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C is for Cockroach

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to nature writing titled the New Nature. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists and scholars to reflect on nature in the twenty-first century and to grapple with the literary conventions of writing nature. Read the other essays in the New Nature series here.

I am on a crowded bus heading into the wilds of China. It’s ten degrees Celsius. The driver is swerving all over the place, seemingly for his own entertainment. I feel more than a little travel-sick. As I stare out the window to steady my stomach, I catch a glimpse of a disturbing scene unfolding by the roadside – a cobra is in the process of swallowing a large toad. The toad’s hind legs hang limply from the snake’s jaws. It is finally too much for me. Overcome with nausea, I throw up all over the shrivelled woman on my right, who has been plucking a live chicken on her lap. She and the bird look at me with disgust.

The series of events that have led me to this place can be described as calamitous but not unheard-of for a woman of my age. Thirty-four years old, I had recently endured a run of terrible luck. In the years preceding my trip into remote China, I had been accused of murder, survived a fire, and had finally been dumped by my fiancé – via Snapchat. A celebrity dentist, he had fallen in love with a close friend of mine, Patrick Lenton, who had come to him for a root canal, and obviously much more besides. By the time I got home on the night of the procedure, the love of my life had already vacated our shared apartment in Potts Point and taken up with Lenton in our second home in Mosman.

No longer a kept woman, I had been forced to return to my writing career. I began to piece together freelance gigs that did not interest me. I accepted this nature-essay commission, for instance, despite my conviction that nature is overrated.

Things got what one might call ‘quite bad’. I descended into despair. I lay about the apartment weeping and downing Bacardi Breezers, and consuming all manner of drugs while draped over the balcony railing. Every CBD landmark within view closed in on me – cackling, distorted.

This continued for some time, until one morning I woke up at two on the kitchen floor with something crawling across my face. I could see its antennae swaying over my eyes. I tried to scream but couldn’t. Paralysed with terror, I lay there for an eternity as the horrid thing parked itself on my forehead and began to chew on my left eyebrow. I had let my living space fall into such neglect that it had been overrun by this cockroach, which proceeded to swarm around me on the marble floor.

As the roach went berserk checking out my upmarket apartment, I began to examine my revulsion. It dawned on me that in despising the cockroach, I was really projecting onto it my self-hatred, accumulated over so many years. I had arrived at my own Eat, Pray, Love moment. There I was, lying on the floor, drug-addled, alcoholic, dysfunctional and possibly barren (I hadn’t checked). I was suddenly Bridget Jones alone in her flat, being eaten by Alsatians. I was Emma Thompson in that Christmas movie, whose husband Snape turns out to be infatuated with that bobbed woman who opens her legs.

I asked myself why I had always been so fearful of the cockroach. I was curious about whether this encounter was a sign that my life journey was meant to have some relationship with this lowly creature, said to be able to survive an apocalypse. Could I overcome my terror of the cockroach? And what could this creature teach me about resilience in the face of personal despair?

First, however, I needed to address a preliminary question: who was I to tell the story of the humble cockroach?

I was, of course, conscious of the fact that I am a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class woman of the Anthropocene. Like Donna Chang in the US television sitcom Seinfeld, I had always—due to my surname—been mistaken as an individual of Chinese descent. I was therefore wary of how my own white identity, and particularly my white-supremacist leanings, might skew the narrative of how I journeyed to understand what life is like for a much-maligned insect.

My sister, Grete, a precocious young writer, became impatient with my dithering. We were sharing a green-pea guacamole at our favourite rooftop bar in Surry Hills on a Monday night.

‘Why all this self-flagellation?’ she asked. ‘Fuck the leftie thought police. First you can’t write about Asians, next you can’t write about cockroaches? You’re swanning around with one eyebrow, and you can’t even fucking write about the trauma of it!’

‘But it’s my job to be self-aware,’ I tell her. ‘To strive for authenticity.’

Grete took a sip of her skinny margarita and adjusted her urban sombrero. ‘Surely we don’t engage with other cultures,’ she said, ‘so that they can tell us what to do.’

Still conscious of my privilege, but comforted by my woke intersectional feminism, I began to read voraciously on the topic of the cockroach.

I ploughed through the collections of every library and bookstore within reach. I sat on the kitchen floor of my apartment surrounded by books and martinis and UberEats deliveries.

I was acutely interested in the idea that this abject creature, so deeply embedded in the human unconscious, represents the darkness within all of us.

I became engrossed by Richard Schweid’s 1999 book The Cockroach Papers, which is filled with anecdotes of unpleasant human encounters with cockroaches. People have ended up in Emergency in excruciating pain with cockroaches lodged in their ears. Roaches have rained for twenty minutes from a restaurant ceiling after treatment by exterminators. They have made walls move by eating the paste behind wallpaper. They have become notorious not just for chewing on eyebrows but also for feasting on other parts of sleeping humans – on eyelashes, toes, fingernails, blisters and calluses, and on the greasy fingers of children.

Also enlightening was Schweid’s assertion that male cockroaches stay out later at night than females of their kind. Female cockroaches are usually back in their harbourage by midnight, whereas males tend to stay out until two or three in the morning.

I consequently began to focus on the experience of the woman cockroach in history. Paul Davis’ The Man Who Kills Cockroaches, first published in 1982, was a particularly illuminating account of the life of a male pest controller in New York. I was disturbed by the distortion of the dying cockroach’s experience through the violent lens of the patriarchy – which I noticed was a theme common to other texts I had been reading. I was appalled by the manner in which nature itself is often viewed in terms of its relationship to mankind, functioning as a mere backdrop for the self-centred preoccupations of men.

What was missing from many of the books was a recognition that cockroaches should not be denigrated but instead admired as a marvel of evolution. They have the ability to mutate in response to insecticides. They can reportedly survive nuclear bombs and space missions. Indeed, in a paper entitled ‘An experimental study of the linguistic capabilities of Blatta orientalis’, published in France in 1934, B. Le Roux claimed to have observed the first instance of a cockroach learning to speak the Queen’s English without a voice box or accent. The speed of the cockroach’s adaptation is testament to its resilience, as well as the fact that it will probably survive us all.

Yet the hard-won advancement of cockroach rights throughout the globe has been a long time coming. According to Benedict Nicholls’ The Public Life of Roaches—canvassing the treatment of the insect in twentieth-century British politics—it was only in 1951 under the newly passed Cockroach Suffrage Act that these highly evolved creatures were first able to vote.

The more I read, the more I came to adore the cockroach – the gleaming beauty of its ancient form, its zest for life despite its utter filth. I became determined to decolonise my mind completely and champion the group – to help roaches rise up and live among us as equals.

Out of all of this reading—much of it disappointing—the one book that really stayed with me was a 2010 memoir titled In Search of Samsa. It described a remote women-only retreat that specialises in helping one get in touch with one’s inner cockroach.

The author of the memoir was Gregoria Samsa – a textiles salesperson from Adelaide formerly known as Kaehte Frost-Wilkins. In the book, she describes how, in the middle of a devastating period in which she lost her job, she happened to pick up a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis – a classic piece of nature writing in which the pioneering Gregor Samsa learns what it is like to transform into a giant insect. Inspired, Frost-Wilkins changed her name by deed poll and ventured into the wilderness, where she began to live as a solitary roach. Based on her experience, she popularised through her memoir the now widely accepted proposition that when a cockroach flaps its wings in Mongolia, an old shoemaker dies in Brazil.

I decided to make an excursion to meet this remarkable woman, and find out if she would be willing to train me too to live as a cockroach. This is how I ended up on a bus watching a cobra eat a toad, and this is how I finally landed on the front steps of a two-storey townhouse, peering at a plaque on the front door engraved with the words ‘The Harbourage’, in a place in the far reaches of China that the locals call Guangzhou.

When Gregoria Samsa, five foot two, answers the door, I am surprised to see that she is plump, naked, and painted brown. Inviting me in, she tells me she has chosen to live as an American cockroach, or Periplaneta americana – a large species that famously travelled to America on slave ships from the west coast of Africa. I realise that the great roach-woman standing before me—who has done so much to advance the cockroach cause—has briefly stepped out of character to greet me.

We settle on couches with cups of chamomile tea as Samsa begins to relate her story.

‘I saw serendipitous parallels between my life and that of Gregor in The Metamorphosis,’ she says. ‘He grieved the loss of his textiles sales career, as I did. Reading about his life, it dawned on me that I had a calling, a life mission.

‘It would have been about 2005 when I moved to Guangzhou and began to pull myself out of my grief by training cockroaches. I taught them to run mazes. I communed with them. I lived as a cockroach among cockroaches.’

In 2007, Samsa had a dream in which she had become a cockroach. She was taken aback by the liberation she felt as she imagined herself into this form.

‘I realised I wanted not just to be in dialogue with the cockroach, but to be the cockroach. I haven’t yet completed the full transformation, but I live in hope.’

At the start of this groundbreaking process, she found herself yearning for dark places, and decided to build for herself a designer sewer underneath the Harbourage, a place she had purchased from a Chinese millionaire.

The transformation brought her such a feeling of freedom that she decided she wanted to share with other women the secret to her happiness.

‘I understood it was my responsibility to pass on my knowhow. Now I train other women to be roaches – women who are depressed and broken, looking for a way to enhance their wellbeing. That is how the Harbourage came to be what it is today.

‘The essential philosophy of this retreat,’ she continues, ‘is personal transformation. One must become the cockroach to understand the cockroach.’

Many of the women who seek refuge with Samsa are expats dealing with their individual grief. One of the current residents, she notes, is a cake-pop entrepreneur whose creations gave her first customers severe food poisoning. The incident destroyed her business.

As we speak, an old Asian lady moves past pulling two buckets on wheels. From one she sloshes water, and proceeds to mop the floor. She reaches into the other and pulls out assorted trash, which she scatters artfully throughout the room. Samsa smiles at her with kind eyes.

‘Once a week this darling Chinese woman comes in and cleans for us. Don’t you, Ying Ying? We let ourselves indulge only in simulated filth.’

Samsa takes me on a tour of the Harbourage. She begins by pointing out fragrance dispensers mounted on the walls of the rooms, explaining that the Finnish olfactory artist Mimi has been hired to make the place smell exactly like it has been infested by cockroaches. At fifteen-minute intervals, puffs of the bespoke scent emanate from the dispensers. Schweid, in The Cockroach Papers, describes the smell of a real infestation as ‘a disagreeable tangy mustiness like a lot of wet cardboard had been left piled over some small dead animal in an unventilated corner’. Mimi’s simulated odour is unhappily accurate.

I am guided to a computer workstation, where Samsa opens a database and asks me to choose the type of roach I want to train as. ‘There are thousands of varieties on offer, and every cockroach has its own distinct face. We attempt to emulate this diversity at the Harbourage.’

I decide to live, for now, as a German cockroach, or Blattela germanica. The name is derived from the Latin germa, meaning crawling, and blat, meaning pieces of shit. The downside of my choice is that I will be unable to fly.

‘Nevertheless a good move,’ says Samsa. She gives me a standard-issue brown pantsuit (not everyone is comfortable with nudity from the get-go), and I begin my first day as a roach in silence. The Harbourage is largely a speech-free zone.

The initial phase of training involves Samsa taking me through a number of yoga poses that will help me understand the physicality of the cockroach. I find particular solace in Upward-Facing Roach and Reclining Cockroach Pose. These exercises in empathy remind me of the fifteenth-century Spanish practice of la cucaracha, in which one learns tolerance by singing a song about a cockroach that is missing two back legs.

In the main living room is a large cardboard box. Samsa instructs me to crawl inside to join the two other current residents. Like Samsa, they are nude and painted brown. It is a supremely uncomfortable experience. I barely know these women, and we are already a sweaty mess of skin and limbs. Samsa explains that cockroaches prefer to be crowded in, with roaches on all sides.

‘It makes them feel secure,’ she says. ‘This sense of community is something you’ll surprisingly come to savour.’

I attempt to speak to the two other roaches-in-training but it turns out they have abandoned conventional modes of human communication. One hisses at me like a cat.

‘She’s in training as a Madagascar hissing cockroach,’ says Samsa.

Her friend, the cake-pop entrepreneur, lives as an Oriental cockroach. The entrepreneur spends a lot of time grooming herself, as cockroaches do, focusing on her non-existent antennae.

‘In terms of food, the Oriental cockroach responds best to cinnamon buns,’ says Samsa, ‘but also white bread and boiled potatoes.’

Before leaving me to my own devices for the day, Samsa starts me on a program of guided meditations and affirmations. The audio is piped through the cardboard box. I repeat the words of the gentle voice, which is accompanied by the strains of the erhu – a Chinese two-stringed instrument.

‘I am, I am, I am the cockroach,’ I murmur. ‘As I imagine, so shall I become.’

I listen to these meditations for several hours, then follow my fellow roaches out of the box to scavenge in the kitchen at night. They scurry on all fours through the dark.

Next to the island in the kitchen, I discover that the Chinese woman has laid out a carefully curated feast of paper, glue, eyelashes, leather, faeces, banana skins, and three beautifully arranged charcuterie boards covered in cling wrap. I select the charcuterie board and spend dinnertime reflecting on the day.

Heading back to the box, I come upon the hissing roach in the small New Age library. She is chewing on a Walden. The sign above the shelves says ‘Food for Thought’.

Three days into the gruelling process, I’m surprised to start feeling my troubles drop away. It is, as Robert Wells says in his seminal travel memoir Dance of the Green Tiger, ‘the beginning of the end of the start’. I feel more balanced and sane.

My feelings of liberation increase as the days flit by. I remain disciplined about my yoga and meditation practice and, when in need of self-care, I avail myself of the in-house spa facilities, established for frazzled participants and run by Guangzhou locals.

I come to realise that, in my insect bliss, I have completely discarded my vices. My craving for Bacardi Breezers has diminished, replaced by a roach’s fondness for warm sour beer. I’m no longer trying to hit up the other roaches for cocaine, only sliced banana. I no longer understand why I wanted a dentist as a fiancé in the first place, since I have no teeth anymore – only powerful jaws. I care nothing for my possible barrenness, knowing now that as a female cockroach I have the capacity to produce approximately 2500 new cockroaches in a year.

A metamorphosis is occurring within me: I am evolving into a more resilient being in the company of other roaches. We are solitary souls in search of meaning, the only interruptions to our peace being the Chinese woman delivering my laundry.

I recognise now that this has been a journey into total acceptance of myself. I needed to leave Sydney and become a cockroach to find and fall in love with me, and understand that I have always been whole. I know I can survive anything life throws at me.

It is difficult to make this experience comprehensible to those who have never understood the fear felt by the powerless, or the elation of their rising up. The closest I can come to describing what it is like is to repeat what the entrepreneur said to me late one night as we hid in a closet smoking cigarettes she had smuggled in. That is, being a cockroach is very much like baking cake pops: practice makes perfect.

I have been living in the colony for a month when I sign into Facebook and see messages from Grete asking where I am. She says my parents are distraught, and have reported me missing. My intuition tells me it is time to leave.

I know that I can take key learnings from my time at the Harbourage and apply them to my life in the developed world. With the right attitude, I can be in touch with the inner nature of the cockroach from my bedroom, and complete my transformation alone. For doesn’t nature surround us, even in the cities?

I bid Samsa and the girls a tearful goodbye, then crawl onto a flight back to Sydney, where I conceal myself in the food service area until a crew member drags me out. Returning to Potts Point, I crash on the floor of my bedroom and sleep.

Upon waking, I see my parents standing in the doorway. They stare at me, speechless. My mother clasps her hands and looks at my father. She takes two steps towards me and faints. My father clenches his fists, covers his eyes and weeps. I can say nothing. I crawl past them and scurry around the apartment, exploring every nook and cranny. Suddenly, my father has a change of heart. He picks up his walking stick and a rolled-up newspaper, and drives me back into my bedroom.

The door slams behind me. I don’t understand what has happened. I am unable to sleep on the bed, so instead try to sandwich myself under the chaise longue. I hear my parents whispering outside my door with Grete, who has just arrived.

It turns out they have all been staying in my apartment without my permission, using it as a ‘base’ for ‘search operations’. They wonder if I have forgotten what it is to be human. They are having serious discussions about what to do with me.

As the days wear on, and I remain in my room, it falls to Grete to leave me rotting food scraps, and to clean up for me. Her revulsion is palpable, and I can feel her affection for me diminishing. I stay under the chaise longue as much as possible when she visits.

Eventually Grete decides to move all the furniture out of the room to let me crawl around uninhibited. She brings our mother to help her. In just one hour, I lose my Arne Jacobsen egg chair and my Isamu Noguchi coffee table to Grete’s overzealous minimalism. I try to explain ‘But they’re authentic!’ but she doesn’t understand me. She instructs the removalist to send them to her usual address. There is a Jeffrey Smart on the wall that I don’t want Grete to take, so I throw my body upon it. My mother passes out.

I suddenly see myself through my mother’s eyes, and realise I am imprisoned in this body. What have I done? I am repellent. How did I come to make this irreversible mistake? I crawl back under the chaise longue.

Every morning, Grete sits cross-legged on the floor and attempts to lure me out by teaching me the alphabet using makeshift flashcards.

‘A is for Apple. B is for Banana. C is for Cockroach.’

‘Come on, Grete,’ I say. ‘I’m a cockroach, not a moron!’

But she doesn’t understand or even hear me. One day, as she progresses further into the alphabet, she stops. She tentatively holds her fingers out to stroke my antennae then retracts them, revolted. She begins to sob into her hands, and excuses herself. Outside my room, she tells our parents they have to get rid of me, or the family will fall apart.

My two brains—one located in my skull and one near my abdomen—cannot together comprehend the enormity of my sadness. I do not have lungs, but I attempt to do some deep breathing through my body. Oh, sister, mother, father. I feel weak. I am losing my strength. I sense a breeze moving through the window, a car honking down below.

Drifting away, I listen without ears to the call of an Indian myna in the street. It trills a plaintive song of grief as my apocalypse descends.

References

William J. Bell and K.G. Adiyodi (eds), The American Cockroach, Chapman and Hall, London, 1982.
Paul Davis, The Man Who Kills Cockroaches, Abstraction, New York, 1982.
Walter S. Freeman, Darwin’s Roach, Zulu Press, London, 1951.
Craig Furey, The Voyage of the Cockroach, Big Five, Boston, 2008.
Fred Illingsworth, The Evolution of the Cockroach, Lucknow Ross, Toronto, 1973.
Alexander James, Curious Encounters with the Cockroach, Tanoma, New York, 1965.
Franz Kafka, Collected Stories, trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir, Everyman’s Library, London, 1993.
Le Roux, ‘Une étude expérimentale des capacités linguistiques de Blatta orientalis’ (‘An experimental study of the linguistic capabilities of Blatta orientalis’), Revue des Cafards, vol. 3, no. 1, 1934, pp. 13–36.
Noah Maher, The Inner Life of Cockroaches, Birdman Books, Auckland, 1988.
William McArdle, The Hidden Life of Cockroaches, Forty Mile, Melbourne, 1960.
Pablo Nolan, The Secret Life of Cockroaches, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2016.
Benedict Nicholls, The Public Life of Roaches, Hammersmith House, London, 2002.
Chad Packer, The Story of the Cockroach, Biome, Minneapolis, 1991.
Bob Rossborough, The Nature of the Cockroach, Explorer Press, Fremantle, 1993.
Bob Rossborough, The Tao of the Cockroach, Explorer Press, Fremantle, 1995.
Bob Rossborough, The Way of the Cockroach, Explorer Press, Fremantle, 1994.
Gregoria Samsa, In Search of Samsa, Gaia Raja, Bellingen, 2010.
Richard Schweid, The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015.
Robert Wells, Dance of the Green Tiger, Hollingswood, London, 1961.

We’re grateful to Create NSW for funding the New Nature project.