• Sandra Renew

On returning to live in Australia in 2012, I found that my world had gone on without me and I no longer knew what my place and purpose could be. My immediate contact with the deep issues of children in war zones and post-conflict areas was suddenly severed on the arrival in my ‘home’ country.


The return to ‘home’ presents a coming back to a responsibility and purpose, giving weight to problems such as enacting civic responsibility to ensure valuing of liberal democracy, rule of law, understanding the nature of power and evil, governance as a force for good. When viewed beside substantive Third World problems such as survival, at first glance these concerns may appear non-urgent, indirect, removed from the immediate theatre of action. However, the issues of both survival and development in industrial and post-industrial worlds are all, specifically, the problems of how people behave, and as such, are of immediate, critical and universal importance. Feelings of dislocation and displacement are common in stories of returning ‘home’ after periods away, and the poetry below reflects the contradiction and dissonance that can be experienced on this return. And, as a lesbian writer, I felt this disruption even more acutely because of the particular understandings arrived at through the lens of gender presentation and performance.


Writing in what is now seen as an LGBTIQA spectrum, gender possibilities demand a new language, a new way of writing to reflect the possible opening up of the discourse of gender. In particular, there is a conceptual move from the perception of traditional, rigid views of gender as a masculinity/femininity binary and anything else as criminal, ill or transgressive, to a more flexible, liberal understanding of gender as performance, as presentation, flexible, changeable, contradictory and disruptive.


For me, writing poetry is an in-process practice of redefinition and re-establishment, but also a recognition of fluidity and disruption as positive and purposeful. Writing represents a coming to know myself as a different person, in a different time, in a newly perceived space, sometimes through struggle in the present and sometimes arising from an awareness of our history; sometimes both.






Three men walk into a bar


A failed-state tyrant-dictator, a profiteering international arms dealer and an unapprehended war crimes perpetrator walk into a bar and they don’t come out—


the Criminal Court in the Hague issues an immediate arrest warrant

NATO uses international networks to track arms shipments

United Nations calls a top-level meeting of relevant member states

United States sends drones overhead and beams surveillance data world wide

Russia trolls social media, taps communications channels and hacks anything moving—


The bar closes and still the arms dealer, the war crimes perpetrator and the dictator are not ejected onto the street—


When they finally appear at the front door they blend, hide in the crowd, hardly visible in the night-lit neon.


They are carried in their limousines to meetings with other heads of state in world summits on election fixing and data contamination; with nods of recognition, mingle in the palaces of profit and power—


They wear their ethnically styled coloured shirts, call for drinks, embrace and smile for the group photo.


                                                               villages cities

                                                   no shelter on roads between

                                                        Sarwar and Palwasha

                                            broken zipped bag, worn down shoes

                                              no taller than the pony’s shoulder


young men and women die as soldiers

good people board unsafe boats

children work for scraps

journalists lie dead in the streets

demonstrators are killed protesting bigotry


Writers go to work to keep the stories alive.






The Kabul Airport is overlooked by high mountain ridges from which the Taliban launched rockets at departing planes. Rocket trails seem lazy, spiralling in the high hawkish breeze. But if you see the trail, you know it missed. Every time we left Kabul on recreation leave we held our breath until, just clearing the ridges, we turned sharply for Dubai and saw the mountains recede through the scratched, cracked perspex of the Ariana Air windows.


In every war there are the strategic deaths, combative engagements, collateral casualties, friendly fire, civilians unaccounted for …

always knowing where your shoes are, and the running away—


Coming home was the hard part, a hard thing to do, finding a place and a purpose in a changed world.


I started deciding to return home (whatever home meant) one night in the Dubai International airport, in transit from Kabul to Islamabad.



‘home 1’


She was suddenly crying in the QANTAS ad, as it beamed onto the giant TV screen in the transit lounge. The children, posed on the desert country ridges in Central Australia, on the beaches, in front of Uluru, in their luminous white shirts and black pants, singing their hearts, singing her heart, singing Australia home. Then the QANTAS flight was being called and she was going somewhere else ...





Waiting for a recently ex-lover, she is seeing around corners, imagining, chimera on illusions … mesmerised by a falling leaf, orange against black. She reverses her glass, holding passersby at a distance.


Finger prints on the glass, on the table, detailed, complicated, whorls and scars, blemishes and lines. Broken images, upside down, caught in a triangle, the light changes from dusk to night, street lights stutter orange against black.


She knows struggle and lines and precision engagement, hands and words and bodies.


The contradiction of the double helix, the infinity of curves (imagine the thread of a screw) where the straight line, harsh, uncompromising, clear, softens against its will around a cylindrical core. The straight line trajectory takes it out of sight, while the double helix revolves infinitely under her gaze.


She leaves the field of battle, armour dented, dusty, blood smears drying in the sun, dignity intact. Glass helmet under her arm, she raises her hand in salute. And the knights on clean-up duty pause for a moment, look up, see in her eyes a warning.






The coffee shop at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a place three or four of the few women Heads of Program met sometimes on a weekend to compare notes, talk about security, staff management issues. There was a good Afghan cuisine buffet, strong local coffee, security screening at each entrance.


When she had been back in Australia for a few months she heard on the news on the radio one morning that a Taliban rocket had been shot right through the middle of the hotel, demolishing the coffee shop and foyer.


The near misses, the hotel bomb in Islamabad, fleeing and hiding during riots against the desecration of the Koran in Kabul, turbaned tribal heavy men blocking the exit from a school in Kandahar until the women insist on our status as guests in the country, constant checking for who was blocking us in heavy traffic, abduction always back of mind, IEDs on any random donkey.


Keeping staff safe, her judgement, her decisions, always in her head …



‘home 2’


Not noticing ‘home’, she’s numb to being here

She’s usually back there with the poppies and the guns


Kandahar, Mazar, Shiberghan, the roads in between

Her mind is ‘back there’, rarely free to be here


Always going back there, memory loop, ear worm

Watson, Civic, Northbourne, never free to be home


Closed circuit, mind grooves, even now, she’s not home



She is not Agatha


she never goes missing.

there are no eleven days unaccounted for.

She is always present, always available, there, present in the world.


She looks backwards at her footprints

she looks sideways at her shadow

dusts the wind for her fingerprints


she counts the hours

of her non-disappearance,

never goes missing.






Sometimes she knows she is ‘origin unknown’, her own creation, growing strange on the edge of her family.


A dyke on Australia Day, exiled, alien, origin unknown.


She is underground magma, the restraining embankment, she savours the tall poppies … makes her own origins, knows her own country … solving Sudoku by defining what it is not … understands everything by knowing what it is not … no shadow and she knows what she is not.


                                                                  shadowing us

                                                     on the Russian built freeway

                                                        two men on a motorbike

                                                    wrapped in checked blankets

                                                         AK47s draped, careless



It’s always startling—


when the office closes and the brothers and fathers come,

the women shrug into their blue burkhas, hiding themselves

before stepping out into the snow


finding a specific wife or mother

in the crowd of burkhas in the market

they need to check at ground-level to find familiar shoes



you can try


pavement grey suits and beige frocks

chameleon into a slow-moving crowd


you can try

khaki pants and faded cotton blouses

failed camouflage in a monochrome landscape


where everyone seems to want some and you want none

of it, the home scene is a bad dream






At the top of the Himalayas in the Hindu Kush the Salang Tunnel is the gateway to northern Afghanistan.


Or if you are the Russian army, looking at it from the other direction, it is the gateway from the north into Kabul.


The Salang Pass is high, cold, snow heaped up above the road-bed, a place you want to drive through with no car trouble. Even the Taliban hole up further down the mountains to ambush UN convoys, snipers set to pick off aid vehicles and civilians with something to carry. We joked about not sitting in the target seat, the seat in front beside the driver, usually reserved for the most senior personnel such as Head of Station, and thus the person most valuable and most usefully killed or kidnapped.


                                                               war and conflict

                                                twelve years of Khartoum and Kabul

                                                           adrenalin overdosing

                                                         at home feeling so flat

                                                            she thinks she is ill



blur and blend the flow of time and space


She blurs and blends the flow of time and space until three centuries is only a lifetime ago and the lifetime transgresses into another lifetime

uses the space between the polar opposites,

creates her own country,

crossing changes everything.


Ibtisam Villa Sahara

does not wear the veil, nor a burkha, nor a hijab, or headscarf.

She is Sam.

She wears a soft, blue engineer’s cap

laments that it flattens her spiky, gelled, cropped hair.

Ibtisam Villa Sahara does not cover her figure,

does not hide skin from neck to boots.

Her bicep shows a tattoo of roses and butterflies

flexing when she lifts her toolbox.

Twining leaves encircle her ankle and show when she pulls off her socks.

Her girlfriend mentions their fathers.

They lock the doors on their brothers.






When a night letter comes to the village, the school closes for a day or so. But then, the girls are at the gate, their ambition covered in their blue burkhas, waiting for a teacher. And the bombing happens at night, first a warning … then in the day, during class.


                                                UN staff wear flak jackets and helmets

                                               NGO workers have their quilted jackets

                                                        working on hearts and minds

                                                    everyone in the country has guns

                                                          except the NGO workers



for no reason


for who she used to be she feels no loss

for no reason she wears her three-piece suit


she leans artistically in the door way

poet posed

she absorbs barbs and jibes and homophobic taunts

for the less than manly Henry…


she’s a country girl, in city clothes,

walking the wallaby in men’s clothes –

being Henry, not comfortable with men’s men

jackaroos quarters       public bars


for who she used to be she feels no loss

for no reason she wears her three-piece suit





Works cited: 


Butler, Judith 1991 ‘Imitation and gender subordination’, in Diana Fuss (ed), Inside out: Lesbian theories, gay theories, London: Routledge, 13–31

Cade, Jared 1998 Agatha Christie and the eleven missing days, London: Peter Owen Publishers

Grimwald, Eliza (ed and trans) 2014 I am the beggar of the world: Landays from contemporary Afghanistan, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Jagose, Annamarie 1996 Queer theory: An introduction, New York: New York University Press

Woolf, Virginia 1942 Orlando, London: Penguin