- How Does a Journey Start? by H.Mur and Xen Nhà
How Does a Journey Start? by H.Mur and Xen Nhà
Commissioned as part of FCAC Writes: a collection of new work by writers from Melbourne’s West and beyond, published online. Curated by Bigoa Chuol.
‘How does a journey start?’ – Trinh. T. Minh-Ha (Elsewhere, Within Here, 2010)
‘..in the middle of those whose story you belong to’
At the end of March, I made a swift decision to leave New York City and fly home to be with my family in Melbourne. If it was not for you my dear friend, I would have froze on making such a decision. Before we even knew that we would be living together in New York City, we had taken a drive down Maribyrnong Road out west. We passed by a house on a corner, the traffic lights gave us a moment to pause in our thoughts. As the lights turned green we both casually said to each other, ‘that used to be my home’. It turns out that both our families had once lived in that house on Maribyrnong Road. Five years into our friendship, life offered us another opportunity to learn about the intimate crossings of our respective communities; Vietnamese and Sudanese in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.
We boarded a plane together, helped each other to move safely through the flight with our masks, hand sanitisers and gloves. We arrived at Sydney International Airport and soon found ourselves quarantined in different hotels. I kept thinking to myself, ‘I hope they’re okay.’ During quarantine, I began to unravel something alone in that hotel room. I thought of my dad, who spent two years at Chi Ma Wan Camp in Hong Kong as a Vietnamese refugee.
I remember that day and moment in March so vividly. It had been two weeks since New York City had gone into lockdown, the soundscape had shifted almost suddenly and ambulance sirens became the only certainty. Earlier that week we had both talked about making the decision to stay, we were both quite resolute in our commitment to the city. It took us a moment to make a decision that up until then we had not considered. Except maybe we had considered in the context of another memory, another story, another tale passed down to us. I thought back to my father and the childhood stories of his time in Libya.
In 1986, my father had moved to Tripoli, Libya after accepting a teaching post. Within two months of arriving, on the day of April 14th 1986, Tripoli went into lockdown because of air strikes launched by the United States. He recalled being led to seek shelter underground with families and other colleagues of his: ‘It was dark, contained and so full of dust and the smell of urine that my asthma would barely let me breathe.’ The soundscape of the city shifted and the air strikes swallowed the sky. My father would describe Tripoli as a city enveloped by the coast and later seized by a state of tension and terror orchestrated by the United States. Ghaddafi’s government was known for supporting liberator movements including the Black Panther party. My father managed to contact my mother, who sent a telegraph to his workplace requesting that he be released urgently for a family emergency.
It was by coincidence or the fate of an alterity in a different type of entrapment, that I also found myself in a windowless room, where my asthma or rather difference would barely let me breathe. All I could think of was the uncertainty of what I was going to endure. I called you and you asked where I had been placed. You reminded me that it was not humane. It was in your concern that I found home.
A Fanonian Scene (Still life in times of Quarantine), 2020
We did not have the blind-faith to believe that the management of the crisis would not bring our communities further into crisis. Professor of science and technology studies, Sheila Jasanoff, notes that while particular public health models, idioms and visualisations have been adopted internationally, there has not been a social science modelling of their consequences. For many Black and Brown artists, thinkers and activists, the introduction of border closures, restrictive movements and increased military presence did not leave us without apprehension.
During my quarantine, I would find myself in distress seeking solace from you again. Disorientated and having woken by loud knocks following an exhaustive stupor, a nurse came looking for me after staff assumed I had ‘absconded’. I had not left my room. In the aftermath of this encounter, all I could do was grieve. Friend, I grieved for the labour, precarity and fragility constitutive of a Blackened state of being. I grieved that Blackness, in the face of white supremacy is in a perpetual state of fugitivity – precluded from the privilege of the benefit of doubt, even what it is in bed, at rest and in a state of disorientated exhaustion.
My dear friend, as we exchange tales, I am reminded of the many situations unfolding during the pandemic. We spoke of what we considered an extremely draconian response to this public health pandemic. We were both worried for each other, for our families, for the Black and Brown communities that we each belonged to; here, abroad and elsewhere.
‘There is a common narrative about Indigenous health, based on dysfunction and vulnerability, in which Aboriginal people themselves are blamed through the mantra of individual choices. There is little room to focus on strength and agency when you are simply a “problem” to be solved, a “gap” to be filled.’ – Amy McQuire (Aboriginal community health’s success with Covid-19, April 2020)
We are reminded by Jasanoff that orders ‘justified on the grounds of public health’ affect us differently depending on our positionalities and set of circumstances. We have seen austere and punitive measures introduced, which have heightened pre-existing vulnerabilities and systemic failures in communities historically pushed to the edge of a precipice. Community members from Tennant Creek, an Aboriginal community in remote Northern territory spoke of the aggressive enforcement of COVID restrictions by the police. Traditional owner Jimmy Frank reflected on how the measures enforced by both the police and military brought back the Intervention, the Stolen Generations, the massacres, the colonisation, ‘it’s still raw for us people here.’ In line with what Amnesty International Indigenous rights adviser Rodney Dillion describes as the bully-boy approach of the conductive officers, we have seen 14 notices given to members of Tennant Creek compared to a statewide Northern Territory total of 24 notices.
COVID restrictions at first appeared to have slowed down the juggernaut of capitalism, but we saw a ‘business-as-usual’ approach from mining companies like Rio Tinto, who recently destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in the Pilbara under an outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act. Meanwhile, despite a $3.3m national rollout of rapid COVID-19 testing, Queensland is refusing to provide testing to remote Aboriginal communities. Prisons are more likely to be incubators for COVID-19 and currently Aboriginal people have reported not having access to soap and sanitiser as well as experiencing more isolation and anxiety due to COVID restrictions on family visits. Despite the systemic failures and lack of funding, the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector took early steps to prepare for COVID by providing community-informed solutions.
‘…the only way to survive is to refuse. . .this end, the intervals between refuge and refuse, refused and refused, or even more importantly between refuse and refuse itself, are constantly played out.’ – Trinh. T. Minh-Ha (Elsewhere, Within Here, 2010)
And so, we as Black and Brown people watch with suspicion and refuse with experience as we find ourselves in a ‘new’ normal derived from a previous abject and apocalyptic normal that some of us had already refused. If Black and Brown communities can only survive by refusing, how can we find refuge and breathing in our refusal? How can the act of refusing be the commitment we make to a life worth living? Does a double refusal, twice removed, bring us closer to an imagined vision of the world?
Perhaps the clues to such an imagination require us to not start our story at the beginning, but unravel ourselves somewhere in the middle, somewhere before our individual ‘I’ existed. And so I remember that our story does not just belong to my ‘I’ but also to my kin and community. I return to the tale that links my grandfather to my father and to me.
My Ong Nội was a meticulous person who refused to live by sheep mentality. He hid gold in the darkness of a well and this would be used to pay his family’s way out of the country. He listened to the radio everyday while in prison so he could learn about the political and social climate during the 1955-1975 war in Việt Nam. He kept a written record of his children’s lives; their school grades, accidents and significant moments – all contained within a series of worn notebooks kept to this very day by one of my aunties. I wonder if he knew that he was weaving an imagination of a future, one where his kin would be invited to draw upon their tools and resources to co-create a future together.
Earthseeds, An Ode to Butler (Still life in times of Quarantine), 2020
Growing up my dad would often film our family on a little camcorder; he would cut out snippets of motivational quotes and laminate them like an award. In his late 20’s he started a ritual of hoarding anything we could find at our local discount store. He would reinvent them into some magnificent creation and then tear it all apart for a future invention. Now me, nearly entering my 30’s, I’m someone who has an action plan in the back of my mind as soon as trouble strikes and someone who makes documentaries to understand the mysteries of relationships. These acts of recording, collecting, rebuilding and inventing are the working muscles of, as Thi Bui puts it in her graphic novel The Best We Could Do, the ‘refugee reflex’.
‘The frontier-lands have thus arrived home, though in a very roundabout way. This process is reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt called “colonial boomerang,” in which frontier-land conditions and experiments are brought home.’ – Eyal Weizman (Surveilling The Virus, 2020)
In Surveilling The Virus, Eyal Weizman makes the connection between computational pattern analysis methods, used to track and model the transmission of COVID, and their development in the ‘context of military targeting and signature drone strikes’ by Israeli air forces in Gaza, as well as the CIA across the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders. It is not possible for us to disentangle the militarisation of technologies and the safety of our communities, here and abroad. In the context of the pandemic these technologies have been disguised under the ‘benefit of our safety’ but we must remember that they were born from military industrial complex, and have been harnessed for war against communities that have been the obsessive focus of the West.
Understandably, it became more and more difficult for us to believe that the discourse around COVID would be a neutral and depoliticised conversation about health, bodies and a virus that does not discriminate. We know that discourses around health, bodies and science seldom escape the weaponised and camouflaged presence of settler colonialism, capitalism, xenophobia and anti-Blackness.
In Australia, we have seen how in a climate of uncertainty and anxiety, surveillance measures introduced have been taken up with little resistance. Take for example how within a month, a third of the Australian population signed up to the ‘COVIDSafe’ app used to notify people if they’ve been in contact with COVID-19; as well as the COVID-specific police hotline that was introduced to encourage neighbours to ‘dob’ in others that had broken social distancing rules. Instead of encouraging communities of mutual care in the midst of a pandemic, neighbours are advised to become suspicious agents that ‘look out’ on behalf of the State.
Over the last three months, the cracks in our system have become too stark to ignore, reminding us of our responsibility to address the issues that are intrinsic and a consequence of a hyper-capitalist, white supremacist and colonial project. In ‘Death Toll’, Black feminist theorist Saidiya Hartman talks about the mathematics of Black and Indigenous death in the United States during a pandemic. She asks how it is that one can ‘navigate across the scales of death’ in a context that already exists in a state of urgency marked by the quotidian and gratuitous destruction of Black and Indigenous life, both in the United States and abroad. While Saidiya’s analysis is grounded in a Black-American racial reality, we know that Blackness in Australia is not without the devastating marks of the settler colonial logic of violence and destruction.
George Floyd, a 47-year old Black-American man, who was described as a ‘gentle giant’, father of five children was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis on the 25 May 2020. The white police officer, Derek Chauvin arrived at the scene with Floyd under arrest for using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill and then subsequently knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes. Floyd, a resident of Minneapolis and former security officer, lost his job during the COVID pandemic. Widespread uprisings have since erupted in the United States and globally. Where hundreds of thousands of protesters have called for an end to police brutality, for police abolition and an end to anti-Black injustice.
‘But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.’ – Arundhati Roy (The pandemic is a portal, 4 April 2020)
On the weekend we saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in protest for Black Lives Matter and Black Deaths in Custody, led by Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance. ‘Melbourne’/Narrm drew around 500,000 people to protest the 434 deaths since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody findings commenced in 1991. Meanwhile, leading up to the protest in ‘Sydney’/Gadigal, the NSW Supreme Court deemed the Black Lives Matter protests unauthorised. Black Lives Matter protest organisers appealed to authorise the upcoming protest –– within minutes before the protest was due to start, the ruling was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal.
It was necessary that thousands turned out to protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and to stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody at this moment. It is our life-long commitment and responsibility to address anti-Blackness in our society and our respective communities. We must address this in all aspects of our life, work, families and communities. As Sudanese and Vietnamese settlers on Stolen Land, it is imperative that we listen to First Nations and take their lead in their fight for sovereignty and liberation.
We can continue the work by reading what First Nations are writing about Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. See: Australia still turns a blind eye to Aboriginal people dying in police custody. We need to abolish prisons to disrupt a society built on inequality and bear witness to black deaths in our own country. We can also look for First Nations-led solutions to the youth justice system. As Eugenia Flynn says in her article ‘Solidarity – you are doing it wrong’, ‘anti-racism work needs to be in solidarity with Indigenous Australians – it cannot succeed if it exists on its own, independent of addressing the racism against Indigenous Australians in this country.’
Here in ‘Australia’ many mutual aids have been created to support First Nations during COVID and Aboriginal Deaths in Custody including Justice for David Dungay Junior and Justice for Joyce Clarke. Leading up the Black Lives Matter protests that recently happened across the country, a list of demands was posted by Brisbane Blacks and Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance to ‘stop further Aboriginal deaths in custody and to allow their communities to heal.’
‘…Maroons…engaged the dangerous practice of imagining other kinds of relations to one another, to the earth, to the world…they put into practice the desires they imagined. …Imagination, the practice of otherwise possibility, is the recognition of—and honoring as sacred—fear and being afraid and moving in the direction of the alternative anyway, anyhow, in spite of’. – Ashon T.Crawley (It’s OK to be afraid, March 2020)
Perhaps now is the moment where we are all asked to end the optical illusion that the dice of destiny has revealed to us. What does this moment demand of us then? How will we wield it together? How can we work together towards what Milwaukee activist, M. Adams describes as ‘deep-principled’ organising in the fight against racial capitalism, settler colonialism and white supremacy? How can we apply writer, teacher and artist Ashon T. Crawley’s transformative imaginings of friendships and relationships of solidarity as anti-institutional sites of enchantment and care?
On the 7th of June, ‘in the midst of terrible despair’, as described eloquently by Indian anti-colonial feminist writer Arundhati Roy, we learned that one of the demands of the Minneapolis Black freedom fighters has been met— Minneapolis City Council has declared its commitment to defund the police department, replacing it with a community-led public safety model and reinvestment in chronically underfunded social services. A tremendous victory announced on the birthday and in the hometown of phenomenal musician, Prince. We feel this is a blessing; that the timing of this is no coincidence, for our story does begin at the beginning, but somewhere in the middle of those who led the way before us. We strongly believe that defunding the police is the first step, in our local and global communities. In the quest for liberation and justice, fight for the abolition of repressive state apparatuses that are prison, police and military industrial complex. We stand in solidarity friend and in deep respect with our Blak Aboriginal family and hope to see the beginning of similar outcomes in ‘Australia’
In the course of writing this piece we have found ourselves waking up to more uncertainty and disruption; sometimes the world has felt bleak, other times, we have found ourselves interrupted by ecstatic moments of joy. Beyond stagnating us, perhaps the uncertainty and disruption can give us the space to nurture more compassion and love, allow us to reclaim a dream space for a shared future and create a present moment of courage.
BRISBANE BLACKS & WAR DEMANDS TO CEASE ANY FURTHER ABORIGINAL DEATHS IN CUSTODY
On 3 June 2020 at the sacred park at Musgrave Park, the Brisbane Blacks agreed to demands of the State and Federal Government to stop any further Aboriginal deaths in Custody and to heal our communities who continue to suffer.
- That the policing and justice systems be dismantled- a system built on our blood, oppression, lies and paternalism cannot be reformed. And systemic racism cannot end without the system change.
- The defunding of the police force and instead fund our communities, whilst allowing complete Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs;
- The immediate end police brutality and racist policing practices;
- The charging all police officers and correction officers with murder and carry the charges to a convictions;
- The reopening of the inquests and cases of all Aboriginal deaths in custody, overseen by an independent body, including community Elders to see justice for the families;
- Amendments to legislation to ensure all police officers and corrections officers must testify if they witness a murder or misconduct by another police officer;
- The release of all children from youth detention;
- The State and Federal Government to fund families for trauma support suffered after the loss of a family member whilst in custody;
- No police officer or station to investigate another police officer for any complaint of misconduct made against them and all future investigations be held by an independent body that includes Aboriginal representation;
- All reported cases of racial profiling to be independently investigated and the associated police officers immediately stood down;
- Any police officer who turns off their body camera that would otherwise been used for the purposes of an investigation of police misconduct to be immediately stood down;
- The imbedding of anti-racist training and in all schools across the country and require it to be a compulsory subject for all first year university students;
- Real implementation of all 339 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody;
- Justice for the families of those people who have been murdered whilst in custody, and for those who have been murdered by racist white people.
About the Authors
H.Mur and Xen Nhà found themselves in friendship, care and solidarity after a chance collaboration on a Zine project at Footscray Library. Their friendship has led them to collaborations here out west and abroad.
Xen Nhà is a documentary maker and artist who has grown on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people. Sound stirs our imagination and Xen Nhà works with it as a way to invite people into their interior and intersecting worlds. They work across film, audio and zines and is the founder/curator of Red Pocket Press.
H.Mur is a Sudanese artist, educator and closeted writer. H.Mur has grown up in and around Footscray, Sunshine and Tarneit. They use the practice of image making to articulate the everyday poetics and politics of bodies at the margins of margins. H.Mur works across projection art, the moving image and photography.
FCAC Writes is supported by Malcolm Roberson Foundation.
1- Contains images provided by Xen Nhà and H.Mur, and illustration by Nadia Lian.