A mining corporation, British by origin, but like all mining corporations conveniently devoid of nationhood, starts a copper mine in a distant region. The island has lived through centuries of colonisation by its Yawan neighbours, by Japan, Germany, England, and most recently Australia. 1971, when the Australian constitution is the law of the land, it’s a fortunate time to dig. The Australian constitution promises all the minerals, and the rights to explore and extract them, to the Crown.
When I saw this young woman walking around town, I knew she was rich. Glossy brown hair in curls, not like our curls, loose, and she’d pulled it on top of her head like a pile of dog shit. She could not have come from this island – and not because she’s white. Our mothers here would not let her leave the house looking like that, like such a rag doll. That’s how I know she’s rich.
I am not prepared for what I encounter but I am in love with it. The baby I held in the tray of a ute we got dropped off in, the heavy mud under my feet, the teetering coconut trees that hang over the roads. Brendan and I walk around and buy an ice-cream cone, that terrifically artificial rose-pink ice-cream that I haven’t had since I was a kid. This place is simple, honest. Brendan was right to bring me here.
The mine flourishes. Over the next twenty years, it clears billions. Locals have jobs, are wearing western clothes, are importing goods for the first time. Those with an education, a class who had historically fled the island to be hosted by the nations of their alma maters, instead return and work office jobs at the mine, jobs which support their acquired lifestyles: aircon, water filters, imported wine. The uneducated are employed as labourers at appalling wages. Supermarkets open, but locals cannot afford to shop at them. Animal populations begin to die, and subsistence living becomes untenable for many. The runoff from the mine poisons the drinking water. There is no sanitation – there never was, but there was never much need for it until now – and it begins to affect the health of the community. People are ill. Babies die.
I see Anna outside the UN compound and she tells me there is a writer here from America or Australia. She says the woman, Estelle, has come to the island with her boyfriend and wants to write some stories. It is that girl I saw, who is maybe twenty years old. I don’t know how she is a writer. Maybe because she is rich, maybe that is how you become a writer. But I do know that I will have my book and that girl will write it.
I meet Francis through Anna at the UN compound one morning. He is small and dark and bent-over. Middle-aged, I guess, but on the younger end of it. He smells like the island funk, the dank sweat and mud of it. Yet while we chat – much of it interpreted by Anna – he looks at me like a man in command of his sexual presence. His mustard eyes watch me for longer than they ought to. I have to look away, my gut dropping. I shouldn’t like it.
It is the time of Third Worldism. Postcolonial movements are rising, and with them comes the literature, the discourse, the language of decolonisation, of autonomy and of collective upheaval. Dotty Melanat, Indigenous woman, hitherto unknown, protests out the front of a supermarket in Takena. She shrieks at a policeman for being complicit in the ruin of her community. She will not be sedated. He hits her. She removes all her clothes and beats her chest and she screams. Men and women come to her defence; more police officers are called in. This is the Takena Riot, the catalyst for what is to come. From it, a land council is formed by local leaders. The mine liaises with them, offers a pittance for what they see as the wholesale theft of their land. The council radicalises, loses its older constituents, who are old enough to know and fear what will come next.
Dynamite is planted by freshly minted rebels. And there is blood.
I meet with Estelle and I’m not sure who is more excited. Who stands to profit more? Maybe she is not so dumb. She sees my second wife outside and tells me she looks like Whitney Houston. She is jealous. Where she is from, there are no second or third wives, just one woman for every man. Or so they say. She is not the first white woman on the island looking for an adventure.
I can’t tell if his pupils are dilating, they’re so dark. Can’t work out whether it is a seduction technique he’s taught himself, some power play, or if it happens automatically when two sets of eyes share a gaze for long enough. Wasn’t it fight or fuck and no possibility of anything else? I had always looked people in the eye, and I had always felt the approaches of men keenly. It unnerves me, but maybe other women feel it too. It’s not as though I’m beautiful.
This is how it begins, but by the time it is over – if it is ever really over – 20,000 will be dead. The mine will close, if only temporarily. The island will lose an entire generation to the frenzy of civil war and the things that happen after that fact.
Born into a family that is fractured at the core, and relegated to the position of the unwanted son from a former marriage, his guardians are unable or unwilling to pay his school tuition, and so he leaves home to pursue a life in petty crime. At fifteen, he robs a bank and shoots the security guard. He says he didn’t intend to. In court, the guard’s permanent injury says more than the testimony of the shooter. Francis is handsome, he has already had plenty of lovers, and from this fact alone, he knows that he has something, some unspoken power. He goes to jail.
In the war, I had girls. Six or seven girlfriends at any time. Some of them I paid. But they were local girls who preferred us to the invaders. They have smaller things, the invaders, they told us late at night while we drank homebrew. I knew the working girls, they were just like us, just getting by the way they knew how. Sometimes they turned up with cuts and sores on their faces and their arses. It inflamed us, like everything did then. I know that some of these girls loved me; I had made commander, and guns speak for something in the minds of young women. Young women in war. Estelle wants me to think she is not like those girls, but I see her red cheeks when I look at her. She would have been mine, too, in those days.
I am one of those women, I suppose, who seems available to almost any sexual advance, who silently permits men’s unconscious desires to reveal and justify themselves in my company. I can barely recall a day in my life when a man didn’t approach me with sex in his eyes. I’ve enjoyed -– couldn’t go without, really – the attention of men, but it’s always made me feel uneasy, too. I’m never sure if it is an end unto itself, this pleasure, or if it speaks to some violence my body incites, some violence of my body.
While serving a five-year prison sentence, Francis meets Simon, who is older, more influential, can urinate just once a day and sometimes less. When he leans against the wall to piss in the hole in the corner in their shared cell, the hot stream of liquid is long and solid. Men from the seaside villages are famous for this: since they have the ocean, they do not build latrines into the earth like they do in the jungle and inland cities, but must wait until there is a time to walk out into the ocean and squat in the shallows. Francis sees this as manly, is taken with Simon in a way that young men are with the negligibly older and ultimately stronger. This is how young men are radicalised, how boys are made soldiers.
Estelle invites me to her house. Anna is there to help translate because my English is incomplete. I am glad that her boyfriend is not there. I look around at where she wakes up, pulls clothes over her head, smooths her hair with her hands. She pours us coffee and passes around fruit.
I begin to tell her my story. About my parents, my childhood, prison. And then about Simon, who saved my life in prison, returned my consciousness to the land I came from. Simon taught me what it is to respect oneself. For him I became a soldier, and despite everything, I owe him my life’s story.
Francis is perfect. Perfect for now. Fascinating, willing, and at the risk of sounding calculated, saleable. He’s broken, for sure, but he retains some sexual allure in his war wounds, his commanding presence, and the appeal of peace and ambition in the post-war developing nation. And with his story and my composition, we’ll get a book deal, I’ll pay off my credit card and be able to get a real job. Prove to Brendan I can support myself as a writer, that my work can be serious like his is.
Simon and Francis share a cell with four other men. Simon is a radical: his father’s family lives in a village near the mine and all work in some way for the mine; Simon is in prison for planting the dynamite which killed one British man and injured several others. Francis has heard there was trouble at the mine, but he can barely read and will not waste his talents on learning.
The jailbreak, my training in the bush with twelve brothers from prison. How I came to fight my first battle, my first kill, like Rambo, my head spinning with elation. My platoon and I, having killed more than thirty men between us, returning home to witness their vengeance. Their army had razed the village near our campsite, raped the women and young girls, burned men’s bodies in tyres by the side of the road. We drove past and slowed down when we saw a body. He was moving a little so I thought maybe he was still alive, but it was just his flesh melting with the black rubber. My first act of cowardice, I jumped from the vehicle and ran into the forest, tripping over vine-cloaked mounds, though I knew the land as well as I knew myself. As I tell her this she holds her black coffee with both hands, complacent, and her face shows no understanding.
Tuesday morning, the two of them arrive. They say eight am, which means ten or eleven. Considering I can only work at night here, I have to get out of bed early and clean up Brendan’s and my mess, and make some snacks. I worry that I will expose my amateurism during the interview. They arrive, sit around, I dole out the food supplies. We sit for hours, the sound equipment recording every stutter, every echo. I break occasionally to recover my breath, to deal with the boredom of listening to someone’s life story, to wipe away tears. To urinate, which these people seem to never need to do.
Among the literate in the townships and villages, some of the conservatives are preparing to leave: to go to the mainland; to stay with their relatives in Australia or in Indonesia. They are terrified and have reason to be. The radicals, who account for the majority, are preparing for war – to defend their lives and their land from the mine’s private security forces, or any military power who will align with them – in so far as that is possible. No-one has weapons, only a few among them have real military training. Simon is committed to revolutionary warfare, and in prison in the capital city, he is recruiting.
Some time between interviews, I take Estelle to the beach near my hometown, where I own land that I will develop, where the beach shimmers black in the sun. I ask her about her boyfriend, the man she is living with, and she changes her mind in front of me and says he is her fiancé. I laugh at her. She thinks I am a villager who doesn’t know anything. Even villagers know about sex, especially about sex. I tell her it’s okay, that one must be brave and tell the truth always. She smiles and I know that she is like all the women I have been with; their beauty a buoyancy that keeps them from heartbreak while they seek out their perfect man. She will run out of time. When she is landlocked and brooding, her beauty will slip from her and she will be broken. She will take any man that gives her his hand.
Torture comes up, as I feared it would. Francis tells me how he saves some men, men who are the same ethnic group of the invaders, from torture. I want to trust him, I want to write his story in a way that will honour his telling of it, but I’m starting to feel that this version of events distorts the conflict; that his version of events is always in service of his ego. And that his ego is heroic.
What is worse than a heroic ego? The ego of a writer.
Francis is seventeen and he is dreaming of women. The girls he grew up with, the working girls on the streets he lived with, some of them his own age, who had occasionally taken pity on him and his pack, who had taken him in their mouths and their cunts, for a discount, and sometimes for free. But it isn’t just sex he misses. He wants to be held and kissed. To breathe in a woman’s hair in the morning and enter her gently while she sighs in the quiet light of the morning. The men he shares his cell with dream about women, too. He hears them take heavy breaths, the ruffle of their pant cloth, a whimper, and then deep silence. He has seen Simon do this during the day, with no attempt at privacy. The other men distract themselves when he does this. Men without women. The war is brewing.
My second wife Marion, she is like this. It took two years for me to trap this bird who didn’t want children, who didn’t want to be the second wife to an ageing veteran. But she smiled and let me take her, light and spinning, and this old dog got another chance. Nadia didn’t mind, so distant she was by then. Nadia had nursed me through the worst of it after the war and had become like a sister more than my lover. But Nadia and I had not married for love, but rather the need for stability in those days when we began to return to our own lands after the war. Our clans had intermarried for centuries, and we had good blood together. We looked after each other: she had lost her first husband, her three brothers and her village had been razed. I had lost everything, too.
So I want to know what really happened. Not just that Francis walked along and saved a bunch of men from a horrific end, but that there was some conflict about it. If this torture happened, then surely the moral fabric of society was so eroded that it was maybe impossible for one person to speak out, for a hero to triumph. This is how I imagine war: a battle for survival amongst chaos that obliterates the possibility of redemption. I look into Francis’ black eyes for something, some meaning, but they give me none.
Francis had never dreamed of leaving the island. In the days before his parents left him and each other, they had all lived in a village in the jungle. His family were subsistence farmers; they lived off the land and rarely needed anything from the city. Everyone in the village worked a little in their gardens and shared their spoils.
Now, Marion and Nadia rarely talk to me: Nadia, out of the quiet agreement between us that we are not in love; Marion, because she is a beauty trapped in a cage. She takes my daughter, Nadia’s daughter, to the beach where they sit together looking at the sand crabs. When I sleep next to her, I wake her by holding her hair, kissing her neck. She gets up that instant to begin cooking for the day. It’s painful to look at her after that.
A few years ago when the war was still in me, I went to the main island to talk business with a partner. It was a landscaping business that would never come through because I was sick, I was drinking, and I was not able to work with other people. But while I was there I ate in a diner serving chicken curry, lumpy rice and sweating taro chips. I was sick from the drink, and I was bored with myself. No-one was there to talk to, so I picked up a book they were selling. It was the biography of a soldier from our side, a man I knew of. Seeing his tale there, his book, filled me toxic with envy.
Francis elaborates on the story, and I believe him. I believe that the men begged him, saying in the gravest way in their own dialect that they’d lick his balls if he released them, which is, in their dialect, the humblest honour. But he doesn’t delve into these questions the way I want him to. The way the book needs him to. Is it because he doesn’t understand what I’m really asking him, or does he not grasp the moral seriousness of what it means? Whatever it is, he doesn’t yield.
They traded sometimes with other villages: seafood, coconuts and salt from the seaside villages in exchange for their possums, sweet potatoes, ginger. They ate squirrel with its skin on, cooked in the drum oven, drank rainwater. Treated their injuries with pawpaw and coconut oil. Played guitar. Francis remembers this as an idyllic period. At the same time he knows that it wasn’t, his father drinking all night and his mother disappearing for weeks at a time. While he was ignorant of many things then, Francis knew about life off the island. He knew about white women with plump thighs and polished cars and iced champagne. He knew about wealth and schooling. But it wasn’t until his parents left him, small and alone and desperately angry, that he really wanted those things: a stiff white collar and a gold chain; a girlfriend who was an actress; a diploma on his wall.
What was so special about his story? I bought his book and read it cover to cover. I am not a fast reader but with focus I got through it in two days. I recognised the places, the battles, many of the names mentioned. All throughout, I was comparing his version of the war with my own. This man is not worth writing about, I thought to myself. He was nobody.
I spent many days telling whoever would listen about this egomaniac who had written the book, this fraud parading his war story that everyone else lived too. Many people I told had already heard about the book, and some had read and enjoyed it. It took as many years as it did for me to recover from my drinking problem for me to discover it was my own book, the book that was inside me, that was driving me crazy.
We meet for the second day in a row, which is exhausting, because I have been up all night, again, reading. I got my hands on the unpublished testimonies of women survivors of the war in the town I’m living in.
The invasion begins while Francis is incarcerated. Foreign plantation owners are threatened with having their land requisitioned by rebels – land they paid for generations earlier in tobacco and rum – and so they side with the invaders, who protect their claim to the land as colonisers. They allow the foreign army to camp on their farms, hoping that they will be afforded protection. Young plantation workers, rebels who are biding their time, steal weapons from the farms and from the soldiers who are camping there. When Francis is released, and immediately promoted to platoon sergeant, he and his men start a gruelling training routine. Although it is hard work, most of it feels instinctive to Francis. He is a natural soldier.
Since reading that soldier’s biography, I had been thinking my story for my own book, choosing how to tell it, and which parts were crucial to me. But actually telling it to others, to a voice recorder, across the hours of a day, it was exhausting. It brought up memories, of the endless blood, total fear, and the complete discomfort of war I thought I had discarded.
A white woman I met gave me the stack of women’s testimonies from the war, wanting me to find somewhere to publish them. Almost all of them revolve around incidents of sexual brutality. Many of the women know their rapists, yet have no way of ever seeking justice. Some describe women literally digging through piles of young, rotting bodies outside the overflowing morgues, looking for missing family members.
When the general arrives at the main port, they are given word that they must fight. Tonight. They are terrified, most of them just boys who have never killed a dog, let alone an armed man. They make the trip, a ragtag bunch with no shoes and a handful of stolen weapons. They carry dynamite.
As I recounted, there were many times I had to shuffle around, to explain the back details of the story. There was just so much to it. To me, to my fighting, and to my recovery. But Estelle began to ask questions, to test my memory. I recounted the episode when I discovered the men hanging from trees bound by hand and foot; they’d been beaten by drunk young soldiers with hoses. The men hanging were redskins, like the invaders, but they’d lived with us on the island for years, some of them for generations. Despite everything, seeing their powerlessness made me nauseous. I returned to the site with my platoon and ordered that they be released.
Former combatants are given grant after grant from foreign aid to collect information in order to make sense of what happened over those chaotic years, but the women and children who suffered the worst of it are left in the lurch. They get interviewed by the soldiers who harmed them. Francis acts as though the invaders are the only ones who raped, but I know that’s untrue.
The plan is to shoot from one side as a distraction while two men plant the dynamite at the other end of the camp. As they sneak up in the dark, they notice a light signal within the camp, alerting the soldiers to a threat. They have been seen. Without any further preparation, they begin to shoot.
Each time I remember that time, my nieces, I weep. The younger one was not even nine, and she was permanently damaged by it. It wasn’t my fault – I could not prevent it – but it was about me after all. When we returned to the interview, having all cried and washed our faces, Estelle probed me again. And what about your platoon, did they protect the enemy women? Her face is square with mine, and she spits it out: Did any of your men rape?
I am exhausted when Francis and Anna finally leave; I slip on my sandals and jump across great pools of mud in the front yard and walk down to the shop. There are tens of shops on each street, each of them an identical window into a shipping container, stocking the same corned beef, bagged rice, instant coffee sachets, and assorted stationary. I buy a six-pack of beer, cigarettes and some potato chips. I take them home and lie on the dusty couch, mostly naked, and throw back a cold beer. A hard-earned thirst, I think to myself, remembering the kitsch VB ads from my childhood. You can get it interviewing a former combatant. You can get it reading survivor testimonies. You can get it any old time. Matterafact I got it now.
During a year in which the main port was seized, some plantation workers who originally migrated from the invaders’ land were captured and tortured. They were not combatants, but the soldiers who seized them saw loyalties in their skin colour. They were strung up by hand and foot to palm trees and whipped with hoses. Francis heard their screams all night. In the morning he pulled his men from their slumber and marched them across town to the camp where they were being held. When the wretched men saw him, they must have seen mercy on his face, because they called after him, complimented him, begged him for freedom. He approached the general in command, a drunk and lecherous man of forty, his eyes yellow and his stomach protruding through the lower buttons on his shirt. He was no soldier. This is not what we are fighting for, Francis bellowed. Let them down.
Estelle made me repeat the incident, her pale brown eyes ablaze. How many men were there hanging? Was this the first time you’d seen such a site? Why would they listen to you to stop torturing them? Why didn’t anyone else speak out? She didn’t believe me; she was ridiculing me. So you’re a hero, she seemed to spit with each question. I see that a writer is entitled to ask questions, to capture detail. But to throw me back like that, to force me to explain to her, this foolish girl posing like a celebrity reporter, the pathology of war: it is too much. So I simply repeated the tale, in the same words, until she let me continue.
Francis recounts the gang rape of his cousin. It’s an opportunity to ask him what’s been on my mind the whole time: why do otherwise decent men find it perfectly acceptable to gang rape civilian women during war? I keep thinking about it: no-one ever admits that they were the ones who raped in the war. It is always someone else. Does rape in war mean that men always want to rape women but in peacetime just don’t have the opportunity? Is it just that they get to share responsibility, like it wasn’t me but us?
And so the war progressed without any regard for the terror it inflicted. Services stopped, families with foreign connections fled. Entire villages were massacred, and rebels lived under the radar, tucked away in the jungle, emerging intermittently to take out military camps when they could. Nothing could go in or out of the island, local media shut down, and the civilians stranded on the island had no way of knowing what was happening, except by rumour. Refugee boats, even those with Red Cross flags, were gunned down by the invading forces. A beach village saw a helicopter fly out over the ocean and drop what looked like bodies into the water. No-one knew if they were dead or alive.
It is clear that Estelle doesn’t understand, but she continues like she is writing my tale herself. She has searched for the history on the internet. She tells me facts about the war like I was not there.
He doesn’t know. Of course, he was never involved in any such situation, and has only condemned the acts of others. And his friends? Like him, they protected the women. Even the enemy women? They were not our targets. So how did all this rape occur if you were all so perfect? I am fuming when this question rolls around my head, and I can see that tension has built up in the room. I have gone too far. I am losing him. We break.
In the American media, the word ‘hero’ has become synonymous with ‘soldier’. Each and every soldier, and each of the acts that he performs, is honoured with almost mythological veneration. Could Francis be a hero? Could it be that every man with a gun, thrown into his worst nightmare, can only emerge a hero, if he emerges at all? War, after all, is a scenario where otherwise innocent men are forced to compete for their lives with other men who equally want to live out theirs. Is survival alone the central pillar of heroism?
In the third session, when she is back talking on this topic, I stand and excuse myself. But I do not need to urinate. I go to her bathroom and smell her things, rub her towel on my body, push my fingers in her soap bottle, put her toothbrush on my tongue. There are her boyfriend’s things too but I leave them. I return to the room, and we continue. When I had arrived, before, my book still burned in me. Not any more. She reaches past me to eat a biscuit, and I stare at her chest. When she sees me I smile and I know I have frightened her. This can’t continue and now she knows it.
I end the third session by telling Anna I am unwell. After they leave, I chain-smoke directly in front of the fan, hoping the smell will dissipate before Brendan comes home. Francis will give me no more. His cold stare, his violation, I can’t stop thinking about it. I feel disgusting. I want to be soothed but not by Brendan. I drag myself to the window and look out across the street. Dust, mangy dogs, kids with no shoes. I can’t stay here. But it’s not like I was ever going to.