Ep 24: Sea-creature days with Kavita Bedford, author of Friends and Dark Shapes

In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.

In episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview Australian-Indian Kavita Bedford about her debut novel, Friends & Dark Shapes, Kavita has been published in the Guardian, Guernica, and Griffith Review.

A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.

  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’

The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
– Teju Cole
– Olivia Lang
– Sheila Heti
– Rachel Cusk
– Jenny Offill
– Elizabeth Strout
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Deepfakes by Nina Schick

Listen to episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

The Cyclops Horse and other monsters

Steve and I are eating vegan this February, so on the 14th we celebrated what is now known as Vegantine’s Day.

Normally we don’t do much (sometimes the best gift is low expectations). But since the Chau Chak Wing Museum recently opened at the University of Sydney, Steve suggested visiting it together.

It turned out the museum cafe had vegan desserts! It also turned out they were not tasty.

I had no expectations of the museum, and I suppose in that way, it didn’t disappoint me. While it features many historically significant artefacts and culturally significant First Nations artworks, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is also full of monsters.

Check out these little terrors.

This pair of palm cockatoos have been haunting nightmares since 1788. Their latin name is proboscigers, and a fun fact is that their cheek colour “changes according to mood and health”, just like with humans. For example, the colour of these two birds’ cheeks indicates they’re dead.

So Steve and I are wandering around this museum, which is filled with taxidermied animals, Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pottery – you know, museum stuff – and then I spot this front and centre in a display cabinet.

It’s between two pieces of pottery, but unlike the pottery, it’s not immediately obvious what the thing is or how it’s earned shelf space in what is not a particularly large museum.

I examined this fur-covered object from every angle. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet hideously unknown. Finally, I located its identifying sign.

Are you ready?

IT’S THE TAXIDERMIED HEAD OF A CYCLOPS PONY.

Yeah, you read that right. Back in 1758, someone taxidermied the partial head of a deformed pony, and eighty-three years later, in 1841, some other weirdo decided it belonged in a museum.

Its sign reads, “Cyclopism is a relatively common birth defect in mammals: the two eye sockets do not form separately but fuse to create the appearance of a single eye.”

Which is strange justification for including the cyclops pony among the bronze-age spears and butterfly specimens. Also, if cyclopsism is so common in mammals, how come we don’t see more people with optic blast powers?

Other monstrosities include a fruit bat who wants to flash you:

A memorial to eclectus parrots (I doubt there’s any left in the wild at this rate):

And a two-dimensional platypus who looks well over it (granted, you wouldn’t look great if you’d been bathing in formaldehyde since 1799):

You can also find out what the Parthenon would look like if the Greeks had built it inside a disco.

And here it is, possibly the worst monster of all – the graphintegrator!

The graphintegrator is, according to a sign, “a mechanical device for solving differential equations in graphical form”. But I’m pretty sure it’s also a Batman villain.

Lesser Monsters of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include this pangolin. Last year I became obsessed with them, which is how I discovered that if you search the term pangolin too often on Instagram, your account will get flagged.

You might not think this little spotted kiwi is a monster, until you find out it used its own mother’s tax file number to commit identify theft.

Last and strippiest, a Tasmanian tiger with real cute eyes.

When we visited Tassie a few years ago (yes, that trip where I utterly failed to climb Cradle Mountain), Steve said that he planned to find a Tassie tiger. Despite being classified as extinct, there’s still rumours of sightings. I spent the whole trip shouting, “Quick, look, there’s a Tassie tiger!” and then telling Steve it was right behind him.

Would I recommend visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum? Let me ask you this – where else can you see the distingeatrating remains of a cyclops pony head?

After the museum, you can also say hello to everyone’s favourite roogoyle (who of course features in How to Be Australian).

And don’t forget this other classic University of Sydney highlight, the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn!

PS. If you haven’t heard, My Name Is Revenge is now available in audiobook. Sign up for my newsletter for your chance to get a free copy!

Moving across oceans to create a new life

After moving from India to Sydney in 2019, Khyati Sharma became inspired to share the stories of fellow expats and migrants through a new online project called Immigrants in Australia, modelled after Humans of New York. Since launching in September, she’s shared the stories of people from all over the world, including India, China, South Africa, Canada, Armenia, Mexico, Italy, Malaysia, Austria, England and Indonesia.

I asked Khyati to share her motivation for this project, as well as her own challenges with becoming Australian.

Khyati and her husband, Bipin

Q: What is Immigrants in Australia?

A: Immigrants in Australia is all about the wonderful people who’ve taken a great leap of faith because they didn’t want to settle for ordinary. At Immigrants in Australia, I present the inspiring stories of immigrants who have made Australia their new home.

As someone who has moved across oceans to create a new life myself, I know it requires more than just will power. You pack up your entire being, your life isn’t going to be the same, and that’s precisely the point. Moving abroad comes with this whole deal to discover yourself and satisfy the thirst of having done something substantial in life. That’s why this project is so close to my heart.

Q: What inspired you to start this project?

A: I was always fascinated by immigration stories. When I was a kid, I remember asking my cousins and friends who moved overseas – what prompted the move and how were they liking it there? Nobody knew that someday I would make a move myself, but as destiny had it – I married a guy who was based in Sydney and so I had to be here. After my arrival, I continued asking my whys and hows to almost every immigrant I met. I realised how each one of them had a legacy to inspire, a powerful message to share. Many people have a story of overcoming great social and cultural upheaval. And the fact that these stories came from real people made me believe that the possibilities open to us are endless.

Q: What brought you to Australia?

A: Believe me, I NEVER wanted to move outside New Delhi, India, where I was born and brought up. I am super attached to my family, and I thought that I would stay with a 10-minute drive of my parents’ house after marriage. I had no idea that I would eventually move 10,000 kilometres away from them to join my husband. Life continually surprises you when you’re busy making other plans.

Q: What’s your favourite thing about living in Australia?

A: I absolutely love the reading culture here. Almost every third person is reading a book or a Kindle, and I am secretly peeping at what they’re currently reading. I go to various libraries with a coffee in one hand and a book in the other. I love exploring the local bookstores; there’s a different kind of vibe always.

I also admire how Australia offers you freedom and respect in terms of what you do and how you choose to live.

Q: What’s been your biggest challenge in Australia?

A: There have been many, but I have overcome most of them, so I feel they were just initial hiccups that were necessary to experience, as they made me stronger. Like finding a stable job – I was professionally settled in India, so I never imagined struggling for work anywhere in the world. That mirage soon vanished when I received back-to-back rejection emails because I had no local experience. I wasn’t aware of how relevant this would be in the Australian job market.

The Australian accent was also quite intimidating. I have a Bachelors in English, so I thought I was sorted with the language. But within two days of my arrival, I went to a local café and asked for a mocha. The barista shot me some questions in a heavy accent, which sent me running. You have to use all your senses for the first few months to get used to the English here.

Q: Who is Immigrants in Australia for?

A: Immigrants in Australia is for anyone who has dared to dream, for anyone who has moved out of their safety nest and pushed their limits, and wants to achieve something in life. We have these amazing unsung people who’ve come to Australia from all over the world seeking a better life and wanting to contribute to Australian society and culture, who inspire many others to keep moving forward.

Check out Immigrants in Australia
Instagram | Facebook | online

And if you have a story to share, get in touch with Khyati at contact@immigrantsinaustralia.com.au.

Canada vs Australia triple-layered dessert face-off

Caramel kiss

Canada doesn’t have caramel slices. At least, not exactly. When I was growing up, my mom made a dessert called Eagle Brand squares.

These had a graham cracker base (a kind of sweet plain biscuit), not ground up but simply dropped into the pan, like floor tiles. The middle was a sort of oozy, pale caramel made from Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and the top was chocolate.

We had this after-dinner dessert on rotation with a few others, including marshmallow dream squares (chocolate cake base, mini-marshmallow centre and chocolate topping) and whatever it’s called when you coat rainbow mini-marshmallows in chocolate and refrigerate it.

Nostalgia might be a factor in my adult self’s love of caramel slices. That and lifelong sugar addiction.

What Canada lacks in caramel slices, it makes up for in Nanaimo bars. This is a national tragedy.
Stacks of Nanaimo bars
Nanaimo bars (I don’t know why this Winnipeg cafe calls them ‘squares’, this is patently wrong) are named after a small city on Vancouver Island. Their main insult is a middle layer of  custard. Usually the custard is bright yellow, but it can be neon green or even pink. What this has to do with Nanaimo, I don’t know. Maybe it’s custard capital of Canada.

My family never made Nanaimo bars, but whenever I went to potlucks or community events as a kid, there was always a tray of them waiting to disappoint. The base was crumbled nuts and and coconut, and the custard was slimy. The only part worth eating was the chocolate, so I would scrape that off and discard the rest, thinking I was being sneaky.

Discovering caramel slices in Australia felt like the universe making up for a childhood full of Nanaimo bars.  When I wrote my memoir of moving to Sydney, I included a lot of caramel slice references, particularly once I discovered that the caramel slice is as Australian as lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and fairy bread.

If you’re keen to hear more discoveries from expat life in Australia, join me for an online author talk with Katherine Tamiko Arguile. Thursday 1 October, 11am AEST (10:30am Adelaide time) RSVP here >>

Author headshot and book cover

An overdue caramel slice confession

Caramel slice at the beach

Since How to Be Australian was released in June, I’ve been waiting for someone to point out the book’s glaring inconsistency.  Caramel slice at the beachIt started when I first arrived in Sydney. One of my favourite discoveries was caramel slices, and particularly their wide abundancy at cafes everywhere.

Australia is a country that takes its desserts seriously, as evidenced by the existence of a one-dollar coin featuring Iced VoVos. This is actual Australian currency.
Iced Vovo one dollar gold coin
Yet while I learned about the Aussie origins of lamingtons, fairy bread and pavlova soon after arriving, it took almost a decade before I learned the Down Under origins of the caramel slice.

The first known caramel slice recipe appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly in October 1970 under the name caramel shortbread.
Variety of desserts on platter and jug, cups and saucersScotland understood how amazing caramel shortbread was, because a couple of decades later, the recipe became popular there under the name millionaire’s shortbread.

While that name gives you no indication of what’s in the dessert, I appreciate the implication it’s a dessert of millionaires.

In Australia, I’m not sure when the name shifted from caramel shortbread to caramel slice, but this Google Ngram shows the steep rise in the term’s use.
Caramel slice Ngram graph
You can see I’ve done my research. After the book came out, I found myself talking about caramel slice a lot.

I ended up in a cross-country caramel slice showdown with author Monique Mulligan. (She won easily, since her slice was homemade.)
Laptop and caramel slice
Readers made caramel slice and dropped it off at my home.
Homemade caramel slice on booksAnd author Josephine Taylor created an incredible deconstructed caramel slice decorated with grevillea blossoms in honour of the book. (She has a weekly project pairing newly released books with homemade desserts, check it out.)
Deconstructed caramel slice and How to Be Australian
I’ve even started to incorporate caramel slices into my wardrobe. Check out these earrings, which were a hot tip from another lovely reader.
Caramel slice earringsWhen I started giving author talks, I was using this photo from my own archives. I reckon this caramel slice is perfect. It has a significant layer of chocolate, not too thin, an ideal consistency in the caramel, and a chocolate crumble base with – notably – no dessicated coconut. Caramel slice with creamA reader who attended that talk pointed out that a proper caramel slice shouldn’t have a chocolate base.

But so far no-one has pointed out the inconsistency in the book, which is that while I love caramel slices, I strongly dislike dessicated coconut. I refuse to eat both Iced Vovos and lamingtons because of it. Look at this coconutty mess smothering otherwise delicious cake. Bowl of lamingtonsI’ve been prepared to defend myself on this, to insist that the dried-up coconut nubs in the base of caramel slices are negligible (though still unpleasant and woefully unnecessary), and that I’m very much aware of them, but my love of caramel slices overcomes my dislike of dessicated coconut in this instance (even if sometimes, when I’m alone, I eat the base first so I can enjoy the chocolate and caramel without the pesky interference of other ingredients, proving I haven’t matured much since childhood).

So far no readers have challenged me on this very important and serious matter, nor has it come up in any reviews. But I’m bracing for it. Like I said, we take our desserts seriously here.

 

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

How do you know if you’re really Australian?

Two memoir book covers
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.

I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?

Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.

Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. IMG_6517.JPGJay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?

Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?

Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.

Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?

Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?

Author Jay Martin in Canada winter

Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’

And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.

Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Australia calls you map and tourism adAshley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.

Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.

Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?

Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.

Ashley: You’re welcome.

Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?Couple with turquoise lake, mountain peak, evergreens
Ashley
: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!

Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think?
Couple shadowed on sandAshley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.

Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!

Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.

 

Be Nice to Australians Month

Part of learning how to become Australian has meant trying to figure out the relationship between Australian and New Zealand.
Woman stands on hilltop bench above Auckland
Growing up in Canada, I never thought much about NZ. Australia had a defined character, a national brand, thanks to Crocodile Dundee and Foster’s beer ads. New Zealand was just a place on the map, like Wales or Delaware.

One article described Aus and NZ as “two warring children with the same parents“, which is a lengthy way to say siblings. The author couldn’t pinpoint the origins of the rivalry, though a lot of it has to do with sport – and possibly the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

My most significant insight came from the March 2007 Tourism New Zealand marketing campaign Be-Nice-to-Australians Month.

The campaign was created in earnest, and involved “painting New Zealand green and gold” in honour of Australia. It also encouraged Kiwis to cut back on the snide remarks: “While one comment is pretty innocuous, if every second Kiwi makes a comment about the cricket or about the rugby, it will start to grate on them.”

New Zealanders didn’t respond well to it. An article in the NZ Herald describing the initiative was headlined “Through gritted teeth”. The Herald ran a follow-up article of collected responses.

What I found most interesting about these comments is that you could substitute Canada/America for New Zealand/Australia in most of them. Take these:

“I am all for a Be-Nice-To-Australians month. And from the 1st of April, I will be looking forward 1000 years or more to the next one.”

“How can you be nice to people whom 90 per cent of do not know where NZ is or even that it exists? To the average Australian, New Zealand means zilch.”

Works both ways! A Canadian political TV show used to have a segment called Talking to Americans. In it, a reporter travelled to the US and interviewed Americans about fake Canadian news stories, like the dome we had to install over the igloo that serves as our capitol building, to prevent it from melting. At one point, the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on preserving their national igloo.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know New Zealand as part of our Australian experience. It has some of the most unique places I’ve ever visited, like Hot Water Beach, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Hells Gate Mud Spa. (Smearing that mud on my face was a mistake though, I had a splotchy face rash for the rest of the trip.) 

I wonder if, as Canadians, we would have fit in better in New Zealand. But I suspect much of the ‘rivalry’ stems from both nations’ habit of expressing affection (and many other feelings) through needling sarcasm – and that’s something I’ll never adjust to.

 

4.5 minutes of fame

It’s ironic that my first appearance on national TV would be on breakfast news, since an actual line from my memoir How to Be Australian reads, “The breakfast news was on (it was always on at the gym, like some sort of curse).”

Regardless, here I am! Wearing my Iced VoVo earrings and exposing the Hollywood kookaburra con to the entire country.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, let me summarise: kookaburras have been putting Hollywood monkeys out of work for years.

The first time I heard real live kookaburra laughter, I started looking around for monkeys. Later I discovered I could blame Hollywood for this. At some point, an American producer decided kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves. The birds have been creating jungle ambiance in blockbusters ever since, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Jumanji.

Thanks to the power of the internet, however, I discovered that the conspiracy goes way deeper than that.

Or, to be accurate, someone else discovered it, and a third excellent person informed me of it:

It turns out kookaburra sounds effects were used in The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939! I guess at the time, Hollywood producers figured the average American film audience wouldn’t know what either monkeys or kookaburras sounded like, and went about creating their own version of reality … which then seeped into my understanding of actual reality.

But this article breaks down the early Tarzan movies, and finds that kookaburras were conning audiences even earlier than that – in 1938. This means for more than eight decades, overseas audiences have trained to believe that Australia’s riotous avian laughter is actually produced by primates. It’s the ultimate interspecies con.

Now that How to Be Australian is out, people have been getting in touch to share all kinds of fabulous Australiana I wasn’t even aware of, and I’ve been delighting it. Like the fabulous Kristy Diffey, who shared this important revelation with me:  

In 2019, the Royal Australian Mint released millions of $1 coins featuring Australian themes. Not just Iced Vovos, but also meat pies, lamingtons, Vegemite, Weet-Bix and something called Zooper Dooper, which doesn’t sound like something dignified enough to appear on any national currency.

There’s no equivalent to this in Canada. We don’t have loonies (yes, our $1 coins are called loonies. There’s a loon on them. And our $2 coins are called toonies) with nanaimo bars on them, or Timbits, or even tiny bottles of maple syrup. Maybe we should, but we don’t – and I believe that’s a significant cultural distinction.

If you’d like to hear about my upcoming events and other exciting news, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter.

Ashley
xo

 

Road trip to the future

Forest of trees, blurred We’d managed to find the A10. We were headed north from Hobart, through Tasmania’s forested heart, our hired black Commodore straddling the highway’s narrow lane. Steve gripped the wheel. His body tensed with the effort of driving on what we still secretly felt was the wrong side of the road.

Man with Tasmanian tiger muralOriginally from Canada, we’d recently held our hands to our chests and pledged our loyalty to Australia. Our stiff new passports featured dingoes and kookaburras. Keen to explore more of this vast and baffling country, we were road-tripping around what I’d come to think of as New Zealand Lite.

Bright summer sky arched above us. We’d planned a spontaneous, stop-wherever-the-drive-takes-you day, at least until we arrived at our Airbnb in Launceston, a town neither of us could pronounce. We settled on Lawnchester.
Empty winding single-lane highway, fields
As we passed a sign for something called the Tarraleah lookout, I pushed myself upright.

This was exactly the sort of spontaneous Tasmaniana I’d been hoping for. I pointed to the sign.

“Steve, Steve!”

“You haven’t seen enough lookouts yet?”

After a decade together, I knew Steve wasn’t as keen on lookouts, or wineries, or anything that involved stopping the car. He likewise knew this ran counter to my enforced spirit of road-trip spontaneity. With a sign, he attempted to signal the turn by flicking on the windscreen wipers.

Woman with mountains, lakeAn industrial pipeline, large enough to drive the Commodore through, ran parallel to the scrawny side road. Another sign indicated the lookout was “ahead”.

“You’re sure you haven’t seen enough lookouts?”

“Just keep going.”

Single-storey houses appeared, lining the street. Rectangular structures with tidy triangle roofs, it seemed their architectural designs were based on preschooler art. The neighbourhood colour palate was Easter pastel – sea-foam green, lavender, pale pink.

The small front gardens were uniformly kept.

No other humans were in sight.

“Does something feel odd about this?” I asked.

Steve nodded. His eyes narrowed. The street signs were also not quite right: too decorative, in pastels that matched the house paint. It was as if we’d driven into a museum attempting to replicate small-town Australia in the late 20th century, except with a Latin American colour scheme.

There was no lookout in sight. Was this a trap? Was this whole town some sort of murder village, luring tourists off the highway with the low-risk charm of a lookout, only for their vehicles to later be pushed down a ravine and their bodies dissolved in barrels of acid? No, this was Tassie, not South Australia.

Steve pulled into an empty café car park. An open sign hung on the door.

“Lunch?” he asked.

“Aren’t you kind of creeped out?”

“Sure, but I’m mostly hungry.”

Inside, a teenager stood behind the counter, thumbing her mobile. Fluorescent lights accentuated the dozen tables and accompanying metal chairs. Billy Joel was on the speakers. There were no other customers.

Steve shrugged, stepped up to the counter, ordered the soup of the day – pumpkin – and took a window seat.

“Do you live in Tarraleah?” I asked the teen as I dug my wallet from my bag.

She kept her eyes on the till, waving a hand vaguely toward Steve. “There’s some info on the tables.”

On each table was a laminated A4 handout, printed on blue paper. It was titled “Answers to all the questions about Tarraleah you are dying to ask”. Originally a hydro village built in the 1930s, Tarraleah’s reason for existing vanished when the hydro operation was automated, the handout explained.

In 1996, Tarraleah closed down like an unprofitable convenience store. Most people left, taking their houses with them: “The houses were sold then literally cut up and were loaded onto trucks to be relocated around Tasmania”.

A man overlooks a ravine at a hydroelectric plant
By 2005 only four people still lived in what remained of Tarraleah. In the meantime “a Tasmanian company” (left suspiciously unnamed) had bought what was left of the town and converted it into a resort with “a various number” of “accommodation types” and a golf course. The resort staff were now “the only people now living in Tarraleah apart from 24 ducks, 2 goats, 6 geese and about 30 highland cows”.

Tarraleah was no longer a town, but a five-star luxury lodge, with clientele including Australian dominatrix Madam Lash. The pamphlet noted Madam Lash “specialised in S&M services”, but did not clarify whether this was a not-so-subtle hint about the availability of said services, or just a fun nugget of Tarraleah trivia.

“What a weird place,” Steve said, dipping a piece of sourdough in his soup.

I nodded, looking out the window to the empty parking lot. I’d been partly right.

Tarraleah wasn’t a museum of the past, but an inadvertent glimpse into life to come.

Here was an Australian town at the vanguard of a dystopian future. Robots had taken nearly all the jobs, a shadowy company ran civic life, and ducks were considered people.

But the pumpkin soup was quite tasty, so the future isn’t all bad.
Fields and forestThis article was originally published in the Big Issue, and was originally written as part of my debut memoir, How to Be Australian, in stores now.

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