Songket is a powerful and disturbing read. Noelle Janaczewska has written a play about cultures colliding, about gender and sexuality and about Australia.
Songket is published alongside This Territory, which makes sense thematically, although the plays have very different styles and moods. Songket is a much more complicated and interesting read, in my opinion.
A songket is a handwoven fabric, patterned with silver or gold thread. It’s a term that describes the weaving as well as the fabric. In Janaczewska’s play, Chan is a young textile designer, brought up in Sydney but with a family who’ve come from Laos. She is a young Australian woman trying to connect with her cultural roots and using her ethnicity to springboard her design career. To do this, she’s been making connections with the Laotian community, including a man from the Hmong community, Koau. Koau misinterprets her friendly gestures as being sexual overtures and rapes her.
This raises real dilemmas for the audience/reader. Can you pardon Koau raping Chan on the grounds of cultural difference? He doesn’t seem a ‘bad’ man and appears to be honestly confused – but what he’s done is terrible and should surely be inexcusable…
KOUA: You’ll go to another world. That’s what this fortune teller told me a long time ago. And that world will have doors that can open by themselves. Whoosh! Doors you don’t even know are there, let you in. Bangkok airport with its big waste of light. [Pause.] Before the plane we were taken into a room to wait. We’re tired and need to sleep. But it’s too bright. I want to turn the lights off, but – Look how stupid I was! A grown man and I didn’t know how to switch off the light.
Janaczewska has made the play more interesting structurally by pinning it to the court case. So we see Chan with her lawyer, Alex, and Koau with his interpreter and defence lawyer, Hayden. Muddying the water further and making it even harder to leap to easy conclusions is Hayden’s ex, Klaudia, whom he has brought in as an expert witness for the defence. Klaudia is an anthropologist and agrees to give evidence on what she knows of Laos and the tribal customs of Hmong tribesmen. This places her in an ethical dilemma as her words are twisted to imply that rape can be a culturally appropriate act.
The courtroom and pre-trial scenes where we see the interpreter’s discomfort and hear the way meaning and intention is distorted are particularly effective.
HAYDEN: As I understand it from your statement, Mr Vang, you’re not denying sexual intercourse took place. Nor that it involved – how shall we put this? An element of roughness.
INTERPRETER: He says that you – that you hurt Miss Chansouk when you – when you / tried to –
KOUA: I’ve told you. She was kicking me. And she bit me too.
INTERPRETER: I’m sorry I upset her.
HAYDEN: It’s extremely important we get this clear. Do you acknowledge penetration took place?
INTERPRETER: [To HAYDEN] I don’t understand the question.
HAYDEN: Okay, we’ll take this one step at a time. Let’s first establish the precise location of Mr Vang’s penis. Was it exposed?
INTERPRETER: [To HAYDEN] Sorry?
HAYDEN: Outside his pants.
INTERPRETER: [To KOAU] Was your zipper down?
KOAU: Of course.
HAYDEN: Was your penis erect?
INTERPRETER: What direction were you – were you? – Are you and Miss Chansouk being husband and wife?
INTERPRETER: Towards the sky.
There are no easy answers in Songket. It’s a play that is bound to provoke passionate discussion and argument. A really interesting read on many levels.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 3M, 3F