MEANJIN JOURNAL / WHAT I’M READING SERIES / 20 NOVEMBER 2019 / EDITED BY SOPHIA HEPSIBAH BENJAMIN
I have a rare skin disease that can be only cured with amphetamines, sunlight and seawater. This is the only thing I have in common with Kim Kardashian-West. I did not inherit it from anybody. I created it on my own. The doctor said I need to eat the Sun and I need to eat a fish and I need to do one thing at a time. I like to do one thousand things because I am afraid of boredom and death. The disease painted all my limbs iridescent red strawberry fields. Every part of my body except my face and hands. It was the summer of 2013, the infamous Summer of Babes. It was the summer that Octavia E. Butler came into my life.
It was a slim library copy of Bloodchild and other stories, a collection of works in which people with incurable diseases are quarantined into self-governed communities, a child learns that they are born of incest, humans lose their ability to communicate with language and men are impregnated by an alien species. The narratives encompass a loss of bodily autonomy, the discrepancy between the inner self and horrors afflicted on the flesh. Fleshly horrors are the makings of an outcast, failing to adhere to standards of health and beauty that is top currency in any society, human or alien, reality or fiction. Years after reading this collection I would see in Benaras that those with leprosy were shunned with disdain reminiscent of ancient behaviour. In the title story, Bloodchild, there is an antidote for things we cannot control. An extra-terrestrial distributes sterile eggs to a human family they were grooming. The eggs induced a euphoric waking dream, dissipated symptoms of anxiety and dissolved signs of aging. In my state of involuntary metamorphosis, I longed for dream eggs that diluted and made pleasurable all ailments. The mysterious strawberry lesions felt somewhat parasitic, somewhat symptomatic of something dangerous. I thought about Butler’s illuminating and unsettling futures as I gnawed on the bones of intimacy and death, of childlike delusions of alternative bodies and dimensions.
When I was living in Suva in the 90s, I had a dream about my real reptilian parents. At three am wild blue light illuminated my mosquito net cocoon. A flying conch shell landed on our front verandah where earlier that day, I was practicing my dance routine to Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl, and my puppy Rambo vomited on the marigold flowers. Two glamorous reptilians emerged from the mothership in slow motion with shiny, shiny diamond skin and white PVC gowns. They were my real reptilian parents. It was time to return to my real home planet. I looked just like them, under my earth skin. One of them peeled the flesh off from my neck, revealing diamonds as luminous as the stars.
The prophetic dream was coming true: my earth skin was shedding, soon be replaced with shimmering jewels. But the strawberries continued to multiply. I was passed from doctor to doctor to doctor for weeks, each as shocked as the next, each saying I’m sorry I’ve never seen anything like this before. I tried many things: oatmeal soaks, Epsom salt baths, glycerine, aloe vera, vitamin A ointment, steroid creams, bone broth, an apple a day, prayers to the sky. My flesh became conceptual, a platform for intimacy and estrangement. I had always been an out-of-body kind of person but my changing skin detached my spirit from my body permanently. The body was possessed by a demon, but the spirit was still a traveller in the forbidden imagination, wild and alive, with a lust for life. What does the spirit do when the body is inhabited by the uncanny? It is the body that eventually dies, not the spirit. The spirit does not want to die. What I needed was one of Octavia’s dreamy eggs.
Five years later, the strawberry fields syndrome returned. On the afternoon I was planning to see the greatest living poet π.O. speak at the Melbourne Anarchist Club, red teardrops appeared on my belly, breasts and arms. I had for π.O. a handwritten letter about Fitzroy: the biography. I wrote about how the collection made the streets I breathe every day so illustrious in its secret histories and dialogues. The portraits of The Flats, The Milk Bar, Private E.T. Butterworth and Yeung Shing are what sleepless nights are made of. The Johnston St bus hasn’t changed. I wrote about immigration and violence and anarchy and number magic and how the stars shake when he bellows in performance. I wrote about how sometimes I wear two-piece suits in homage to him. Now, the devil was painting my chest from the inside. I ran to Chemist Warehouse and bought salicylic acid and fragrant cod liver lotion. I put fish cream on my body. I never gave π.O. that letter.
The other thing was The Tooth. The Tooth was made of milk and crooked deeds from a past life. It induced migraines that were both psychedelic and demonic. It took two hours to remove. In the aftermath of the surgery, my face swelled for days and then weeks. The strawberry pods had now spread to my back, butt, legs and feet. There I was, every inch of me covered in scales like the reptile that I am, with a face so inflamed I was unrecognisable. The worst part was I couldn’t even eat my feelings. My gluey lips wouldn’t open wide enough for soup, my fork tongue still numb from nerve damage. I spent these days in a prescription opioid daze, in self-sanctioned phototherapy, reading in the sunlight outside the kitchen. I read my way through State of Emergency by W.S Rendra, From Grains to Gold by Magan Magan, The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo and Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. It was during this time that the ghost of Federico García Lorca began following me. He watched me as I turned every page, as each new strawberry formed, as each drop of blood was absorbed by my pillow. He made a home under my bed. In a dream he showed me a drawing nobody had seen before: three uneven stars in a row, an upside-down boat and a green disembodied leg. Like the cover of Romancero gitano, teardrops rained from the moon.
In 1933 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Federico García Lorca presented a lecture called Juego y teoría del duende (The Play and Theory of the Duende) which changed my life. It fell in my sticky hands on a rainy day, transcribed in a dusty book of collected works from a second-hand bookshop in my hometown. Lorca denounces the Muse and Angel as superficial forms of inspiration and champions the duende, a mysterious spirit roused from the furthest habitations of the blood, an unseen force which evokes the darkness and sadness present in all great works of art. The Muse brings form, the Angel brings light, and the duende brings radical shifts in tradition, charged by the suffering of life, walking hand-in-hand with death itself. Every time I found myself unexplainably in awe of a work, with chills in my hair, it was down to the presence of the duende, the presence of a fatal character. Octavia E. Butler and π.O. speak straight from the heart of the duende, from the desperate mouths of ghosts.
As I write this now, my skin is clear, but the strawberry fields may appear at any moment and clothe me wholly. You see, I live like a mad rodent stuck on a wheel, running running running on adrenaline, an ouroboric tragicomedy. They say that ninety per cent of all skin conditions are psychosomatic, so the strawberry fields are a reminder that the wheel itself is an illusion, that at any time I can hop off, slow down and just exist. As I write this now, my skin is clear, but skin is an illusion, like time and like poetry and like religion. As I write this now, I have bookmarked a library copy of A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector at page 42 with a fading receipt for mung bean ice cream purchased from Sika Supermarket, perhaps the closest thing to the Octavia’s dream eggs.