Centre for Stories

Susan Midalia’s launch speech for ‘To Hold the Clouds’

Launched by Susan Midalia on Saturday 14 November at the Centre for Stories.

November 23, 2020

To Hold the Clouds is the Centre for Stories’ second solo publication. This anthology features wonderful writers who have worked tirelessly on their craft to bring you this collection of stories. We are so proud of everyone involved, and we thank our writers, mentors, and staff for making this beautiful publication possible.

Thank you to Susan Midalia for launching this book and for her ongoing support of the Centre for Stories.

Purchase To Hold the Clouds here.

A photograph of Susan Midalia holding a copy of To Hold the Clouds

There are 23 emerging writers in this wonderful anthology. 23 inventive, defiant, anguished, optimistic writers offering us the gifts of poetry, story and thoughtful argumentation. Now a quick glance at the names of the writers will tell you that this book is joyously multicultural.

What struck me most about this book, and what makes it matter to both the writers and their readers, is its focus on difference: cultural, racial, ethnic, sexual, psychological. Now I’m acutely aware that difference has become something of a buzzword in our culture, and sometimes a means for people like me – white, heterosexual, economically privileged – to display our ethical credentials. It’s also a word that’s now used so often, it’s in danger of being drained of meaning. But the writing in this book gives that dry abstraction, the concept of difference, a powerful bodily and emotional reality. And in doing so, we are asked to think about how it might feel to be the target of hostility or disrespect, and what it might take to overcome the forces of intolerance. How it might feel to be an outsider, or to find a place and space that feels like home. How it might feel to look different from mainstream culture and society.

A major form of difference explored in this anthology is cultural and or racial, including the experience of living in a diaspora. Here are some examples, each of them the product of a fierce intelligence, intense emotion and precision of detail. Tanashe Jakwa’s essay ‘The Queen’s English’ argues that to be a young Zimbabwean-born woman with an Australian passport is to dwell in “different places, both laying claim to and disowning me in one breath.” In Baran Rostamian’s story ‘Leila and Sayd,’ a young Iranian-born Australian is drawn to the stories, hopes and pains of her homeland but is also unsettled by the power of the Iranian police to regulate female behaviour and dress. In Kim Lateef’s ‘My Grandfather’s Beard’, a young woman of Afghani heritage likens the existence of migrants to “fragmented artefacts that are also far from their original homes and scattered around the world in museums.” Tiffany Ko’s story ‘Yauhagwai’ centres on a Chinese girl growing up in Australia, and who at one point, longing to look like the Western models in magazines, resorts to the gesture of pinching her nose with a peg in a futile attempt at physical and racial transformation. Emily Sun’s poem ‘Message from an unnamed ancestor’, undermines the very concept of an authentic cultural identity in its relentless rush of contradictions. It begins: ‘eat your roast pork and rice and stop looking for me//for an identity//culture is whatever you want it to be//it is that warm hot chocolate drink you eat with your buttered toast//the beheadings by axe or sword or guillotine.”

This anthology also explores the experience of sexual difference. Patrick Gunasekera’s exuberant poem ‘Knee-length hair’ revels in the pleasures of a body that “surpassed definition”, whose “hands no longer knew male from non-male.” Kaya Ortiz’s remarkable series of poems, enacting a woman’s struggle with her lesbian identity, culminates in the beautiful simplicity and freedom of ‘watching movies with a girl I like’. By contrast, gender is a source of anxiety in Alexander Te Pohe’s provocative poem ‘bathroom blues on repeat in dysphoria minor’. In this poem, the persona sees in the mirror “a hundred thousand strangers” and “a bathroom [that] opens/to a bathroom open/to a bathroom. i run/through doorways/without end.”

To Hold the Clouds also explores the experience of psychological difference from the so-called ‘norm.’ In Raf Gonzalez’s movingly confessional piece ‘My Self-Awareness: the Boy from Chinameca’, a young man with autism rejects the ignorant labels of monster, freak and retard to discover the healing recognition that “perfection is a dead end.” In Maya-Rose Chauhan’s tender story ‘The Waters that Guide Us Home,’ the narrator moves from pathological shyness and inertia to a growing sense of self-acceptance. The shame of bodily difference marks Kosta Lucas’ confronting story ‘This is Sparta’, in which a morbidly obese man at one point describes himself as “wearing [an] oversized (170 kilogram) fucking fat-suit while all the while trying to navigate trying to be a functioning human being.” A story about mental breakdown, Elham Mohammadnejad’s ironically entitled ‘Celebration,’ brilliantly, disturbingly, evokes the inner chaos of a man’s obsession and rage.

But despite the insistence in this anthology on difference, there are also expressions of commonality: the desire for sexual love that exceeds cultural or racial boundaries, and which brings either suffering or elation. Karen Escobar’s haunting poem ‘Metamorphosis’ feels the loss of love as like ‘pears left for the birds/tree scrawny and bleeding sap.’ The rejected lover in Nisha D’cruz’s dazzlingly elliptical poem ‘Soft Woman/Hard Woman’, learns from her mother how “even in birth [women] are nothing if not sacrifice.” And on a beautifully exuberant note, Priya Kahlon’s poem ‘Love Song’ describes falling in love as “the fanfare and fireworks of a thousand bursting suns as they rain into the sea painting the sky in colours.”

As well as diversity as content, you’ll also discover diverse forms of writing. There is realist fiction, memoir and poetry. Allegories like Yahye Sheikh-Abdi’s striking story ‘Qalbi’, an Arabic word for ‘my heart.’ Fables, like Prema Arasu’s intriguing story ‘Valiant Dust.’ There’s creative non-fiction, like Adele Aria’s ‘Secret Pockets’, which skillfully combines research and personal experience to explore the treatment of Indigenous women in Canada. You’ll find examples of satire. A powerfully caustic example is Rushil D’cruz’s poem ‘#Perth is OK,’ in which heartless local bureaucrats threaten the homeless with exorbitant fines: “They will pay $500 out of their hats and cups and buckets for sitting. They! Threaten our throughfares with their sitting. Truly sickening sitting sitting.” You’ll also find a diversity of tone, from the angry to the affirming, the melancholy to the mirthful, like the witty story about a millennial in Raihanaty A Jalil’s ‘In the Green.’ There is writing that subtly expresses “the unsaid”, like Jay Anderson’s story ‘My QuitMate’, in which the surface narrative about a young man’s attempt to give up smoking is also a hidden story about the dominance in our culture of the virtual, a world devoid of the precious intimacy of touch. And there’s writing that blends different genres, like Raphael Farmer’s story ‘A Thousand Doors’ which, cleverly shifting between gritty realism and fairy tale, offers a young gay man the opportunity for happiness.

So you’ll see that this anthology matters for so many important reasons. It gives voice to those who might otherwise be silenced. It makes ethical demands on the reader. It gives us the aesthetic pleasure of story and language, including language other than English. It shows the commitment of the fabulous Centre for Stories and its dedicated mentors to help emerging writers refine their craft and contribute to the wider literary and political culture. And finally, To Hold the Clouds reminds us that the best writing raises questions rather than provides simple answers to the complex experience of being alive. Let me leave you, then, with the delightfully unexpected opening piece, Josephine Newman’s story ‘Touch’. It centres on a mysterious object that provokes radically different responses from those ordinary Australians who touch it – who feel either ecstasy, nostalgia, trauma, fear. The story refuses to provide an answer to the meaning or purpose of this phenomenon. Instead, it playfully reminds us of the limits of human understanding. As one character puts it, gazing up at the stars, “sometimes things are just weird, right? Sometimes you just can’t know.”

But what I do know is that this beautifully written book will encourage reflection, admiration for the courage of its writers, and many hours of reading pleasure. I’m delighted to officially launch To Hold the Clouds.

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