Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: April, 2014

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 WHO’S AFRAID OF ROMANCE?

There’s been a fair bit flying around the net lately on the value or lack thereof of romantic fiction, amid the usual squawking in and around so-called women’s literature generally. Why isn’t romance taken seriously? Why isn’t it front and centre at the Sydney Writers Festival, goddammit! Can you even use ‘women’ and ‘literature’ in the same sentence? Did I just say that?

I’m not even entirely sure what romance is. In a superficial sense, I suppose it’s a story with girl-boy goosh at its heart. Isn’t it? One in which the heroine weeps, waits and sighs heavily across one thousand and fifty-seven shades of sexual desire, towards every conceivable climax, from a chaste kiss at the threshold of marriage to hot and sweaty action on the back of a black stallion at a gallop across the dales.

I write romance, so I’m told. I like to think I write stories that hold love – its power and its possibilities – at the centre of the human experience. I do this mostly because this is what I believe and how I live my real life. I also find the vaulting arc of a romantic narrative most excellent fun to write.

Will he ever hold her in his arms again? Damn straight, he will. It’s the best adventure there is.

But not all readers of romance like my novels. They are a peskily discerning lot. Rural fiction fans have been disappointed that my storylines don’t focus so much on the land as a plot driver; more traditional romance readers don’t like that the word ‘fuck’ usually appears within the first few chapters, along with way too much stinky masculine point-of-view; and Australian historical romance aficionados have been left cold by my at times irreverent deconstruction of some of the most sacred icons of our national mythology.

The cynical among us might say that I only use romance as a vehicle to peddle my pinko ideas of social justice and equity by stealth upon an unsuspecting audience of fluffheads. And awch – that one hurts. Not.

All writers of romantic fiction are accused by our self-appointed gatekeepers of culture and taste of using sentimentality to manipulate readers. As if fiction isn’t entirely the art of manipulation. As if all writers of fiction aren’t professional bovine excrementalists.

These gatekeepers tie themselves up in knots of great complexity in the attempt to describe the specialness and worth of real proper literature as it contrasts with so-called genre fiction (oh lordy how I despise that g-word). Literary fiction is untamed, it’s convention-stretching, it’s exploratory, and experimental. As if sci-fi, fantasy, romance or crime thrillers can never be any of these things.

On the other hand, romance is as easily described as it is dismissed. Romance is cliché ridden, poorly written, predictable, devoid of any intellectual depth and only for the feeble-minded.

Who are these feeble-minded people buying all this trash then? Who comprise this largest reading market in the entire freaking world?

Women.

Disparaging romance out of hand then (especially if one as freely admits to never having read any) is just another form of disparaging women. Isn’t it?

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Anzac Day is, for me, our most meaningful national day. I’m not a dawn-service goer or marcher or medal-wearer. I’m certainly not a two-up drunk.

The sacrifices of the original Anzacs resonate through me with the quiet shock of long-remembered tragedy. Their day is, and was always meant to be, a day of national mourning, for sons sent far away from home to fight in a bloodthirsty imperial trade war.

The members of my family who joined the Australian Imperial Forces didn’t go to Gallipoli. They did the European tour. And they weren’t boys of Mother England, either. One was a German Australian, and the other an Irishman. One lies still in Zonnebeke, somewhere in West Flanders, his remains never found; the other made it home and took life by the throat, becoming the first member of our family to go to university, only to die early from nephritis as result of his gassing in France.

Once, as a child, coming home from town with my grandmother, Nin, we’d hopped off the Maroubra bus at the Junction and were walking to the taxi stand to get a cab the rest of the way home, when an alcoholic wobbled out of the pub on the corner towards us.

I must have made a face or said something in judgment of the man, for Nin to squeeze my hand and tell me, ‘Shush. Be kind. You don’t know what hardship he’s known.’

I didn’t know what she was talking about, and yet I did. It was Anzac Day.

The sound of The Last Post squeezes around my heart every time I hear it; the lone piper at the Australian War Memorial closing ceremony makes me cry. Not only for those who die far from home but for those who return hurt. Lest we forget the fallen; let us honour and heal the broken.

It’s why I always have two bucks for a legacy badge, and always time for an old digger’s yarn.

Sometimes I feel guilty that my first two novels plumb that part of our heritage. I wonder if I’m just another Anzac-legend parasite, desperate for reflected glory, no better than a twenty-first-century Gallipoli lout.

I’ve asked a couple of old diggers this question over the years. One just laughed at me, growling sharply, ‘The dead don’t care what you write’; the other said, ‘Kimmy, don’t worry, you can’t tell these stories enough – someone’s got to.’

And there are certainly plenty of them to tell. Anzac is not one white-bread homogenous thing. Not one neat narrative. Not one kind of bronzed Aussie. They were German, Irish, Scottish, Aboriginal, Lebanese, Catholics, Coptics and Jews.

They were Our Boys, and we love them still.

This Anzac Day will possibly be louder and larger than usual, with the centenary of the beginning of World War I coming up in a few months’ time, but beneath all that noise, small voices continue to call to us. Among them, the lost tears of the ninety-six Australian Defence Force personnel who have suicided since 2000 as a result of the hardships of the job; triple our fatalities from Afghanistan.

As the brass bands strike up this Friday, I would guess that most of yesterday’s diggers might prefer that we do something to help today’s wounded and weary before we wave too many flags for them. That we listen to their stories, and tell them, and retell them, whenever can.

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I love Easter. For me it’s the richest of the Christian festivals. We mourn a terrible loss and reflect on the injustices inflicted on a man who lived and preached revolutionary kindness; we reflect on our faults and all the things we might do to become kinder people ourselves; we sit quietly with the knowledge that redemption is found in every good thing we do. And then we eat a lot of chocolate. What more could you want from religion?

I’m not religious. Having been raised half Catholic and half Socially Conscientious Agnostic Weirdo, as a kid I went to mass every Sunday and then, once home, was questioned about what I learned there. As an ever questing questioner myself, I was never going to last long in any kind of formal religion. Atheism came gently and logically for me at sixteen, and I’ve never grieved the loss of the Church in my life.

Over the ensuing thirty years, I’ve gained a lot of Easter chocolate, though. Having been raised half Catholic and half Socially Conscientious Agnostic Weirdo, my parents were incredibly stingy with the Red Tulip, and so I decided early on that I was never going to be as mean to my children. Although they are both men now and live far away, I’ve just posted them packages full of eggs and bunnies (and the obligatory undies-from-mum). I have a little box of chocolates hidden in my sock drawer to give to my husband on Sunday morning, too. Because chocolate is nearly as magical as kindness, isn’t it?

But more deeply, and personally, Easter has never lost its melancholy base note for me. Every year, I can almost feel the Good Friday full moon rising over my shoulder, compelling me to take stock: what have I done to improve myself, to overcome my failings, what have I learned, how hard have I tried to make my world a better place, how hard have I worked for others? Not exactly comfortable questions, as the answer is always: not nearly enough.

Is it lingering religion in me, an unsettling aversion-attraction to paschal purple? Or is it just the cranky old man in the moon shaking his finger, telling me that time is getting away as autumn begins to chill the air? I don’t know. It’s Easter. And it’s an excellent thing, really. To contemplate how sadness can be transformed into joy through giving; to consider the miracle it is that we each have the power to roll away the tombstones of loss and live again: sweeter and brighter. Wiser.

So here’s cheers to Easter, whatever this festival might mean for you, may it bring renewed faith and possibility to all your best, big-hearted dreams. As well as bulk loads of chocolate, of course…