Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, 2014.
Edited by Roselina Press
Also produced as ‘The Sea Told Slant‘ for All the Best on FBi (broadcast nationally in May 2015).
That was the year in which silence turned from an absence of information into a palpable presence—a character recruited into the national story. Silence who balked in press conferences, shrugged at doorstops and sighed in the High Court’s public gallery. Silence who sucked its teeth, said no single thing on the end of the line, and put a hand over the microphone to mute the Minister. To talk around silence meant to talk indirectly: by which I mean, to talk with that curated misdirection known as spin. It’s a kind of art, spin. Not one to believe in, though few would deny that the presence of silence was a creative agitator that year. Sometimes it felt that political language had become so blurred (spun like a globe on a pivot) that the poles of the public sphere were shifting beneath us. An inch, another. Magnetic, inaudible, irreversible. The same statements whipping round and around: illegal maritime arrival, Operation Sovereign Borders, deterrent, illegal maritime arrival. At least, it seemed that way where I was: the queasiness of a center giving way underneath it all. And exhausting, just to try to follow silence and its taciturn gestures.
What would happen if you took that ethos of misdirection and tried to make it articulate differently—this was what I got to thinking about, not yet prepared to doubt art’s capacity in this context as the year closed down. Could you make a tool from misdirection that, acting on a spun world, in fact got closer to some kind of useful truth? (Tell it slant, Dickinson’s maxim). So while I was listening for what wasn’t being said about boats that weren’t being talked about, I also begun to pay attention to those that were.
I heard that Captain Lee Joon-seok was not at the helm of the MV Sewol when the boat begun to cant into the Yellow Sea. The Third Mate—25 years old, her first time commanding the bridge—shrunk from the controls. She screamed and did not stop screaming. I heard Lee was in his cabin. Ten minutes later, Lee told his passengers not to move. Two engineers shared a stumbling beer in a corridor grown steeper. No lifejackets were distributed, no lifeboats un-stowed. The expense of the crew’s safety training was recorded in one budget as US$2. This was the price of a paper certificate they filed in a drawer. A high-school student phoned emergency services in South Korea while the freight deck flooded. Loose cars bumping against the bulkheads. 325 students were aboard: their annual field trip. I heard that afterwards, when 247 of those students had drowned along with fifty-seven others, Lee did not identify himself to the coastguard as the Sewol’s captain. He abandoned the ship while people waited for direction. That student, raising the alarm? He didn’t survive. Though his school’s Vice Principal did, on land he took his own life. The water was black but not icy. A landmass was dimly visible. Lee was among the first to be rescued. Others were ‘recovered’ afterwards. Bodies, body-parts, that is. Turned blue on the seafloor, some were not recovered. For a long time the intercom broadcast, Do not move. Just stay where you are. It’s dangerous if you move, so just stay where you are. A bump in sea-time, the Sewol had sailed over the anniversary named Titanic. But where the Titanic went down it was still that same day, so while the Sewol sunk rituals, wreaths, speeches and contemplations marked out more distant, historical deaths. It’s the yellow ribbon now, to remember the Sewol lying in the Yellow Sea. Lawyers petitioned on the death penalty for Lee. He’ll do thirty-six years. Less: he’ll do the rest of his life.
What sense is tripped when a situation become un-rightable? Here in Australia, I have been trying to define the faculties that light that moment up. Below deck the theatre of the yaw is slower and more subtle. E.g. a fork slides, just a little, towards the glasses. Askew, a painting reveals the brighter edge of wallpaper beneath it. Tilt your head. Place the piece of cutlery back on its spot. How quickly we’ve adapted to a slanted life. An inch each day. Is it any wonder it feels like a farce? One part Charlie Chaplin, one part Roald Dahl to two parts George Orwell. Sometimes there’s a yell from above, though the message isn’t clear. In cabins meant for one or two (cabins that are, if we’re honest, plush like coffins or cots are plush) the captain’s voice repeats: stay where you are, it’s dangerous if you move. A machine’s voice. Of course it’s hard—in warm rooms, in a cozy bed or a bath that’s becoming a little deeper at one end—to sustain real empathy with the trauma of those people who you know are up there, out there, screaming. People who have already swung past the axis of no return. Who see their horizon tipping. It’s as if they were on another boat, some entirely other boat. You can see them sometimes, through the porthole: these other boats. Wood, fiberglass and tin. A dark flotilla. There’s no soundtrack to this dream. All drowned, in one way or another, people who steadfast refuse to go down with the ship. When you wake it takes a moment to settle into the fact that this vision isn’t true. They are us, and we are them. Some common humanity is degraded to call this struggling sea a dream. We’re all in the same boat.