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a stylised, blurry photograph of trees and sky

Image: Leah Jing McIntosh

A few years ago, I fall down two flights of stairs, and during a CT scan I can’t remember, I am told that I have a concussion. I return home to my housemates loading in speakers, setting up for a party. Still vomiting, dizzy, mind adrift, I climb into my car, drive forty minutes down the M1, and stumble down the pathway to my mother’s house. I collapse at the door before I can get my keys out. For over a month I lie in my old childhood bedroom, unable to move, my head sore and empty. I become, for these weeks, simply a body.


In The Monthly, October: Helen Garner writes something unsettling, but perhaps it’s my fault for reading her diary. She writes of the early morning snubs on her pandemic walks, and how she offers her face to a dozen approaching walkers and how no one acknowledges her just as she suspects but she must prove her point and she won’t give up and she will win and—

Hang on, here comes an Asian Girl. She’ll break my perfect score. Yes, eye contact, a courteous nod.

In March 2020, an Asian Girl is attacked at the Queen Victoria Markets. They go straight for the head, dragging her down the footpath by her hair. I watch it exactly once but the video loops relentlessly against my eyelids. They tell her to go back to where, well, you know.

Garner’s expectation of courteousness from an Asian Girl seems a writing device to show Asian subservience, or more likely Garner’s magnanimity. Garner does not seek to understand the origins of the Asian Girl’s courteous nod. But for weeks after the Asian Girl is dragged by her hair, I am afraid to leave my house. When I have to, I sweep my hair up in a friendly ponytail, crinkle my eyes to look as if I am smiling. I do not make a fuss, I say thank you, I say sorry, sorry, I’m so—. I nod, courteously, I make eye contact, I move out of the way, slip onto the grass next to the path, pause when someone walks past. Not for the first time, I am scared to inhabit my body. My hair starts to fall out. I ask my doctor about it, and she shakes her head. Stress. Do less. I brush my hair more gently and somehow lose more. My body is falling apart, I think.

In Garner’s diary, she laments how Each simple longing hits a brick wall and dies. If I am only a plot device, embodied courtesy, my desire is that you could see me for more than this. Before I can articulate this longing, however, my body slams into the wall, I crumple. I rip the hair out of my brush and drop it into the bin.


A friend gets an ouroboros tattooed on his leg. He complains it doesn’t look like the snake is eating itself. He says, it looks like it’s giving its tail a tiny kiss. After his tattoo, I start noticing these snakes on people, encircling elbows and upper thighs, an occasional bicep. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with David Attenborough’s Life series. I watched his Reptiles segment, where they film the snake pits in Manitoba, wide holes filled with snakes writhing over one another. Slippery bodies on bodies. I couldn’t keep watching; the skin sliding over skin too much.

I ask Ursula how to say the word ouroboros. She says: why. She says, that is the most juvenile thing. We laugh. We start to say the word, over and over, and it falls into the air until it has no meaning, looping and looping, eating itself right up.

After the concussion, my head is an empty space encircled by an ouroboros. My body is covered in violet bruises. Supine, I photograph my legs each day, watch as bruises bloom. The day after I fall, impatient and uncomprehending, I think, my head will be fine tomorrow. But it takes six weeks before I can stand without nausea. I come to realise that my head is bruised, just as my legs are; it will take time, time spent watching the bruises turn from violet to brown. My head is a bruise, an emptiness in the middle. For days I watch the light moving across my ceiling, in my childhood bedroom. At night glow-in-the-dark stars illuminate wobbly constellations two decades old. My brain does not work. I find myself watching myself as I think. A split consciousness, too slow. I forget what my face looks like. I am, for a few weeks, simply a body. It is in this forgetting that I prepare unknowingly for aching slowness of the pandemic.

I read an old high school science book, learning how pythons kill their prey: they wrap around it, squeezing tighter and tighter, until it suffocates. When I write about the body I wrap around myself and squeeze. What is the point, I wonder, of a racialised body writing about itself, in the hallowed halls of whiteness, for a whiteness I cannot really comprehend? In Blueberries, Ellena Savage asks, what kind of body writes a memoir? But perhaps the question, for me, for us, is what kind of body writes a body?

After the concussion, my head is an empty space encircled by an ouroboros. I forget what my face looks like. I am, for a few weeks, simply a body.

In writing the Othered body are we simply participating in a cannibalisation of the self, an unending circle of Otherness, performed for a jeering white crowd? Already deformed, I am afraid I will deform my body further, if I write it for you. What more is there to say than what you see?

Max Dupain: Black and white glimmers of a sunbaker, on the sand, at the beach, sunscreen glistening on muscular shoulders. That body, I think. In the 2014 video ‘Falling Leaf Returns to its Roots / 落葉歸根’ artist Nikki Lam reinscribes this photograph, places herself in its stead, black hair coiling against the nape of her neck. Lam reanimates the photograph, makes it tangible.

My PhD supervisor says, you keep conflating the self and the body. She says, these concepts are not the same. Please define them more clearly.


China puts travel warnings in place: there is, they claim, a rising amount of anti-Chinese racism in Australia. This in itself is wildly amusing—an unexpected chinese burn on the chubby pink wrist of Australian white supremacy—but also creates a deep unease. A broken clock telling the right time. Their scolding is absurd but not untrue. Australian officials call this travel warning Chinese disinformation, producing a climate of fear. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying: We advise Australia to face up to its problems, do some soul-searching.

In line with these tensions, Senator Eric Abetz asks three Australian citizens to condemn the Chinese Communist Party. It happens that the three citizens are all of Chinese ethnicity. It happens that one of them is Osmond Chiu, born and raised in Australia. It happens that Chiu has spent months over the past year doing antiracist work within the Asian–Australian community, collecting data to show the spike in anti-Asian sentiment. A slow, long dog whistle by Abetz: my hackles are raised, my teeth bared. In Chiu’s reports on anti-Asian sentiment, the majority of the abuse consisted of racial slurs (35 per cent), followed by jokes (13 per cent); verbal threats (9 per cent) and finally, being spat, sneezed or coughed on (8 per cent). Chiu mentions that these statistics are only from people who self-report, who choose to make it known. My body as a House of UnAustralian Activities. Australia as a body, with a soul to search. My body, being spat, sneezed or coughed on, eight per cent of the time. We advise Australia to face up to its problems.

In writing the Othered body are we simply participating in a cannibalisation of the self, an unending circle of Otherness, performed for a jeering white crowd?

Late March, just as the pandemic hits, my sister returns from New York, escaping the bodies piling up as they run out of space, 40-foot trailers filled with the dead. Trying to shrug off jetlag, my sister goes for a run around our neighbourhood, and passes a neighbour, watering his plants, staring at her. (Yes, eye contact, a courteous nod.) She slows, wondering if he wants to tell her something. Looking directly into her eyes, he growls, keep running, and she inhales sharply, sprints the whole way home. She does not report this to Chiu. She does not report this to me. I find out from my mother, after she tells me about a white woman yelling at her in a supermarket, for swapping out a different brand of toilet paper. You can only have one, the woman said, charging down the aisle at my mother. Do you understand me. She repeats herself, slower. You. Can. Only. Have. One. Do. You. Understand. Me.


Once I fell in love with someone who, soon after, moved to another country. I remember him calling after landing, saying something like just before we landed, I really didn’t want to touch down, wanted to stay on the plane, as if this moment could last.

I liked this indifference of the world to come. His quiet desire for suspension. In the concussed moment that stretches into a month, my body finds such suspension. In my haze, I am raceless and ungendered. I am up on that plane, waiting to descend. My bruised brain feels as if it is sliding under the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Step under, John Rawls intones, strip down, shake off class privileges and plan your city. The problem with the veil is that it doesn’t consider the intersections, or simply that maybe one person shouldn’t make a city alone. Rawls and his unthinking whiteness becomes the norm, the expectation, the modus operandi.

The confines of the new world are selfish. I desire that kind of blindness, a radical selfishness. It’s a messy desire.

In this blurred month of stasis, I am planning my own flawed city. I am making all of the streets parallel. It is my ghost town and I am the only ghost. I am the mayor, I am the janitor, I am the high school art teacher, making a Möbius strip of my body, walking on both sides as I wait for my body to heal. Raceless I can be anyone, making my new country, watching the bruises fade.


As the city becomes static, a new world is planned for us. Near my house, old cobblestones are yanked out of the ground, piled on the sidewalk. The road is paved over, for new, safer bike lanes. Less chance of a car door swinging out, less chance of the body flying through the air before smashing headfirst into the ground. The traffic on the M1 slows as new lanes are installed, signs flickering overhead: STAY HOME.

This community care appears alongside deeper police presence. I sit in the gardens as two policemen and two army men walk past, not socially distancing from one another. It is during this period we are only allowed to see our intimate partners, and people carefully walk wide circles around one another, so the sheer closeness of these police bodies makes me wonder if they are all live together. Would they all stack their combat boots neatly near the door, their guns carefully hung in a row? Who does the laundry, who presses their collars? Who calls, dinner’s up, who does the dishes, dishtowel casually draped on the shoulder? I’m interested in police bodies because I am a policed body. I’m interested in these intimacies they sketch, I’m interested in my body seizing every time I hear a siren. I’m bored of the question of which body is more Australian because I know the answer before you ask it.

I’m interested in police bodies because I am a policed body. I’m interested in these intimacies they sketch, I’m interested in my body seizing every time I hear a siren.

When the borders close, the planes stop flying regularly, a silence descending. The only time I hear a buzz is from a helicopter flying towards the hospital. Track these helicopters, count the sound. Each one an aberration, bodies arcing above. As a kid, I was always so impressed with the one social contract we singularly uphold: an ambulance siren sounds, you get out of the way. Cars turn outwards, traffic stops, and the ambulance peals through. And then we return.


There’s a part in The Argonauts where Maggie Nelson writes about attending a lecture by Anne Carson. Nelson writes:

I went home fastened to the concept of leaving the centre empty for God.

It was like stumbling into a tarot reading or AA meeting and hearing the one thing that will keep you going.

I fasten to the concept but can’t find it nourishing. We had a centre that was emptied for months, and all I have to show for it are the sound of sirens and a handful of hair. The emptiness doesn’t keep me going. While I wait for my brain to heal, the emptiness allows me to understand what it could be like to live in a white body. But the centre contains a truth we cannot hold. A body we watch fall. I find it funny, these white women, searching for emptiness, searching for God.

When lockdown lifts, I meet a friend for a drink. A car drives past with a sign on top, which reads, ‘CCP IS THE REAL / SOURCE OF THE VIRUS’. We look at it, then each other, then keep talking.


I tried to find the snake documentary the other day, and it turns out it was never in Attenborough’s Life series. It turns out that the Reptiles episode didn’t consider the Manitoba snake pits at all. This made me more upset than it should have; my brain is not reliable. I think, what if falling down two flights of stairs mixed my memories—not just this one, but all of them. I can’t bear the thought. I click through to the Wikipedia entry on the actual Attenborough documentary, not the one I made up in my head. And it turns out I have watched it, and it’s one of most fucked up things I’ve seen. They film Komodo dragons biting a water buffalo. The dragons stalk the huge, majestic animal for three weeks, as it slowly succumbs to their venom, and then strip the body of flesh in a matter of hours. The film crew stalk the Komodo who are stalking the buffalo, spending three weeks together as the buffalo slowly dies. To intervene would be to intervene in nature, to intervene in fate. To intervene would not make good television. The film crew suffer with the buffalo, for three long weeks, but do not do anything.

Late last year, after the concussion is well and truly forgotten, I’m on my computer and I find a document titled ‘On Being Concussed’. The document opens, and of course, it’s a blank page. A city without intersections, emptiness eating emptiness, giving its tail a little kiss.


An earlier version of this essay was shortlisted for the 2020 Horne Prize.


   Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants