Grief and loss are themes much explored in art throughout the ages, from Edvard Munch’s paintings to Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s Vintage Sadness. Grief is a thing without a plan; we can only try and make sense of it. And with the ongoing impact of a global pandemic accelerated by the grip of austerity and neoliberalism, grief inserts itself into the cultural narrative in much starker ways. There is so much more to lose.
Anwen Crawford’s new book-length essay, No Document, is a repository of loss. Though it is largely structured as an elegy to her comrade and collaborator, the late Ned Sevil, Crawford mourns other losses: unrecorded history, psycho-geographical disappearances through gentrification, a more naive youth, the senseless destruction of lives and existences wrought by borders.
Through fragments that weave in and out of musings about art and film, archival documents and prose poetry, Crawford attempts to assemble a slew of memories lost to time, her awareness of herself as an unreliable narrator anchoring the text.
No Document is a slim volume, but the author crafts the book such that it requires sustained attention to read, the collage effect simulating the inconsistencies and breathlessness marked by grief. It amalgamates her vocations as a visual artist, zine-maker, poet and critic to manifest an experimental essay that while on the surface appears as a stream of consciousness, arises from acute self-interrogation and the depths of despair.
Albeit not a polemic, the spectre of settler-colonial dispossession and offshore refugee detention are referenced throughout the text, her friendship with Sevil occurring during a time when they were both active activists and protesters. In compositing an emotional record of those who become undocumented or erased following their deaths – asylum seekers, native lands, her friend, livestock – Crawford abstracts her grief and dives headlong into reckoning with the bloody history of “Australia” alongside those who have been forgotten by official apparatus: “When you think of what happened to you yesterday, as well as to all the other people in the world, that is history.”
I admire Crawford’s undertaking, but there’s a sense of incompleteness. In the blurb, No Document is described as a book that “re-imagines the boundaries that divide us … and asks how we can create forms of solidarity that endure”. But it is difficult to explicitly determine this solidarity-through-difference if the ones who are different are viewed through the lens of subject, as abstract ghosts that revolve around a centre. A stunning example of this remove is expressed in a letter to a drowned refugee girl named Alya, whose death Crawford tries to reconcile by writing “the freedom to imagine remaking a world that makes my peace by your death”.
Though she preempts the book’s shortcomings in an author note, that it is “incomplete because what’s left on the printed page are only the thoughts that I was equal to expressing, bit by bit”, I cannot help but find another layer of loss, one that is bore by the reader.
Perhaps these missing links are opportunities to mobilise. If anything, No Document speaks to the debilitating power of grief for the easy ways it can infiltrate the body politic, annihilating what the mind desires to do. But after grief is hope, and Crawford, like me, wants to imagine it.
No Document is published by Giramondo Publishing.
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Runway Journal and Overland, among others. She is the reviews editor at Meanjin and an editor at LIMINAL magazine.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.