this news was quite angry.  Why hadn’t she been brought in for treatment sooner? 

Over the next few weeks Geeta received care at the hospital.  S stayed with her overnight.  I would arrive in the morning and spend the day.  When it was time to leave we all went to the new orphanage in Thankot, a village just beyond the city to the west.

The building in Thankot where the orphanage was located

I don’t know how long we were there at Thankot, how much time we spent with Geeta.  But I do know that S and Geeta were inseparable.  I do know that they loved each other.  I do know that Geeta was happy and smiling and spoke more than ever before.  S was like a mother to her.  It worried me, actually, how attached to Geeta she’d become, but sometimes that just can’t be helped. 

One day I travelled south by bus to Chitwan with M, the Swiss national, while S stayed behind to spend as much time as possible with Geeta.  In Chitwan the river was flooded and the national park was closed.  The rain didn’t let up.  During the day there was a rhino on the loose and at night the rain got heavier and louder.  The heat was sticky and oppressive.  At one o’clock in the morning I was awoken by the hotel manager and told to leave the room because the floodwaters were so high.  We waded out into the yard and slept on kitchen tables.  The day we left we rode elephants to the bus shelter.

Back in Thankot, time passed quickly. How long we were there before we had to leave and fly back to Australia, I don’t know. It wasn’t long enough. Leaving was crushing for S. Saying goodbye was difficult and very sad. And then a month or so later, when I was in Japan alone, my mobile phone rang.  It was S. Geeta had died.  It was devastating news. The date was August 4.

S and I never knew if we would have a future.  I went to Japan to teach and this had already been arranged before I went to Nepal.  I was employed by the government to teach in a public high school.  I’d already started my job when this terrible news came through.  Before all this I didn’t know if S was ever going to come to Japan to be with me.  It was all uncertain. I suppose I was ready to accept that it might have been over between us.

But then Geeta died and S was in Japan and in my apartment.  She loved Geeta and Geeta had loved S.  We remembered Geeta’s smile.  I knew S had done the right thing in finding a new home for her.  Geeta was happy.  I knew the love was real for her. 

But who was she?  The whole time I never knew.  I don’t think anyone did. I never heard her past being talked about, only that she might have come from a village in the far east of the country, that one day she got on a bus, the wrong bus, and ended up in the city wandering the streets and was later taken in by the orphanage.  That’s what I heard, but over the years since, after reading much about Nepal in books and newspapers and watching news reports such as the one on the ABC, I don’t know what to believe.  It seems to matter and I still think of her because the poor girl never had a chance to say who she was in this world, never had a chance to speak her own truth.  After everything, the only thing I do know was her smile, and the love between her and S.  That was real.  That was true.

In keeping with customary funeral rites, Geeta’s body was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River at an open temple in the Hindu Pashupatinath.  Orange cloth, her favourite teddy, marigolds — these were all prepared and went up in flames with her. When it was over, when the smoke was gone, her ashes from the pyre would have been swept into the river and the concrete pillar on which she had lain washed clean. Soon after, another body would have been placed on the pillar. And then another.  More ceremonies would have been held, more pyres lit.  More smoke, more ashes, more washing the pillar clean.

Cultural politics and historical fiction

Several years ago there was an article in The New York Times that caught my interest.  The article was about Olly Neal, a high-school kid in the late 1950s who stole a book from the library because he liked the racy cover. Neal was an ‘at-risk’ kid.  He was poor and black and had an attitude.  His father was a farmer.  The house had no electricity and Olly Neal was one of thirteen children. 

Olly had stolen a novel by Frank Yerby, a black writer.  He finished the book.  Then he went back and stole another, again by Yerby.  This happened another two times.  Four novels in total, all stolen and all by Yerby.  Olly had caught the reading bug.  As the article in the Times describes, this probably changed the course of his life.  He eventually went to college and studied law.  By the 1990s, now in his early fifties, Olly Neal had become a judge.

What’s even more wonderful about this story is that Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, knew all along that Olly had stolen that first book, but she kept quiet and instead sought out more books by Yerby, at her own expense, to put on the library shelf so her student could steal them.  What a sweetly covert system of encouragement, of reaching through to a vulnerable kid!

And who was Frank Yerby? 

His name is not really heard of today, but Frank Yerby (1916-1991) wrote more than thirty novels, and was acclaimed for the meticulous research of his historical fictions. Yerby protested vociferously against US racism and left the US in the 1950s for France and then Madrid, where he lived for the next thirty-five years. 

In 1971 Yerby published one of his most well-known books, an historical novel called The Man from Dahomey, which is about the slave trade in early nineteenth-century Dahomey (now Benin, in West Africa).  It’s a book that goes to great lengths to explore the social conscience of its characters and assert a cultural politics of history, race and power.

It’s often said, pragmatically, that historical fiction is useful for cultural politics because it can evoke empathy for the injustices of the past.  As literature, historical fictions can, in the words of WG Sebald, “attempt restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” David Malouf has also claimed the “superior powers of empathy and historical understanding” of historical fictions.  He means ‘superior’ to strictly factual non-fiction writing.  As Malouf argues,

our only way of grasping our history –– and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now –– the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there.  And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. … It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

Both Malouf and Sebald appeal to the category of experience in the belief that fiction gives us the “truth” of history.  For Sebald, fiction restores those experiences of the past which have been lost to the onward rush of progress.  For Malouf, the truths of fiction are the truths of imagining more empathetic relations between the present and the past. 

Similarly, Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River (2005), an historical novel about early nineteenth-century settler encounters with Australian Aborigines, and more recently, A Room Made of Leaves (2020), argues for the empathies of historical fictions.  Of the The Secret River she’s said that it’s “probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.”  And in an interview with Ramona Koval on ABC radio, responding to Koval’s question of where she would position her book in relation to debates over Australian history and the colonial past, Grenville said that her book

is up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. … [A] novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. … The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?

For historians, these claims are a little frightening because they obscure what should be a clear line dividing the historian’s role from that of the novelist’s.  Historian Mark McKenna has argued that Grenville promotes the “rise of the novelist as historian, of fiction as history,” which encourages a decline in critical history and an ascendance of historical novels as “dream histories.”  Likewise, in The History Question Inga Clendinnen points out that the crucial point of difference here — one that shouldn’t be obscured — is between the aesthetic purpose of the novelist and the moral purpose of the historian.  

But what if a novelist writes with a moral purpose over and above that of an aesthetic one?  And how can we tell if an historical novel is motivated not by aesthetics but by a moral relationship to the past? 

We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey.  The book appeared in the wake of the Black American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in a note to the reader Yerby states that he wants his novel “to correct … the Anglo-Saxon reader’s historical perspective.”  He does this by showing how North American slavery destroyed a high and admirable African culture and reduced “a proud, industrious, warlike people … to the state of tortured, neurotic, self-hating caricatures of humanity.”

© CRA-terre – Ensag – Thierry Joffroy

The Man from Dahomey tells the story of Nyasanu, the son of Gbenu, a well-respected African chief.  It traces Nyasanu’s relationship with his family, particularly the affection between Nyasanu and his father, and his marriages to six wives.  As as a chief’s son, we see the importance of Nyasanu’s social position as well as Dahomean vices, like the renaming of wives.  But after suffering a fall from grace for taking revenge on the man who sleeps with his wife, Nyasanu is sent into exile and later transported to North America.  “He had been a man, almost a prince,” writes Yerby.  “Now he was a thing.  A slave.”

In Yerby’s novel, Dahomey is a complex society of marriage rites, of languages and religious customs unique to particular tribes, and of the power struggles between the ruler, King Gezo, and his people.  A lot of research went into this.  Yerby’s book is rich in anthropological content, drawing comprehensively from key sources such as Melville J. Herskovits’s two-volume, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938).

If there is a formal, or aesthetic, weakness in the novel it’s the way in which anthropological explanations endlessly accompany dialogue and plot development.  But it’s clear these explanations serve a political purpose rather than a strictly artistic one, informing the reader about the sophisticated realities of early nineteenth-century Dahomean life.  

It’s interesting to compare Yerby’s novel with another work that’s also about the slave trade in Dahomey in the early 1800s.  Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), tells the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, Chatwin’s fictional counterpart to the historical Francisco Felix de Souza (1760-1849), a West African slave trader from Bahia, Brazil. 

In the novel, da Silva leaves a desolate childhood and a life of aimless wandering in Bahia and sails empty-handed to Ouidah.  He takes command of an abandoned Portuguese fort but is soon arrested by the King of Dahomey.  The King’s brother helps da Silva escape and in turn da Silva helps stage a coup.  Da Silva is rewarded for his efforts by being appointed the new King’s viceroy with dominion over the sale of slaves.  But his situation worsens and da Silva is eventually stripped of his wealth and entitlements, dying a ruined man.

Chatwin’s book divided critics.  Some saw it as a triumph of style over substance, while others dismissed it for lacking humanity and not taking a moral stand on the slave trade.  Bernadine Evaristo, winner of the Booker prize in 2019, recently wrote about it.  “By rights,” she said,

I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.

Chatwin’s novel is a stylistic marvel.  Ornate, short, brisk and baroque, clever and dazzling, it’s straight out of the Flaubertian school of writing – aesthetically detached, striving for artistic purity.  Actually, as an historical fiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah has more in common with Flaubert’s Salammbo than Yerby’s novel (the literary historian Georg Lukacs wrote that Salammbo is the result of Flaubert’s “programmatic non-partisanship.”  We could say the same of Chatwin’s book.)

But where does that leave us? 

Yerby’s novel may not be the best of its kind, but it contains a people’s history of Dahomey and inscribes a form of moral and political reclamation.  Of course, you could always read West African historians themselves, or if you have to, go back to Herskovits or even to Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer, whose mission journal of Dahomey recounts his time spent with King Gezo in 1849 and 1850. 

And there’s Cameron Monroe’s 2014 book, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey, which features historical, archaeological and ethnographic sources to investigate the political order of Dahomey during the Atlantic Era.

But Yerby’s novel carries you off into the moral story of Nyasanu.  Something Olly Neal might have felt when first reading those earlier books of Yerby’s, books that came into his life at the right time, and for the right reasons.

Dear Albury

Albury city, that regional border-hub on Wiradjuri land and site of the first migrant centre in Australia in 1947, has featured more prominently than usual in the metropolitan news of late.  When greater Melbourne went into hard lockdown due to Covid-19 and the border between Victoria and NSW was closed, Albury became the unlikely scene of backed-up traffic chaos, permit wrangling, road-closure protests and people getting fed-up and angry.

I myself have a story about getting fed-up and angry in Albury.  There was none of the chaos and anxiety around my journey, as doubtless there would be if I did it now.  Not that I could, anyhow.  Lockdown restrictions are still in place.  Melburnians aren’t allowed beyond 5 kms of their home, let alone Albury or anywhere else interstate.

A couple of years ago, in the middle of winter, I went to Albury by train to do some historical research.  There were two reasons I went by train.  The first was that I had no car and I couldn’t be bothered hiring one.  The second was that a friend of mine had said that at Albury station I’ll see for myself one of the longest train platforms in Australia, as well as the Italianate grandeur of the station building, which was built in 1881. 

I really don’t care for long platforms — they just mean more walking, right? — and ‘grandeur’ was a little rich, I thought, for an Australian railway station.  And I was worried how much of this walk I might have to do.  So checking my ticket to see which seat and carriage I’d booked I hoped I was toward the front of the train, if not in the first carriage.  Sure enough, I’d booked a seat in the last carriage, remembering how I had to take what I could get because I’d left my travel arrangements to the last minute, unlike a lot of other smarter people who’d already got all the good seats further up toward the front of the train.  Not only was I going to see the whole ‘magnificent’ length of the platform, but I was going to have to walk it, too.

When my train arrived at Albury and I walked out of the carriage I happened to look across the rail yard at a disused platform.  There was an old green tin shed with no roof and no door, and perhaps because of the angle at which I was viewing it in the disappearing light of a late afternoon in winter, the doorless doorway of the shed appeared to me as nothing but a black rectangle, a forbidding entrance into a dark, cobwebbed, creepy-crawly interior.

Much worse, though, and as noticeable as any signage displayed at the station, was the graffiti, or vandalism, spray painted below the shed on the side of this disused platform.  I’m in two minds.  I don’t want to write what I saw – I don’t want to repeat it.  And yet, to deliver the full impact of what I saw, I feel I need to document it.  Needless to say, I won’t type out the words, but let me just say that alongside a Nazi swastika and the words ‘White Power,’ there was racist hate speech directed at Indigenous Australians.  Quite awful stuff.  The platform was about four feet high, and the spray-painted hate speech and the swastika must have covered at least three feet of that (the swastika alone was about a foot square).  In other words, it was all very noticeable.

I’m well aware that racism exists and I know people are stupid or moronic or dangerous enough to do this kind of thing at a railway station.  But surely I wasn’t the only person who’d seen it and wanted it removed immediately. 

More to the point, this hate speech wasn’t so much spray-painted as it was ingrained on the side of that platform.  It had some wear and tear.  It was a little weather-beaten, as though it’d seen a few summers and winters.  It wasn’t new.  It hadn’t suddenly appeared overnight, as if someone had furtively got into the rail yard and sprayed it when all of Albury was tucked up toasty in bed.  No.  It was of a piece with the old tin shed.

Needless to say, I took several photos of it, wrenched my bag over my shoulder and walked angrily down one of the longest train platforms in the country, which was now, absurdly, the most racist train platform in the country. 

I headed for the distant station building.  I wanted to go right up to the counter and give the staff a berating.  Instead I found myself waiting in a line of several people.  The weak sun was going down and the cold was cutting.  The platform lights came on.  I hadn’t realised how long I’d spent photographing the vandalism and walking the length of the platform to the station office.  I’d only eaten a sandwich all day and I became hungry very quickly.  I still had to get to my hotel.  I couldn’t wait any longer. 

In my hotel I called the station.  The woman who answered said she had no idea who would be responsible for getting such a thing removed and suggested I contact the council.  But it was a Saturday and after hours.  Council offices were closed.  Nonetheless, I found their contact page and sent an email.  I was returning to Melbourne first thing Tuesday morning and I knew that I probably wouldn’t get a response until I was back home.  I would have to wait.  I had done my bit and left it at that.  Come Monday morning someone would read the email and something would get done about it. 

Over the next couple of days all I could think about was that damned train station.  It became an obsession because I wanted to find a way to redeem the place if only for myself.  I didn’t want to leave with that being the only thing about the city or my research time in Albury.  Perhaps the worst place to look was in the archives and to go through the colonial history of Albury.  Instead, I sought out artworks of the town and discovered The Station Yard, a 1943 painting by Russell Drysdale. 

Though it is not an ebullient painting, The Station Yard is certainly an astonishing work of art, and it’s historical authenticity is eerily indisputable.  We see an external view of Albury station at night.  There are two soldiers.  On the left one soldier has emerged out of one of the station’s dark doorways into the light.  He’s walking across the yard toward the other soldier, who waits at the back of a truck.  Wearing an oversized slicker, the first soldier looks ghostly.  He’s distorted and slightly elongated, a recurrent surrealist trope of Drysdale’s, as is evident in his iconic 1948 painting The Cricketeers, as well as in Moody’s Pub (1941), Man Feeding His Dogs (1941) and Sunday Evening (1941).  The second soldier, waiting by the back of the truck, embodies Drysdale’s other recurrent and iconic theme of lonely but calm, patient and dignified figures in remote landscapes. 

Image courtesy of https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/

Yet Drysdale integrates both figures — both soldiers — into the surrounds of the station yard in such a way as to emphasise a certain drama of the ‘brown-out,’ a wartime measure of lights being dimmed or covered to help protect areas from Japanese air raids during the Second World War.  Although these air raids did not extend as far south as Albury, the war was still an ever-present reality there.  Albury station was used routinely for military movements and there were also several army camps in the town. 

When Drysdale moved to Albury in 1942 he would often see soldiers marching along the road or camped out on the platform at the train station, resting on their kitbags, waiting for the train.  (At this time the railway lines of Victoria and New South Wales changed gauge at Albury station, resulting in long delays.)  As his paintings from this era show, Drysdale became creatively preoccupied with the presence of war in Albury — see, for example, his Albury Platform (1943), Soldiers (1943) and Airport at Night (1944).

But of all his paintings The Station Yard perhaps best articulates the presence of war in Albury as something ghostly, not quite tangibly there but present all the same. 

I couldn’t stop looking at it.  I fell into it, tumbling.  Its grittiness and drama of night and darkness intrigued me.  It beckoned me in as I tried to keep my distance from the building’s dark portals – Was it fear or some atavistic terror lurking in those dark, gaping spaces?  Step inside them and vanish forever into the horrors of war.  Mesmerising too was the sour yellow of the lights illuminating the yard. 

By inscribing a subtext of a sense of awe and dread and emotional intensity, The Station Yard transforms Albury station from a place of waiting and boredom into something full of suspense.  The black with sombre blues and reds in the sky, the dirty pink of the campanile, the gritty façade of the building and of course, those dark doorways and arches, all create an emotionally charged wartime atmosphere capturing a sinister intensity between arrival and departure.  Actually the painting seems to imply that it’s not the soldiers doing the waiting but the war; that the war is waiting for them to be delivered into the death and destruction that lies far beyond the dark remoteness of Albury.

Having gone to Albury to do some historical research I ended up contemplating Drysdale’s eerie evocation of a war-time railway station. Then it was time to leave. 

The vandalism was still on the platform.  My train pulled up.  Passengers disembarked and station attendants cleaned out the carriages for the journey to Melbourne.  An overweight (and out-of-breath) attendant stepped from the train onto the platform.  I went up to him and mentioned the hate speech.

‘It’s right there,’ I said, pointing to the platform across the rail yard.

He sighed, apathetically. 

I said I’ve written to the council.

‘I guess it’ll get sorted then,’ he said.

‘Yes.  It needs to be removed.’

‘Well I can’t get down there and do it myself,’ he said with a dismissive laugh.  ‘Too much health and safety.’

‘Health and safety?’

‘The contractors.  Council will probably pass it on to the rail corporation.’

‘Ok.’

‘But the rail corp might have to pass it on again.’

‘Really.  Why?’

‘The rail corp may not be able to get a contractor.’

He seemed to know a lot about this kind of thing.  I said I should have spoken to him when I first called about it.

‘I don’t work the phones mate.’

Of course not.  I asked why a contractor.  ‘Because the work’s in the rail corridor.  It’s where the trains move in and out.  It’s over the tracks and there’s a whole bunch of health and safety rules to comply with.’

Health and safety again.  I said I won’t expect a quick result.  ‘Best not to.  They’ll probably have to arrange a protection officer as well.’

‘Huh?  A what?’

‘A protection officer.  He’ll have to be down there with them when it gets done.  It’s all health and safety mate, you know how it is these days.’  Health and safety.  Health and safety.

‘But what about the emotional and psychological health and safety of the people offended by that bloody racism,’ I said. ‘It’s ridiculous how noticeable it is.’

He stared right through me.  As he walked away he said, ‘Don’t get bloody aggro at me mate.  I didn’t put it there.  It’ll sort itself out.’ 

He was right.  He didn’t put it there.  But he walked past it every day and did nothing about it.

A week or so after getting back to Melbourne I received several replies from different departments all in some way connected to the bureaucratic and corporate bodies governing interstate and country railways.  I was assigned a case number and thanked for providing ‘feedback.’  One or two of the replies apologised for any distress the vandalism may have caused, while taking the opportunity to spruik an ongoing commitment to customer satisfaction.  But none mentioned any action to remove the hate speech.  When that finally came through, this is what was said:

Your complaint about the graffiti in Albury railway has been acknowledged and now we are happy to confirm that we can source a contractor to undertake the works for us.  As they will be working in the rail corridor we must comply with health and safety rules and we need to arrange a protection officer to help us with that.  Our supportive team will let you know the final outcome.

But they never did.