Australian Author Fiona MacGregor’s novel Indelible ink tells an offbeat but important history of Sydney. In it, almost-sixty divorcee Marie King experiences a late life rebellion phase when she develops cancer and a subsequent tattoo addiction. This begins when she drunkenly stumbles into a tattoo parlor and gets a rose tattooed on her shoulder; she proceeds to tattoo her entire body with emblems of her past.
Marie’s tattoo artist, Rhys, helps Marie see Sydney in a way she never has before. An affluent women with a rather conventional and privileged life, Marie hasn’t seen, or even cared to see, much of what what begs to be noticed in this city. The tattoos seem to replace Marie’s predisposed fondness for material objects and alcohol. She starts to think about how her own overconsumption often stands at the cost of external suffering—for example, she scrutinizes her lavish consumption of meat because other beings are harmed in the process.
MacGregor’s novel provides a rather critical view of Sydney. She represents it as a place rich with untold and shameful histories, and as a place full of people with no inclination to address those histories. Rhys takes Marie to places that are not pleasant, but this confrontation allows Marie to develop a visceral understanding of her place in the world. Though not exactly uplifting, reading Indelible Ink has pushed me to understand Australia as a layered place, rather than just the place that meets the eye.
A lot of the curriculum at NYU Sydney consists of walking tour field trips. I’m not sure if it’s the same way at other study abroad sites, but here we have at least three walking tour field trips per class per semester—so far I’ve been on seven. On these trips, we visit various parks, suburbs, and sites in Sydney. Though this might seem boring or pointless, I’ve found that almost everywhere in Sydney has a complex, fascinating, and often saddening history. On my favorite field trip so far, we walked around Sydney’s downtown area and talked about convict history in the city and how it relates to the now-hidden tank stream that runs through the city. The history doesn’t stop there, though: Aboriginal Australians were pushes from the land so that settlers could establish a place for prisoners.
This layered understanding of Australia’s history makes me curious. I look at a building, or a park, or noodle shop and I imagine what was once there, and what was once there before that. I think it’s easy to only see things with our eyes, and forget to see things with our minds or imaginations. When Marie tattooed her skin, her children and friends were disgusted: they could only see the inked version of her. This does not mean that the earlier version was better or worse, only that it exists under there somewhere.
The problem with a layered understanding of history is that it’s almost impossible to access, really access. Though this can be frustrating, I think that to honor ‘what once was’ transcends accuracy. When I look at a building, or a park, or a noodle shop and understand that something came before it and something will come after it, I cannot say with certainty what that something is. Still, there is a liberating and humbling power in acknowledging impermanence. Indelible Ink refers to the permanence of tattoos but, of course, these are marked on skin that decays eventually, and then becomes something else.