Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: November, 2015

lady writer


While partaking of the rite of passage that is underage drinking at Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar one sunny afternoon when I was sweet seventeen, one of my unlearned fellows laughed at me on approach: ‘You’re really not into fashion, are you, Kimbo.’

No, I wasn’t. I was wearing an orange and black striped t-shirt and a pair of black tights: I’m sure I looked like an over-sized bumblebee, with a lager-froth moustache. My unlearned fellow, on the other hand, was most fashionably attired for the times in check-flannel shirt and stove-pipe jeans, his long hair studiously unwashed – so cool.

I shrugged at his statement of the obvious, and then he went on to ask me a question: ‘Don’t you have any ambition?’

Hm. I could only shrug again. At seventeen I barely knew what the word meant. Ambition? Did that mean climbing the corporate ladder? Getting yourself famous? I couldn’t see myself doing either of those things. I knew I wanted to write – probably novels, certainly poems – but I couldn’t tell such a cool person anything like that, not when he’d already laughed at what I was wearing.

He went on to become a popstar of some note (seriously), and I went on to make a really bad choice of marriage partner along my way to single motherhood. But his question stayed with me: did I have any ambition? These days, thirty years on, he’s not quite so notable and he’s cut his hair, while I seem to be fulfilling the only ambitions I ever had: writing and loving people who love me back. I have become a near obsessive frock-collector, too. I love dressing up – any or no excuse will do.

But I have never been fashionable, and I’ve realised over the years that I don’t quite understand what fashion is, apart from a capitalist construct designed by a bunch of desperate losers to make you feel inadequate and desperate, too, so that you will buy whatever crap they want to sell you. Yes, when the Almighty One was handing out cool, I was obviously off somewhere reading a book. I’ve never rushed with the mob for the next fabulous thing, not from any resistance on my part, but usually because I’m busy doing something else – like writing.

Curiously, I’ve discovered that a lack of mob mentality is not a quality much admired in authors – at least in some quarters. Earlier this year I was given some unsolicited advice by someone quite powerful in the publishing industry: ‘If you want to be successful, maybe it’s time you thought about changing your style. Have you considered writing a dual-timeframe narrative – you know, like Kate Morton? Something with lots of family secrets? They’re so popular.’

Praise be to Morton, but I’m still blinking at that question. Along with others I’ve heard over the years, such as: ‘Have you considered not writing in the first person, Kim? Your prose is wonderful, but you know first-person narratives never do well.’ And: ‘Have you considered not writing in the male voice? If you focus on the female story, your books will sell better. I know – perhaps your heroine could actually fly the plane to New Guinea herself, and then somehow become the hero’s nurse, then fly back to Australia with him to deal with the drought? Have you thought about maybe including a bushfire, too?’

Authors are routinely challenged by this kind of nonsense, and it’s very easy to feel quite knocked about by it. I know I have, and it’s left me asking the question: ‘Isn’t it good enough to want to be me? To tell my stories the way I want to tell them? Hello?’

It’s also very easy to be led to believe that the success you have achieved is meaningless. Of course we all want to sell truckloads like Rowling – who wouldn’t? – but most of us never will. For me, and I daresay the majority of those who stick at this writing caper, dollars and acclaim are not the goal – in my case, not because I’m particularly virtuous in this regard, but because my ambitions lie elsewhere. I want to keep learning new things, ploughing my field of curiosities, pushing my own boundaries, writing out my heart in the best ways I possibly can, and sharing these stories with those who mean the most to me in this realm of the page: readers. Besides, and for freak’s sake, I’m already successful beyond my wildest imaginings, and in my quiet, unfashionable way, that success builds and builds with every new day.

Today, it’s fairly easy for me to laugh at stupid questions. I’ve learned the only opinions that count are the ones from truly learned fellows I respect, the ones that come from people who genuinely care about what I’m trying to achieve over the long game. But if you are feeling a bit crushed or confused right now by those who question the worth of that one beautiful, timeless, necessary thing you do, know that I walk with you in solidarity.

And know that you are already winning by wanting to be you.



Whenever I set off to discover a particular period and place in history, one of the first things I head for is the food. What a surprise. What did ordinary people eat? I wonder. How did they cook? It’s such an essential part of life and it tells us so much about who we are.

You might have guessed from previous posts that I’m studying Edwardian times in Western Australia right now, and along the way I found this fabulous bunch of recipes in the Great Southern Leader newspaper of January 1912…

A Cool Drink

Place four ounces of oatmeal, six ounces of sugar, and a lemon cut in slices in a pan. Mix all together with a little cold water, then add a gallon of boiling water. Stir thoroughly and drink when quite cold. Any flavouring may be added instead of lemons.

White Soup

Melt two ounces of butter in a saucepan, then stir in two ounces of flour, taking care not to let it brown. Add two and a half quarts of white stock, stir, and let it boil for fifteen minutes. Remove the scum as it rises, and season with grated nutmeg and pepper. Beat up the yolks of three eggs in the tureen, and mix with half a pint of milk, then pour in the boiling soup gradually to prevent curdling, and serve.

Tomato and Lettuce Salad

Select firm, round, ripe tomatoes of equal size. Peel them with a thin, sharp knife (do not scald them to peel them), and handle them as delicately as possible. Cut each tomato into thick slices, but do not separate the slices, so that the appearance of whole tomatoes may be preserved. Just before the salad is to be served, arrange them upon a bed of crisp lettuce leaves and put a spoonful of thick mayonnaise sauce upon each.

Ham Steaks

Cut thick slices from a raw ham, put them into a frying pan with a small cupful of water, and cook slowly, turning once or twice till the water has evaporated and the steaks are light brown. Dredge lightly with flour. Have ready a sauce made by boiling a teaspoonful of mustard, and a few grains of cayenne. Arrange the steaks on a dish and pour the boiling sauce over them, garnishing the dish with triangular shaped sippets of toast.

 Luncheon Meat Rolls

These are very appetising and not extravagant, since the remains of beef and ham can be used for them. Take some slices of cold meat, trim them neatly into the same shape and size, and sprinkle each with red pepper and salt. Take as many thin slices of bacon or ham as there are slices of meat, and on to the bacon put a little chopped parsley, a suspicion of anchovy paste, and a few drops of mushroom ketchup. Now put the meat on the bacon, and roll both together; fasten with a skewer. Dip the rolls into eggs and bread-crumbs or frying batter, and fry in deep fat. Serve on a mound of rice stewed in brown gravy.

Pigeons in Jelly

Stew a knuckle of veal and make it into a strong tasty jelly with all kinds of vegetables, adding a half ounce of isinglass. Season with mace, white pepper, salt, and bay leaf, and a few slices of lemon. Par roast the pigeons, dressed as for roasting. When ready lay them into liquor and simmer slowly until tender. Take a well-soaked mould and line it with the veal jelly an inch thick, then place in the birds (three will he enough). When set pour in more jelly until the mould is full. Lay aside for several hours. N.B.— One bird should be put in first, then the other two side by side, and fill the mould with jelly. Serve with lemons and cayenne.

It’s unlikely that I’m going to make pigeons in jelly anytime soon, and my family would have me committed if I served them anything so dull as that salad or soup, but it’s a great insight into how times and tastes change, isn’t it? I love the changes in our cookery language, too – ‘a suspicion of anchovy paste’, now that’s just so gorgeous I’m going to have to pinch it, aren’t I…



As a white middling-in-the-middle-of-the-middle-class Australian woman of average size and height, I’ve never experienced prejudice based on my appearance. I’ve been called a Skip and a Gub for the colour of my skin. I’ve been called Four Eyes for my thick specs. I was once called a ‘white bitch’ by an angry drunk in a park who threw her empty beer bottle at me. But I know nothing of racism – that kind of bigotry that saps the souls of its victims and becomes a quiet and creeping violence in itself.

Racism puts a knot in my stomach, the same way any kind of mindless cruelty does. But how much harder must it be to deal with it head on, to face racism every day? How frustrating and heartbreaking must it be to miss out on that job, to be ignored by your children’s school principal, to be spoken to rudely at the supermarket, to hear your children being teased, to have your opinion disregarded, because of the way you look, the colour of your skin, the shapes that make up your face, the sound of your accent?

These questions seem obvious to me, points of empathy and compassion that are logical and commonsensical – and necessary to achieving a reasonably fair and well-functioning society. To me, Australia has always looked like the photograph above, of my Year 6 primary school class: colourful. I don’t know any different. And I don’t need to have experienced racism myself in order to feel its wrongness.

Somewhere deep in my bones is the key. My Irish and my European Jewish forebears knew prejudice, in some form or other. It was too long ago for me to know the details of their stories, but they knew what it was like to be pushed from their homelands in search of a place where they could live free of bigotry. Free to make their way in the world, raise their family, earn a living, unmolested by those who believed they were lesser beings.

I’m proud of my Irish and Jewish heritage, but not very long ago, even in multicultural Australia, this is a statement one would not have made in mixed company. Being white and middling, being as whitebread British as possible, was essential to getting anywhere in life.

This demand for sameness is still with us, from our criticisms of some Islamic women’s fashion sense, to our seemingly ingrained belief that all our lives would be made so much easier if First Nations Australians were moved off their traditional lands and sent to live in towns like ‘normal’ people.

‘Why should they get special treatment?’ I hear some people say, both about Australians who have called this place home for tens of thousands of years and the latest newcomers who seek asylum here. ‘I’ve had a hard life, too,’ some say. And I could say that myself. I’ve struggled at times; I’ve had to face and climb some serious mountains to escape the deathly pit of untold crap. Life itself can be pretty fricken cruel all on its own. But the thing is, if you’re a member of the dominant culture – and in Australia, that remains appearing as whitebread as possible – you find footholds and ropes out much more easily. It’s more likely, if you’re white, well-educated and already well-fed, that someone will actually reach out a hand and help to haul you up.

Let’s not make too fine a point here. Racism is more than a bit of a disadvantage. It causes trauma. And it compounds trauma. It’s handed on from parent to child, through customs, mannerisms – through impossible-to-erase genes. It can make big burly football players like Adam Goodes suddenly feel small, unworthy and tortured. Lost.

Recognising someone else’s trauma, regardless of whether that trauma occurred through the Stolen Generations, or the Holocaust, or any other kind of institutional abuse, doesn’t ever diminish our own personal experiences of sadness and anger. Caring only ever goes in one direction: towards deeper understanding, not just of another’s pain, but of our own as well. Tearing down the phantom, bogus, bullshit walls of racism sets us all free.

And it’s why I’ll always shine my little light as bright as I can on any kind of bigotry.