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Famous Reporter # 35




Blog: Home Cooked Theory



January 11th, 2007


“I really am getting bored in a way I think Brisbane either causes, or at least cannot resolve.”


Eric Michaels' AIDS Diary is - scarily - the only accurate representation of Brisbane I’ve come across in print, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I found it for $1 in the half price bin at the Maroochydore Lifeline this week. When I moved to this town, I only had Andrew McGahan and John Birmingham’s books as reference points, and as an Honours student writing about the economic underpinnings of grunge literature, these guys had a certain nihilist appeal. But actually living here, it’s clear that if it existed at all, the world those authors described was populated by an overly large bunch of disaffected, insolent, dole-smitten white boys. They may be turning into nice men by about now, but back then I don’t think they would have had much patience for girls like me. I sometimes catch a glimpse of that Brisbane through friends’ anecdotes, or imagine it while walking past the few decaying Queenslanders still condoned in my neighbourhood. But it’s not the city I’ve experienced these past three years.

It’s all the more compelling, then, that Michaels’ diary spans the period of almost a year between 1988 and 1989. What does it say that a characterisation that’s 20 years old has more resonance than those written a decade ago? Perhaps it’s more evidence (if any was needed) that the Keating years were a complete anomaly in this country. The terrible forboding and ennui that permeates the book is captured best in an early paragraph: ‘the world I look out on now seems so drear and painful, so devoid of joy, so mean and petty, not such a bad place to leave.’ Dying of AIDS, it’s gayness itself that Michaels mourns: ‘It’s the oppressions, the cathedrals of inequality and greed that are to be built out of that rhetoric of the failure of liberation that I have no great wish to see.’

The book is sobering for readers my age/class/education level who may remember hysterical TV ads about AIDS but are pretty unlikely to have friends who will actually die from it, in this country at least. Yet its lesson is that the vicissitudes of bureaucracy and national security mean that none of us are ever completely secure, especially when our loved ones happen to share our gender. We know this. In their capacity to encourage humanity and sentiment for others, our immigration laws have hardly improved in recent times.

It’s for these reasons that for me the most inspired passages are those that describe Brisbane’s fixation with ‘tidiness’, a metaphor that encompasses everything from the property market to prejudicial visa regulations:

“Tidiness is a process which, while avowedly in the service of cleanliness and health, in fact is only interested in obscuring all traces of history, of process, of past users, of the conditions of manufacture. Tidiness inhabits and defines a ‘moment’, but one outside time, ahistorical, perhaps the ancestral dreamtime home of all ‘Lifestyles’. It is a perfect bourgeois metaphor.”

This completely suits the Sunshine State I’ve been attempting to show a visiting friend this week - the bland cafe lifestyle from Noosa to New Farm, James St to Boundary St, Southbank to The Emporium. It’s little wonder that this is only the second friend to have visited me since I moved (or is it? I think the Brisbane many Sydney people envisage is about as accurate as the 90s grunge lit was, when it isn’t just a joke, or that place where Powderfinger and The Grates come from). Reading the book before heading to Sydney tomorrow, I also can’t help but think how much my own behaviour resembles Michaels’: vociferously struggling with the sociality of small academic networks; completely unable to hold on to anyone to share daily life with; going back to Sydney too often so that I can momentarily feel engaged and normal. When he becomes too weak to look after himself, Michaels spends all his money on interstate phone calls. He fantasises about moving back to Sydney where he knows people who care enough to look after him.

But it’s too easy to simply dismiss this as Brisbane. The combination of academic life, a writerly temperament and a queer identity are overdetermining factors of loneliness (which some would call selfishness). In such a life, what are the alternative networks of support to be drawn upon? And at what point does it become evident that a city is complicit in the lack of such alternatives being available - that it is actively fostering such constraint and atomisation?

I’m especially curious about this given that there is another wave of amazingly talented people preparing to leave Brisbane at the moment. Having moved state twice now, I completely understand their need to escape and realise other futures. But precisely because I’ve done it twice, I’m also starting to realise that a city in itself doesn’t provide answers to what’s disatisfying about life. This is why Deleuze so famously hated travel; movement in this sense was actually counterproductive to ‘becoming’.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the stronger statement - the statement Michaels makes - is to stay and fight, especially in a place that makes you feel unwanted. Loitering and posing, occupying space, having fun and causing trouble: this is what queer culture has always done. It’s untidy. It messes up a scene that others would rather keep neat, clean and organised. And this is what’s admirable about Michaels’ outrageous memoirs, which are the perfect complement to an outrageous situation. The double meaning of the title beautifully captures the ignominy and indecency of his condition, both medical and cultural.

For a generation coming to terms with unprecedented ‘freedom’ and ‘mobility’, maybe the hardest choice we’ll make will be deciding when it’s time to dig your heels in, to bank on those you’re lucky enough to have close by, and with them, build some infrastructure for liberation where it’s most needed. That doggedness and ingenuity is what I love about the people I’m lucky to have met in Brisbane already, and it’s why I’m looking forward to the next three years. On a wider scale, how we’ll line up on these questions is harder to predict. This is because liberating your heart and your mind has to happen in the most placeless and abstract of locations: in your guts.



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