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As I write this, you are kicking and shimmying inside me, stretching me out of my skin, preparing me for your birth and mine.
Your moves are jerky and random like your father’s dancing. You may or may not inherit his cinnamon skin or my crazy hair but I know that we will inherit much more from you.
I promise to try and not look for pieces of us in you. You are your own person. While you’re a part of our flesh, you are not us.
You are human, and have within you the wisdom and knowledge of the universe and I will help you uncover who you are while you teach me what you know.
I promise to help you unfurl your wings but won’t push you to fly.
I will show you that happiness can be found in doing what you love but will be your cheer squad if you go searching for it elsewhere.
I will lead by example and show you how creativity and passion can set fire to the soul and light the way to a fulfilling life.
I will teach you that kindness is a form of prayer and it starts with the gift of your smile.
I promise to keep these promises. But if I slip up or lose my way, if I smother you with unconditional love or add some conditions, please be patient with me. Mum’s learning too.
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.
I am writing a novel that is rewriting me.
Death is the only true magician.
Dreams need to be ripped open, their layers discarded like gift-wrap in order to come true.
Happiness is not created. It is uncovered.
Words should be harvested like crops.
Being mindful makes my mind full.
Breath is a gift that stokes the fire of life.
I am human. I know nothing.
I once had a black suitcase with a broken handle that I fixed by attaching a blue and white cotton scarf to the strap. I lugged it around Europe and it twisted and turned as I pulled, buckling under its weight. Still, it made the six-week journey. We all have weathered suitcases packed with dreams, hopes, achievements, disappointments, losses, successes. Even if our suitcases break or get too heavy, they will take us where we want to go as long as we don’t let go of that handle. 2015 was about belief and perseverance. Here’s to 2016! Make it amazing!
I worked hard for my sanity.
I rescued words from deep ends.
I travelled, got unravelled, travelled again.
Chased my roots, roots chased me.
My plans made their own plans.
Universe conspired with life on lessons.
Loved life. Death loved life too.
Love thrived, tears nourished, hope breathed.
Happiness wrestled past for the present.
Writer, thirty four, came of age.
2015, be good to us all.
Here’s to love, laughter, kindness, compassion.
We called the cake The Mistake.
It rose like a golden belly and jiggled every time I opened the oven door. The inside was the consistency of a milkshake. “It’s not going to set!” I mumbled crouching in front of my mother-in-law’s oven. “I stuffed it.”
Our baking marathon started at 9pm when we attempted to make almond crescent biscuits similar to kurabiye, Turkish shortbreads.
“Beat three egg whites till it’s fluffy,” Jenny said, squinting at the handwriting that curved on a white bit of paper.
I beat the eggs until it foamed with my pride. For once I was following a recipe and not detouring like I usually did in my kitchen.
“Some vanilla essence…” Two capfuls turned the egg whites orange. “Shit, is that too much?”
I laughed. Even the smell was potent. “Who cares, we can adjust it later—”
“Why are you baking anyway?” my husband said.
“Leave it till the weekend, Jen,” said my father-in-law.
They scratched their heads like commentators at a footy match after a dodgy call.
“Why not? It’s a simple recipe, it will take fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t worry about them, Jenny. What’s next?”
She poured three cups of caster sugar into the orange foam turning it into white silk.
“This is going to be delicious!” I said. “Just look at it—”
“Oh shit! It was supposed to be one cup of sugar!” Her mouth dropped open and she doubled over on the bench top among the eggshells and trays. “I was meant to put three cups of almond meal!”
My heart sank.
The commentators shook their heads.
“It’s okay,” I said. “The sweeter the better—”
“Throw it out, Dem. We’ll start again.”
“Tsk, it tastes too good to throw out.” I was seduced by its creamy smooth texture, the sweet smell of vanilla. “I’ll make a cake with it.”
It was 9.30pm and all we had was botched up white batter and a biscuit recipe scribbled on a bit of paper. We launched into phase two of our baking experience: saving our pride. I googled recipes and borrowed ingredients from butter and sponge cakes while Jenny beat a new lot of egg whites for the biscuits.
“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” my father-in-law said laughing. He retired from his post at the commentary corner and went to bed. My husband followed, crashing on the couch.
“We can only try,” Jenny said. “That’s the whole point of experimenting.”
“True!” I was in my element, making things up, feeling my way through like I did in a story. I added two more eggs to my white batter, three cups of plain flour, more vanilla essence, a few hundred grams of lumpy butter, coconut, lemon juice and rind and beat the crap out of it in an electric mixer. We worked bumping into each other, taste testing the batter, adjusting the flavour.
Once the batter had a creamy consistency, I put it in the oven next to the almond crescent biscuits and kept a vigil in front of the oven door.
Within half an hour, the cake turned into a milkshake. Its insides shook like my nerves. “It’s a bloody cake shake!” I sank closer to the floor. It had to set!
“It will work out,” Jenny said. “If it doesn’t at least we had fun trying.”
The biscuits were out and cooling and still the cake refused to gel.
“You’re the only person that can turn a cake into a milkshake!” my husband said, scoffing down an almond biscuit.
“Ha ha.” My legs cramped and I moved to the lounge. “Oh well, if it’s meant to be it will be.”
Twenty minutes later, the cake bounced when I touched the top. We poked it with a wooden BBQ skewer to make sure there were no liquid pockets. It was clean. We laughed with relief while my husband circled The Mistake, eyes gleaming.
My fingers crawl along the keys
Eleven words per minute.
My eyes chase letters
My fingers words
My heart stories
Time cannot measure.
The hospital room reeked of urine and steamed vegetables. Blue curtains separated the sick. An old woman sat up in bed, her curtain wide open like her eyes. A brown knitted vest hugged her white cotton nightie, a head scarf tied loosely around her plaited hair. She reminded me of my grandma, her features weathered by faraway places. I walked to the opposite bed where my friend Teena was connected to tubes that were flushing fluid out of her lungs. I sat next to her, tried not to stare at the pink liquid dripping into a sealed container, at her hunched shoulders sagging with frustration and fatigue.
“Um…a woman’s staring at you,” Teena whispered, her face sullen. The only thing that sparkled was the Orthodox cross around her neck.
I looked over. A smile creased the old woman’s face. “Maybe she’s lonely,” I said, waving.
“Maybe,” said Teena, lying back.
The old woman…
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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.
First published by The Big Issue Australia in Ed#446, My Word Section.
2013 was full of voices.
My mum’s, thick with emotion, broken yet undefeated.
My sister Nuvit’s, a loud roar, courageous and strong.
My husband’s, loving, encouraging, at times infuriating. “It’s not hate, babe,” he said when the word escaped my incensed mouth during a fight. “It’s always love. Even if sometimes I love you a little bit less, nevertheless I still love you.”
My inner voice, scared and doubtful. I attacked it with a pen before my fears grew legs, until mind drool oozed onto the page.
My voice of reason and positivity, ever present, ever thankful to a year that took, that shattered, that gave but never broke our spirit, that made us one in our shared grief, love and hope.
Then there were my fictional voices. Men, women, boys and girls who were born from my love, my frustrations, my hopes, my fears.
There’s Kale. I was sitting in a hairdresser when I first heard his voice. “When Dad broke Mum,” he said, “he did it with “best intentions.” “Beast intentions” that’s how he said it.”
Kale’s little brother Sam, fragile and innocent. “He hit Mum again, like the baddies in karate kid, kick kick kick to where it hurts most.”
Boisterous Mrs Aslan with a big heart. “Have I tell you before the story of the donkeys and chickens in my country?”
There’s Ajani, hopeful and optimistic, searching for his place in Australia. “When there was peace in my country, the wind caressed like a lover’s breath.”
2013 was full of voices, breakthroughs, and wonderful achievements, leaving a catch phrase resounding in my head.
The best is yet to come.
Here’s to 2014! Happy New Year everyone xx