V/Line Vignette 10

Metro Minutia 27.8.19

The littlest one’s arms were yanked by his mother who’d had enough of the noise and restless energy of the still-in-nappies tot, together with probably half the carriage- a conservative estimate based on neatly rounded and made-up statistics, that only half of the half who didn’t have headsets on cared (about the noise) and that half of those wearing headsets had their devices switched off but were primed and ready for their sensory limit to be reached setting their trigger finger to hit play and transport them into an aural cocoon, avoiding the very noise they contribute to in the overcrowded carriage with their generic tinny orchestra joining dozens of other leaky headsets, proving that sometimes the whole is worse than the sum of its parts, but I digress.

The family were a travelling dynasty by the standards of an individualist commuter culture in a large city where one would rarely (if ever) brave public transport with even their nuclear family. They comprised three siblings, the eldest and youngest boys, and middle child syndrome evident in the girl for those attuned to the MCS feels; the children’s mother, confirmed by occasional utterings of ‘mamma’ and ‘mummy’ directed at her; an older woman, assumed to be their maternal grandmother, based on likeness to the mother; their maternal grandfather, his age and silent presence in the group indicating as much; and, a woman who resembled the mother, probably an aunt or older cousin to the children, likely childless or perhaps a saint because she was not showing any signs of frustration at the restlessness in her midst and between glances at regular alerts on her phone that elicited rapid-fire replies from her digital digit, she was happy to dole out smiles to the three children throughout the journey of many questions and infinite whines.

Dad was absent- presumably at work during this mid-afternoon, pre-witching hour crisscrossing of the city by rail. The family had managed to secure prime real estate with two sets of four-seaters, and adjoining ones at that, indicating they had commenced their journey in the northern-most reaches of the Mernda line, or someone in their midst was an astute negotiator, a mover and shaker on the bumpy ride to the city.

Oouf Aaraf, can you stay still? Can you stay still for a minute?

Aaraf’s big sister sat, snug in her tartan coat and smug in her wide, gleeful smile, her expectant eyes saying See? See, aren’t I good? – daring her mother and grandmother to recognise her goodness as her comparatively bad little brother cried, hooded head buried in the lap of the woman who provided both terror and comfort, his small arms warm in their dinosaur-printed fleece and dangling awkwardly at his side in the way only children can withstand discomfort, like wearing shoes on the wrong feet.

The inevitable meltdown made mamma abandon her conversation with her own mother and pull out the good old distraction technique. The three kids chimed in to the fast-moving conversation that was a matter of blink-and-you’d-miss-the-context as the train zoomed by landmarks and prompts for their stream of consciousness– the shimmering reflection of the Eureka Tower in the train window, September being next week and spring taking over as winter leaves us for another year, talk of father’s day approaching, and whether they can celebrate mother’s day again.

Ooh, a train!

The bubbling of impatient energy, together with the swaying of the train caused the levitating dust particles to dance erratically in the stream of sunlight. The loudest voice suggested ‘let’s break the window and get out!’, the escape plan tamed a little by another sight and the question ‘is that the Eiffel tower?’ segueing into mamma’s promise of a trip to Paris one day, that la tour Eiffel isn’t in Melbourne, that’s just the Arts Centre.

Look, a plane!

Disjointed topics came and went until they disembarked at Flinders Street Station, all happy to have had the chance to be heard and little Aaraf having reason to sit still.

 

I debated about using the real name of the kid in the observed scene which inspired this fictional account of real events, mainly because of the immediate assumptions that readers would have about the family…details filled in by unconscious bias rather than the narration. The issue of the cultural identity of characters is one I haven’t resolved for myself. It pains me greatly that so many of my characters borrow bits and pieces of me to some extent and unless they have names like Hirut, Burtukhan, Azeb or Melat, they are, without the reader necessarily doing it consciously, assumed white. As their creator, I give my characters give-nothing-away ‘neutral’ names, not because of aspiration or an intended whitewashing on my part, but because in my opinion, to name their non-whiteness immediately strips characters of the freedom to be themselves, with even the most liberal amongst us reading with a filtered lens. There is also a pressure I feel that comes with revealing the ‘ethnicity’ of a character- a pressure to be authentic, and then to add to the internal chatter, I question my right to write about an Indian or a Lebanese character, or even an Ethiopian, when I don’t feel I represent whatever it is that a typical Ethiopian is. Of course, none of this is about my characters, or about writing even, it is about my own identity and untangling all the layers of bullshit to just be myself.

7 thoughts on “V/Line Vignette 10

  1. I had no assumptions about the identity, just the recognition of the way most people isolate themselves with their devices even when together, and how this family had managed to transcend that, to still interact with each other and the world. Would different names have changed that? I’m not sure. These behaviors seem independent of culture in the way we live right now. (K)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe we are becoming more homogeneous in our ways? Or perhaps this story was such an everyday experience that it transcends culture? What if the name was mentioned earlier on? What if the story was a longer character study and you learnt more about them? If there was a wedding, food made and consumed, gender politics in the family explored?

      Or maybe it’s just me.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh we do make assumptions based on names. And looks. And settings. Absolutely. But this was such a universal experience it didn’t assume the importance it might have in other circumstances.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This is good writing Mek. I really felt like I was on the train with you. I hear you about ethnic markers in writing. They’re so hard to avoid. That book club I briefly belonged to hated when authors used them, but I think I’m on the fence about it for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kathy 😊 Yeah I don’t have the answers either. It took me ages to decide the main character in my novel will be Ethiopian. I don’t want that to detract from her own personal story which is made up of so much more than just culture, but ultimately I think what tipped me over in that decision was realising how much richness that added to the story and realising I care far too much about what people think and that is so limiting.

      Liked by 1 person

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