by Mary Fallon
Sybylla Co-operative Press
when I worked at the Pink Pussycat they’d let the guys
touch you up you were always out of it and the guys
could touch you or lick you or whatever you know it’s
called working hot that’s how I like to work I like to
work hot’ that’s Kinky Trinkets
You have to remember things were different back then. In 1989, when Working Hot was published, homosexual acts in NSW had been decriminalised for only five years; in Tasmania they would remain illegal for another eighteen. Teachers, public servants, most particularly employees of the Catholic Church, were often sacked if their homosexuality was disclosed. The films In the Realm of the Senses and John Waters’ uncut Pink Flamingos were banned. In a pub, you might see a sign saying
WE DON’T SERVE WOMEN HERE
BRING YOUR OWN
Sex work was criminalised under NSW law. Working Hot is a novel about dykes in Sydney, written with an experimental verve that still dazzles today.
Author Mary Fallon was 38 when she published it. I was 23, writing short fiction, working in Abbey’s Bookshop to pay the rent, and unsure of my sexuality. I remember reading The Kinsey Report out the back during lunch hour and being blown away by all the gay sex in 1950s USA. If, I calculated, there was the proverbial 10 per cent back then, surely now there were that many more. Indeed, in late 1980s Sydney, it didn’t take long to find sexy dykes, for this was the beginning of an explosion of queer female performativity in bars and at parties, overtly and often abjectly sexual, that has never abated, despite myriad oppressive forces. What the wildest girls did on stage infected our entire community, making Sydney one of the dirtiest, dykiest places on earth, if not the.
OzLit was a different story altogether. Stuffy, white and male-dominated. A mere glance at the prize lists reveals the extent of the sexism. And for all its left-wing credentials, intellectual snobbism was so endemic that sexual minorities were relegated firmly to the margins, trivialisation as destructive as vilification. Books with explicitly queer content were not to appear on the lists of mainstream publishers for some years.
Despite, or maybe because, of the status quo, there was a healthy array of journals and small presses, such as Sybylla, who published Working Hot. Poetry, gay, feminist, experimental and critical writing found platforms; newspapers gave more space to arts reviewing than they do now. Maybe Fallon didn’t care about OzLit. Working Hot zings with devil-may-care, written in a fugue state, poetry running into prose into theory, other texts overlapping the author’s from the cerebral to the mundane; one chapter, ‘Sextec’, a sort of glossolalia through cum-soaked lips; another, ‘Curseevidence’, a grueling exposé of misogyny in history, art and everyday life.
Each of the six chapters begins with pages of epigraphs. Quotes are in fact spread throughout the entire book. The names Fallon drops pave its lineage: Stein, Genet, Anaïs Nin, André Gide, Wilde, Plath, de Sade, Jean Rhys, Cocteau, John Rechy, Hélène Cixous, Eve Langley, Dorothy Parker, Djuna Barnes, Anne Sexton. A spot of Empire braces this heady brew of queers, kinksters and mad, scarlet women. Take Rudyard Kipling: ‘he who has troubles has brandy too’. Quite. ‘A woman is just a woman but a good cigar is a smoke.’ Spot on, old chap. And for the most passionate philologist, the cunning linguists, as they said back then, Sidney J. Baker makes an appearance.
There is so much I missed on first reading Working Hot, the cipher of Baker being one. New Zealand born, Australian émigré, Baker spent decades compiling dictionaries of Antipodean slang. His The Australian Language, issued in various editions from the 1940s to the 1980s, remains the bible of Australian English, albeit one that is now largely historical. In language is culture and history and our vernacular has an international reputation for being colourful, witty and ribald. It is also a Pandora’s box of violence, misogyny and racism, as befits this nation’s inception. Much of this language has receded with our adoption of Americanisms and the progress of civil rights but it was very much alive in Fallon’s time, and her use of it makes the book accessible as well as confronting.
The cool kids were drawn to Working Hot for the generous blurb by Elizabeth Grosz, feminist queer theorist du jour, and for its debt to French theorists such as Cixous. I, however, was a drop-out, and got none of that. This is not false modesty let alone anti-intellectualism. I was a writer and reader but an autodidact who found theory mostly too difficult or boring to read; this is still the case today and I do not say that with pride. But my ignorance didn’t prevent me from enjoying Working Hot. I read it for the sex, the wit, the sheer gutsy splendour of the language, and its sense of place. Sydney in all its briny bohemian glory starts the book off with a bang.
Working Hot is both timeless and a timepiece. In the Sydney it captures, low income renters like Toto, the book’s main character, could afford harbour views. The Cross was the epicentre for sex workers and druggies, and women had been allowed into public bars for less than twenty years. As our accent moves inexorably across the Pacific, the kids now spelling arse ass, and bemoaning cis-gendered douche-bros, Working Hot’s idiom reminds us of our genesis from the British Isles. It resonates with the rural lifestyle that only defined Australia for its first century but remains a foundation myth. A lesbian is ‘as useless as a bullock at the back of a dray’. There are sugarbags, beat-up Holdens, trendy no-hopers, norks, chicks, fuckwits, mongrels and fair dinkum horror stories. The book’s bloody chocka with this stuff. But it’s too deft to be hammy, too aware of the treachery in the language to indulge it.
what do a frying pan and a shiela’s (sic) knickers
have in common
they both have to come down in order to put the meat in
THREE-PART ‘I remember the brown cunt lying in
HARMONY the grass half bloody naked
going there drunk
(the spirit with me ha ha) going to get
it in her
In the first chapter, ‘Milieu’, we meet all the characters. The names are from queer central casting, taking down the patronym, maybe nodding to the noms de plume of some of the cited writers, and bringing to mind our ancient practice of disguise and reinvention. Toto Caelo and Freda Peach are in a relationship, Toto still haunted by her ex, Evie. Their friends include Top Value, a busker; Kinky Trinkets, a sex worker, and Gizmo the Pimp; Shadowbox and Tim-Tam, gay lovers; and One Iota who has a teenage son and daughter named Akimbo and Smithereens. ECR Saidthandone and Inside Information provide commentary on the side in earlier chapters, like a Greek chorus; ECR later returns as narrator.
The narrative moves in vignettes, the voices constantly changing: Kinky at work receiving a monologue of vintage delusion from one of those clients who’d be with a man if only he dared; One Iota helplessly observing her son maim a bird; hot days in cars and at Nielsen Park; morons in the workplace and at university; a hilarious vignette about stealing a studded belt and leather skirt from a kinky boutique. Some pack a punch:
during the time I worked in the children’s ward in a
Sydney hospital I saw a twelve year-old suffering
dreadfully after an operation to remove vestigial breasts
and a fourteen year-old girl who had had an
abnormally large clitoris removed and I was only there
So lest you mourn the days when you could be a dole-bludger with a harbour view, remember that this is what is was like back then.
It is instructive to look at Fallon’s ciphers – but not always seriously. The Talmudic epigraphs opening ‘Sextec’ alternate anonymous people with known figures.
‘surely feminism is a failure if you can’t fuck
your best friend’ THE LESOFEM
‘we made love together for long moments’ JOHN RECHY
Born in Texas in 1931, of Mexican heritage, Rechy worked as a hustler for many years, transcribing his experiences into novels such as City of Night (1963), some of the earliest fiction to do so. Along with Jean Rhys and Genet, Rechy’s presence to me signals the importance of the urban demimonde to Working Hot as the locus of non-conformist sexual communities not only driven by desire but also economics, queers and women often getting by with sexual favours before sex work was industrialised. Fallon wasn’t only the first explicitly sex-positive queer female writer in Australia, she also verified the historical intertwinement of queer and sex worker communities, united by moral ostracism (and let’s face it, cutting edge technique). Kinky Trinkets is more than just a trope, as some feminist critics maintained; she is a plausible character whose labour matters.
‘Sextec’ is more romantic than sexy, sublimely so. A part epistolary prose-poem, it recounts Freda and Toto’s love affair. Toto is still getting over Evie, a relationship that suffered from social opprobrium, a familiar experience for any queer woman over fifty. The chapter begins with Toto and Freda in the first flush of love, sensitive to every word and touch. The writing is ecstatic, leaving a sticky residue of sweat, tongues, cunts, orgasms, dirty sheets and long lingering looks.
the flesh of your face is delicate over a
primitive bone structure
when I shut my eyes you are barbaric
with them open (even in the dark) you are almost
angelic these tensions created by the strong and the
sweet by the incongruous excite me and excite me to
write create orgasm diamantés and jeans
I love you so much
you come over and over
so many times so quick
I’m in awe of my fingers
(the tips tingle if we haven’t fucked for a few days)
In her essay ‘Textual Intercourse: Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot’, Marion May Campbell argues:
With its citational exuberance and encyclopaediac jubilation enlisted as part of its erotics, its genuine, “potent infidel” heteroglossic play of registers and voices, its constant genre-hopping offering a political critique of discursive violence through its parodic practice, Working Hot nevertheless maintains … participation in the novel as genre … because the reader can re-constellate, from fragmented scenes and snatches of dialogue, a sense of the characters and their interaction in a social field.
I love this interpretation — but I never needed convincing that Working Hot was a novel. I associated it with verse-novels, such as the early works of Michael Ondaatje, and I would hazard a guess it influenced Dorothy Porter whose first verse novel Akhenaten, also highly erotic, appeared in 1992. In any case, Fallon wears her erudition lightly, the references never obscure let alone pretentious. The carnal and quotidian remain dominant.
gee I guess I must be a hopeless old dyke but I’d rather
go to bed with a warm woman than a warm book any
day of the tick of the old clock.
the text that writes itself (or is written)
in the morning (or afternoon) after
lovemaking (or dreams about lovemaking)
is the best text
The references are multi-layered –
a woman wanting and then ‘yes’
that ‘yes’ of yours
the sound of a woman ascenting (sic) you said there’s
nothing like it and you’re right
Joyce and Stein, yesohyes, but this emphasis on female agency jolts us into the present. Joyce’s emphasis on Molly Bloom’s assent is surely one of the main things that keeps Ulysses relevant. I also hear the bi-lines of pro-sex queer spaces with their emphasis on consent. In Brooklyn there is even a club called House of Consent.
Foucault and de Sade’s theories on power in interpersonal and sexual relations inevitably appear, but Fallon’s references to BDSM like everything else start in the street. This was significant to me, for when Working Hot came out, the now infamous dyke porn magazine Wicked Women was in its second year of publication, with mixed reception. The Feminist Bookshop in Rozelle agreed to stock it but as pornography inherently ‘perpetuated the patriarchy’, they secreted it at the back of the shop, at one stage wrapping it in brown paper. Published by Francine Laybutt (soon to transition to Jasper) and Talisa Salmon, Wicked Women funded itself with performance nights and parties. The world they opened was a refuge for many of us who wanted the freedoms gay men had: to party, fuck, take drugs, be kinky and do sex work in a supportive environment. Most of Fallon’s generation of lesbians disapproved of us for our hedonism which was hard to bear on top of mainstream disapproval, following as it did traditional perceptions of queer women as humourless, frigid, bitter and angry. Ya couldn’t bloody win. To this day, many of my generation refuse the word lesbian, such were the proscriptive associations. We were, and still are, dykes. Fallon also rebelled against the female-exclusive eroticism decreed by purist lesbianism.
now don’t say I told you but don’t ever let them tell
you that lesbians don’t fantasise about cocks and big ones
a fish joke a fish joke it’s time for a tartare sauce
To this extent, she was navigating similar territory to her trans-Pacific contemporary, Pat Califia, now Patrick Califia-Rice, whose ground-breaking BDSM guides and short stories are still in print. Fallon doesn’t cite Califa, making me doubt she had read Coming to Power (1980) and Macho Sluts (1988), whose titles say it all. Maybe she had read them but found them irrelevant. Compared to Working Hot, they are doctrinaire.
Another name notable for its absence is Kathy Acker, also doing something similar from Blood and Guts in High School (1978) onwards, by co-opting other voices and stories and fusing them with her own; by claiming a place in urban grunge for frank female sexuality. Maybe Acker is missing because she was not very well known in the 1980s. And for all the affairs with women she purportedly had, and her gender and literary iconoclasm, she didn’t write much dyke sex. Nothing like Fallon, anyway.
Yes, there’s plenty of sex in Working Hot, but no strap-ons or fisting, lovers, sorry. (Well, a strap-on is sighted but not used.) Working Hot isn’t a one-handed read like Macho Sluts or the lyrical pornography of Anaïs Nin. It is a more complex, layered seduction. The chapter ‘Sextec’ is not just a love song, it is a paean to pleasure itself. The writing is ecstatic.
… pleasure pleasure pleasure
singing down through my open mouth onto yours and
into yours and your jerked head and your shut eyes
your left arm outstretched going down on you is all joy
What makes it so different from most erotic writing by men about women or even about other men – Genet for instance, a sort of literary Tom of Finland with his hard-muscled priapic subjects, mutely and brutely fucking – is the emphasis on the pleasure of the partner. It is her feelings, her joy and satisfaction; it is the act of giving and her reciprocity that the writing glorifies. Her face, as conveyor of emotion, is as important as her genitals.
a woman’s face changing with love and passion
in your bed under your hands
this is a pleasure I have known
The hotness of Working Hot was recognised in the decade following its publication and in 2000 it was reissued by Random House’s Vintage imprint, who had just had a good run with Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded. Fallon was a ground-breaker: throughout the 1990s, writing about sex by queers and women blossomed, backlash and all, and queer writers including myself began to be published by mainstream houses. Yet the re-issue of Working Hot was ambivalent. It used the same cover image Fallon had chosen for the original, Cernak’s The Fall, a monumental painting of symbols and references, featuring a naked woman holding up a mirror, her genitals starkly hairless. In the Vintage edition, the author’s name is printed across them, hiding them. The blurbs on the back praise the book for its sexiness, glossing over its textual experimentation and not mentioning once queer or lesbian sexuality. Phew. This issue was remaindered; Loaded meanwhile continued to fly off the shelves.
Yeah, my mind’s in the gutter but sometimes I look at the stars. Working Hot is about so much more than sex and Toto and Freda and their motley crew in sleazy Sydney. As Sybylla Press publisher Alison Ravenscroft said, in an essay written in response to the reprint, ‘It was an anti-authoritarian text that, among other things, wrote against the authority conceded to the author.’ It’s about who represents whom, and how. It’s about the fine line between love and hate, the perverse attraction of pain; it’s about the mercurial nature of identity and how love changes it and how it changes love. It is an interrogation of desire that reveals power, ruthlessness and utter confusion at its heart. Not just the power that passes between lovers, but also the power or its lack a sexual woman has in a patriarchal society.
What could I club to death to make it possible for us to touch again?
In the beginning of ‘THE WOUND AND THE MESSAGE’, the only prose section of the book, a character called Archangel Mademoiselle Montgolfier performs an autopsy on a heart. At the centre she finds a sort of homunculus, ‘a tiny, white-laval creature suffering unperturbedly the constant ebb and flow of the tidal wash as it continued to tattoo, score and re-graffiti the pulsating, red walls.’ Futility, nonsense, repetition: this chapter is full of the tedium of Toto and Freda’s demise. By turns conversational and epigrammatic, a lot is scripted, first for an opera then a radio play. Fallon probably worked more in script form than fiction, her best-known Matricide, the Musical, co-written with Elena Kats-Chernin in 1998.
In 1986, when the manuscript of Working Hot landed in the offices of Sybylla Press in Collingwood, I was living in Paris, in the aforementioned state of ignorance about poststructuralist, postmodern and psychoanalytic theory, despite speaking the language so many of its proponents were writing in. While I was reading Jean Giono, Joyce, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Doris Lessing, Greene and Highsmith, Paris-based Francophone theorists Cixous, Kristeva, Irigaray et al, were being translated into English and changing feminism worldwide, up til then dominated by Anglophones including our own Germaine Greer. I was a bad feminist, no doubt about it.
Fallon may have been in Paris the same time as me; we may have even crossed paths in the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, tended by elderly US ex-pat George Whitman, distant relative of poet Walt. Even more carefully than his grotty shambolic shop, George tended his eccentric persona, especially for the female gaze. On the banks of the Seine, opposite Nôtre-Dame, Shakespeare and Co was a mecca for impecunious literary Anglophones not just for its books but also its offer of free accommodation. You slept upstairs on the floor of the antiquarian book section in exchange for labour in the shop. The most beautiful, sweet-natured young women were quickly promoted to cleaning duties in George’s apartment on the top floor. When my boyfriend arrived, we were lucky to be given a tiny private room on the other side of the stairs because he was an established painter and writer. In the drawers of the desk were vials of testosterone: as George left one hundred franc notes lying ostentatiously around his apartment, apparently to test his cleaners, we didn’t dare touch the T. There were bedbugs everywhere.
Some of Working Hot takes place in Paris, mythical and sentimental capital of the avant-garde and early twentieth-century queer communities, of which Sylvia Beach, who founded Shakespeare and Co, was a luminary. I think Fallon was as interested as honouring these heritages as she was in tearing up their shibboleths. In passages laugh-out-loud funny, she mocks George Whitman – and bear in mind this man (now deceased) and his shop still, thirty years later, get cover stories in newspapers that sing their counter-cultural credentials. There’s a funny scene when Toto has just arrived and Freda takes her to ‘this marvelous restaurant I’ve found. It’s supposed to be the best in the city.’ Freda orders escargots and wine, instructing Toto to behave because ‘if they take a dislike to you or think you’re English, they’ll never serve you.’
Hard drinking Toto – who according to her friend Shadowbox ‘could be bad news when she’d had one too many … she COULD be such a riot but you wouldn’t want to live with her … She took everything so seriously. She was really obsessive.’ – Toto, ‘desolate, desperate, completely fucked’, naturally acts up. ‘Where’s that fucking poncey waiter so we can order and where are the snails and wine?’ she snarls in Strine.
Freda threatens to return to men:
‘I don’t want to be paranoid like this my whole life. … I couldn’t stand my parents’ minds on my sexuality which they would be if I were with you. … With him, I’m sure they’d never even think of it. … If you were a man I’d never leave you but you’re not and so that’s the way it is.’
It is astonishing to witness the freedom queer women have in societies like ours today, less than a lifetime from Working Hot. No matter that the lovers in Working Hot get refuge in bedrooms or at parties; the psychological damage of legal, public, religious and social condemnation is inexorable. The index of injury in ‘Cursevidence’ can be hard to read.
An American academic raves about how ‘nice’ a woman who teaches for him is, all the while undermining her until she leaves, at which point he acts sad. Fallon’s father, a figure both literal and metaphorical, reappears with advice.
‘they’re just after scalps notches in their belts
names in their little black book’
MY FATHER used to say
‘treat them like animals
until they prove themselves different’
The paterfamilias protecting his daughter with wisdom? Or his gender with the fallacy of biological determinism?
must tell you
level you trying to make you explain to them just
precisely exactly what you mean in clear logical concise
terms with examples and ‘could you define your terms
more satisfactorily please so there’s no
misunderstanding in a less emotive way if you don’t
‘quite good quite interesting’ they say
Sound familiar, girls?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to do a blow by blow exegesis. Working Hot resists the Aristotelian narrative, the western rational linear mode, itself dependent on the Hero’s Journey. But a writer of the material book cannot escape chronology entirely: thus Working Hot blooms and fades like a love affair (and haunts posthumously). Meanwhile, Fallon’s insistence on the abstract and intimate does succeed in conveying meaning: the chaos and mystery of love and desire, the mutability of language and identity. Along with a phalanx of commentary on gender, sex and marginalisation.
The spectre of Eve Langley (1904-1974), haunts the book like the mad lezzo of OzLit. Langley married a man with whom she had three children but when the youngest was still a baby, he had her admitted to Auckland Mental Hospital where she malingered for seven years until released into her sister’s care. Langley wore trousers before they were acceptable, changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde in 1954, and died alcoholic and destitute in a filthy hut in Katoomba. Her popular novel The Pea Pickers (1942), based on Langley and her sister’s experiences as itinerant cross-dressing fruit-pickers in Gippsland, was followed by White Topee (1954). Langley wrote reams more but nothing was accepted for publication. There is an allusion to this in ‘Cursevidence’. A note on the archives of a mad, dead, female Australian writer reads, with Fallon’s hallmark gallows humour: ‘this babbling reveals a pathetic breakdown more fit for the psychiatrist’s couch than a publisher’s office.’ The Pea Pickers was re-issued by HarperCollins a few years ago. In the grand tradition of headless women, the cover features a Vogueish image of a torso in smart striped shirt straightening her tie (you can see a bit of her face actually – the lips (pouty) and hair – she’s blonde and pretty). Extending on this appeal to the hip modern reader (Hey babe, why wear overalls when you can pick fruit in Armani?) the blurb tells us: ‘For Blue the novel ends in marriage but not for Steve. For her, desire is never straightforward, and love – for men, for women, for country – leaves her confused, but independent.’ Allow me to shoehorn in the factoid that Stephen is the name of Radclyffe Hall’s ‘invert’ in ye olde Sapphic classic The Well of Loneliness (1928), banned here incidentally until Eve Langley was in her 30s. I think this pretty much validates contemporary readings of The Pea Picker’s Steve as queer, non-binary or trans. But don’t let the shoppers in Kinokuniya think that, lest they flee in fear.
A wall of passive LGBTIQ-phobia remains, yet ‘clear logical concise examples’ cannot always be found of relationships and behaviours systematically oppressed for literally centuries. Only last year, I had a conversation about Langley with a straight, male, kind, left-wing novelist who has written a lot about her. ‘She’s claimed by those communities,’ he told me earnestly. ‘But I think she was just an eccentric.’
A woman who wore trousers in the 1930s, who changed her name to Oscar Wilde, whose husband committed her to the loony bin, who died alone and alcoholic, just an eccentric?
in my father’s house are many mansions
Like a chorus, this phrase from the Bible runs through ‘Which Craft’, a chapter that contains a clue to the break from convention. After a verse describing domestic interiors and gardens seen from afar, never entered, Fallon adds her own suffix –
in my father’s house are many mansions but not
one room for me
There follows a rapturous description of men cruising in Paris, then a telegram from a friend saying she’s just been raped. Then the lines that make me think Fallon did care about OzLit. How can you not if you are an Australian writer with such a keen sense of cultural custodianship?
the BBC’s broadcast on contemporary Australian writers
has just discussed ten TEN male writers
Williamson Moorhouse Bob Ellis et al
the transistor lies shattered
The opportunity for sex available to men in public as compared to the threat of rape for women; the adulation of male writers as compared to the complete erasure of female ones. Things are slightly better today on the second count.
Back when Working Hot was published, terra nullius was still the doctrine understood to underpin Australian law and by extension our consciousness. At school we were taught virtually nothing about the ancient extant civilisation on whose unceded land we lived: white Australia was not an applied, recent society; it was Australia, period. More particularly, white Australia was Anglo, for even in my colonial, established, middle-class family were stories of glass ceilings and discrimination as we were Celtic Catholic. The history of massacres was beginning to be transcribed from Indigenous oral lore and colonial documents by historians like Henry Reynolds, but even now it is contested and not formally recognised. It would be three more years before the Mabo decision overturned terra nullius and decades before Welcome to Country ceremonies were established protocol. The White Australia Policy had been lifted just sixteen years earlier.
Fallon was more aware of our bloody history than most. In the early 1970s, she had fostered a boy of Torres Strait Island heritage. This experience fed her script for Margot Nash’s film Call Me Mum (2006), which also led to a novel, Paydirt (2008). By now calling herself Kathleen Mary Fallon, she used a variety of monologues to transmit this fiction, and it poses no easy answers.
A few years earlier, she wrote a response to Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for theatre (1998). It let the light in for me, who felt alone in my distress at both novel and play, the latter a five-hour epic directed by Neil Armfield. Over the years of reading Winton, I had been bothered by what I felt to be a kitsch use of the Australian idiom, fired more by Anglocentric nostalgia than a desire to interrogate language which Fallon does relentlessly. I had been disturbed by the fear and loathing behind so many of his female characters. I didn’t find in Winton’s fiction an honest appraisal of the sexist context in which women grow and concomitant male responsibility; nor any female characters who are decent, strong and sexual all at once. Instead, his good women are self-sacrificing and chaste, conforming to Christian notions of female virtue. The men are damaged, mostly by women; they comfort one another while the women die, find God, or comfort them as well. No amount of beautiful landscape writing mitigates this.
In terms of Cloudstreet’s grand theme, I never understood how healing the rift between two bickering white families who live in a house inhabited by the ghost of a young Aboriginal girl persecuted by the racist policies of early twentieth-century Australia could symbolise reconciliation. All the Indigenous characters are ghosts. As Fallon writes,
The transcendent ‘black’ narrator, a mythic figure outside time and place, is a sort of cosmic Uncle Tom, legitimating ‘white’ occupation as a benign and benevolent ‘dusky’ guardian angel straight out of Christian iconography … This loss of consciousness, it seems to me, is an effect, on the psychic and the cultural levels, of the lie of terra nullius. And this lie of terra nullius is a seminal mechanism in the schema of our cultural denial. Thus placing our relationship with ‘black’ Australia at the very heart of our national identity. Pushing this theory, one could see Cloudstreet as the blind spot itself.
Cloudstreet was translated into 28 languages and also adapted for opera and television. It won many prizes, regularly tops lists of favourite Australian books, and the theatre production will be reprised at the Malthouse Theatre this year.
Working Hot won the inaugural Victorian Premier’s Award for experimental writing, a prize funded by the ANZ Bank and according to Campbell, ‘not subsequently subscribed once [ANZ]’s dignitaries discovered what kind of writing the prize celebrated.’ ‘Sextec’ has been translated into Polish: you can find it online. Other than that, Working Hot is alive only in reputation.
It may seem ridiculous to compare these two books. Fallon was not attempting national saga — Winton was. Winton was not attempting intertexual experimentation or celebrating queer female desire — Fallon was. But Working Hot and Cloudstreet were written and published within a few years of each other. They are both huge in ambition, local in context, universal in intent and heavily mine the Australian vernacular. My questions are more to readers than these authors. Why do we remain so attached to a story that ghosts Indigenous Australia into the past and limits women to the Biblical tropes of Madonna and whore? Why is Working Hot — this complex, witty, passionate take-down of the patriarchy — not better known? As Chris Kraus says: ‘Who gets to speak, and why?’ And where does a working writer go when doors close?
in my father’s house are many mansions in my
father’s house are many mansions in my father’s
house are many mansions but not one room for me
It has been cheering to witness a rise in the literary voices of non-white Australians, of Indigenous people, to see the many positive effects the third wave of feminism, including greater gender equity in published writing. LGBTIQ voices also have greater platforms. I for one am not as afraid as I was for so long. I may have written the word lesbian more times in this essay than in all my previous writing combined. A Jewish friend of mine once said to me that whenever she sees the word jew in print, she flinches. I feel the same way. It’s called internalisation. Can people my age ever get rid of the fear of being queer? As overwhelmingly joyful and exciting it is, especially in a place like Sydney where we can be ourselves in many – not all – public spaces – somewhere deep inside the fear remains.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) made the New York Times bestseller list. I was astonished to read in the first pages mention of dildos in the shower stall, the changing pronoun of the writer’s lover and anal sex. My. Jaw. Literally. Dropped. But ultimately I think the book received acclaim despite these things, not because of them. It’s dizzyingly intelligent and the aphoristic structure easily absorbed. The author photo shows an attractive strawberry blonde who easily passes for heterosexual; her love song to her ‘three Irish guys’ (partner/co-parent, stepson and birth son) is a triumph over grave illness and a hostile status quo. In that sense, The Argonauts is a story as old as Shakespeare at least: ergo a total winner. That Nelson doesn’t deliver on the promise of pervy sex for most readers may be a relief and others among us a disappointment.
Maggie Nelson is championed by Eileen Myles, US lesbian poet who late in life surged in popularity. Myles was the lover of Jill Soloway during the highly successful TV series Transparent (2014). Soloway went on to adapt Kraus’s I Love Dick (1996) for television, bringing the novel a whole new readership. The big audiences these writers now command is all the more extraordinary given they work in the marginalia of theory, art criticism and poetry. But their profiles are helped by Hollywood, third wave feminism and the gradual global legalisation of gay marriage. (Kraus and her novel aren’t queer; she is just a damn smart feminist art critic unafraid of queer content.) Myles packed out a whole bay in Carriageworks at the 2018 Sydney Writers Festival, but I saw people there that I’m sure had never read a poem in their lives. In the same year, up the road at a Newtown bookshop, a bookclub called Inqueering Minds met once a month to discuss LGBTIQ books. Not one chosen title was Australian. No White, no Marr, no Law, no van Neerven, Lilley, Szubanksi or Kneen. No Kathleen Mary Fallon.
If, as even our right-wing politicians tell us, we are all equal or have the right to be, then this can’t be achieved in Australia till we come to terms with our foundation truths. Of Genocide and white supremacy; colonies founded on prisons, funded by rum and ruled with male brutality. A flag still illustrated with the Union Jack and a currency still stamped with English monarchy. No wonder we cringe. This shame has a long reach. It’s what ensures we know more about black American culture than black Australian, more about Prohibition than Sly Grog; it is coloured, of course, so we assume the best philosophers and chefs are men in Europe. We forget the best stuff is also, often, the most dangerous and difficult.
I went to Shadowbox’s for dinner one night and there
was his lover Tim-Tam a real cunt-hater who had
always tried to give me a hard time
I had brought wine and avocado
he declined the wine distastefully and turned liverish at
the sight of the avocado which he nibbled gingerly
‘well’ he said looking at me ‘it tastes like whipped
Spunk’ and his eyes narrowed
‘well’ I said ‘I suppose you’re not in a position to know
really but in fact it tastes for all the world like cunt’
my eyes weren’t narrow but my lips were pursed and
his were too I can tell you
‘that’s it girls’—as Nietzsche says—‘follow any stupidity
I say bat that old ball of shit right back
where it belongs or you’ll be the battleground
They tromp over all your life.
Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, (Penguin Classics, 2017)
Kathy Acker, Great Expectations, (Grove Press, NY, 1982)
Sidney J. Baker, The Australian Language, (Sun Book, 1970/1986)
Pat Califia, Macho Sluts, (Alyson Publications, LA, 1988)
Marion May Campbell, ‘Textual Intercourse: Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot’, Postmodern Studies #50, 2014
Mary Fallon, Working Hot (Sybylla Press, 1989)
Kathleen Mary Fallon, A Close Look at Cloudstreet, Third Text 53, Winter 2000-01
— Call me Mum, Ronin Films, 2006
Nicole Flint, Misogyny lurks in Winton’s world of fiction, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 2013
Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, (Paladin, 1988)
Jean Genet, Pompes Funebres, (Gallimard, 1953)
Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, (Wordsworth Editions, 2014)
James Joyce, Ulysses (The Bodley Head, 1960)
Colleen Keane, Newcomers, Postmodernism and Experiment, (Journal for the Study of Australian Literature, 1994)
Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Serpent’s Tail, 2016)
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, (Angus & Robertson, 1958)
Eileen Myles, I must be living Twice, (Tuskar Rock Press, 2015)
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, (Text, 2017)
Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus (Star, 1978)
Alison Ravenscroft, On the Reissue of Working Hot, Meanjin, 2000
John Rechy, City of Night (Grove Press, 1963)
Henry Reynolds, Frontier (Allen & Unwin, 1986)
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark, (Norton, 1982)
Jean Rhys, After leaving Mr Mackenzie, (1971)
Christos Tsiolkas, Loaded (Vintage, 1995)
Tim Winton, Cloudstreet (McPhee Gribble, 1991)