Zarah Burgess is a published poet and narrative fiction writer of Indian and Scottish ancestry. She spent her childhood on Braiakaulung country (Sale, Victoria) before moving to Boorloo (Perth), where she now lives with a very sooky Kelpie. When she is not writing, gardening or cooking, she is in the courtroom where she practices as a criminal lawyer.
During her residency at Drip Expresso, which was funded by the City of Bayswater, Zarah worked on a collection of short stories and poetry. Read on to learn more about her, her practice, her time at Drip, then further on to read some of her work.
Tell us a bit about yourself – where have you come from, where are you going, and which people and what experiences have shaped you along the way?
Growing up non-white in Australia, particularly in some of the smaller towns my family lived in, presented me with some unique (and not always great) experiences. Because my family was like any other middle-class Australian family, only brown, I struggled with the question of my identity for much of my childhood and young adult life. I never felt accepted by white Australia, yet we also did not have a community around us like other migrant families I knew. This made me so curious about my place in the world and where I fit in, which led me to travel very widely and frequently (right up until the pandemic brought me back home). When I hit 25 years and became a criminal lawyer, I met people from all walks of life every day, in various predicaments and many with tough personal circumstances. Over the last nine years, that particular job gave me a perspective of myself and my capabilities that I didn’t have before that. In a profession where whiteness is very much tied up with authority and distrust, my non-whiteness has made people from minority backgrounds more willing to open up to me. I have found a space where I can help people and realise my own potential. Feeling like I have a voice that can be valuable and powerful has, in turn, made me more confident in my writing.
What about your writing practice? What sort of things do you like to write about and how do they take form?
I write predominantly short story fiction and poetry. My poems tend to be based on my own lived experience, whereas traditionally my prose has been completely fictional. Currently, the project I am working on is based in family memoir and mythology, so some of the short stories are more narrative non-fiction.
Are there particular authors, musicians, artists or otherwise that have impact your work?
Leonard Cohen’s poetry, including his songwriting, has always had an impact on me, perhaps because my dad introduced me to him at a young age. I love how accessible and honest his writing style is.
What were some of the challenges and joys of writing in a public venue like Drip for extended periods of time?
Writing in a public venue surrounded by different people provides such a rich source of inspiration for characters and dialogue. The challenge is to not get too distracted by the dogs that stop by!
Did you meet, or see, any interesting people while you were there? Have, or will, any of them make their way into your work?
I met so many people with their own interesting stories, from such a diverse range of backgrounds. One of those conversations is taking me to a monastery in Gidgegannup soon, so watch this space for a piece later on.
Did the residency impact your writing practice in any other ways?
I found myself writing snippets without necessarily having a plan in mind of where they would end up, which enabled me to just engage with my feelings and thoughts in the moment.
What have you been reading at the moment, and did you find time to read at Drip?
I am one of those people who has several books on the go at once – having an excellent local bookstore in Rabble Books (Maylands) is probably to blame! Currently I am reading Where the Fruit Falls (Karen Wyld), Lost & Found (Brooke Davis), Emotional Female (Yumiko Kadota) and The Fate of Food (Amanda Little). I did not find a lot of time to read at the cafe as I was so busy speaking to people and writing, but that’s what evenings are for, particularly with the weather getting colder.
What writing were you working on during your residency at Drip?
I wrote a number of poems and short stories during my residency, some of which I will be entering in competitions and submitting to journals.
Can you tell us more about the sample of writing that you’ve included with this interview?
During the residency I was inspired to start work on a collection of poetry and short stories that track different generations of my family tree – part memoir, part mythology – as told from different perspectives. It is as much about the migrant experience for myself and my parents here, in this country, as it is about my grandparents and their migration experiences (from India to Singapore – on my mother’s side – and from Scotland/India to Malaysia – on my father’s side). The anthology was inspired in no small part by listening to the family stories and experiences of people who came to speak to me during my residency. Whilst I do not believe it is my place to tell those stories for them, it got me talking and thinking more about my own family’s unique experiences. One day my parents even came to the cafe to sit down and let me interview them more about some of the stories I’d heard growing up, about my great-grandparents. ‘Under This New Sun’ is the titular piece, and although a work in progress, touches on some of the thematic ideas I have for the collection as a whole.
And what’s your go-to residency drink of choice? Coffee? Chai? Tea? Hot chocolate?
Oat milk chai latte – which the baristas at Drip do perfectly!
Under This New Sun
By Zarah Burgess
There are three dead lizards at the bottom of the large tin ice bucket, pale bellies up beneath four inches of tepid, week-old rainwater. Poor bastards must’ve crawled in looking for a drink she guesses, as she unceremoniously sloshes them out into the Lilly Pilly hedge.
It’s muggy today, but November can be like that in Perth – summer heat fighting with the last of the spring rains; hot overcast days giving way to cold evenings that accommodate the sun a little longer each day. She rinses out the ice bucket with the hose, tries not to think about the three lizards turning stiff in the sun, smashes the bag of ice against the brick pavers and upends it into the bucket. She briefly plunges her arm in, up to the elbow, shivers at the cool crunch against her skin.
* * *
In the recurring dream, she is 12-years-old again; her mother and father are sitting in the backyard of their family home as she and her little sister play, running through the sprinklers and peeking out from under wide-brimmed hats. They take a break, she sits with her mother and watches as her father grates one half of the coconut husk on the cherava, a small wooden stool over which he squats, desiccating the white flesh on the flat serrated blade attached to the end of the stool.
The splat of the water from the sprinkler gets heavier, and she realises the droplets have a weight to them that feels odd. But it is not the water. She looks to her feet, where the pale belly of a lizard lies up, facing her. All around her, lizards are dropping.
Splat. Splat. Splat.
She tries to scream but exhales only air. Her mother is staring at the sky. Her father grates the coconut. Her sister runs through the sprinklers, hands held out, as lizards cascade from the reddening sky.
* * *
She reminisces now about the cherava and whether or not she can get her hands on one. She does a Google search, finds a store selling “ancient coconut grater” for a ridiculous price. Typical white people exploitative shit, she thinks. Rolls her eyes. Wishes her parents hadn’t so easily shed the tools and language of their culture when they came to this country.
When she was a child she loved watching her father sit on the wooden stool and run the coconut halves up and down, over the blade. She would lay belly down on the ground, mesmerised at the growing pile of shredded snow, sneaking small handfuls of it, careful to avoid the sharp edges of the blade.
Later, her mother would use the coconut in the Keralan coconut chutney which she and her sister mopped up with wafer thin dosas. They ate off plates instead of a banana leaf, and the accompanying sambar would be from a packet mix, but she looked forward to those days because they reminded her of family trips to Singapore.
There, her Appachen would send her down to the hawker market in the mornings with 80 cents in her clammy fist. She would watch as the sweaty men spread batter onto large circular pans and flipped the dosas as they bubbled and turned crisp at the edges. Feeling important, she would come back with large dosas wrapped in foil, and sambar and coconut chutney tied up in little plastic bags; her Appachen waiting at the front gate of the apartment for her return. Always waiting, a toothy smile on his face and a steady hand on his hip.
* * *
Sometimes, the dream takes a turn as her sister runs in circles and the lizards continue to fall. Her mother’s face remains skyward, eyes reflecting the scarlet sky, tears splashing from them with a sound heavier than that of reptile on brick.
The coconut husk is empty but her father continues to grate, the palms of his hand cupped over the blade, skin shredding into the pile of coconut which is taking on a raw pink tinge.
Her sister runs and runs, becoming a blur. She reaches for her sister, but she is going too fast and she cannot quite grab hold of her to shield her. She cannot help any of them. When she opens her mouth the lizards pile into the cavity, except they are not dead. They are scurrying over her tongue, down her throat, into her gut.
Her mother cries, and the sky responds.
* * *
The overhead sun signals that it is time for her to take the satay out of the fridge.
She has prepared and skewered them a day in advance, spent hours getting the marinade just right, making peanut sauce from scratch. The marinade is a heady mixture of shallots, chilli, ginger, garlic, coriander, lemongrass and turmeric, and she can smell it as soon as she removes the cling wrap from the dish. She has even made nasi impit – compressed rice cubes – using pandan leaves from a plant she bought from an old Malay uncle in Dianella (“You keep it out of the sun, ah girl,” he had warned, “this sun here, not like the sun back home.”).
She readies the garden, plumping cushions and moving benches.
Soon, the ice buckets will be filled with tins of beer, bottles of chardonnay, rosé and San Pellegrino. Her friends will descend upon her yard with sticky hugs and loud shrieks. She will fire up the open charcoal grill and fan the flames that lick the chicken satay until it blackens. It will be one of the last days she can enjoy this before the total fire ban kicks in for the summer. Her friends’ laughter and chatter will rise with the smoke that she inhales, remembering days on the old quay in Singapore and the sounds from the hawker market.
Later, when nothing remains of the ice but warm water and a few stray bottle caps, she will remember to empty the buckets and upend them to dry. They will make a decent spot for a lizard to sun itself.
And she will go to bed dreaming of nothing much at all, as summer takes its hold under this new sun.