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Anti-Islam, but pro-gay? How mosque opponents tie themselves in knots

October 2014

“The left seem to be very stupid, I suppose,” Mike Holt says. The Queensland-based former One Nation candidate is bemused when I ask him why he believes some progressives support both the expansion of rights to LGBT people, and the building of mosques in regional Australian centres.

Holt is one of the key figures in the anti-mosque campaign. He takes credit for launching the Concerned Citizens of Bendigo organisation that emerged to fight the construction of a mosque in that town, but denies any involvement with the near-identical Facebook pages that have cropped up in the wake of announcements to build mosques in Maroochydore, Kalgoorlie Boulder, Kalgoorlie, and Currumbin.

I contacted him about an image on his Islam 4 Infidels website: a photo of a dreadlocked protester run through an online meme generator. “SUPPORTS MUSLIMS AND GAYS; MUSLIMS KILL GAYS” is superimposed on top in chunky white Impact. On Holt’s site, the image appears alongside a Photoshopped picture of Hitler wearing a Palestine tee.

The image from Islam 4 Infidels
 The image from Islam 4 Infidels. Photograph: Islam4infidels

“It’s more like a dig,” Holt explains, when I ask whether the protester image is designed to encourage people to modify their views about Islam. “The left have a very strange worldview: they support the gay lobby and also support Islam!”

Holt is not the only one eager to point this out. Repeatedly drawing attention to the inimical position much of the Muslim world has on LGBT rights appears to be part of a broader rhetorical strategy used by the anti-Islamic rightwing in Australia.

In the lead-up to an anti-mosque meeting in Bendigo earlier this year, the Q Society – “Australia’s leading Islam-critical organisation” – distributed a pamphletin which they suggested that “wherever Islam spreads … misogyny, sectarian violence and homophobia increases”.

When I contacted Debbie Robinson, president of the Q Society, she suggested that, “the Muslim mainstream attitude towards what the Sharia considers to be a severe crime of sexual perversion is potentially a dangerous liaison [for LGBT people that align with Islamists]”.

As others have suggested, adopting the moral causes and language of the left is a neat way to “disguise Islamophobia”. When an Islamic event was held at Melbourne University last year and the seating was gender segregated, for example, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott argued that he “would expect members of parliament who want to see a fair and decent and passionate society which treats women equally … to be up in arms about this”.

This was a curious statement coming from Abbott, who has for over 30 years held tight to a belief in fairly rigid gender essentialism. His faux-progressive posture could be seen as as a cynical attempt to wedge his leftwing detractors into taking a stance against Islam.

It could be said that resisting the building of mosques in Australia because Islam is a “homophobic ideology” has at least some cogency; traditional schools of Islamic law criminalise homosexuality, and LGBT-friendly interpretations of Islam are still nascent.

But in the case of the Australian anti-mosquers the real issue is whether those suggesting that Islam is inherently misogynistic or homophobic genuinely believe these are reasons why Islam should be resisted. If this were the case, and these issues were truly significant, you’d probably expect the anti-mosquers to adopt a broader, internally consistent feminist or pro-LGBT stance.

This would seem particularly important given the anti-mosquers repeatedly draw attention to the ideological inconsistency of progressives.

While Robinson stressed to me that the Q Society simply provides “information about Islam”, and “has no interest or position on the question of sexual orientation”, I decided to dig a little deeper. Recent presenters at Q Society events have included Babette Francis, founder of the “counter feminism” Endeavour Forum, and Bernard Gaynor, who recently published an article on his websitetitled “Laws allowing discrimination against homosexuals are good”.

Neither Francis nor Gaynor represent the Q Society itself. That said, it seems strange to print agitprop arguing that the spread of Islam should be resisted because it is misogynistic and homophobic, while simultaneously programming anti-feminist, anti-LGBT speakers at your anti-Islam organisation’s events.

Mike Holt recommended I read a piece by David Donaldson titled “Why the Left has trouble talking about Islam”. In it, Donaldson makes the point that “the Left tends to become hamstrung between its secular, egalitarian beliefs and its desire to support the underdog”.

In this case, of course, the rightwing is similarly hamstrung, eager to protect the status quo even if it means resisting the spread of a religion that appears to promote precisely the conservative ideas of gender and sexual identity they themselves support.

While attempting to present themselves as LGBT allies is clearly a deliberate rhetorical strategy, it must make anti-mosquers feel uncomfortable to have to adopt this kind of posture, even if only implicitly. On the one hand, looking at the composition of the Q Society’s speaker roster, many want to roll back LGBT rights; on the other, the idea that the LGBT community could potentially become anti-Islam allies seems too irresistible an opportunity for anti-mosquers to fully pass on.

Gaynor found himself so sick of receiving complaints on the topic of whether LGBT folk could be allies against Islam that he felt compelled to publish a screed against the “Rainbow/Crescent alliance”, arguing that:

hoping that the LGBT movement is going to ride in like a knight in shining armour to save the day is exactly that: wishful thinking … it also fails to recognise the seemingly bizarre alliance between Islam and homosexuality that is fostered by political correctness.

Wishful thinking? It almost certainly is. And Gaynor’s advice to anti-mosquers to drop the faux-pro-LGBT rhetoric is wise, if only because it will force those campaigning on the rise of Islam in Australia to clarify exactly what it is they’re against.

Review: Holly Childs’ No Limit & Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

April 2014

The cult novel is a funny thing. ‘Cult’ doesn’t necessarily collapse neatly down to ‘divisive’ (if that were the case, Fifty Shades of Grey and its progenitor Twilight would surely be works of cult fiction), nor can it simply be reduced to ‘underrated’ (Hunter S. Thompson is, by almost any yardstick, a cult writer, yet Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas boasts over 150,000 glowing reviews on Goodreads). What, then, makes a piece of writing ‘cult’?

Holly Childs’ No Limit isn’t a cult novel. It’s too short for that, but it is certainly a cult novella, albeit one still accumulating followers. As with much cult fiction, the narrative itself is beside the point, as are the virtually indistinguishable characters (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that this stuff does matter, in which case we might say that No Limit is ‘about’ a girl called Ash who gets stranded in Auckland due to an imminent volcanic eruption and ends up, semi-inexplicably, at an apocalyptic squat rave).

What makes No Limit a cult novel, perhaps, is Childs’ single-minded focus on expanding her own worldview until it blankets her fictional world in its entirety. Nobody exists outside of Childs’ hyper-connected, hyper-distracted, hyper-queer, hyper-munted, hyper-branded bubble, and when a character remarks that they watch Harmony Korine’s 1995 film Kids “Every night before I go to sleep, doesn’t everyone?”, you get the sense that we’ve been transported to a world in which, yes, that’s exactly what everybody does right before brushing their teeth.

There are moments when Childs’ world overlaps our own, and her insights into Millennial culture are incisive. One character carries an unread of copy Naomi Klein’s 1999 anti-globalisation treatise No Logo as an identity signifier, and a girl is called out for reblogging too much, building her personal brand “off of other people’s hard work”. This is, for better or worse, stuff that all of us really do think too much about. I do, at least.

Emerging writers who want to become cult authors tend to make the mistake of emulating their heroes, but that’s a trap: you don’t become a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin by aping a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin, but by turning in on yourself and pulling and pawing at your own idiosyncrasies. No Limit reads a little like Less Than Zero for the Tumblr generation, or Shoplifting from American Apparel for antipodean FAsH1ON HA¢K£Rs, but Childs’ voice doesn’t feel like the result of the usual alt-lit cribbing. Instead, it’s a voice that will, hopefully, be emulated and reworked by her MacBook Pro-toting followers. (I’m now one of them).

In the final story of Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection, the author herself becomes the protagonist. In a run-down Footscray flat, too close to the train line, she reads rejection notes from a publisher advising her to make make one of the “angry black kid[s]” in her collection a little more palatable. “Unfortunately,” another publisher writes, “we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.”

It’s not clear whether these rejection letters are real, but it certainly seems plausible. Foreign Soil tells stories about people of colour, Clarke moving between Sudan and Brixton, Jamaica and Mississippi, Sydney and Melbourne. Oftentimes, the stories are infused with the local dialect, and the results can be both glorious (Clarke is a slam poet and has an ear for slang and inflection) and a real challenge (“Nathanial Robinson lean out ovah de water, shake im head an look-look down past im grubby dungarees…”). Never, however, does it feel that Clarke takes us to the same place twice, and never does it feel as though she’s reusing stock voices.

There is an interesting tension at play throughout Foreign Soil, and I think this may be what made some of the more conservative publishers anxious: Clarke at once wants to demonstrate that the stories of people of colour are manifold, while also drawing non-Caucasian ethnic groups into a collective of common experience. This is ambitious: it’s virtually impossible to encapsulate a particular cultural group without resorting to stereotyping, so telling the story of just one asylum seeker (in ‘The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa’) or just one Tottenham rioter (‘Harlem Jones’) leads the reader to wonder whether the part is intended to stand in for the whole. Taken as a collection, though, Clarke’s characters expand, rather than contract, our understanding of the groups they identify as a part of. In ‘Big Islan’, one of the stories in the collection, the more the protagonist reads, the larger his world becomes. That’s how I felt reading Foreign Soil.

(This review will appear in the upcoming Winter issue of CityMag. Their bewwwwdiful website will be going live next week).

Best Ever: Erlend Loe’s ‘Naive. Super’

October 2013
This review was originally published over at Annabel Smith’s blog – she runs a series in which bookish types are asked to share their all-time favourite work of fiction and describe what it means to them. 

I’ve tried to get friends reading Erlend Loe’s Naïve. Super for years, with relatively little success. It’s one of those books that’s virtually irreducible – the only way to understand what it’s about is to read it all the way through.

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(As an aside before I even get started, irreducible books are probably, in my very humble opinion, the only kinds of books worth reading. If it’s possible to broadly explain a book away in a sentence or a paragraph or a page, it seems as though that’s a sign of the work’s weakness, as opposed to a strength. At least, as somebody working on a book I find almost impossible to explain, I really, really hope so).

Naïve. Super is structured around a Norwegian twenty-something suffering a kind of mental collapse after losing to his brother in a game of croquet. From there, not much happens. The protagonist drops all his commitments and ends up housesitting for his brother, his only job to fax any mail that arrives in the letterbox. The protagonist plays with wooden BRIO toys and throws a ball against a wall, writes lists, plays with the fax machine, and reads the works of physicist Paul Davies.

Naïve. Super is similar to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another one of my favourites. Both Loe and Murakami play with the scale of the world, distorting and amplifying the mundane until it ends up rendered strange and fantastic. In a sense, both The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Naïve. Super would probably best be understood as ‘hikikomori fiction’, examining what happens when an individual drifts (whether willingly or not) outside the realm of social convention.

I recently read a review of Naïve. Super on Goodreads in which the reviewer referred to the story’s protagonist an “imbecile”, supporting their assessment by noting that, “The character in this book makes the STUPIDEST lists I’ve ever seen. I think one of them was all the animals he has seen in his life. ALL THE ANIMALS he has seen in his life!”

I guess, if anything, the question Naïve. Super fronts is simple: why are so many of us afraid to relate to the world as a child might? Why do we tend to instinctively associate naivety with stupidity, and how much do we miss by deliberately attempting to obscure our lack of experience instead of reveling in it?

Being a person is undeniably odd. We construct institutions and establish routines and conventions to cover up this oddness, and eventually these institutions routines and conventions solidify into “the way things are done”. All great writing calls “the way things are done” into question, but few pieces are as straightforward about it as Naïve. Super.

Reading List: Long Stories Short

October 2013

A few months ago, I was at a panel in which several Australian writers spoke about how the short story was a form in need of preservation. It’s kind of funny that particular creative forms are implicitly recognised as endangered. After all, you don’t hear many divas worrying about the continued existence of the three-minute pop song. When you get a bunch of short story writers in a room, though, the topic of conversation often drifts to wondering why there are way more writers of short stories than readers of them. The supply of bad short stories seems to far exceed the demand for great ones.

My view is that if you don’t like something, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I’ve long since given up trying to figure out poetry, for example. There are just too many good novels and games and TV shows out there for me to joylessly plod through the work of W.H. Auden (though if you do like Auden, obviously, all the more power to you!). I suspect that many feel the same way about short stories: something about the short story form can feel a little ‘off’, even after you’ve read a lot of them. Reading a bad short story is a horrible experience I would wish on no Arts undergrad, but reading a good short story can sometimes be nearly as bad – it can feel like spending just one day in Rome, your delight tempered by the knowledge that you’ll be off before you’ve even really found your bearings.

In short, I still don’t know about short stories. Many (probably most) novelists seem to treat short stories as an afterthought, while emerging writers are encouraged to pitch short stories to literary magazines to build a profile, treating the form as a means to an end. As few writers are primarily interested in the short story, it isn’t very surprising that few readers are, either. That’s kind of a shame, because, though there are a lot of bad-to-middling short story writers out there, there are at least a few pretty good ones, too.

One of the great ones is Charles Yu, whose latest collection Sorry Please Thank You came out a few months back. The stories are the kind you can explain in single sentences. In one, Yu engages in an epistolary dialogue with versions of himself that exist in parallel universes. In another, the protagonist works for a Bangalore-based company that lets the wealthy outsource feeling emotional pain. Unsurprisingly, Yu has often been compared to magical realist Jorge Luis Borges. Once, Borges was asked how he wrote his short stories and he said something like, “I write a whole novel, then summarise it, and then I have my story.” Borges couldn’t write anything but short stories because he thought novels were too full of fluff. Though Yu is actually pretty good at writing novels, I suspect he’d agree.

I’ve also been rereading a few neither-old-nor-new short story collections over the past few weeks: Miranda July’s Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Amanda Maxwell’s Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These, Joey Comeau’s It’s Too Late To Say I’m Sorry, and Tao Lin’s Bed. I return to these collections all the time the same way I return to particular pieces of music. July and Lin can both be difficult to take in large doses, but their short story collections are charming, Comeau’s stories are based around wonderful conceits (in one, the protagonist runs autobiographical bike tours around Nova Scotia, taking tourists to visit each of his exes in turn) and Maxwell’s stories always make me think of summer. I read these collections less for the narratives than for the texture of the writing (which, I know, sounds like a horribly English Literature postgrad kind of thing to say). I reread stories from Lorrie Moore for the same reason, too (if you’re new to Moore, start with the story ‘How To Be an Other Woman’).

I’m also a big fan of the Review of Australian Fiction. The RoAF emails out two new stories a fortnight as ebooks, pairing one well-known Australian writer with one up-and-comer. It’s a solid concept, and it’s a good way to dip into a lot of work from a range of Australian writers.

As somebody who’s given it a go and failed many times over, I can tell you that it’s easier to write a bad short story than a novel, but writing a great short story is probably the most difficult literary undertaking of all. For that reason alone, I do hope the short story has as sure a future as three-minute pop song. You can give me J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ over J.T.’s ‘Sexyback’ any day of the week (though I’ll grant you that both are, indeed, triumphs of their respective forms).

 

(This piece originally appeared in CityMag #2)

Reading List: Zeitgeisty Fiction

September 2013

Reviewed: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan  A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins  Microserfs by Douglas Coupland  Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

 

How we see that past is so often determined by how we fictionalised it: is it possible to even begin to understand Victorian England without reference to Oliver Twist, the Roaring Twenties without reference to Jay Gatsby, the rise of 50s youth culture without brining Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat to mind? Great novelists build time capsules. The issue, of course, is that at the time of the fictionalizing, nobody has the faintest idea what’s worth preserving. Those toughing it out as literary novelists are almost all interested in just one thing: figuring out how to craft something that’s timely, but that will age gracefully, too.

The world we live in is difficult to fictionalise well, because it’s nearly impossible to separate the epoch-making from the trivial. Will novels making reference to Twitter and Facebook seem dated in five years, or regarded as important cultural artifacts in a hundred? Is it even possible to write timeless fiction about a culture that continuously ‘disrupts’ and re-disrupts itself at the speed of light?

I picked up Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore shortly before heading to San Francisco. When I got there, it seemed as though every bookseller and web designer in the city was unduly excited about the novel, sort of in the way puppies and kittens get excited about mirrors: Is that me? Yes, I think it is! This was a book about web designers and booksellers in a very strange, skewed-but-not-unrecognisable San Franc, and, in the form of a slightly unconvincing mystery involving an ancient bibliophile cult, an examination of what happens in the spaces where digital and analogue meet. Walking around the hills of San Francisco, I could certainly feel that tension: half of the city feels very real, and half of it feels as though it wants to evaporate, one bit at a time, into The Cloud.

Scott Hutchins’ A Working Theory of Love was published on the same day as Penumbra, and it’s ostensibly pretty similar: both are set in San Francisco, and both deal with the intersection between technology and human relationships. In A Working Theory, the protagonist is working to recreate his father in the form of a chatterbot in order to win an artificial intelligence prize. A Working Theory is, if anything, the more ‘literary’ of the two novels: Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra has been compared, on more than one occasion, to The Da Vinci Code, but Hutchins’ story is less overtly playful and full of more writerly, self-serious passages like, “The world doesn’t come down on the side of seem or be, but remains negotiated in the space in between.”

What I found compelling about both Sloan and Hutchins was their ability to explore technology naturally, without their works collapsing into genre ‘science fiction’. We are living in a world in which most of us spend most of our time with headphones in our ears, or staring at screens, or recording something to watch on our screens or listen to with our headphones, but mainstream ‘literary’ novelists so far haven’t, as a whole, done a great job of depicting that reality.

From A Working Theory, I jumped first to Douglas Coupland’s 1995 Microserfs and then onto Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Set largely in Seattle, Where’d You Go is a tragi-comic epistolary novel about experimental architecture, private-school mothers, Antarctica, and New Delhi-based virtual assistants. It’s also a spiritual successor, in some ways, to Microserfs, which fictionalised what it meant to work for Microsoft in the years preceding the dot-com burst. In Where’d You Go, Microsoft features prominently, but, almost twenty years later, the company and its employees are very different: they’re older, with children, and Microsoft has shifted well away from the centre of the technological universe. Semple manages to weave our gadget-mediated reality into her narrative flawlessly and hilariously: the title character’s husband is famous for giving the number-four-most-watched-of-all-time TEDTalk, and there’s a wonderfully awkward exchange in which one of the Microsoft employees struggles, and fails, to explain to somebody outside the company what he actually does for a living (“My team is working on an end-user, C Sharp interface for HTML5…”).

These books are made more interesting in combination. They’re all about ‘the way we live in now’ – about, at least tangentially, our always-on devices and our strong collective desire to escape from those always-on devices – and taken together they make the specific shape of our lives just that little bit clearer. Whether or not any one of these particular novels end up defining our era, making that vaunted leap from ‘timely’ to ‘timeless’, one very much like them almost certainly will.

 

(This piece originally appeared in CityMag #1)