climate change, My own plays, Politics, Theatre, world events

on fiction and climate change

This is something I wrote for the symposium Narratives of Climate Change at Newcastle University, July 2018. It is part of a longer speech using my new play Whale as a way to talk about the role of theatre in climate change and the responsibility of the playwright. I thought this bit was nice and stand alone. Also I had to trim it a fair bit for Newcastle so wanted to share this full thought. Enjoy.

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I want to talk about the role of fiction in narratives of climate change. It may be a bit of a dirty word here, I’m not sure but the word ‘narratives’ already suggests both a shaping of story and a multiplicity of ways in which we could shape it. Shaping does not mean fictionalising but it means controlling. It means choosing your weapons. And my weapon of choice is fiction. So this is a question I’ve had to ask myself: when the facts are so urgent, is there room for fiction?

I’ve gotta admit: I’m really not much of a researcher when it comes to my plays. I used to be. I once filled two journals with research on objectum sexuality before deciding that no one needed that play. These days my plays usually start from fluff like ‘memories’ and ‘feelings’ and ‘images’.

I wrote a play called Terrestrial for State Theatre Company of South Australia. The poor woman putting together the education pack to accompany the work asked me for any research I had used and I told her I mostly just googled how to spell words.

Which isn’t totally true. I also stalked mining towns on google satellite view. I’d start zoomed right in on them – Leigh Creek, Roxby Downs – then zoom out and out until the desert around them looked like mars and the mines were a deep blue gash on the surface of the planet. ‘It looks like a wound,’ I thought. And I’d write.

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With Whale I was offered a scientific adviser and I said ‘sure I’d love to chat but you realise the islands are largely made up and… have you read the ending?’

And to clarify: when I say ‘fiction’ I am talking about a play that reveals just how fictional it is. The rules of this world leave no one in doubt. I am not trying to pass fiction off as fact. That stops the instant the Host explains the rules: ‘we’ll hold a vote and whichever island loses will be sucked into the ocean instantly, no time for evacuation’.

But the Host also tells you ‘none of this is real’ whilst denying one of the realest facts of this century: ‘The oceans aren’t really rising and no communities will vanish into the water’. And she tells us this again and again – Judas to Jesus in the pre-dawn light – these denials make fact of our fictions. Make that encroaching whale an amalgamation of blubber and fantasy.

I want to tell you about a play called Stoning Mary by English-Afro-Caribbean playwright, Debbie Tucker Green. In it, a couple – both desperately ill with AIDs – fight over the one prescription they have for AIDs medication before their argument is cut short by a child soldier who kills them with a machete. He is, in turn, killed by the couple’s daughter – Mary – who then is sentenced to death by stoning.

At the front of this play Debbie has slipped an instruction: this play is to be performed by an all white cast, in the accent of wherever it is performed.

Older sister: 12

12 people signed.

Put their pen to your petition. 12.

Younger sister: 12’s after 10, right?

Older sister: After 11

Younger sister: Which is after 10, right?

How many did I need?

Older sister: 6000.

S’after a lotta tens Mary.

In a parallel universe, there exists a non-fiction version of this play and a Debbie Tucker Green who threw herself into research and characters each modelled on a real person. This play is almost certainly performed by a cast of people from African nations. But this play says something different to the play she wrote. It says ‘this is happening in Rwanda and tonight we are going to sit in that fact.’

What Stoning Mary says is something quite different.

Debbie wants the visibility that comes with whiteness. And she wants to interrogate it. 90% of HIV positive people live in developing countries. Who these stories happen to changes the narrative. And it can be the difference between being heard and not being heard.

“I’m a black woman,” she says in the Guardian, March 2005. “I write black characters. That is part of my landscape. But with Stoning Mary I was interested in questioning what we don’t see and hear. The stories of people who would be in the headlines every day if what was happening to them was happening to white people.”

There is an alternate reality version of Whale too. One in which I have been to each real island, consulted, maybe asked a representative from each to come up on stage and have a bunch of – largely white – audience members vote whether or not they survive. That play is gripping, and potentially pretty traumatic for all concerned.

So what do I lose in this fact-based Whale?

I make the problem far away. Suddenly there are kilometres involved and maybe what fiction can do in this moment is remove those kilometres. Make these global neighbours your actual neighbours. I make it a problem that exists and potentially is solved in your suburb.

Here’s another thing: Islander leaders have already come here and pleaded for the right of their island to stay above the water. And the response was so quiet. I think it is our turn to plead on their behalf.

Cyclone Pam Batters South Pacific Islands

Kiribati, Getty Images, 

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history, Politics, world events

this week/month in your world

For a month now I have been gathering the news, making it as human and beautiful as I can, and releasing it on Facebook in weekly instalments. This has an experiment to see if I can make the news seem more relatable and immediate and to perhaps change my own relationship with it. I post them here to make them a little less ephemeral and to hold onto these very human moments. (I have abridged them a little, which I may regret when I go looking for them later. Each has one or two stories cut.)

This week – December 13th to 20th, 2015 – these things happened in your world:

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Demonstations in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photo: AP

A boat was lost off of Indonesia. Or it wasn’t. It was carrying 122 people. Or 108. Or 118 – including 19 children and 10 crew members. And perhaps it sunk in high waves or perhaps it has simply lost contact with authorities. This is what the police are saying: That the engine has died but the passengers have not. That they are endeavouring to re-establish contact but the waves are very high. All we know is that somewhere in the ocean there are over 100 people – dead or alive – either on a ferry or off it and that somewhere on land there are many families unsure whether to grieve or anticipate grief.

Somewhere, a man cancelled his buck’s party in order to drink a beautiful, aged bottle of red wine with his fiancée and two of their closest friends. No tiaras, tutus or strippers were involved. Just four friends, four glasses, one bottle and some runny goat’s cheese. They toasted love, happiness, wine and goats.

In Bali, two men with grim faces and lose shirts signed papers, shook hands, apologised to Bali, Indonesia and the World and guaranteed the state a safe Christmas and New Years. The two men, ‘secretary-generals’ of rival Balinese gangs, were responding to a riot, which was started by their gang members inside Kerobokan Gaol and spilled out onto the streets. Four people were killed and another five hospitalised. Both gangs handed over weapons while knives, syringes, scythes and a saw were confiscated from the gaol.

Meanwhile in Turkey the president swore that the Kurdistan Workers Party fighters would be “annihilated” and Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Party called for “honourable resistance”. “If they think they can make us take a step back by showing a tank gun, they are wrong,” he said. “We fear nobody but God.” 55 Kurdish resistance fighters have been killed in the last three days of urban fighting in Turkey.

This week, a woman was told that, “God only gives us as much as we can handle”. The woman cried and cried and cried.

Scientists told us they had found a bone. Well, part of a bone. From this fragment of thigh they told us that the little being weighed approximately 50 kilos, that it lived and died 14,000 years ago, that it shared the world with modern humans and walked upright but knock-kneed. From this shard they knew its knees touched when it walked. The things we can learn from a fragment.

This week – December 7th to 12th, 2015 – these things happened in your world: 

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Saudi candidate Amal Badreldin al-Sawari outside a segregated polling station after voting for the first time in her life. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

This week a little boy was teased by his big brother. The boy was teased because he had cried when he learnt that his kindergarten was closed for the day. It was closed because of pollution. Outside the boys’ grit-covered window, the city of Beijing declared its first-ever red-alert for pollution, ordered almost half its cars off the roads and advised schools and kindergartens to close. Outside that window levels of PM2.5, dangerous microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, reached above 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum exposure is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Outside that window, masked faces moved through the murky world, life expectancies shortened, coal was burnt and people blew black and grey snot onto their white, white tissues.

Meanwhile, a Melbourne playwright wrote to a member of the infamous Phelps family on twitter. This woman, who had once exacerbated the grief of countless families by waving signs outside funerals declaring ‘God hates fags’, ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’ and ‘Planes Crash God Laughs’ responded to the playwright like this: “I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind, generous, amazing people we met after leaving – confounded all our expectations in the best way. The comfort and hope that came from that were wonderfully disorientating, & made our lives so much better.” She signed off the message with a bright red heart emoji.

This week, for the first time women voted in Saudi Arabia. This week, for the first time women were elected to local councils in Saudi Arabia. This week women’s right’s activist Sahar Hassan Nasief said, “Even if it were only one woman, we’re really proud of that. Honestly, we weren’t expecting anyone to win.” But 17 of the 900 Saudi women who ran for office, won. These seventeen were not permitted to speak to male voters in the lead up to the election and, like all Saudi women, they are barred from driving, from trying on clothes in shops, from entering cemeteries, from swimming, from going anywhere without male permission or a mahram (guardian) to chaperon them and from talking to men outside of their families. But despite this and despite the country’s Grand Mufti describing women’s involvement in politics as “opening the door to evil”, this week they voted and were elected. New politician Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi told the world “my whole life has been a struggle. I will be in contact with society, especially women, to deliver their voices and demands to the council. I promise I will represent her by all means.”

This week – November 30th to December 6th, 2015 – these things happened in your world:

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This week Japan told us that 14 ghost ships had washed up on their shores since October. The vessels, manned by skeletons with and without their heads, are part of a much larger fleet: more than 250 boats have arrived in the last five years. The World thinks they may be from North Korea. The World thinks they were fishermen forced out into deeper and wilder oceans by Kim Jong-un’s orders to catch more fish to solve the country’s food shortages. The World thinks Kim Jong-un is a crazed and dangerous dictator with little regard for the lives of his people. The World thinks many things. The men, who have been dead and lost so long that their heads roll around the floors of their boats, have final found a harbour.

On Saturday morning in Australia, a very happy small dog found the rotting leg of something very dead and carried it with her in her mouth for 100 meters until her owner saw the prize and, with a very high-pitched voice and much hand-flapping, made her drop it.

In San Bernadino, USA, a woman whose Facebook profile was still drenched blue, white and red in solidarity with far away victims of violence, died as a victim of violence. With her died a man who loved Renaissance fairs; a man who once coached a princess-themed soccer team made up of five-year-old girls; three people who had fled violence in other countries only to died in America; a man whose Christmas present from his mother was sitting on his doorstep; an avid gardener; a woman who once eloped; a man with tattoos of both his grandfathers and his first wife; a man with a tie clip of the Star of David; a woman with three sisters; a man with rainbow, gay-pride earrings; a man who donated doves to families who had lost someone so they could be released at funerals.

In south-west Victoria, the MS Portland has been moored for three weeks. Its crew are refusing to undertake their final voyage to Singapore where their ship will be sold and scrapped and they will be made jobless. Whilst their union fought the decision to replace the Portland with a foreign vessel and crew, a small koala wandered down the breakwater, climbed up the mooring rope and settled down for a nap. The crew were touched and he was been named ‘Comrade Koala’ by the union for his show of solidarity.

This week – November 23rd to 29th, 2015 – these things happened in your world:

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Julieka’s grandmother Carol Roe and mother Della Roe speak to reporters before an inquest into her death began. Photo: AAP Image/Angie Raphael 

This week in your world, Western Australia specifically, a coronial inquest was told how Yamatji woman Julieka Dhu begged for medical help from her cell in Port Hedlands. They were told how, a police officer said to a nurse at the Hedlands Health Campus that Julieka was “faking it” shortly before she went into cardiac arrest and died. Julieka’s family told the inquest that she was a victim of domestic violence and had been assaulted by her partner. She told her father “Dad, my man throbs me, he broke my ribs.” These broken ribs, untreated contributed to her death from septicaemia and pneumonia but Sergeant Bond made an entry into the custody system that Ms Dhu “appears to be suffering withdrawals from drug use and is not coping well with being in custody”. She was imprisoned for $3622 worth of unpaid fine. She was 22-years-old. Juliaka’s was 339th Aboriginal death in custody in the two decades since a Royal Commission delivered 339 recommendations for change. The vast majority of these recommendations were never implemented. “They shouldn’t have treated anyone like that, they left her there like a dog, to die,” said her father. The hearing will continue in two weeks.

Somewhere this week, man in his late-eighties, who had always vowed that his staffy would be his Last Dog, relented to his family’s urgings and went to the pound. He had not expected to outlive Last Dog but his heart had kept on beating whilst hers had fluttered away. He endured the silence of his house only a few weeks after her death before allowing himself to be loaded into his daughter’s car and driven to the local shelter. And now he is in his armchair with a dog smaller and yappier than he ever expected to love. But love her he does.

 

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News, Politics, world events

on a week of grief, horror, media and telling the story of humans

It wasn’t even a year ago that I wrote this:

I don’t want talk about Charlie Hebdo. I’ve been silent since the attacks happened. I don’t just mean social media silent: for three days I paced my parent’s house, listlessly agonising over four typed paragraphs, which I never posted. My mother kept catching me staring vacantly at bits of wall, my blank page or my muted computer screen. All I will say is that my un-ranted rant, still sitting on my computer ended with this:

“Je ne suis pas Charlie et je ne suis pas Ahmed. Je suis Australienne and I cannot begin to understand the full complexities of this horrific event from where I stand.”

I am still endeavouring to embrace and acknowledge my ignorance in all matters of world politics. Because my ignorance is a privilege: I am (still) that Australian, sitting in comfort and safety on the other side of the world, and the ignorance of terror is a blessing. But this week I found the voice I could not find in February. It is a voice struggling to understand what little I could possibly begin to understand but I want to struggle publicly. I’m sure that many of you are struggling also.

I’ve been writing a lot on social media and today I decided to gather what I wrote into one place along with a few new thoughts I’ve had in the last few days. My thoughts on terror, grief and the media are evolving constantly so I will lay my thoughts out in approximately the order that they came to me and then Fleur of Today will respond to the Fleur of Last Week in a letter about the linguistic differences between reporting on Paris and Beirut.

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Tributes outside of Le Carillon in Paris. Photo: Guillauma Payen

November 15th – Four days since the attacks on Beirut, three days since the attacks on Paris.

Just a gentle word: This is the second horrific attack on Paris in less than a year. It is also the second time I have seen friends turn from horror to… What I can only describe as a backlash in less than twenty-four hours.

You are right: the media does not cover all acts of violence and terror equally and this is terrible. But, when commenting on this, please do so with an awareness that there are probably French people in shock among your friends. There are people with family and friends in Paris and there are people for whom that city means a great deal and they are grieving. If you have a connection to a place, it can be an incredibly difficult thing to see it suffer from afar.

I don’t say this to imply that there are not people grieving for Beirut and that these horrors can be talked of with any less care or consideration but write and rage with sensitivity: we are talking about acts of extreme violence and these things must always be spoken of with care.

Personally, I have enough sorrow to spread between the acts of terror I have followed this week and right now, I don’t want to be told that I am grieving wrong. I am a person of Middle Eastern descent and the continued violence there never ceases to distress me. Believe me. Just tell these stories of our world with love and compassion and an awareness that we are all still reeling from the violence we have witnessed in the last few days.

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A man sits by a memorial to Paris in Rio de Janerio. Photo: CNN

November 18th – Six days since Beirut, seven days since Paris

I posted this comment attached to this article by Emma Kelly entitled “The media did cover the attacks on *insert country here*. You just weren’t reading it.”:

So this article is quite accusatory and aggressive but I think it is a good reminder: the media covers news from all around the world but some parts of the world get significantly more coverage than others because analytics show what we are most interested in reading. Remember that, in 2015, we are the media. News sites know what we read and share. It is our job to tell them that we care about our global community and that we want to know what is happening all around us. Read the international news. Share things you think your friends should know about to be thoughtful, informed and compassionate global citizens. Don’t just get angry at the media like it is something you have no power over. We have a lot of power over our media. We should use it.

I also want to acknowledge that part of the reason I think our society responds more to attacks in Paris is because it is a country we think of as safe. There is no denying that we are more ‘shocked’ (read as negative version of ‘surprised’) by these attacks because we presume these things happen all the time in Beirut.

We need to make it our duty, as media consumers and humans, to never normalise violence, wherever it is happening. As painful as it is (and it is very, very painful), we must retain our shock and horror. We must remember that violence is never every day. Never a way of life.

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Relatives grieve at a funeral procession in Beirut’s Burk al-Barajneh neighbourhood. Photo: Wael Hamzeh

 

Today, November 22nd – 10 days after Beirut and 11 days after Paris

Today (four days older and more informed) I responded to the me of the past.

Dear Fleur of the Past,

I don’t want to sound patronising because I know that you are trying hard and because Fleur of the Future will no doubt have a few things to say to me soon but the issue is more complicated than just whether or not the media is covering events. It is more complicated even than what stories consumers are sharing. Perhaps a good question to ask is why some stories are shared and others aren’t. What is it in the coverage of the Paris attacks that connects with our emotions so instantly?

I think there are many extremely complicated reasons but this is one that you, as a storyteller, should be aware of: The media tells stories of France/England/America/New Zealand/Canada/countriesthatwearequicktoassociatewith in a very particular and very humanising way. This is vastly different than the way it tells the stories of Syria/Gaza/Nigeria/Iraq/Afganistan/South Sudan/countriesthatweareslowtoassociate with.

Fleur of the Past, there are two key differences that I would like to bring to your attention. The first is the detail used in reportage of Paris. We hear about the cafes, the stadium, we know what rock band was playing: a clear picture is painted, a stage is set. Into this we put detailed portraits of people. We are told that the victims were mothers, fathers, fiancés, girlfriends, boyfriends. A twitter account sprung up (@ParisVictims) that pays tributes to victims as individuals. One tweet per devastating loss. Whilst 140 characters is far too few in which to sum up a life, you would be hard pressed to find a comparable level of individual treatment given to the Beirut victims in the English-speaking media.

So on the one hand we have a sparseness of detail and yet the reporting of Beirut suffered from an overabundance of clarifications, very particular details that often serve to make the victims seem less like individuals and more like a movement. In other words, the become more culpable for the violence enacted upon them. In other words, much reporting was linguistically guilty of subtle victim blaming. The New York Times tweeted “Blast Hits Hezbollah Stronghold in Beirut, killing dozens. Worst bombing there in years”. As far as I can gather, this was also the initial title of their article on the attacks although this was soon changed to the slightly less militaristic “Deadly blast hits Hezbollah area”, then to “Deadly Blast hits crowed neighbourhood” after readers’ enraged responses. It now reads “Isis claims responsibility for blast that killed dozens in Beirut”.

Less that 24 hours after the attack, an opinion piece in the Huffington Post stated that the tragedy was expected. “It was a matter of time before residents of Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut Lebanon, were bombed again.”

Fleur of the Past, you are right: the media are reporting on violent attacks in the Middle East but it is how they tell the story that should be worrying you. You were also right to feel capable of changing how you consume and share media. I stand by your sentiment that in 2015 “we are the media”. Just remember to search for the human details within the reporting and to ask about the language used to qualify acts of violence. Keep the media human. Keep your eyes open. Remember that what ‘the news’ is, are people.

Love,

Fleur of the Rapidly Disappearing Present

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Samer Huhu’s image is held up at his funeral by a grieving relative. Photo: Joseph Eid

November 21st – 9 days after Beirut, 8 days after Paris, the day of the Mali attacks

A week in your world

Many of you have posted in the last week about dissatisfaction with media coverage of world events. Here is my contribution to your newsfeed. This all happened in the world this week:

Indonesia has halted execution of death row prisoners due to its struggling economy but says it will resume killing once they sort their shit out. There are currently 138 people on death row including 57 for drug-related offences.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne a young woman announced on Facebook that she had been sober for a fortnight, which was bloody wonderful.

In Nigeria two female suicide bombers killed at least 15 people and injured more than 100 when they blew themselves up in a mobile phone market. One of the bombers was 11 and one was 18. Another suicide attack in another Nigerian city left 32 dead. To date 20,000 people have been killed in the Boko Haram uprising, which started four years ago.

Meanwhile, a little girl allowed to pick her own outfit for the day chose her Elsa costume. She was by far the happiest person in the Safeway supermarket.

A Palestinian man entered a shop in Tel Aviv selling Jewish religious items. He stabbed and killed two men who were praying there. The man told police that he entered Israel with the intent to kill Jews. An hour and a half later on the West Bank, another Palestinian man opened fire on a traffic jam killing 3 people, one an Israeli, one a Palestinian and one an American tourist. It was the worst day of violence for the city in almost 2 months. It had been a quiet week up to that point and check points were beginning to come down.

Somewhere, a woman named Barbara was introduced to her newest grandson via Skype. Both cried.

In the USA, more than half of the state governors of have refused to take any Syrian refugees into their states. The Federal government has attempted to reassure the states that the systems and checks they have in place are strong and the majority of the refugees are women and children, many of whom have been waiting more than two years to be settled. It seems that this is not an easy week to ask people to think sensibly and not give in to their fear.

After months of therapy, a 58-year-old man walked 6 meters into his wife’s open arms. A room of people cheered.

In Australia, 22 disease-free Tasmanian Devils, bred in Sydney, were released into the Tasmania bush in a bid to save their species. Since 1996 and the discover of the Devil Face Tumor, the devil population has plummeted to around 10,000 from an estimated 250,000.

And someone somewhere drew eyebrows on their dog.

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This Wednesday, Britain announced that it aims to close its coal-fired power plants by 2025, becoming the first major economy to put a date on shutting coal plants to curb carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, visiting Australia ahead of the Paris Climate Change conference, has called for a global moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions. He says even this will not save his island nation: “Yes it is already too late but I think this makes it all the more urgent that we do something about it,” I heard President Tong tell the ABC on Thursday as I ate my lunch in the hot, dusty dark of Tuxedo Cat. “We are running out of time,” he said. When asked what he would like to say to Malcolm Turnbull he replied “Talk to the scientists… We’ve gone too far. We are about to go over the edge.”

All this happened in your world this week. Tell me some other things, big and small, that happened also. Let’s stay connected to each other as people, as individuals, as caring and articulate global citizens. Thank you.

 

 

A massive thank you to Margaret Lloyd for the use of her computer. I broke mine a fortnight ago and the lack of computer has been driving my absolutely mad. I knew I couldn’t put together something this big via iPhone. I really appreciate the loan. 

I am going to try to write a news update weekly for the next two months. I want to know if this changes how I relate to the news and what it does for my friends. Let me know if you would like me to post them here or if Facebook is sufficient. 

 

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