Thursday, 27 July 2017

Parodying 'The Tyger'


The tyger. Only a mother could love it. 

Re-imagining famous poetry has become a source of great amusement to me. Many a happy afternoon has been spent taking long walks during which I resolve to think about my Honours thesis, only to inevitably find myself cackling away and dashing home to scribble out a parody of The Raven

Yet sometimes the parodies are thought up deliberately, coming about through a desire to write something for a friend: a rhyming birthday card, perhaps, or a silly limerick during a time of stress. 

A few months ago, a very dear friend was telling me about her work on plant diseases and biosecurity. She made the mistake, however, of mentioning that her co-worker had written a whole rap about Xylella fastidiosa (raising the bar for co-workers everywhere, quite frankly) and challenged her to write something in return.

I've never been one to do my friends' homework, and considering I've laughed at this particular friend's wit for years, I don't think she needed my help. Nevertheless, her plant disease du jour, fireblight, wandered into my mind and began a singsong loop in its own honour: "Fire, fire, burning blight..." 
Beyond a brief and insincere apology to William Blake, what more is there to say? 

The Fireblight, by Rosalind Moran (with the help of William Blake and his poem The Tyger)

Fire, Fire, burning blight,
In the forests of the night;
What data or criteria,
Could frame thy cruel bacteria?

And why with distant shoot and apple
Did thine sickness choose to grapple?
On what wind did thou ensnare
The health and beauty of the pear?

And what malice, and what art?
Doth make thee tear young fruit apart?
And doth thine pathogen love grief
When oozing forth on wilted leaf

When the stars threw down their spears
(And NZ imports stopped for years)
Did fireblight smile its work to see?
In browning leaves on blighted tree?

Fire, Fire, burning blight,
In the forests of the night;
What data or criteria,
Could frame thy cruel bacteria?

This poem was originally published here, along with an article I wrote to give a brief explanation of what fireblight actually is. One learns something new every day!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Vertical Gardens

All photos taken on-campus at the National Taiwan University. 

Vertical Gardens

Let your atlas spill open; pore over the contents and remember
In the times before cartography, all skies could see was water
The tides could not be news without the sticks and rocks to measure them
A sea cannot be said to turn if fish don’t swim against it.

Uncurl your feet. Let the branch of your spine
Arch back into shape as you move up the mountainside
They closed their eyes to what’s arising – so will you
The crowd waves wasted seagrass arms as you focus on the summit.

Unlace your shoes. Let your soles grow hard
As you follow bitumen ribbons draped like tatty hillside accessories
Your grandmother used to yearn – just want to get away from it all
Yet the skeleton’s gone quiet and you wish she’d rattle the bones.

Nothing but vertical gardens to mould the cheeks of buildings
Nothing beyond the jungle of some architect’s grand design
Something’s opened the door to the dollhouse and evicted all the people
Sapiens lie low now but the sappini grow tall.

This poem recently featured in a small creative magazine published through my university. A fun opportunity to play with homonyms!

Wednesday, 31 May 2017


七星潭,花蓮,臺灣  / Seven Star Lake, Hualien, Taiwan

What comes to mind when you think of waves?

Hopefully it's something nice. While the average Australian knows how it feels to be mercilessly dunked while swimming in the ocean, for example, everyone still seems to be a fan of swimming at the coast. Some of us (though not me, alas) even learn to ride the waves instead of being dragged by them along sandbars.

Personally, however, I'm not sure whether my ocean-based connotations are 'right'. Sometimes I wonder whether bilingualism has wired my mind into a permanent tangle, lines of associations as crisscrossed as basketweave.

When I was little and learning to write, sometimes I would use French words in the place of English words and vice-versa, believing they shared the same meaning; cross-linguistic synonyms, essentially. Granted, this often didn't make much difference, ocean being océan, for instance. Yet for a short time, waves were 'vagues' - des vagues - and sometimes I wonder whether this mixture of language has changed the way my mind personifies the sea.

Part of me likes to think of it as a dotty sort of creature (though not merely in the sense that it is dotted with fish), sloshing around the boundaries of landmasses like some vacant, faintly drunk individual hovering at a party's edges. Creeping forward, tapping a shoulder, and then panicking and retreating at speed. Prone to the occasional outburst, but mostly pretty easy-going, smooth-sailing; not harboring malicious intent. Vague.

The 'vagaries' of language-learning themselves technically come from the Italian word vagare, meaning to wander - not unlike what waves and currents do, incidentally. Language links can seem endless even when they have no etymological foundations. Minds can be gifted at spotting coincidental similarities.

My experiences of bilingualism are undoubtedly common. Indeed, perhaps it is an inherent quality of bilingualism, when people learn multiple languages and concepts at the same time, that this leads to different meandering paths of connotations and understanding.

Who knows?

I confess I don't - while I'd love to learn more about bilingualism and the formation of concepts and connotations, I imagine such a field is highly qualitative and difficult to measure. It could take some research to find a study offering answers to these questions.

In the meantime, therefore, I'll simply wave away vagaries, slap down a coaster, and stir ripples in my mug of tea instead of writing my thesis.

I hope you enjoy the pictures of vagues!


Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Road Mistaken

Two roads diverged in a parody poem. 

Merlo, Argentina

Rome, Italy
Near Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Slightly less near Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Innsbruck, Austria
The Netherlands - can confirm it is a nice place to get lost

Tamsui, Taiwan

Tidbinbilla National Park, Australia
Home (or thereabouts) 

The Road Mistaken

Two roads diverged in a neighbourhood
And sorry I could not see a third
To bypass alleys, long I stood
And peered down one as far as I could
Through smoky haze where shadows stirred;

Then took the other, as just as foul
And having perhaps the better claim,
For though it was glassy everywhere;
And dead rats marred the passing there
The two were really about the same,

And both that twilight equally lay
In concrete glory filled with cracks
Oh, who needs a third track anyway?
I’m not too good to walk this way,
And perfectly able to watch my back.

I shall be telling this with a smile
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged where I stood, and I—
I took this one with dauntless style,
And it has made no di—

This poem was originally published here. It is a deliberately arrogant parody of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, and certainly not to be read at anybody's graduation. 

As for the photos above, they are snapshots of a few places I have lived or visited. One positive of being perennially optimistic about time and distance means that you end up walking a great deal and stumbling across many curious trails. This can even entail accidentally walking across half of Liechtenstein in the rain. I highly recommend it.  

Friday, 31 March 2017

Eccentric Family Members: The Rebellious Grandmother Edition

My habit of writing about relatives is getting out of control. As is the case for most people, however, my family possesses several eccentric characters who lend themselves deliciously well to the page. 

There was the great-grandfather who accidentally got the whole family excommunicated from the Catholic Church, for example, when he drank a bowl of holy water upon waking from a coma during his own last rites. Why the priest chose to interpret this as sacrilege instead of a miracle remains a mystery to us all. Then there was my mother who, as a young child in Ghana, took a snake to school for show-and-tell. More entertaining still is the fact it was her own mother who suggested she do so.

As for my grandmother, however – the aforementioned giver-of-the-snake – I don’t really know where to begin. Knowing whether or not I should begin is even difficult in itself, for my grandmother was an author in her own right and long remained determined she would tell her own story. An early death from breast cancer put paid to that ambition, however, and many of her achievements remain in obscurity. It’s a pity: she lived some pretty spectacular adventures. 

I can’t imagine my writing about her adventures will do much for their obscurity-related status. That said, there can be something satisfying about sharing a story in the hope it could cheer or inspire some other person, particularly one outside of my immediate family. Besides, perhaps reading about my grandmother and her avant-garde, nomadic, husband-eschewing travels could inspire others to break the mould in their own way. I think she’d approve. 

The picture above is a shot of my grandmother at the beginning of what became a three year trip riding a scooter around Africa in the 1950s – and the beginning of a lifetime moving between West Africa, the UK, and Australia. It’s a long story, and one my mother and I hope to tell in greater length on another platform someday, but this short article about her adventures is a start. I originally wrote it in Italian, meaning that version is somewhat more eloquent, but the English translation gets the job done too. 

Who is the rebel in your family?

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Self-help, Beauty Privilege, and the Truth About Confidence

First published in Lip Magazine here. The picture the magazine chose to accompany the article is the same as the one included below. I don't know who this fabulous lady is, but I like her. 

Confidence is widely considered an excellent quality. It’s associated with communication skills, social suavity, and success. Studies even show that people possessing strong self-confidence earn more money than their less confident counterparts. Is it any surprise, therefore, that capitalist Western culture in particular places such emphasis on self-esteem?

Self-help culture has grown from the notion that everyone should strive to be more confident. Advice, mottos, and mantras are regularly spouted. And though these encouraging words have benefits, they can also often be summarised by a few easily-Instagrammed words. Believe in yourself, for example. You are beautiful. You are flawless.

Yet the message ‘you’re perfect; just be confident!’ overlooks an aesthetically regrettable – dare one say ugly? – truth.

Confidence is not an innate trait which some are born with, and which others must endeavour to acquire. Like most personality traits, it has roots in one’s nature but is fostered by environmental factors. If confidence does become internalised, this is largely due to consistent positive reinforcement and approval, building self-esteem. Consequently, an individual’s self-confidence is arguably based far more on ongoing external factors – namely, how people treat one another – than is typically acknowledged in self-help culture, grounded in the idea that people can “fix” themselves.

Granted, the concept of an individual being master of their own fate, is not worth wholly debunking; deterministic attitudes may identify disadvantages in one’s life, but offer little towards resolving them. It can be necessary to take responsibility for oneself, for nobody else is likely to do it as well as you, or with as great an investment – or even to do it at all.

Nevertheless, questioning the autonomy implied by the term “self-help”, and a person’s ability to help themselves, doesn’t have to mean people are seeking to identify as passive victims. Acknowledging being victim to past mistreatments does not automatically entail passivity, as critics of “victimhood culture” might argue. In reality, acknowledging how outside influences shaped a person’s development can help that person understand themselves better, and be able to live freer and more confidently thereafter.

In this spirit of acknowledgement, we return to confidence: why some have it, and others don’t. If people’s personalities are moulded by how others treat them, one must consider what influences people’s behaviours towards one another.

The answer? Largely physical appearance and self-presentation, particularly in superficial interactions. Appearance-related discrimination is exacerbated by assumptions and prejudices about race, gender, sexuality, age, able-bodiedness, and class – all characteristics that are neither shameful nor controllable. Character is important, but how people react to appearance often determines whether character even gets the chance to shine. Sadly, we are all judged by how we look.

And if people treat one another differently based on appearance – beauty privilege, essentially – the way people’s personalities form is partially related to how they look, and how people respond. The development of confidence is thus linked to beauty privilege and what others perceive as attractive or valuable.

Beauty privilege’s role in personal development may seem like old news: life is often smoother sailing if a person is considered beautiful; they receive positive affirmation and opportunity. Beauty entails visibility. If you’re less conventionally attractive, you don’t fit your society’s definition of beauty, or you are an older woman, for example, you may struggle far more to be seen, or to be seen positively.

If people are consistently accepting and attentive towards an individual, that individual will likely grow up with strong self-esteem and self-confidence, without necessarily realising their situation is not universal. That’s privilege. Yet humans live by this False Consensus Effect: individuals typically believe their personal experiences align with those of others more than they actually do. If the world has always treated you well and fostered your self-esteem, you might half-disbelieve or wonder why others are mistrustful, sceptical, or fearful of it.

This can lead to the well-meaning but often ignorant attitude underpinning snippets of advice like ‘just be confident’.

If one could just be anything, the world would quite possibly (just) be simpler. Yet similar to how telling a depressed person to just be happy is unhelpful, telling your favourite wallflower to ‘be themselves’, ‘act normally’, or ‘just smile’ as they shift uncomfortably by the exit, can mean missing the point. The advice isn’t entirely wrong: for example, social situations are more easily navigated when smiling. But if past experiences have led to someone feeling invisible in large groups and doubtful of their ability to charm – or even interest – their interlocutor, acting confidently can be hard, especially around strangers.

Yet people’s personalities are not fixed, but constantly evolving. This is an opportunity. If we can become aware of factors affecting people’s confidence and self-perception, and in particular those factors beyond an individual’s control, we can subsequently devise ways of addressing them – together.

If you ever find yourself thinking of someone, ‘why aren’t they more confident?’, it implies you are in a position to help them. You might not consider yourself especially charismatic, social, or self-assured. Yet if you can identify someone else’s lack of confidence, it probably means you are confident by comparison – and they could use a friend, or at least an ally.

You want someone to just be confident? Then be their confidence, at least until they internalise it enough to generate it independently. Reach out to them. You can be supportive without being patronising. Invite them into the group if they’re on the edges, even if they’re not saying anything (which is fine, incidentally); they may simply be waiting for a chance to join, and if not, at least you provided the option. Include them, refer to them, and simply be a friend.

The truth is, sometimes self-help can’t quite get rolling without other people’s help; and if other people have long made the wallflower feel invisible, the situation can be a vicious circle. So break the cycle, and try approaching someone who might not have the confidence to put themselves forward.

Show that person, ‘I see you’.