[I wrote this post a while ago and am only posting it now due to technical issues. Please enjoy it anyway.]
Recently, I interviewed director Anne-Louise Sarks about her vision for a production of The Merchant of Venice, currently touring urban and regional areas of the country. You can read it here.
I saw her production of the show on its closing night in Melbourne, before it packed up to go to its next town. And it was great. I thought it displayed beautiful technical skill, and I had at least three emotional moments.
(And yes, the way I speak about theatre is weird because I see too much theatre that doesn’t move me, so now my only arbiter for liking a piece of theatre is having at least one small cry. If I have one of those “keep your mouth closed so you don’t make an awkward honking sound” cries? Give it a Helpmann. This one came 2/3 of the way towards achieving honking. So, that’s pretty damn good.)
Anyway, back to business. Sarks curated a challenging zig-zag of tragedy and comedy, each one deeply unsettling you just as you felt comfortably placed in a new zone, a new mode. You find yourself asking, “how can I laugh while this tragedy is going on alongside the comic scenes?” And this is an important question, because it speaks to a lot of the weirdness of the 21st century. Cat photos alongside human rights abuses, ‘whomst’ memes amongst mass murders. Perhaps the flicking between modes is less jarring on a personal screen, with just our own sensibilities buzzing and fizzing. It’s different with the communality of theatre. We gasp together, we laugh together, we dab at the same cheeks as we cry down individual faces.
This production made me think about the ways in which cruelty and racism find a new victim in every generation. The ways in which religion bonds us with our own, but creates seemingly impenetrable divisions with outsiders. The reference to kashrut – kosher eating – was particularly interesting. Food is a bonding tool, but only for those who can eat at the table. It made me think of the alt-right hating on halal Vegemite, the same people who claim that new migrants fail to integrate with Australian society.
This production held clear contemporary resonances, but it also made me consider the ways in which hatred and intolerance weave themselves into the fabric of our DNA, and take generations to fully extricate. I am sure this happens to the perpetrators of racist behaviour, but I am more interested in the victims.
Racist behaviour begins with cruel epithets, with disregard from leaders, with verbal abuse. It amps up to killing, hitting, chasing down. Racism looks like Antonio spitting on Shylock, but it also looks like a hijab being forcibly removed, or a criminal justice system that values white lives over others.
Racism works by extracting what it can from a given people, until a new victim is found. The direct experience of racism, the daily tangible kind, lessens, for those people. Exists only in extreme places. But something is left behind. Particularly for the survivors.
I have always been fascinated by the character of Jessica in The Merchant of Venice: the way she escapes the direct brunt of racism by loudly denouncing her culture and converting to Christianity. Here’s another effect of racism: distancing ourselves from where we come from, out of our own fear. Fear carries itself onwards when the hitting and spitting and killing may have subsided. It manifests itself in the way we feel about ourselves, talk about ourselves, hide ourselves, carry pride or shame in our bodies.
This production made me think of a document in my family: the Russian passports that my family had with them when they moved to Australia. The passport listed name, date of birth and nationality. Nationality: Jew.
I remember studying an Indigenous Studies course at Nura Gili at University of New South Wales. The lecturer made an important point in our first lesson: in her class, she wanted us to be vigilant about saying “Aboriginal people”. There were so many texts out there saying “Aboriginals” or “Aborigines” and this was dehumanising. People need to be referred to as people.
Every time the Christians of Venice spat out the word “Jew” at Shylock, I felt it in my body. A memory of something that runs deeper in me, in the subconscious, in the memory. It’s why it took me a long time to talk about my cultural background with university and theatre industry friends, to start identifying as a Jewish writer.
At the time, I never knew, intellectually, why I did this. Why I still do it in certain environments. All I knew was that I felt that fear somewhere too reptilian to really unpack. A fear that suggested, to some people, you are not a Jewish person, a Jewish writer, a Jewish cat-mother. You are just the spitting out of “Jew”. You can be reminded of that, dressed down by that, at any moment, in a social setting, in a theatre, in a neo nazi rally.
This production was jarring, but in an important way. It reminded me that we remember, shockingly, sometimes unhelpfully, for a reason. Remember what people can do to each other. Remember the way it lives on. Remember, to prevent it recurring.
In Judaism, we say a prayer called ‘yizkor’ for the dead. It comes from the root: ‘zachor’. Remember.
I have had many nicknames in my life. They include Bellzy (my partner), Jessie (my parents and, oddly, my draconian high school band conductor), Jessitchka (the Russian side of my family), Bellamy (male friends making it clear they didn’t want to have sex with me), Bellnasty (my theatre friends), and Jess (pretty much everyone else I have ever met.)
I had a great conversation with my parents once about my choice of professional name. They said, “we named you Jessica, inspired by the fine acting of Jessica Lange, the fictional smarts of Jessica Fletcher, and Shakespeare’s finest self-hating Jewess in The Merchant of Venice, so why do you use the name ‘Jess’ out in the world as a writer? Why do your readers, clients and colleagues get access to your nickname when you may not actually know them – or LIKE THEM – at all?”
(They might not have said precisely these words, but it was a long time ago and I think I was in a bread-related food haze, so I have blurred some details.)
The more time that has gone by since they suggested this, the more I vehemently agree. Good advice, Mimma and Dids! (How do you like those nicknames?) I have since vowed to use my full name whenever I write plays, perform spoken word, or run projects.
There is a certain accessibility and familiarity expected of us in the arts. We write so personally about our lives, relationships, health and burgeoning acquisition of bike safety skills, that it can feel like your readers are your friends, too.
Don’t get me wrong: many of our readers are, of course, our friends. (Thanks for the continual support, friends.) But, many are total randoms. Many are only hate-reading your beautiful words, because you write about issues relating to feminism, and therefore you deserve to be shut up with their man-words crammed down your proverbial opinion-gullet.
There’s an autobiographical cannibalism expected of writers at the present moment: write about this moment of sickness, this difficult learning experience, this period of indecision. It draws you closer to other people who have suffered the same. But it also opens you to cruelty from people who haven’t earned that level of tenderness from you. Sometimes it feels scary, icky and dangerous to be putting your lived experiences into a big echoing world full of people who may not have good intentions. But we do it. Because we have to express ourselves. And we have to get paid.
In an arts culture where publications and websites are regularly closing, and where theatre companies are defunded and crumbling, we take the work where we can get it. We slice up and dole out parts of ourselves that, maybe, a stranger by any other name would not deserve. Because that’s what people are reading right now. Because that shit is juicy.
So, what do we hold onto throughout this period of wilful, fearful vulnerability?
For me, it’s the name. You are not my friend right now, even if, offline, you are. You are my reader. I provide you a service, which is words and ideas. You take up this offering, and you learn something, feel something, or gain inspiration. I don’t owe you any more than that. This is personal, and it is meaningful, but it is also my job.
And you can call me Jessica.
Did you know it’s Business Time?
This dog does!
Business Time = time to tell you that I have a new website, which is a place that will weave my blog, Would Jess Like It, into my other theatre and writing announcements.
“Woof, so convenient” – Business Dog.
There are some fun plans in place for this website, but in the meantime, why not check out some of the things I’ve got coming up, and the things I have done in the last few weeks?
I have a piece of writing included at Lonely Company’s Beta Fest on the weekend of 18th and 19th February. You can learn all about Lonely Company and Beta Fest by following this link.
I’ve had a few new pieces published recently:
A write-up on the best grandma dishes of all time on Urban Walkabout
A personal and funny essay on low sports participation in women and girls
I then went on 2SER Weekend Breakfast to discuss this issue with the most authority I could muster, which you can stream here. My interview can be located at 1:44:00!
I also did a guest spot on comedy roadtrip podcast Highway to Nothing!
This edition of Would Jess Like It will focus on the process of being overtaken by human beings who are (apparently) in more of an important rush than you are.
As I enter my third decade of life, I have come to realise that being overtaken by People More Important Than Me is a given fact of the world, a bit like tax, cat hair allergies, and B.O. I’m not talking about being overtaken professionally or financially – that is a different post of its own, and one that requires more research than my personal base maximum.
I will be writing more broadly about being overtaken as a pedestrian, driver, cyclist, or queue-r in the world. Herewith, a series of portraits, followed by a reflection.
I ride my bike down Royal Parade. I stay to the left of my lane, because I know there will be people overtaking me. I have got much better at cycling, lately. I now cycle 20km per day, and I find myself being overtaken less frequently. Being overtaken is not the worst thing in the world, in principle. It reminds me that we all commute differently. Some of us stop to smell the exhaust, others speed through it to get on with the nicer parts of our day. I don’t mind being overtaken when a cyclist warns me of their intention. They will chime out, “passing” as they glide past. Other times they will ding their bell merrily, and overtake. Other times, there will be no voice or bell, just a rush of wind past you, a grunt, and a sweaty musk in some tailwind. I now associate the “passing” and ding-a-ling as a feminine act, because the majority of those sounds, those courtesies, have come from women.
Often I am overtaken as I sit waiting at a traffic light. A rider stops behind me, assesses me, and then darts off as the light changes, to be in front of me. I wonder what sort of internal logic leads to this decision. “She’ll be slower than me. I just know it.”
I wonder what these overtakers do with these saved seconds of courtesy. Perhaps this sort of courtesy slows down your torque, or leads to an extra drag on the saddlebag that waves like lazy testicles under your own flesh-and-blood balls.
I am waiting for the train, standing behind the yellow line. I tend to stand close to the yellow line, a level of proximity that all the Russians in my blood-line would call “anxiety-provoking” and “JESSITCHKA, NO”. I queue close to the line because I want to keep my place in the line, because I got here early for this specific reason, curtailing any potential chats about harmonicas with the staff at Eastern Bloc cafe.
The train pulls into the station, and suddenly, I am not first in line anymore. There is someone who has slipped in front of me, who will get on first, because perhaps getting on first will get them to the city quicker than everyone else in the same carriage.
I am waiting at an airport luggage carousel. I have just finished a holiday. I am relaxed. I stand near the carousel, but I leave a little room between myself and the conveyor belt, because I know that other people need visual access to this carousel, and will not appreciate being blocked by Semitic hair that has just spent 12 days in Queensland humidity.
A man slips in front of me, blocks my viewing, and stands there. He is either unaware of the fact I am trying to see the belt, or he doesn’t care. An expensive bag slides around to us, marked with luggage tags from the Sofitel. He grabs the bag and plonks it on the ground. He calls out to his partner, “our bag was the first one off!”
He then stays put. My bag approaches, and I lunge for it, across him. He does not move back or make room.
I am angry. I am sick of this sort of shit. I grab my bag and I slam it on the floor, close to his feet. He mildly moves his foot backwards, won’t look into my eyes.
I see blood. I see red. The red is coming out of my ring finger nail. I have bent it back in the microsecond of slamming, of “I’ll show you who also deserves to be here”. Blood trickles from under my nail, down my finger. I grab my bag and I hold my finger in my fist. I will not let him see me bleeding.
I could tell you about the motorbike rider in the bike lane. About the older man in the coffee line. But I don’t want to talk about them anymore. I want to talk about what this moment feels like, how it lingers, how it shifts us.
As I write this post, I look down at my typing fingers. I have 9 good un-bitten holiday nails, and 1 very bad memory nail, jagged and ripped like the entrance to a scary cave. My nail is broken because of my attempt to Make a Point, a point which only injured me and barely registered with the recipient in mind.
There are things I want to say to the people who move in front of us, who slip in casually to space we’re standing in, gliding in like a magnet. I want to say: excuse me. To say: I was waiting here. This is a small thing for you, but a deeper thing for me. Your action is a habit to you, but to me, it reverberates across so many other incidents of being made to feel too small, or too big, ginormous, invisible, or overall just wrong-sized in an amorphous and never winnable way.
This behaviour makes me feel that I will never be fast enough for you. I will never be respected enough by you. My needs don’t matter as much as yours. I am expendable and ignore-able, in the pursuit of the things you believe you deserve.
I wonder if you mean for me to feel this way. I wonder if you have any idea of what happens to people who find these daily micro-aggressions stacked up, one on top of each other, across a lifetime. People who might have less privileges as me, who are also ignored, overtaken, undermined or disrespected in relation to their race, religion, gender identity, size, sexuality, chosen work industry, and more. People who might already question what sort of claim any of us can make over space in a colonised country, but particularly at the way in which some people stride through this space, like a birthright?
These moments erode us. They wear us down. They are exhausting.
I wish I had the right words, the right package of concepts, that can make how I feel make sense to you, overtaker, in the few seconds you might allot me before turning away and dismissing me, abusing me, or ignoring me.
I wish I could school you in the way of a blooming Chinese tea flower: a small little package of a lesson, one which begins an intoxicating, deliberate dance of unfurling, one so beautiful, methodical, logical, that you have no choice but to gaze, enraptured. To take in every word. To really listen. To not look away.
All I can do is write these feelings, and share them, and hope that I am not alone in feeling it. That enough of us might recognise this exhaustion in each other and say, “I understand.”
Perhaps, this is enough.
Everybody who really knows me knows that I am a crier. I’m not so much a sad-crier as I am a happy-crier.
Sure, I’ll indulge in the occasional sad-crying at things that are awful or Liberal party related, but I usually reserve my open-mouth guttural sobs for things that remind me of love, beauty, connection and community.
For example, a dog crying with happiness and fainting with joy after her owner returns from a long time away.
For example, a photo album my family made me for my 21st birthday with a complete chronology of every year of my life painstakingly arranged in a fetching shabby chic cardboard album.
For example, the time my partner organised a huge vegan birthday cake with rainbow icing, emblazoned with “Happy Birthday Jessitchka” and then bought me a moist lemon scroll to eat on the way to my birthday party in case I couldn’t wait long enough for my actual cake.
It is moments like these – the ones that remind you that love is fierce, and stronger than many less lovely things – that make me cry the most.
I feel like the last 24 hours has been a new type of public horrible. We’ve seen politicians kowtow to industry in ways that hurt small voiceless creatures. We’ve seen equal rights advocates put their own needs last in order to protect the little ones who need protecting. We then watched a vampire call them vampires for this selflessness. I had a ten-minute conversation with my colleagues yesterday afternoon about sweet self-defence moves we’ve learnt in various women’s safety classes before a sick feeling descended on us and we realised “we are all experts in something like this, because we have to be.”
Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s meant to be a sombre day, of reflection, forward planning, and apologies for wrongdoing or cruelty you might have caused.
I don’t remember a Yom Kippur when it hasn’t rained. I don’t believe in a god, but I do feel like there’s something quite ceremoniously apt here: the skies open at the moment that a large group of people become reflective, introspective, and strive to do better. The weeping of the sky takes place when the pursuit of good is crystallised; made intentional.
For Yom Kippur, I facilitated a session with a group of teenagers where they met a Holocaust survivor and heard his story of fleeing the Nazis, being hidden and protected by non-Jews, and miraculously surviving to tell his story. He told us of new chances in many different parts of France, and then in Australia. I watched the 12-year-old boys of the group slink away from childish in-jokes into territory quite different. Mouths drooping open, like the sky above them.
I decided, afterwards, to go for a walk in the biting wind, to process this heavy day of stories, and remind myself of how free I am, even under a big grey sky.
As I headed home, up the stairs to my apartment, I saw a young woman in a sari holding a tiny baby. We smiled at each other, and I walked on. As I rounded the corner, something clicked. The taxi out the front, the luggage on the curb wrapped in long-haul glad wrap. Further down the corridor, I bumped into my new neighbour, a man in his thirties, whom I had met only briefly once before. We said hello, and he grinned a sweet, almost guilty grin, his face bubbling so hot with joy that one could do nothing but grin back.
He gestured to the woman with the baby behind me.
“My wife and my kid just arrived.”
I welcomed them. Embarrassingly excitedly. And then I went inside, and I wept a little bit at the challenges that are ahead of them, at the Australia they are entering, at the world this baby will inhabit.
But then I wept hardest at the beauty behind all of this: at my neighbour’s grin of joy, of having his family in one spot, of the three of them snuggled up together in a warm room, on a cold night, for a new and unknowable beginning.
These are the things that keep us going.
Some of you may know that I like dogs.
Occasionally I write about dog-related events.
Or the intricacies of dog training.
Or dog-centric venues.
Last week, I continued in my quest to be the most well-travelled dog-enthusiast-cum-feminist-Jewish-playwright the world has ever seen. And I did good.
Once a year, the small Victorian town of Kyneton hosts a Daffodil Arts Festival. This is a joyous spring event where people from all over congregate in Kyneton to look at flowers, race ferrets, get spooked by artisanal scarecrows, and justify having devonshire tea for lunch because “the proceeds go to some sort of charity.”
I hopped in the car with my partner whose blog you should read, and we drove a pleasant hour on the highway to Kyneton. As we neared the outskirts of the city, I found my breathing grow more shallow and hysterical because I noticed that EVERY GARDEN and EVERY SHOPFRONT boasted a wheelbarrow of daffodils.
(Regular readers may also know how I feel about all members of the narcissus family.)
We had a wonderful time at the flower show where I managed my breathing and visualised the word ‘CALM.” even when viewing floral arrangements titled “GOLD GOLD GOLD” and “LONG AND LOW.”
We choked down our requisite charity scones. (Ugh, I haaaate delicious fluffy scones and piping hot cups of tea served by friendly country ladies.) And then we power-walked to the Dog Dash.
The Dog Dash wasn’t due to kick off for a while, but I could feel in my waters that things were starting to begin. We walked down Main Street, rejecting all “please sniff me” overtures from neighbouring flowers, because we could sense a big congress of easily grabbable dogs in close proximity.
And we were right. The Dog Dash organisers had commandeered the town velodrome and set it up as a doggie heaven. The velodrome was PACKED with dogs, owners, and lurkers like our good selves. We counted close to 100 dogs, all of whom were friendly and very excited about this social event.
This is what happens at a Dog Dash:
- 80 dogs line up in a row in front of a 40 metre strip of turf and try to sniff each others’ butts.
- Each dog’s owner walks to the end of the strip of turf and gestures wildly to their dog, who is being held by his or her collar at the opposite side of the track.
- The owner gets more animated at the end of the turf, screaming “CHICKEN! Come to Mumma! I love you!!!!!”
- The dog is released from its grip at the same time as the official race-master drops a white flag (sadly devoid of any paw-print imaging) and the dog bounds towards its owner, hopefully in under 5 seconds, if it hopes to get anywhere close to winning the title of Fastest Dog in Town.
The thing about point 4 on this list is that maybe only 5 dogs got anywhere near mastering the under-5-seconds time. Most dogs sauntered coolly down the race track, stopping to say hi to people and dogs alike, as if some really chill celebrity on a red carpet. Sometimes the dogs would get partway down the line and decide they didn’t really feel like racing any more, so they would just turn around and walk back to the mass of butt-sniffing happening at the start line.
The best part was seeing greyhounds doing what they’re meant to do: being lazy little babies who had absolutely no interest in running fast whatsoever, but doing the bare minimum so that they could get back to their favourite hobby: having their butt sniffed by smaller dogs while wearing leopard print.
The Dog Dash was easily a normal-life-highlight, and even a dog-enthusiast life-highlight. I highly recommend you go in 2017.