writer, presenter, teacher
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Writing

My Mother’s Keeper

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Mum and I, Turkey, 1981

At 48, Mum is 15 years older than me. As a child, I was the keeper of her secrets and her tears when she longed for family in Turkey and homesickness weighed her down. As a teen, we butted heads like siblings. As adults, we visualised dreams in Turkish coffee cups and followed the grainy trail to each other’s hearts.

So when Mum found a lump on her left breast, we made our way together to her GP. Mum was prone to cysts and had had two removed previously.

The doctor ordered a mammogram.

“Ouff. This gonna hurt too much. They squash boob!” Mum said. We found ourselves at the local BreastScreen early the next morning. Mum undressed in the partition opposite the X-ray room, her white gown exposing her bare back.

She walked in to the dark room that hummed and clicked behind the white door.

“You’ll be fine, Mum.” I stood there, cradling her clothes in my arms. They were warm and smelt of smoke and deodorant, as alive as if she was standing next to me. She’ll be fine, I repeated, inhaling her. She will be fine. It’s only a cyst. Yet fear crept in, as real and palpable as her clothes.

When we received a follow-up letter from BreastScreen for further tests at an Assessment Centre, we could only stare at each other.

Mum’s eyes welled up. “Something wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “I feel it.”

“It’s a cyst, Mum. All good. They just want to make sure. Nothing’s wrong with your big mammas, okay?” I said, eyeballing her breasts.

“Tsk,” she said, smiling. “Even time like this you try make joke. You not funny.”

We laughed at Mum’s breasts that spilled out of her bra. We laughed to suppress the fear that swelled between us.

The Assessment Centre waiting room was full of whispered conversations. Mum stared at her feet, cradling her handbag in her lap. Her fingers had whitened from squeezing the strap. I released her hand, put the bag on the floor.

“You’re going to be okay,” I said in Turkish.

Next to us, an elderly woman with short white hair cried into a crumpled tissue. A younger woman held her hand, eyes glazed. I looked away, tried to read the information pamphlet they’d given us at reception. Only one possibility stood out. An abnormality does not always result in cancer.

When Mum’s name was called, an attendant led her to a changing room where she undressed her top half and slipped on a blue gown over her jeans. We moved down the hall to another waiting area.

The room was a sea of blue. Women sat side by side, some with family, others with friends. Those who were alone distracted themselves with magazines as the clock stretched time. A table was set up in the far corner with tea and coffee facilities. “Who’d like a warm drink?” asked a softly spoken volunteer. As she went around taking orders, the white-haired woman I’d seen earlier walked in. “I’ll be okay, Mum,” said her daughter, now dressed in a blue gown. The older woman nodded, her cheeks wet with tears.

Mum and I sat shoulder to shoulder. I rubbed her arms, which were peppered with goose bumps.

“What if…” Mum whispered in Turkish. “What if it’s cancer?”

We stared ahead. My throat burned and I focused on the light blue wall that blurred with my tears. I fought them back as we were called into the X-ray room.

Mum’s breast was magnified on the ultrasound screen. The lump bobbed as if at sea as the transducer circled her breast. I squeezed Mum’s hand while two doctors analysed the images and spoke in hushed tones.

The male doctor’s face was impassive. “It doesn’t look cancerous,” he said. “We recommend that you monitor it.”

Thank God, I thought. Thank you, God. I helped Mum up and we walked out of the dim room.

We were quiet on the drive home, our words collecting like the froth that layered a cup of Turkish coffee. I held her hand and she squeezed back, her smile breaking us away from the monitors and machines. Her hand was soft, girl-like. I held on, with the relief and intensity of a child, our world shifting once again.

This piece was originally published in The Big Issue Edition #446.


The Language of Belonging

Hulya’s heart belonged to words.

It was the heaviest item she packed when she migrated to Australia as a new bride and a new mother at sixteen. She settled in Footscray with her husband and his parents, leaving her youth in Turkey along with her family.

Footscray was as foreign as the prickly fruit displayed in shopfronts that lined the streets in the city centre. Here, the Asian shops had their own language. Men and women spoke with elastic words that stretched the ends of their sentences. By twenty, Hulya could navigate through the suburb with three kids in tow. She covered her nose when she passed the fruit and veggie shops, unable to handle the foreign smells of Asia. ‘Ouff’ was a common moan that accompanied her steps. ‘Ouff’ at the mango and spice, coriander and lemongrass. She scrunched up her nose, wondered about the bouquets of edibles that didn’t exist back home.

Hulya’s children huddled close to her as she steered her baby’s pram through the throng of petite people. They walked, pressed together like barnacles. Every week Hulya entered the world of the misunderstood whose names were as unpronounceable as hers.

Hulya’s English was the size of a kernel. Turkish words dominated her language but she rarely spoke them. Her mother-in-law was the matriarch of the family, a tall woman despite the hunch that clipped a few centimetres off her height. Every morning, she plaited her hair with a fine-toothed comb, a plate of water in her lap. She parted her long strands; dipped the comb in and out of the water until it left a damp trail down the length of her black and white hair. Her hands wove two plaits as intricate as the rope her son made at the Kinnears factory. Hulya’s unsaid words swelled inside her, fermenting with silence. She latched on to Footscray, stitched herself and her children a place among its parks, shops and markets the way her mother used to stitch her clothes.

Hulya’s was a world that belonged to others.

***

WHERE HULYA CAME from, childhood was exchanged for hard labour. There, mornings were greeted by the low drone of kids who sold simit, bagel-like-bread, balancing trays on heads heavy with life lessons. ‘Simitciiiiii,’ they yelled, weaving in and out of streets, their guttural calling almost a moan.

At twelve, Hulya finished primary school and started working the cotton fields with a diligence driven by hunger. Cotton was fairy floss, soft and stringy. Cotton was the currency that fed ten mouths, teased their taste buds with small portions that satisfied only their eyes.

Around her, a tide of people bent over rows of cotton, their heads shielded from the sun with scarves and makeshift newspaper caps. Hulya’s playground was dewy earth that oozed through her plastic shoes, cotton shells that pinched her fingers. She retreated into her mind while her body moved mechanically up and down, stuffing cotton into her apron pockets. Her thoughts soared above the field like fireworks. She dreamed of running free in a clean grassy field like that girl Heidi whose stomach never grumbled. She dreamed of chocolate and cola, the kind that was sold in the shop down the road from home. The shopkeeper was mean looking, with a bushy moustache and black olive eyes. Once, when he turned his back, Hulya and her friends pinched colourful chocolate bows from the counter and ate them while giggling down the dusty streets.

Hulya worked the cotton fields with her older sister Gonul who picked cotton to pay for her education. It gave her access to high school books, to worlds where minds were opened with words.

‘Study is the key to a better life,’ she’d say to Hulya whose stomach was tight, whose breath was sour from her empty belly.

Hulya’s education started with stale bread and olive oil, her little brother’s hungry screams. She finished primary school with the ability to read and write, but hunger and family came first. At thirteen, she enrolled in a sewing course so her hands could make bigger currency and fill their stomachs. High school was an expensive dream.

***

IN FOOTSCRAY, HULYA’S insides twisted like the spitfires on the branch in her front yard. Her mother-in-law coordinated meals and taught her how to cook. They cooked together, strained ingredients with their words.

‘Make sure you don’t stab the eggplant skin. It needs to be whole to carry the rice stuffing,’ her mother-in-law would caution.

‘Okay.’ Hulya kept her responses to a minimum while the unsaid things blistered. To speak up would make her disrespectful, upset her husband whose twelve-hour shifts drained him of the will to mediate. Hulya wanted to say, ‘this is mykitchen’ when her mother-in-law rearranged things or ‘he is my husband’ when she greeted her son when he came home. Instead, Hulya gathered her children around her as Footscray hugged them to its plump breast. She exercised her control outside the house where freedom was the English pleasantries exchanged with neighbours. ‘Hello,’ ‘how are you’, ‘thank you,’ she said to Glad, the woman with freckled skin. A brown fence separated their homes and Hulya often waved and chatted with her hands to the woman with cotton hair.

Hulya’s family welled in her eyes; spoke to her children through letters. Her children sat on the carpet in the lounge on each side of her knees listening to their grandmother take shape in her voice. The letters were folded in neat squares and spilled photos onto the carpet.

They began with my dearest daughter.

Hulya’s voice broke with those few words and she breathed to still the tremors. Before I start my letter, I hope that you and your children are in good health and I kiss you all with longing. Don’t worry yourself thinking about us, we are fine, but we miss you dearly. Hulya filled her replies with hope, cheer and Australian dollars, hiding her unhappiness between the lines. She missed her family and the simplicity of belonging. It clogged her throat, spilled onto her cheeks daily. She missed words, the way they collected to tell a story in bound books like the ones her sister gave her. Hulya came of age through novels that showed her different ways of living that teased thoughts and challenged perceptions beyond the rocky road of her village.

The same books they had to bury in the backyard of her childhood home.

***

WHILE HULYA WAS learning to stitch at sewing school, the streets of Turkey were scorching with domestic political and sectarian violence. There was blood and fire, whispers of fascism and communism, leftists and rightists. The country was in economic distress; people were angered by social injustices, the gulf between the rich and poor. Hulya watched the fighting on the news, heard about a local barber’s son being jailed for having normal literature. The same ones Hulya and Gonul stored in the wooden arch of a sofa bed that doubled as their couch. The covers were ragged but the words of peace, of modern, progressive societies were strong.

Gonul shone with things that Hulya came to understand after reading her sister’s books and attending meetings. They were held in a small room above a clothes shop and Hulya sifted through the magazines and the copies of Luminousnewspapers on the table.

‘We can save the world,’ girls and boys screamed at the meetings, ‘good days will come! There will be a brighter Turkey!’ They discussed things that people wrote on the walls of homes. ‘Damn fascism!’ ‘Damn the fascists!’ Hulya watched as homeowners painted over the graffiti, their strokes frantic, their hands shaking.

Hulya feared the uncertainty that rattled the country and read books indoors, alternating between stories of Dostoyevsky, Hikmet and Nesin. They showed her a world beyond the cotton fields and sewing school, where minds were not bothered by small things like the length of a girl’s skirt.

When the violence threatened to erupt in civil war, martial law was declared and the Turkish army intervened to restore public order. One morning, a month after violence had escalated in the country’s southeast, Hulya carried her craving for the smooth taste of fresh milk to the lounge room where the sun spilled onto their cement floor. The backyard door was open and her baby brother walked in and out of the kitchen half naked, nibbling on a piece of bread. She hoped there was enough bread and cheese to take to sewing school for lunch. It was hard to keep the fingers steady when the stomach was empty.

‘Sevim!’

The shrill voice chilled Hulya’s spine. It was their neighbour Esma screaming out her mother’s name.

Geliyorlar, Sevim!’ said Esma, reaching the backyard door.

Hulya’s mother shuffled out of the kitchen. ‘Hayirdir Insallah. What happened?’ she said, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

The woman doubled over by the door, clutching her floral nightdress.

Hulya’s heart sank to the pit of her empty stomach. Someone’s dead, she thought. Someone’s dead.

‘They’re coming, Sevim! They’re coming! Saklayin!’

‘Who’s coming? Hide what?’ Her mother’s face was as calm as her voice.

Jandarma! The army is coming to search our homes for the political books. They have started in nearby neighbourhoods!’

‘What?’ Hulya’s mother slapped her knee. ‘Gonul!’ she screamed for her oldest daughter. ‘Gonul!’

Hulya’s hands shook with fear.

Gonul rushed out of her bedroom, fixing the collar of her school uniform. ‘What, Mum?’

‘Quick. Quick. Gather your books, the modern ones. The army is coming.’

‘Oh my god,’ said Gonul, looking at Hulya. ‘Come on!’ She hurried back to the bedroom where their younger sister Pervin was still asleep.

Hulya willed her legs to move but a terrifying thought bolted her feet to the floor.

Jail.

Her sister, her mother, they would all go to jail.

Panic pushed her forward past Esma to wake her oldest brother Nadir who was fast asleep on a divan outside.

‘What?’ he said, his dark hair dishevelled.

‘The jandarma is coming! Quick we have to get rid of Gonul’s books!’

‘Shit.’ He bolted upright and ran inside. Hulya followed, longing for her father who was still at work. Fear grew with every step, loosened her hands and feet. Jail. It was more than iron bars and barbed wires. People were tortured behind four walls and left with their screams. It said so in newspapers, showed it in movies. She imagined Gonul’s feet tied to a wooden post and whipped into surrender, her mother being electrocuted with live wires.

‘Where will we put them, Mum?’ said Gonul, juggling a handful of books. ‘Nadir?’ He shrugged, hugging a stack to his chest.

‘Give them to me, Mum.’ Hulya rescued the books from her mother’s shaking hands. Among them were the Luminous newspapers that were circulated at meetings. Some were her sister’s schoolbooks. ‘Hey, you can’t throw these! You need them!’

Gonul shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter, we can’t risk it. We throw everything!’

‘Come on,’ said Esma. ‘In the garden! That’s what everyone’s doing.’

‘What? You mean bury them?’ said Gonul.

Esma nodded.

‘Nadir, grab a shovel!’ Hulya’s mother said, rushing to the side of the house. ‘Hadi.’

Hulya and Gonul followed, dropping the books on to dirt. Nadir dug a big hole and Hulya watched as her mother ploughed the dirt with her fingers. When the hole was waist deep, Gonul threw the books that kept her company at night and made her laugh till daybreak. This is a dream, Hulya thought, as she sent Dostoyevsky, Hikmet, Márquez and dozens of others to their grave. Hulya grieved for those bound treasures and felt unsafe, hungry and as lost as the buried books.

***

IN HER TENTH year in Footscray, Hulya’s in-laws moved to Turkey and Hulya and her family moved to Meadow Heights. She left the concrete suburb for rolling green fields, winding roads and slanting hills where ‘welcome to Turkiye’ graffiti greeted them near the entrance. Old men in black baggy pants –salvars– walked the streets, shoulders hunched, hands behind their backs. Some walked with worry beads dangling from their fingertips. Front doors were littered with shoes that were exchanged for house slippers; women sipped Turkish coffee with neighbours in lounge rooms and wove gossip as intricate as their coffee cup readings. Meadow Heights was a haven for people whose hearts beat in Turkey, but whose legs were rooted in Australia.

Hulya adjusted to the suburb where English was spoken with the same broken rhythm and Turkish was the first language. There was a shared history, hardships could be exchanged with words, and friendships were layered with culture. Hulya finally entered Australia through local Turkish newspapers that were stacked next to Lebanese bread at the Turkish deli.

She followed Paul Keating’s reforms, developed opinions about Australia, its society, saw through its hypocrisy. ‘Why people say go back to own country when they no like people? Hmm? They forget about Aborigine people, what they do to them?’

For Hulya, the country crystallised through Turkish words and so did her identity. Glenroy library was a fifteen-minute drive down Pascoe Vale Road, the artery of the northern suburbs. The library was a grey arched building reminiscent of ancient Greek architecture. Hulya was reunited with books and scoured the aisles weekly. Her stories spanned continents and centuries and she lost herself in fictional works that filled her with worlds and possibilities. She took her daughters with her and ushered them towards the teen book aisles. ‘Reading make the mind bigger!’ she’d say and fill her own bag with novels that would puncture the plastic.

Books gave Hulya the courage to raise her daughters with Turkish and Western values. She loved novels about disenfranchised women who rose above differences to find themselves and the strength to stand their ground. She learned that fiction mirrored life and presented various perspectives. Hulya instilled the strength of heroines in her daughters and taught them that substance was innate and not measured by a dress code. She taught them how to see the similarities in people and that nothing should be taken on face value.

Literature helped Hulya regain the strength and belonging she’d lost the morning the soldiers arrived.


***

‘HADI KALKIN! KALKIN!’ Hulya felt a cold jab to the ribs and wished her brother would stop moving in his sleep.

‘Get up!’

There was a scream and her eyes flared open as a big black boot walked around their makeshift bed on the floor.

Hulya’s sister Pervin shook by her side. ‘What’s going on?’ she whispered to Hulya as Gonul pulled the doona over her shivering body.

Tears stung Hulya’s eyes.

‘Are you all deaf? Get up now!’ said the soldier, grasping his rifle.

There was no time for fear as Hulya and her siblings filed into the lounge room, their flimsy pyjamas clinging to skinny limbs. Her mother grabbed her baby brother whose cries rang in the crowded room.

Four soldiers gutted Hulya’s home, their uniforms the colour of dead grass. They flipped the cushions on the sofa bed with the ends of their big rifles, clanked pots and pans in the kitchen.

This is it, thought Hulya, groggy with sleep and waking fear. They will find the books. They will torture us in a small Turkish prison.

‘Where is your husband?’ the Captain demanded.

‘He…he’s at work,’ her mother said trying to console her baby boy. ‘He’s a nightwatchmen on a watermelon field.’

Pervin and Gonul clung to each other for warmth. Hulya hardly felt the cold breeze that sent shivers through the room. The backyard door was wide open and she was convinced that her rattling bones would give away the location of the books.

‘Nothing here, Captain,’ a young soldier said with a nod.

Another paced outside, his boots slapping the cement floor.

Hulya held her breath. The soldier stood a few metres away from the grave of books that taught her to think big and free, to see the world in shades of grey.

The Captain looked them up and down without expression.

Yuruyun,’ he said, motioning his men towards the door.

The soldiers left, one after the other, as purposefully as they came.

Hulya sucked in a breath and her legs buckled in relief.

Her family was safe.

***

In the year that followed, uncertainty and fear haunted Hulya. Martial law was a temporary solution; fights continued to pepper the streets, the military threatened to overthrow the government. By the time Hulya turned fifteen, fate intervened and a nineteen-year-old Turkish boy from Australia asked for her hand in marriage. He was safety, he was comfort, he was a new life in a country that promised to help her family. A country that offered her a safe place to belong.

The Language of Belonging was originally published in Griffith REVIEW 44: Cultural Solutions.


Honour and Disobey

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Me, my grandmother, my mother and her siblings. Turkey, 1981

In my maternal grandmother’s village in Adana, Turkey, the term ‘girl’ was kneaded and compressed like dough. Its weight made my great grandmother tighten her grip on my grandmother’s world, her fear wedging between them. It was the fifties and neighbours weaved in and out of each other’s yards and lives, their mud-cement homes conjoined like a family. “Ayıp!” neighbours would say if a girl ventured too far from home. “A young girl has no business on the streets!” Ayıp was shame, and fear of the word hardened my great grandmother, a woman who walked home from the cotton field when her contractions started, to give birth alone on her lounge room floor.

My great grandmother’s fears knotted my grandmother’s tongue, made her curl inward. She left school after completing grade three to the dismay of her illiterate mother who wanted her to study. “Why study, Sevim? Go learn to sew, it’s better for a girl!” neighbours said. A girl’s hands were for stitching, not reading and their collective voice was enough to steer my quiet grandmother away from the classroom and into a sewing course. By eighteen, my grandmother was a seamstress and a wife and she set up a small business in her marital home where she made her five daughters sleeveless dresses that defied the modest dress code.

As a girl, Mum dreamed of wearing pretty frilly dresses that the actresses wore in the movies. She grew up in the seventies when Turkey’s Yesilçam “Green Pine” film industry flooded cinemas with hundreds of movies a year. It gathered the masses to the big screen like a seductive lover. The doe-eyed heroines mesmerised with sultry lips, while tall, dark and handsome men protected, fought and conquered. Yesilçam was a patriarch with firm ideas on a woman’s role in society. Women were sisters, wives, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Men were husbands, breadwinners, brothers and fathers who protected a woman’s honour and virginity. If women were rich, money was an invincible guard. It quashed the poor, broke poverty’s bony fingers, taught the public life lessons while cementing their place in society. Mum watched these movies at a local open-air cinema sipping lemon gazoz with her siblings. They sat on wooden chairs as the stars on the big screen fell in love and lit up Mum’s romantic dreams. She was seduced by the romance; humoured by the goofy comedies and angered by the injustices when star-crossed lovers were separated by strict fathers or evil uncles.

When Mum migrated to Australia, she hired Yesilçam movies from Turkish video shops in Melbourne’s north. Yesilçam was familiarity in a foreign world and thick, black videotapes piled on top of each other in our Footscray lounge room. It was in this room that Yesilçam showed me where I’d come from. My roots were dusty and poor, macho and romantic. The men were strong; they were leaders, they saved and married women and conquered evil. Women were good or bad. The good woman cooked, loved, nurtured, mothered within the sanctity of marriage. The bad woman had sex out of wedlock and tarnished her name and honour. The movies lectured like a wise aunty. ‘Hee! See the girl who ran away with that boy? Tsk! She brings her family great shame! No one will want to marry her when they get caught!’ These warnings registered early on and I learned that ayıp was a word reserved for girls, a word that lowered a father’s head and laid the blame on the mother. Fear of the word shadowed me as a teenager in the nineties where gossip could spread like wildfire in our predominantly Turkish neighbourhood.

“Don’t worry about what people say or think,” Mum said often. “Shame is on those who talk! Good or bad is not about what you wear, who you talk to. It’s what you say and how you act.” Mum, a primary school graduate, was educated by novelists and their stories taught her about humanity and new ways of seeing. Her strong voice buffered me and my sisters from the judgements of the outside world. “Trust yourself,” she told me, “like I trust you.”

With Mum’s conviction, shame lost its potency. Shame became a reaction to my team’s loss at the football. Shame was a theme in Yesilçam movies that no longer mirrored a changing culture and society. Honour and virtue were not scripted values, they were mine to define.

First published in The Big Issue #517 edition.