Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: March, 2017

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THE RULE OF LAW

A few days ago, something scandalous happened in Australia. Our leading lady trade unionist, Sally McManus, said this dreadful thing:

‘I believe in the rule of law, when the law is fair and the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.’

The prime minister, whatever his name is, has now said he will not work with Sally in the future, remarking ruefully, ‘There’s not much we can do with her.’ His defence minister has called her words ‘anarchic Marxist claptrap’; his immigration minister has called her ‘a lunatic’; his employment minister has said she is ‘outrageous’.

Yeah.

Oh, and the leader of the opposition, who is hardly less forgettable and regrettable than the prime minister himself, has mumbled: ‘If you don’t like the law, change the government and change the law. That is the way to do business, not to break the law.’

Because it’s soooo easy for the poor, the powerless and discriminated against to get justice. Write a letter to your local politician, click your heels three times, et voila, democracy magic happens.

Obviously ‘business’ has written every word of the above socialist-bashing song sheet: the big end of business that wants to see annoyances like trade unions made illegal. Indeed, while we’re here, why should the ordinary have access to decent education, health care and laws that ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? The bludgers. What did the ordinary ever do for Australia?

Ermm. Everything? Look around you: your house, your laptop, your phone, your table, your teabag, all of it was made by ordinaries, and delivered by truckies and postmen. Should it be legal that the people who make all the daily wonders of your world have no right to be paid a wage that will enable them to pay their rent and feed their kids?

The people who hate Sally think so, and they’re getting away with telling lies about her and the rule of law because Australians are not only among the most politically complacent people in the world, we are out and out the laziest bunch of no hopers when it comes to understanding our own history.

Breaking the law has a long and proud history in Australia – and no, I’m not referring to the convicts shipped out here by a British government that couldn’t think of any more creative way to solve poverty at home other than by invading and stealing other people’s land.

Without civil disobedience – without people having the guts to stand against unjust laws and get arrested for their trouble – we would not have democracy in the first place. Eureka Stockade anyone? No, that bloody battle was not just about a bunch of whingeing miners with easy access to firearms. It was about men – ordinary men – wanting the right to vote, and a couple of years later they won it.

Without civil disobedience, Aboriginal children would still be barred from public swimming pools and homosexual people would go to prison; women would have no rights to financial independence and there’d be no such thing as a minimum hourly rate.

Without civil disobedience, Australia would never have witnessed the horrors of anti-Vietnam War mums protesting in the streets, as pictured above. Dangerous criminals, that lot.

Without civil disobedience, every card falls the boss’s way, the vulnerable are exploited for profit, oppressed so that the powerful remain powerful. So that the powerful can break laws with impunity: environmental laws, political donations laws, politicians’ codes of conduct, and pesky international rules that say we shouldn’t bomb other people’s countries without a good reason. Iraq anyone?

Without civil disobedience, authority becomes a beast, rather than a creature of our democracy helping and protecting us all.

Sally McManus has said no radical thing. She’s only stated the obvious. And the only truly frightening thing about this is that no mainstream journalist is sticking up for her or the principle that if injustice is to be exposed or overcome, then sometimes that will mean breaking the law.

Well, I’m sticking up for you, Sally – and for every man and woman who has fought against the law to make my world a better, fairer place.

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HOW TO KEEP WRITING

You know I love a ‘How To’ about as much as I love fish sauce on ice cream, but I have been asked a lot lately how I keep writing and writing when opportunities for publication are continually shrinking and shrinking.

I suppose the first answer to that is: I’ve never written with publication in mind. I write where a story takes me; I write to finish the story.

The second answer is: I always have something to write. I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block, don’t really know what that is or what it might feel like. The voices in my head always seem to have plenty to say – often too much. I have a file full of stories I want to write and not enough years left to live to get them all out.

But let’s not gild that lily. I also have some nasty brain activity always on the go, too – those voices who’d rather I didn’t write anything at all.

Even during boon days where I’m writing up a storm, it’s not unusual for me to spend whole mornings grappling with the arguments ‘You’re Not Good Enough’, ‘Stop Bothering’ and ‘No-one Cares’.

Of course these arguments didn’t begin at some crucial point in time; they’ve always been with me, just as a fascination for stories and words has always been with me. Do they go hand in hand, though? Are creativity and crushing anxiety inextricably pleached? I don’t know.

I was about eight when it first struck me that I could never truly know if I knew anything or not, if I could ever be sure if I was right or not – or if I was all right or not. I remember standing halfway on the steps between the knee-scarring asphalt playground and the wilds of the paddock beyond it, watching my friends running around and having fun, while I was stuck there thinking: I don’t even know if you’re real or not. Yes, I was a weird kid. Weird grown-up, emphasis on the weird.

Most people who end up thinking for a living probably are a bit weird. Grasping oddness, spotting anomalies, finding cracks in the glass, are kind of necessary to curiosity, to being able to embrace difference, to finding the courage to look for answers that may in fact not be there at all.

But while self-doubt is a useful tool, probably essential to making sure you don’t allow your questing soul to break too far and too long from reality, let those doubts take too tight a hold and they become a tool of destruction.

The arguments get darker and louder: ‘Loser’, ‘Flake’, ‘You’re Wasting Your Time And Everyone Else’s’.

It’s embarrassing the amount of time I have wasted fighting my inner nasties, it’s embarrassing to admit to the things they say to me, but while I can’t switch them off, throw them each down a long hole or bury them, I have learned to live with them. Despite their collective efforts, I manage to push through, and I’m getting better at it all the time.

I reflect on the stories I’ve completed. I reflect on the joy and understanding these stories have brought others – especially those who don’t know me and have no reason to say nice things to me. I mentally gather all this best gold I own and shove it under my worst enemy’s nose: cop that, bitchfaces.

My best weapon, though, is very simple but increasingly effective: write. Even when it hurts, write. Even when you’re crying, write. Even when you can’t comprehend the words on the screen as anything above the most putrid muck that’s ever come out of a human, write. Even when there truly seems no purpose, no end to this piece of string that’s yanking you onwards, write.

Remember, it’s important that you do, and that’s no platitude. Remember, it’s the lonely cloud that finds the field of daffodils, and no-one will see them the way you do. No-one is weird the way you’re weird. No-one can say the things you have to say, in the way you will say them.

Just keep writing: because you have to.

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THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

By some miracle of immigration, all my forebears managed to escape most of the great horrors of the twentieth century. The Irish avoided the Troubles, the Jews avoided the Holocaust, the Germans avoided the firestorms of World War II.

But it’s that last which has kept returning to me in recent writings. Both my Snowy Mountains story and my latest manuscript about a German-Australian surgeon hold the destruction of Dresden in their hearts.

My family didn’t come from Dresden but it’s a city of deep personal significance for me. A decade ago, when I was very lost and lonely, wounded and in quite desperate need of healing, I washed up here on the banks of this jewel of the Elbe not really knowing where I was. I had run away from home for a few weeks to try to get a grip, that was all.

I got more than a grip. I’ll never forget walking across the Altmarkt and seeing the Frauenkirche for the first time. This magnificent church had been reduced to rubble during the bombing in World War II and had only recently been restored to its former gilt-edged rococo glory. The people of Dresden had had such hopes even then – in that deadly February of 1945 – that one day this beautiful building would stand again, they collected as much of the original stone as possible to use in the restoration.

When I stepped inside, I was overwhelmed with such a force of love and possibility I had to sit down. I’m not a religious person, but here, in this church, something of goodness and faith hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I walked back through the city with clearer eyes. I saw the last remnant holes in the ground left by the war now as building sites, I saw the unashamed contrasts of elegant old buildings sitting cheek by jowl with bold new ones as symbols of regeneration and resilience. Suddenly, for me, joy seemed not only achievable but a responsibility. Get up and get on with it, Kimbo.

I did, and a few years later, I dragged my teenaged kids across the world with my new man, Deano, so they could experience it too. The three of them survived the trip and my mad need to have all my love and wonder in one place for a spell. My eldest boy turned eighteen there and Deano shouted him his first legal pilsner on the Altmarkt. Beautiful, beautiful memories.

But this morning, I was confronted anew with destruction that has lain a little closer to home all this time.

My German family is from a small town called Wald-Michelbach, nestled in the gentle fir-clad slopes of the Odenwald, and in my imagination it’s always seemed a little slice of fantasy fairytale, an idyllic place from which two brothers stepped long ago, taking a ship from Bremen across the seas to Australia. I’ve been thinking I should rattle the dream and see what true tale I might find there – one I can turn into a new novel. A glimpse of such a story flitted through my mind, beginning here in the mid-nineteenth century, a young travelling musician…

‘I want to go back to Germany,’ I called out to Deano.

He groaned. We have this conversation a lot. He’d like to go back to Germany too, but we don’t have time, can’t justify the expense right now, and at six feet, five inches tall, he groans at the mere idea of long-haul flight.

Nevertheless, I started plotting a trip. We could come into Frankfurt, tootle around Wiesbaden, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Pforzheim, Mannheim… And then I realised half these places no longer exist as my ancestors would have known them – the last three had their centres almost completely obliterated by fire-bombing. Frankfurt’s medieval streets – gone.

With some other sudden clarity, I saw the scale of destruction right across the entire country. So much history lost; so many people. To give a sense of the numbers involved, if 32,000 ordinary workaday civilians were killed by the Germans during the Blitz throughout Britain, no-one knows how many were killed in Dresden alone by the Allies – estimates range from 35,000 to 135,000. In Darmstadt, 12,000; in Pforzheim, 17,000; Frankfurt 5,000, and on and on; by 1945 millions throughout Germany were homeless.

Of course, this is the price of freedom. No-one argues that. The British remain quietly, sombrely defensive about the figures; the Germans cling to lessons of mass madness and contrition in a Europe that seems set to tumble towards fascism again.

Whatever happens now, only one thing is clear: none of us can go back. We can only continue to seek out and tell our tales, to try to keep the truths of the past alive – and heed their warnings.

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(Photos: the Frauenkirche, Dresden, before and after)

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A LITTLE KINDNESS

They say write what you know – whoever they are. I’m not sure about that advice.

First, it’s my own ignorance, and the questing curiosity always hoping to rectify it, that drives my desire to investigate all kinds of stuff through narrative and character – everything from surgery to nuclear fission, from underground mining to botanical classification. Second, since I write historical fiction, I can’t in any authentic sense know anything much of the experiences I write about.

What I do know about, though, is the emotional landscape of the stories that weave their way from heart and brain onto the page.

Love. Grief. Friendship. What home means. Disconnection and reconnection. Hurt. Healing. The deep, intimate madnesses that all of the above can trigger.

But I’ve realised over the past little while that the pulse that runs beneath all my tale-telling is kindness. Characters who have too little of it learn it. Characters who don’t have any of it lose. Heroes possess it in spades.

My heroes – the guys and the gals – are all flawed and frail in some way. Sometimes they’re annoying: stubborn, foul-mouthed, shoulders chipped and packaging damaged inside and out. Sometimes they betray those they love – and themselves. But kindness is at the top tip of their growth, their success and their nobility.

I’ve copped a bit of shit over this from both sides of the literary fence. Lovers of romance can occasionally get uppity that my heroes are, really, a bunch of basket cases. Culture creatures, on the other hand, accuse me of sentimentality and Pollyanna-ism.

The thing is, though, these characters are, to me, in all their feels very real. They are me. The more I write, the more I realise I am writing not so much what I know but what I live.

The pursuit of kindness – how to be generous towards others, to be compassionate, a listener, a forgiver, an understander, how to be larger than your own smallness and stronger than all your weaknesses, how to walk away from anger – is a quest at the centre of my own life. I fail daily, but I will die trying.

Why? It’s no moral cause. Those who know my work well know I fall firmly into Nietzsche’s camp on that: good and evil are crap constructs, reductive idiocies that cause untold war and pain. I don’t want to be kind because I think I’ll be rewarded – in heaven or by others. I want to be kind because it makes sense, because it reduces conflict and creates safe bases in chaos, because, as a chronic anxiety sufferer, I need as much peace and order as I can get.

But more than this, I’ve been on the receiving end of unkindness. I know what it’s like to be bullied, raped, kicked, spat on, belittled, told I’m worthless. I know what it feels like to have the life of someone you love ripped from you so that all you can do in response is scream. I know that these terrifying experiences never go away.

This afternoon, Deano – my husband, best mate and muse de bloke – came in from work talking about a program he’d just heard on the radio about economic violence, that mind-twisting, sadistic game where someone takes such control over your life, they steal your money. I started to cry as we talked about it, because I know what that feels like too, to be shrunk so low, and the conversation sent me straight into a traumatic flashback from many years ago.

Why don’t I write about those experiences instead? Why don’t I write about that darkness and disempowerment? Because I want to tear the power from bullies and bigots of all kinds while I’m alive. Sharp-eyed readers might have spotted that I never mention the name of a certain genocidal German leader whose name was barely off the front page during World War Two. I don’t mention his name because to do so maintains his power. I might detail the acts – but not that man.

I detail the triumph of kindness instead because it’s the only truly effective weapon I have.

Plus Deano, of course. He’s the kindest man I know.