31 August 2018
The 2018 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize Nonfiction – Octavia Chandler
Octavia Chandler’s story In My Mind has been awarded The 2018 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of nonfiction. Octavia was presented with the award at the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival at a special event, and wins a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of her winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks. Read Octavia’s winning piece right here.
In My Mind
I knew beauty for me would only ever be derived from loss. But, in the late stages of her leukaemia, before she had passed, the memories I held of my Nana were colourless, almost empty. Her image pale and sepia-toned like a base layer of brown and white paint in a portrait, presenting only contours and shadows, barely resembling its subject. My mother told me this happens as we await death, the faces of those we love, gentle and dear, disappear deep into our consciousness, only to come creeping in when the longing for better days becomes too strong.
In my mind, the scene that crept in on those days was always the same: Me, sitting next to the stovetop on the cool granite bench of her kitchenette, handing out the individual ćevapi for Ručak (1), and her, lowering them one by one into the foaming pan, shielding my thigh from the flying specks of garlicky canola oil with her other hand. I knew these small moments were to be cherished, that at one point they had occupied a clear space in my mind, saturated with warmth and intimacy. As I watched chemotherapy deteriorate her body, however, they felt misplaced, serving as cold reminders that my Nana’s death approached. Finally, she would speak: “Zašto me često ne posjećujete?” (2)
I would remind her that I could barely understand, every visit, that I never learnt to speak Bosnian. In reality, I had known what she asked, I simply had no answer.
* * *
That same question lingered in my mind on the day I last spoke to her as we drove away from her home in Campbelltown, back towards the careless comfort of the eastern suburbs. My Uncle Zaim, the eldest, was to wait alone with Nana for the ‘transition state’ from one world to another. I could not help but think of the extra time a hospital bed would have afforded her, but my family insisted. My Aunt Advija, gasping, held my cheeks and gushed: “Death cannot be clinical and remote like a hospital. It is not in keeping with the tradition of Islam. She must come home.”And so, my Nana, barely there, waved from the red brick of her home, still wearing a long, white hospital gown stained with beige, her face sunken and colourless like the one that haunted me in my memory. I replayed our final exchange over in my head as I drifted to sleep that night, knowing that by morning she would be lost and what my Aunt Advija called ‘Ghusl’ (3) would begin.
I searched my memory for what I had replied once she had spoken her last words to me: “Hvala što ste me posetili. Volim te odozgo.” (4)
* * *
Feeling forced to have followed Islam, my Mother raised me as a non-believer, what she called a “free-thinker”—some remnant resentment for being raised so strictly Islamic, manifesting in her parenthood. She expressed that one should want to do the right thing not just to serve a higher power or because an ancient book decreed it as she ticked ‘Anglican’ on my primary school enrolment form. An “analytical atheist”, my Father would later convince her to enrol me in non-scripture. The cultural separation I felt between my nuclear and extended family had always felt normal. Perhaps because it only felt representative of the difference manifested in physical form, as I took after my father’s blonde hair and pinkish-pale complexion. I know I still questioned this gap it at times, but it was all I had ever known, physically, and spiritually. It wasn’t until I was around eight or nine that I truly faced and acknowledged the differences between my cousin, Nadija, and I for the first time. She visited our home in the summertime when my friend Zoe, raised catholic, asked why she wore a Hijab, only she called it a scarf, while we both wore our summer swimsuits, hair still wet from the ocean.
“Nadija is from my Mum’s side in Bosnia, she follows Islam.”
The term Islam dripped from my mouth in a low tone, drenched with guilt like a dirty word, as if I had no right to even speak of what I had been taught to see no beauty within. Zoe’s eyebrow rose with a look of confusion.
Back then, like Zoe, I too could not understand the beauty Nadija and her family derived from religious belonging. I had grown up watching from the outside, never really feeling like I needed to step within. I think I always felt the need to step closer, though, perhaps to shorten a cultural distance that could not be ignored. Far from customary, on the eve of her death, my extended relatives still insisted my secular Mother and I both take part in the ‘Ghusl’ and ‘Kafan’ (5) of my Nana. And so, just moments after receiving the call from Uncle Zaim, my mother wrapped my head and neck in a large square piece of navy linen before we piled into the car and drove back towards the direction we had come from, just 18 hours before.
* * *
We washed the body three times. Taking odd bowls and cups found in her cupboards and filling them with warm soapy water as Nana lay on her maple dining table covered with towels. She almost disappeared beneath the thin white sheet that covered her. Everyone seemed to have their place in the room but me.
My Aunt Sadeta conducted the bathing, there was strict order; upper right side, upper left side, lower right side, lower left side. I followed in the direction of the others as even after two or so years of trying, I still could not tell my Bosnian right from left. Feeling distinctly out of place, I moved my hands near the others, wiping over what had already been well washed.
By the third round, my Aunt Advija grabbed my palms under hers: “Wash her with love, not with haste.”
She smoothed my fingers over Nana’s shoulders in rhythmic strokes before handing me a soft towel, still smelling of the melaleuca she had used to hand wash her laundry and had dropped into my baths. I know Nana could feel nothing, but the feeling that I could comfort her, comforted me.
My Aunt Advija smiled: “Now dry her, gently.”
Moving anti-clockwise, I patted away the drips on her body beneath the thin sheet as I blinked back my own. Then, I helped my Mother tie Nana’s thin hair into three equal braids and dress her in an ankle length sleeveless dress and head veil, both similar hues of emerald green.
We lifted her brittle body up to place three large, blank sheets beneath. Her left hand was resting on the centre of her chest, the right laid on top in a position of prayer. I glanced at her face for a final time before she was shrouded in the white cotton, tied together with three linen ropes. For the first time in years she looked what could only be described as beautiful, almost alive.
The hazy apricot sky cast warm light over the distant minaret of the Auburn Mosque at dusk. My body sweat under layers of draped clothing, too big for my frame having been passed down from my Aunts. The procession to the grave from the masjid (6) had seemed like hours. We crowded around the grave in concentric circles, the men forming the inner, the women forming the outer. I watched the men of my family cover the deep hole with dirt. With every tip of a shovel, my mind anticipated the distant sound of the heavy soil, envisioning the pieces landing on her wrapped, lifeless body. I could not help but wail.
Quickly, my Aunt Sadeta clasped her fingers around my mouth from behind, attempting to silence my pain. Then, whispering, she quoted the prophet: “The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord.”
Biting down on the flesh of her hand in anguish, I swallowed my sobbing pain as wet tears continued to crawl out from under my closed eyelids. I had never heard anyone quote Muhammad in a tongue I could understand. And yet, despite for the first time finding peace and beauty within the ritual of Islam I had been invited into, all I wanted was to cry.
I turned away, only to meet with my Nana’s face staring back at me, silently weeping. It was my mother. Her bleached blonde hair hidden, wrapped in an old scarf and her bare face left unmade for the period of Hidaad (7). Never before had I seen any resemblance, but in the dim light of the crescent moon, she was the spitting image of her mother, my Nana. Only she was full, alive, while my Nana lay beneath us. The sound of the burial faded back into my mind and with every drop, images from my memory returned in bright flashes as I stared into shared eyes of the figure before me. This time, the memories were vivid, real.
My lost reply re-entered my mind. “I will visit often in my mind. I love you too.”
* * *
When I visit my Nana’s home now, it is still, its musky odour stronger in its emptiness. I sit on the edge of the baby pink bathtub she once washed me in, swimming in stripes of golden light as they stream in from the gaps in the venetian blinds. With every visit, memories come flooding back. Memories of being young in the tub, filled with lukewarm water as I pushed around the three plastic boats. One cobalt, one scarlet, and the smallest a deep orangey-yellow, and all featureless after generations of use scratched away the decorative paint. Here, my Nana would scrub a sweet-smelling shampoo into my wisps of hair, wiping back on my forehead to stop the stinging of the eyes, before washing it out with the just cool enough pot of boiled water from the stovetop.
These memories were once arduous to reach, as if needing to be deciphered. But after her death, they now emerge in every dimension, filled with clarity and colour. The longing I had felt, for better days at the end of her life, has not so much passed as it has settled. The once dull, brown and white paint I had imagined is now covered with strokes of every hue like an elaborate oil painting. In my mind, my Nana’s portrait is now one of beauty, vividly ingrained in my memory as I visit her there, often.
1. Lunch prepared for days ahead.
2. “Why don’t you often visit me?”
3. The bathing of the dead.
4. “Thank you for visiting me. I will love you from beyond.”
5. The shrouding of the dead.
7. The 3-day period of mourning in which a woman may not indulge in cosmetics.