Age (dis)gracefully – Edition 19, Elderspeak


Image: Kevin Smith

Peril is delighted to share with you our latest batch of new writing that engages with issues of Asian Australian culture, looking at the theme of Elderspeak with contemporary eyes.

Over the coming weeks, we will be regularly uploading new work from this, our 19th edition – so keep your eyes on our Facebook and Twitter to add your voice and comment to this reflection of the ways that we speak to our elders, and how perhaps our elders speak back.

In issuing this call for submissions, we asked you for your responses to intergenerational and intercultural encounters be they stories of “traffic, engagement, congress, teaching, transmission, incomprehension, trauma or delight”. What has emerged is a beautifully fractured typology of relationships between or in-between generations. As always, it is difficult to generalise the translation-back-translation that happens when writers and creatives connect over a theme – almost like asking a group of people that you think will get along to a dinner party, never quite knowing whether they’ll actually find a place of communication between the sitting down at and getting up from the table. Like all dinner party hosts, you’re anxious that there will be a stony silence, followed by an eventual, awkward exit to the backyard for a cigarette when the conversation enters rocky territory, like politics or religion or how much soy sauce you’re actually going to put on that.

As editors, we started with a simple curiosity around how traditional, often Confucian-associated, ideas of filial piety and family respect for elders, play out in contemporary society, using the concept of Elderspeak, a socio-medical term for the modified language often employed when relating to the elderly.

It is a delight to see the variety and the communality in the works that, as editors, it has been our pleasure to curate in this open-ended dinner party conversation. Works come together and find lovely connections, sometimes in their very disparity, other times in their union. We don’t mind if you want to sneak out for some fresh air from time to time, but we hope you’ll come back for another course.

Perhaps you’ll be drawn to Eugenia Flynn and Jessica Yu’s deeply personal reflections of their respective family lives, which pose interesting questions as to what is culturally equivalent and what is culturally specific in the ways that we learn to honour and show care for family, especially with the changes wrought by time or loss. Set against Daniela Rodriguez’s meditative photographs exploring migrants with dementia losing their second languages, “Silent Memories”, perhaps you too will wonder what is a culturally-driven, symbolic expression of care, and what is about the profound tenderness that comes from acknowledging the inevitability of ageing, and subsequently death. Maybe then you’ll be drawn by the quietude of Matt Hetherington’s poem, “My Mother is Dead”, evoking the last step of a long, formal dance.

For others, the theme of elderspeak also connected with questions of history making, of archive and communication, like Mayu Kanamori, Japanese-Australian visual artist, performer and journalist based in Sydney whose photo essay deals with collective amnesia in the context of Japanese Diaspora. Pete Emptage and Max Ryan, musician/translator and poet working between English and Chinese as non-native speakers, will open their shared poetic dialogue to readers who might wish to contribute to their collaboration in English, Chinese, music and poetry. Finally, John Mateer, prolific South African born Australian poet, shares an outstanding extract of works from Emptiness: The Asian Poems 1998-2012, which is itself a kind of symbolic gesture of deference and consultation to a poetic “elder of sorts”, and an examination of the possibilities of an Australian poetic voice that is polyglot, polymathic and observant, if not always at ease, with the mirror it holds to itself and to the region within which it finds itself.

We also farewell Lucy Van, one of Peril’s longstanding board members and valued contributors, with her work, “History of the Philosophy of Colour”, which invites us to a demonstration of seeing what is not there, with a gorgeous, mind-bend absurdity of presence and absence:

My husband says he learned about poetry
Because Anne Sexton was the next entry
After sex in the 1980 World Book Encyclopaedia
That is the point of confession
Language’s total availability
That is the point of language
Confession’s total availability
That is the point of availability
Confession’s total language

As always, deference, loyalty and respect is owed to our own contextual elders, the Australia Council for the Arts, without whose support Peril Magazine would not be able to share these collective cultural reflections on the ways that we transcend just the mere passage of time (do you realise you’ve aged even just in the time taken to read this editorial?) to consider the cultural process of getting where we’re going, by looking back to where we came from.

We welcome your voice to this conversation.

Image: Kevin Smith

Author: Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Eleanor Jackson is a former Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of Peril and currently Chair of the Board.