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Review

‘I was the Only Blak Queer in the world’: on Ellen van Neerven’s Throat

In 2017, just over a year after the publication of Ellen van Neerven’s debut collection of poetry, Comfort Food, the poet Omar Sakr called van Neerven ‘[T]he brightest star in my generation of authors’. Gomeroi poet and multitasker Alison Whittaker marvelled, ‘I have no idea what contemporary Australian literature would look like without Ellen.’

A lot can happen (a lot has happened) in the four years since van Neerven released Comfort Food. From the outset of their new collection, Throat, there are subtle references to the infamous trolling they endured after the poem ‘Mango’ was included in a 2017 New South Wales high school exam. In a spectacular instance of vitriol and harassment, students rallied online to directly inform the poet of their dislike of the piece.

In Throat, van Neerven no longer searches for comfort. If their poetry debut saw them writing, somewhat hesitantly, ‘I’ve been leaving a lot of times/it doesn’t mean I want to’, here, in Throat, they have discovered a newfound sense of conviction: ‘as soon as you think of leaving, leave.’

This reappraisal of priorities manifests elsewhere. In one of Comfort Food’s highlights, ‘Invisible Spears’, van Neerven wrote:

you don’t want us protecting
our land like the Maori
that means it was our land to protect
we don’t need
a haka of whitefullas
just let us resist

Yet for all the staunchness of those lines, they also contained a subtle undercurrent of reluctance (‘let us resist’). In Throat, from the opening pages, permission is no longer sought from settler-colonial figures:

sovereignty was never ceded. why do we need to reference the invasion, we are continuing our ancestors’ talk. I can close my eyes and you are gone – that’s the power of Country.

Perhaps the intervening years, and the moronic inferno of their bullying, revealed comfort to be a troubled and uneasy refuge for the poet. Van Neerven remains, however, implacably hungry. Organised thematically into five different parts, Throat tackles memory, race, family, generational change, the creative process and a host of other issues. They break fresh emotional ground here, uncovering territories alive with exactly the kind of ‘delight of discovery’ that first led ‘Mango’ to be selected for exam inclusion. Alongside the conviction of this newfound sense of self, an abiding humility, familiar from their previous work, marks the approach of many of these poems.

In ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ (‘I hadn’t yet started thinking about gender as a colonial construct. Or examined my ideas of masculinity and femininity./I hadn’t yet realised that my relationship was interracial’), van Neerven describes watching the unceded land of the Eora Nation transform during a Mardi Gras parade:

the street becoming a site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and forty years of Black Queer pride spread into more than sixty thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.

As a dedication to both the Sydney Mardi Gras and this continent’s long history of black sexuality and genderqueerness, the poem speaks also to wider conceptions of gender and sexuality among First Nations globally (including those described by the Cherokee Two-Spirit and queer writer Qwo-Li Driskill, to whom Throat’s first pages are indebted). It is an ode suffused with great humour and tenderness:

I was the Only Blak Queer in the world. I had many difficulties.

I didn’t know how to tell my family.

I hadn’t seen Steven Oliver can’t even on Black Comedy yet, we hadn’t watched it together over dinner. TV didn’t save me.

I hadn’t seen Electric Fields perform in a sweaty old meat market with a group of friends who had similar feelings. I hadn’t heard Zaachariaha’s deadly voice singing ‘Nina’.

I hadn’t yet read Lisa Bellear. And cried sitting on the carpet in the library over sharply written work that spoke to

Van Neerven goes on to describe their apprenticeship in new communities and activist circles, reflecting on how:

My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, who chanted, ‘Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and Blacks!’ in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.

Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am learning the words.

A similar attitude attends the poet’s journey toward self-love:

… still in progress learnin to fall in low-key love
with their own blak kweer
soul

Van Neerven approaches the subject of queerness and gender dysphoria from multiple angles, alternately humourous (‘Bodies are vessels but mine does not float well’); poignant (‘I wondered if my parents would ever accept my future partners, if I’d ever have the chance to legalise my relationship, have children, ask for more, not for less’); tender (‘I catch you in an embrace with another part of me’); and playful, suggesting the promises and possibilities of intimacy:

Nothing started the day I was born.
No gender or story.

No walls went up.

But if love and wonder provide spaces for instruction, for play and intimacy, they also set the stage for less welcome lessons.

In one of the collection’s most startling pieces, ‘Expert’, van Neerven tackles the issue of abuse in queer relationships, and what begins as a comic depiction of racist myopia slyly transforms into a lesson on how closeness and trust can operate to conceal more sinister truths. This is the ‘black and white witness’ that Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire memorably described in Meanjin:

[T]he White Witness … is the credible observer who has ventured from the borders of respectability to the borderlands of ‘out there’, most commonly remote Australia, where blackness is seen as savage and violent, and the victims are given no voice, no agency, no humanity.

Van Neerven demonstrates great humanity in tackling the often-misunderstood issue of abuse within same-sex and queer relationships. Given the recent local publication of American author Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 memoir, In the Dream House, which broaches the topic in equally novel and incisive ways, the republication of the poem here (it first appeared in Overland in 2016) is both timely and welcome.

The grim subject matter does, however, raise the question of commodifying trauma. Or what Laura Bennett, writing for Slate, called the ‘first-person industrial complex’: the public’s sometimes vampiric desire to feed upon voices marginalised by the mainstream.

Van Neerven is alert to such quandaries, and interweaves a reflexive and critical gaze toward both self and audience throughout the collection. They are able to interrogate the price of entry to the suffering gallery, the costs of the trauma ticket. Unlike Baldwin’s, though, the one afforded to marginalised authors writing their grief during our present moment is far more often gendered, with a particular emphasis on those who are female-identifying (or read as such):

I think about those murdered and missing
counted, described and spoken about
in courts and in tabloids
without their true gender identities
dissected, violated, robbed and autopsied
no affirmation
no justice
continuing violence
every night and in every silence
I watch and listen out for you

Van Neerven’s willingness to canvas aspects of trauma and First Nations life that appear less often in the public eye is moving and needed. Too many gaps and silences inhibit our public conversation. Too many Brotherboys and Sistergirls, too many trans, queer, and gender non-conforming members of the community who disappear, and never come home:

I saw Paakantyi/Barkindji artist Raymond Zada’s work at the Art Gallery of South Australia and cried. I felt the heavy loss for all of the ones killed, murdered, missing. For the erasure of Blak Queers in every capital, small city and town in Australia.

And I told myself I was lucky to have stayed alive and counted the times I thought I would die. I began to know the stories of more and more and more Blak Queers who had died. I knew them as Ancestors.

I read Natalie Harkin’s, Yvette Holt’s, Nayuka Gorrie’s and Alison Whittaker’s writing online and in bookstores. I saw love for Blak Queers everywhere. Outside the city the sky sent me hints, the walks on Country along the river kept me safe. I saw the colours of my own heart, and they were not the colours of isolation and fear.

Van Neerven writes with chastening intensity about the way traumas expand outward from their first points of contact – the initial, generative hurts (‘As I search for a card in the chocolate box, something tells me I’m not meant to hear about what people think about me – this kind of aggrieved love – until I’m dead’). They are equally attentive to the issue of publishing one’s history and hurt for audiences who may not always be receptive to the complexities of recording and honouring grief – especially the perils of writing around trauma, the seductive pull of ‘commissions [that] keep coming’. In pieces like ‘logonliveon’, van Neerven seems to be speaking directly to the Internet’s hunger for misery-and-suffering narratives written from the personal experience of those who live them:

we don’t get to choose our grief
if you want to pick at mine
try it on

This is uncomfortable reading, to be sure. But it is also bracingly real and honest and necessary, particularly when there are so many commissions to contend with; so many public eyes whose gaze must be returned:

Commission into black deaths in custody, commission to write my name out a bunch of ways, to write a blog on safety, commission into black deaths in custody, my skull size was commissioned, my heartlines were commissioned. this was a commission too.

Recalling Kev Carmody’s lacerating ‘B.D.P’ (‘They purchase drop-out fashions from our op-shops/Eat organic food from land their forebears stole’), in ‘Ecopotent’, van Neerven writes: ‘some hipstas love blacks/some have never/heard of us’. In ‘18Cs’, the poet ends by saying simply: ‘bring me a new coat of oppression. This one’s wearing thin’.

They cast an equally weary eye toward the relationship between reader and writer – and the concept of literary production and reception of literature itself. Midway through Throat, in ‘Four truths and a treaty’, a set of ‘truths’ are introduced, personal confessions that range from the polemical:

We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. […] Don’t fool yourself in believin ‘lowkey’ homophobia is just a part of life. […] We have a place for everyone. More diverse we are, the stronger we are as people. I’m not gonna tiptoe around his fear. I’m not calling him ‘Uncle’.

through to moments of candid humility:

I’ve looked at a fair-skinned one and wondered where they fit in. Infected by gossip and identity-policing. Please forgive my lateral violence and internalised racism. I have no right to judge.

These truths provide the basis for the book’s conceptualisation of treaty, theorised as a series of continually changing demands, of flexible needs. It sets out a vision of agreement making, of self-reconciliation rich with inquiry and truce between gender and the body, culture and history. The section digs deep, negotiating a kind of reflective intermission – an interrogation of the reader that functions equally as an interrogation of oneself:

            Who is the custodian of this book?
            How do we co-exist on this page?
            How can we re-imagine custodianship?
            Is this an agreement or a series of
unanswered questions?
            Are you willing to enter an agreement that is
incomplete and subject to change?

Elsewhere, Throat is concerned with examining the ways that we inherit and live with grief. The title itself gestures toward hurt and high emotion: the kind that swells until it is felt ‘hurting/in the back of the throat’ (the image is Patience Agbabi’s, and provides the collection’s epigraph). It is in this space, in an elegy to their grandmother entitled ‘Crushed’, that van Neerven unearths some of the most moving and evocative moments of their work to date.

Bahbuny,
I wanted to speak to you in our language
and tell you I love you

            Stars broke
            when they heard you died
            dust fell at our feet

This questing, elliptical tone reveals how the truth can be a kind of scarification. Perhaps our innermost knowledges cannot be contained to the printed word. And – as if to indicate as much – the piece is surrounded by blank space, each stanza almost needing its own page. Struggling to gesture toward those other words, the ones which write white and do not show up.

All that cannot be spoken.

***

Some books leave you crushed.

Others, having staked out no small claim on your mental landscape, become, over the course of weeks and months, like old friends (you awake one day and there they are, occupying your mind and heart entirely). A few may even make you question the means and ends of writing, the sort of work that it is meant to do – or should be trying to.

Throat manages all three, often at the same time:

7. You feel insecure about how your writing might be read
under a white gaze.
6. You are told you may be offended by some of the other
stories in the collection.
5. You are the only Indigenous person they have approached
for the project.
4. Payment has not yet been guaranteed.
3. Editor calls the project a word in an ‘extinct indigenous
language’.
2. Lower case ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Aboriginal’ is used.
1. Editor mentions she went out with ‘one’ once, you remind
her of him.

Throat is a collection that crosses boundaries: of gender, genre, culture, history. Throughout the work you catch yourself, half unconscious, half wondering, dazzled and spent and continually recovering. To paraphrase the title of the second part of the collection it is a work that is always approaching, haunt-walking in. You cannot wait to meet it yet feel that it has met you several times already – feisty, haunting, irresistibly tender.

And when you eventually find yourself sufficiently recuperated from the deft uppercuts of ‘Chermy’ and ‘A ship-shaped hole in the forest’ and ‘Portrait of Destiny’, ready to speak to friends and family again, you feel compelled to call them up – along with anyone you’ve ever heard show even a glancing interest in poetry – and invite them round, with the intention of finally being able to thrust this book into their hand, a two-word instruction helpfully attached to its worn, already well-thumbed cover:

Read. This.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Declan Fry is an essayist, critic, and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, in 2009 he received the Tom Collins Prize in Australian Literature, and, as joint winner, the Todhunter Literary Award in 2013. He currently lives on unceded Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung land and is a board member of Books ‘n’ Boots, an organisation which distributes football boots and books to remote and regional Aboriginal communities. His work has appeared in Meanjin, Westerly and Australian Book Review. Twitter: DeclanFry1 Instagram: declan.s.fry

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  1. Thank you for that review and your insights. You have stimulated my interest in reading more of your work and the work of Ellen van Neerven. I feel embarrassed and ashamed that I don’t know more. I grew up in Mingenew, a small town in WA, which was racist and snobby. My parents were kind to everyone, including my father employing an Aboriginal man, who, by the lights of the attitude at that time, was known as “halfcaste”. Although our parents did not use that terminology, or allow us to use that term, we were punished by the other whites in the town. Another story. Keep up the good work, teaching those of us who don’t know or understand…
    kind regards Merlene abbott

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