Dispatches #168: Goblin kings, refugee dentists and maybe babies

in #writing5 years ago

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Welcome to Dispatches, a weekly summary of my writing, listening and reading habits. I'm Andrew McMillen, a freelance journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia.


I had a cover story published last month in Bite, a magazine for Australian dentists. Excerpt below.

Here To Help (1,500 words / 7 minutes)

In high-achieving refugee dentist Dr Hooman Baghaie, Iran's loss is Australia's gain.

'Here To Help: In high-achieving refugee dentist Dr Hooman Baghaie, Iran’s loss is Australia’s gain' story by Andrew McMillen for Bite Magazine, September 2017. Photo by Richard Whitfield

When he was 12 years old, Dr Hooman Baghaie's family left their comfortable, middle-class life in Iran behind. This decision by his parents was made out of love and sacrifice: as members of a religious minority, they had experienced discrimination and persecution. The last slight was when their eldest son was denied entry to a college for gifted children after his father, Zia, had volunteered to the school's administration that the family were followers of the Bahá'í faith. Suddenly, Hooman's academic gifts were seen in a different light.

There was no place for Hooman there, his parents were told, despite his excellent results on the entry exam. Nor was there a place in Iran for the Baghaie family, who had tired of this persecution. They knew there would only be more hurdles for their bright children in Iran, and they knew that other Bahá'ís been jailed because of their religious affiliations. The eldest son's rejection mirrored an earlier disappointment experienced by his mother, Betsy, who was expelled from medical school in 1988 on the basis of her faith. Like mother, like son.

Yet it was in thumbing through her copy of Gray's Anatomy that the seed for Hooman's career was planted. Within a decade, the Iranian-born refugee would be safe and secure in Australia while immersed in studying oral health, and later dentistry, while on a path to fulfil the inclusive, community-minded spirit on which his faith was based.

The family's path to Australia was not simple or easy. They left behind two houses, two cars and his father's well-established career in refrigeration engineering. The five of them–Zia, Betsy, Hooman and his two younger sisters, Helya and Hasti–spent nine months in limbo at an apartment in Kayseri, Turkey. They were asylum seekers, and on arrival, Zia went to the United Nations office to explain their situation. After carefully reviewing their case and confirming the truth of their allegations, the Baghaie family were awarded humanitarian visas to Australia, since Betsy had family members who lived in Geelong.

Now 26 and living on the Gold Coast, Hooman Baghaie tells this story over cups of Persian tea and a plate of walnut biscuits. He lives in a high-rise apartment building in Southport that overlooks the ocean, and each morning, his bedroom is lit by a spectacular sunrise. Two days per week, he works as a dentist at a small clinic in Helensvale; during the remaining weekdays, he attends nearby Griffith University while studying his first year of a degree in medicine.

His interest in the oral cavity has widened since he completed a Bachelor of Oral Health at the University of Melbourne in 2011, then moved north to dedicate himself to a Bachelor of Dental Science, which he completed in 2016 as a valedictorian at the University of Queensland. After medicine, he plans to specialise in maxillofacial surgery.

Newly married in 2017, Hooman shares the Southport apartment with his wife, Maya, who works as a nutritionist. The pair share their Bahá'í faith and are devoted to fulfilling its tenet of improving the lives of others: she by advising people on their diet, and he by tending to their oral health needs. Theirs is a service-oriented partnership that looks outward, and asks: how can we help?

To read the full story, visit Bite Magazine. Above photo credit: Richard Whitfield.

How I found this story: This is my first story for Bite, which came about after its editor contacted me with this assignment. I greatly enjoyed meeting Hooman and learning about his remarkable journey to living and working on the Gold Coast.


Penmanship podcast episode 42: Katharine Murphy (live), interviewed by Andrew McMillen. Published in October 2017.

Katharine Murphy (live) on Penmanship (68 minutes). Episode 42 of my podcast about Australian writing culture features Katharine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia. Having spent more than two decades as a member of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, Katharine has earned a reputation as one of the nation's sharpest political analysts. While based in Canberra, she has worked as a reporter for The Australian Financial ReviewThe Australian and The Age, and more recently, she has been a part of Guardian Australia's team since the website launched in 2013. In addition to her daily reporting and editorial duties, Katharine also writes occasional longform essays for the Melbourne-based literary journal Meanjin.

In late August, I spoke with Katharine before a live audience at the Canberra Writers Festival, whose theme in 2017 was "power, politics and passion". Our conversation at the festival touches on Katharine's approach to political reporting, which requires constant scepticism while avoiding cynicism as much as possible; how her mother's fiery passion for a Sydney Morning Herald columnist rubbed off on her at a young age; what she has observed about the cultural differences of working for three different media organisations in Fairfax, News Corp and The Guardian; what she has learned about the mechanics and logistics of live blogging political news with little time for coffee or bathroom breaks, and how she came to write an intimate and moving essay about the joys and sorrows of raising her daughter.

Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt on Longform (~2 hours). Reply All is one of my favourite podcasts, and I'm glad that Longform devoted separate hour-long episodes to individual interviews with its co-hosts. There are plenty of great insights here about the joys and challenges of making almost 40 episodes of a weekly narrative podcast each year.

Alex Goldman is the co-host of Reply All. "I am not the authority on the internet. I'm not an expert on particularly anything, except stuff that I like." / PJ Vogt is the co-host of Reply All. "Every radio story is broken. Everything is missing some piece it's supposed to have. Everything has some weird interview that didn't go the way you thought it was going to go, or you thought you had an answer but you were wrong."

Dan Harmon on The Duncan Trussell Family Hour (104 minutes). I love the rapport between these two guys: Trussell is a stand-up comic, and Harmon is the co-creator of Rick and Morty, among other creative outlets. Dan Harmon goes to some dark places while reflecting on the state of American culture and the wider world, and Trussell tries his best to reel him back in to an optimistic outlook. A highly stimulating discussion. I also enjoyed another recent DTFH episode with comedian Shaun Mauss, who speaks of returning from "a brief trip to a psychiatric hospital, madness, synchronicity, the responsible use of psychedelics, and all the things that happened to Shane when he took his DMT fueled fishing boat into the uncharted waters of the universal mind."

I visited with Dan Harmon and was sucked into a beautiful whirlwind of pessimism and despair. Is it the end of the world? Are we losing everything to fascists? A dark episode.

White Haze on This American Life (60 minutes). A fascinating and troubling episode about the overlap between an American men's group named the Proud Boys, and the white nationalist uprising that recently descended on Charlottesville, Virginia.

Right-wing groups like the Proud Boys say they have no tolerance for racism or white supremacist groups. Their leader Gavin McInnes disavowed the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. But the Proud Boys believe "the West is the best," which, one of them points out, is not such a big jump from "whites are best." And one of the Proud Boys organized the Charlottesville rally. (The group now claims he was a spy.) What should we make of groups like this?


'Charm Of A Musical Insider: Iain Shedden' by Stephen Fitzpatrick in The Australian, October 2017. Photograph by David Kapernick

Charm Of A Musical Insider by Stephen Fitzpatrick in The Australian (1,400 words / 7 minutes). Extraordinarily sad news flashed across the Australian music community this week, when The Australian's music writer Iain Shedden died suddenly on Monday morning, aged 60. I had the privilege of filing dozens of music reviews to Sheddy between 2011 and 2016, and have always had immense respect for the art, insight and humour he brought to his writing for the newspaper. His colleague Stephen Fitzpatrick was tasked with writing this obituary, which was published in Tuesday's paper. It's a wonderfully written tribute to the life of a fine man. (Above photo credit: David Kapernick, taken at the 2017 Rock and Roll Writers Festival in Brisbane.) 

An interviewer, friend and confidant to rockers across the globe, Iain Shedden became the tear-stained focus of that world yesterday. Shedden, who died aged 60 after the return of a cancer that was first diagnosed in late 2014, spent a lifetime straddling twin professions – both of which he loved. Between journalism and music he propelled himself from modest Glaswegian prospects to the Sydney Opera House stage. It was a mark of the man that he neither complained about the former nor bragged about the latter. Sheddy, as he was known to everyone bar his family, began as a reporter and subeditor on the local paper in Wishaw, in North Lanarkshire on the Clyde River. He was soon with Pop Star Weekly – an early indicator of where life was to lead. He had by that point already founded his first band, as drummer with punk outfit the Jolt. They were signed by Polydor and moved to London, where they made an album and toured on their own as well as with bands such as the Jam, Generation X and the Saints. The Jolt split up in 1979 and Shedden joined the Small Hours, which featured the Saints' early bass player Kym Bradshaw. In 1981, Saints co-founder Chris Bailey, by then a close friend, asked him to join his new line-up of the band, and he spent the next eight or nine years touring the world and recording with them. Shedden moved to Sydney in 1992, hoping to pick up another gig. When nothing substantial materialised he returned to journalism, while continuing to perform regularly with various bands.

The Maybe Babies by Clara Pirani in The Weekend Australian Magazine (3,500 words / 17 minutes). An excellent feature about a little-discussed topic: how do you choose what to do with your leftover embryos after finding success with in vitro fertilisation? 

Every six months I receive an email asking what I'd like to do with my unborn children. I stare at the dreaded subject line, fighting the urge to hit the delete button and delay this unenviable decision yet again. Most of the time I manage to forget this dilemma exists. Busy with day-to-day life, I ignore the enormity of this impossible choice and its lifelong consequences. And then the damn email. It's always the same. Politely, with great sensitivity, it reminds me that we have four embryos, frozen, in storage. My husband and I have three options: let them "succumb", donate them to research or donate them to someone else. I'm usually a decisive person, sometimes impulsive. But the responsibility of this choice has me stuck on pause. If our embryos are implanted into another woman's womb and develop into babies, they will be our biological children. But I won't be there to protect them, to kiss their soft skin, hold their little hands, comfort them and watch them transform all too quickly into teenagers. I will never feel their warm cheeks against my skin as they fall asleep on my chest. They won't race out of the school gate, hurling themselves into my arms, almost knocking me over before presenting me with a glorious work of art to stick on our kitchen wall. There will be no homemade "I love Mummy" cards and breakfast in bed on Mother's Day, no reading them books for hours, no athletics carnivals, no dance recitals. In fact, I may never meet them. It might sound incredibly naive, but I didn't see this coming.

Paradise Lost by Trent Dalton in The Weekend Australian Magazine (3,800 words / 19 minutes). A moving story about an horrific incident in Brisbane last year, where a man threw an incendiary device at a bus driver without warning, and burned him to death on the spot. Trent Dalton profiles taxi driver Aguek Nyok, who managed to save the eleven people trapped at the back of the bus, but who was unable to save his friend, bus driver Manmeet Alisher. 

He's not entirely sure who saved the 11 people trapped inside the burning bus. He knows it was his hulking right leg that kicked open the back door – three kicks, the miracle sum of every prayer he ever sent to God and every post-work karate lesson he ever took. The trauma of it brings tears to Aguek Nyok's South-Sudanese eyes. He walks through the communal herb garden of the sprawling unit complex in Coopers Plains, South Brisbane, where he lives with his wife and four young kids. He can smell basil and mint and chives. He can smell fire. October 28, 2016. A Friday, 9.03am. Brisbane City Council fleet bus S-1980 pulls into the Moorvale bus stop on Beaudesert Rd, Moorooka, a suburb just north of Coopers Plains. Three people board the bus, including 48-year-old Anthony O'Donohue, who allegedly throws an "incendiary device" at the defenceless bus driver. The smell of the burning bus. The desperate face of the mum with her baby pressed against the glass panels of the rear doors. "Pleeeeeeease .... open the door! Pleeeeeaase." Dark smoke filling the bus. Passengers squeezed up behind the mum and her baby, bodies forced together by heat, bodies about to be burned alive. Taxi driver Aguek, 31, knows it was his own right foot that made those mechanically fixed doors give way, his long, powerful arms that somehow prised them open.?

How To Win A War On Drugs by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times (2,400 words / 12 minutes). An excellent overview of the considerable successes of the "Portuguese model" of drug policy, where addiction is treated as a disease, not a crime.

On a broken-down set of steps, a 37-year-old fisherman named Mario mixed heroin and cocaine and carefully prepared a hypodermic needle. "It's hard to find a vein," he said, but he finally found one in his forearm and injected himself with the brown liquid. Blood trickled from his arm and pooled on the step, but he was oblivious. "Are you O.K.?" Rita Lopes, a psychologist working for an outreach program called Crescer, asked him. "You're not taking too much?" Lopes monitors Portuguese heroin users like Mario, gently encourages them to try to quit and gives them clean hypodermics to prevent the spread of AIDS. Decades ago, the United States and Portugal both struggled with illicit drugs and took decisive action – in diametrically opposite directions. The U.S. cracked down vigorously, spending billions of dollars incarcerating drug users. In contrast, Portugal undertook a monumental experiment: It decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001, even heroin and cocaine, and unleashed a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. Ever since in Portugal, drug addiction has been treated more as a medical challenge than as a criminal justice issue. After more than 15 years, it's clear which approach worked better. The United States drug policy failed spectacularly, with about as many Americans dying last year of overdoses – around 64,000 – as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined.

'Fancy Believing in the Goblin King' by Paul Magrs on Life On Magrs (900 words / 4 minutes). This is a story about a shy boy meeting David Bowie, and learning something amazing about invisible masks. I loved it, and I think you will, too.

My friend told me a story he hadn't told anyone for years. When he used to tell it years ago people would laugh and say, 'Who'd believe that? How can that be true? That's daft.' So he didn't tell it again for ages. But for some reason, last night, he knew it would be just the kind of story I would love. When he was a kid, he said, they didn't use the word autism, they just said 'shy', or 'isn't very good at being around strangers or lots of people.' But that's what he was, and is, and he doesn't mind telling anyone. It's just a matter of fact with him, and sometimes it makes him sound a little and act different, but that's okay. Anyway, when he was a kid it was the middle of the 1980s and they were still saying 'shy' or 'withdrawn' rather than 'autistic'. He went to London with his mother to see a special screening of a new film he really loved. He must have won a competition or something, I think. Some of the details he can't quite remember, but he thinks it must have been London they went to, and the film...! Well, the film is one of my all-time favourites, too. It's a dark, mysterious fantasy movie. Every single frame is crammed with puppets and goblins. There are silly songs and a goblin king who wears clingy silver tights and who kidnaps a baby and this is what kickstarts the whole adventure. It was 'Labyrinth', of course, and the star was David Bowie, and he was there to meet the children who had come to see this special screening.

Friendship That Bloomed Over The Great Divide by Matthew Knott in The Sydney Morning Herald (1,100 words / 5 minutes). A lovely story about a journalist and a politician finding common ground, and becoming friends.

A funny thing happened when I went to work in the Canberra press gallery: I became friends with a politician. As a rule, this isn't something I'd encourage. The job of the journalist, after all, is to ferret out uncomfortable facts and scrutinise the decisions of the powerful. Getting too close to the people you write about risks undermining your first allegiance: to your readers. Aware they could be burnt if they give away too much of themselves, politicians are just as wary of us. As American journalist Joan Didion put it: "Writers are always selling somebody out." The New Yorker magazine staffer Janet Malcolm, even less kindly, described the journalist as "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse". Luckily, it's not difficult to avoid genuine friendships across the reporter-politician divide. Parliament House runs on self-interest, meaning the relationships between politicians, political staffers and journalists tend to be transactional and superficial. They want to get a message out, we want to break stories, and that's where our interests collide. When a politician stops being useful to a reporter, or vice versa, interactions tend to dry up quickly. And yet we're human beings too. Away from the heated theatrics of question time and adversarial television interviews, reporters occasionally get a glimpse of the real person behind the political persona. You see doubt, kindness, vulnerability. And on rare occasions, a friendship blooms.

From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein's Accusers Tell Their Stories by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker (7,800 words / 39 minutes). Ten months in the making, this is an exhaustively sourced and sensitively written report about an alleged serial predator. "It's likely that the women who spoke to me have recently felt increasingly emboldened to talk about their experiences because of the way the world has changed regarding issues of sex and power," writes Ronan Farrow, noting recent allegations of sexual misconduct by other high-profile American men. 

Since the establishment of the first studios, a century ago, there have been few movie executives as dominant, or as domineering, as Harvey Weinstein. He co-founded the production-and-distribution companies Miramax and the Weinstein Company, helping to reinvent the model for independent films with movies including "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "The Crying Game," "Pulp Fiction," "The English Patient," "Shakespeare in Love," and "The King's Speech." Beyond Hollywood, he has exercised his influence as a prolific fund-raiser for Democratic Party candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Weinstein combined a keen eye for promising scripts, directors, and actors with a bullying, even threatening, style of doing business, inspiring both fear and gratitude. His movies have earned more than three hundred Oscar nominations, and, at the annual awards ceremonies, he has been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, ranking just after Steven Spielberg and right before God. For more than twenty years, Weinstein, who is now sixty-five, has also been trailed by rumors of sexual harassment and assault. His behavior has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond, but previous attempts by many publications, including The New Yorker, to investigate and publish the story over the years fell short of the demands of journalistic evidence. Too few people were willing to speak, much less allow a reporter to use their names, and Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, payoffs, and legal threats to suppress their accounts. Asia Argento, an Italian film actress and director, said that she did not speak out until now–Weinstein, she told me, forcibly performed oral sex on her–because she feared that Weinstein would "crush" her. "I know he has crushed a lot of people before," Argento said. "That's why this story–in my case, it's twenty years old, some of them are older–has never come out." On October 5th, the New York Times, in a powerful report by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, revealed multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Weinstein, an article that led to the resignation of four members of the Weinstein Company's all-male board, and to Weinstein's firing. The story, however, is complex, and there is more to know and to understand. In the course of a ten-month investigation, I was told by thirteen women that, between the nineteen-nineties and 2015, Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them. Their allegations corroborate and overlap with the Times's revelations, and also include far more serious claims.


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Wow! Such a great piece of work.
Glad I stopped by. Thanks for sharing

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