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.
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 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.’
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
‘Each day, the scarab beetle emerges from its hole in the ground to gather dung, form it into a ball, and roll it across the earth, before disappearing with it back down into the hole.’
When I read that at the Nicholson Museum, I thought, yeah, that sums up a lot of my days. Wake up, scrape some dung together, roll it around, call it a day.
The ancient Egyptians didn’t see the beetle’s work in the same uninspired way I did. They equated the beetle with the sun god, Ra, who gets up in the morning and the rolls across the sky, vanishing at night. The insects mirrored the sun god’s work, and because they laid their eggs in their dung balls, both the sun and the balls brought new life.
This is why the Egyptians buried scarab beetles in jars with the deceased up until 2300 BCE, when they realised they could bury scarab amulets instead.
I love museums because you never know what random historical craziness you’ll discover. Like a jar of regular snakes positioned in front of an ancient image of snakes with hands and feet that are holding scorpions to ward off evil. (Look in the background, you’ll see it.)
Or this ‘mummified head of an unknown man’, paired with a preserved brain.
‘Embalming’, according to Herodotus, writing about ancient Egypt, ‘was performed by specialists. Their first step is to insert an iron hook through the nostrils and pull out the brain. Next … the embalmers cut a slit along the soft part of the body, and remove all the intestines. After this they stuff the cavity with sweet-smelling spices. Once the stomach has been filled, they sew it back up and pickle the body by packing it in [salt]. … This is the most expensive method of preparing a corpse.’
I wouldn’t equate dung beetles with the daily journey of the sun sun, or imagine that scorpions could ward off evil. I don’t imagine any sort of afterlife, particularly not the ancient Egyptian variety that required all your organs to be buried with you in their own jars.
But I like to step into a museum and imagine these things. I like to imagine what it would be like if, 2000 years from now, my mummified head ended up on public display. I’d feel pretty chuffed about that, I think. It’s almost like time travel.
Maybe, in the future, my cavity will be stuffed with sweet-smelling spices, and my debrained head pickled in salt. Maybe in a few thousand years, my head will end up in museum on another planet for people to squint at. Even if it’s not the most expensive method of preparing a corpse, I’d be happy with that. It’s the closest to time travel I’m likely to come.
One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.
George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is a fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.
Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.
‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘
Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’
As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’
But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘
The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.
I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.
There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.
This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!
Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.
Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.
Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’
This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.
I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.
This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.
The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).
A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.