Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: May, 2017

heart tree


Three days before I gave my husband Deano a kidney for Christmas 2014, I received an email from a psychology PhD student asking me to participate in a long-term study of organ donors. She only needed half an hour of my time, but I didn’t have five minutes to spare then.

I was scrambling to complete the final editorial queries on my novel, Paper Daisies. I pressed send to the publisher with less than twenty-four hours to go until the surgery. The rest of my head was consumed with pumping myself up with confidence that Deano would love my kidney like his own and that I wouldn’t die in the process.

I was in a place beyond sensible conversation. I was standing on the cold, hard threshold of my mad aeroplane door waiting to jump.

But now, today, I’d like to answer that student’s questions, whatever they might have been, about how things have turned out for me as a donor.

To begin with, not a day goes by when I’m not blown away by the fact that things have worked out so well for us. The kidney elves at Westmead Hospital did a magnificent job: so much so that Deano and I often forget he was ever deathly ill, and his renal physician is apt to scratch his head at the wonder that such a small-girl kidney could produce such a stunningly great result inside such a big-bloke body. Yay, team.

But, apart from having a healthy husband returned to me, the experience has brought gifts I could never have foreseen.

Perhaps the most astonishing, and beneficial, has been that my own chronic illness – anxiety – has never managed to get its hooks into me too deeply ever since. Jumping out into that place beyond sense seems have caused some kind of psychic shift in my brain.

I’m no longer so fearful of failure; I’m no longer so interested in what others might think of me, either. I no longer listen to people whose opinions I don’t respect and at the same time I can hear smaller voices so much more clearly.

I’m a better mother to my boys: more relaxed in my support of them, less distracted by panic and more tuned in to their needs. I’m probably a much better friend than I ever was, too, with my head uncluttered of so much of the self-consciousness that used to get in the way of everything.

It feels as if, in my own giving of that little piece of flesh, something in my soul has been turned permanently outwards.

Only a few months after the surgery, in the May of 2015, at the Bathurst Writers & Readers Festival, I was suddenly able to talk about my books and myself without feeling as though my heart was going to leap out of my chest and run for the hills. I could now see all the people who helped me and encouraged me to get on that stage and I was flooded with gratitude rather than terror. I could see the audience now as a bunch of people just wanting to connect with something outside themselves, hear something interesting. I could imagine that if someone in that audience was having a shitty day, a chat and a laugh with me might make their day a little less shitty.

I can’t begin to describe how liberating this has been. I’ve just spent the weekend participating as a speaker and workshop-teacher at this year’s Bathurst Festival and I can barely believe how much my confidence, and my joy, in sharing my thoughts and skills with others has bloomed.

The knocks and disappointments that are part and parcel of publishing don’t rock me the way they used to, either. Back in 2015, when I was told by one publisher that my work was of no interest to them, I wrote Wild Chicory – a book that has become my statement piece, the story that articulates most powerfully who I am in the world, and arguably the one my readers love best.

Since then, my creativity – my love and curiosity for words and stories and what they can do – has been in overdrive, and I’ve written four manuscripts; one of them, Jewel Sea, was published last year, hot the heels of Wild Chicory. Pause for the arithmetic: yes, in a little under two and a half years, I’ve written five books altogether; two of them have been published, and two of them are being read by a publisher right now. This publisher is a weighty, prestigious block of concrete, and while it’d be nice to have them take me on, it’s no longer essential to my writing schemes and dreams.

I know who I am, I know what my story is, and I’ll drive my own publishing bus regardless of whose logo might grace the imprint pages of my books. I’m already in the midst of a major test drive with the republishing of my first four novels, which will be out in July. When a deal for them fell through earlier this year, I picked up sticks and organised it myself – something that would have been unthinkable for me a few short years ago. I wouldn’t have known where to begin; I’d have been too ashamed to ask.

But maybe most extraordinarily of all, I’m thinking about going back to uni. Twenty years ago, I dropped out of my Master of Letters because I’d unexpectedly found myself having to return to full-time work and more or less sole-parenting my two small boys, making study impossible. But now – right now – I’m in discussion with an academic to see if the manuscript I want to write next might be a good basis for my own higher research degree. Whether or not this eventuates, it’s a turn that has truly shocked me for what it says about how much my faith in my work has grown.

So, dear psychology PhD student, organ donation has been a great, big, beautiful boon for me. I’d do it again in a blink, if I had another kidney available.

And dear readers, if you or anyone you know ever needs to chat through the process or the emotions of organ donation, my heart is always here for you. Drop me a line.

In the meantime, love recklessly, love large. It’s good for you. Really.


Image: creator unknown



What do we think of when we hear the words ‘Aussie hero’? Ten bucks says it’s not a woman. Soldiers, sportsmen, farmers, emergency services workers all vie for glossy advertising space in my mind, their smiling, sweaty poster-blokes too loudly high-vis to allow a view of much else.

That’s some stubborn social conditioning, I guess, but I’ve had some very interesting conversations lately on the place and constitution of the Great Australian Woman that have led me to wonder if she’s been sent further to the background than ever before.

In doing a bit of research for an upcoming festival chat, I’ve been asking around: Where are our women heroes of Australian literature today? Our favourites seem to be those of the past, among the most beloved of them, Sybylla from My Brilliant Career, and Philadelphia from All the Rivers Run. Intriguing and complex gals, too: Laura from Voss, and Cushie from Swords and Crowns and Rings. Even our contemporary lady protagonists step from the mists of history, however glitteringly: Edith Campbell Berry from Grand Days et al, and the unflappable flapperish Phryne Fisher.

Whole women, imperfect women, their voices distinct, their ways idiosyncratic, and all of them women of personal agency and intrinsic power. Women rich in character. Women who drive their own stories and sit at the centre of them.

Where are they in Australian literature today, though?

A disturbing head-scratch seems to have followed the question: Hmmmm? Dunno.

Perhaps we lack the critical distance to identify them in the bustle of now. More worryingly, perhaps they’re no longer marketable.

At the more commercial end of things, Australian publishers are leery of ‘difficult’ women protagonists, preferring more safely saleable action Barbie heroines who rarely falter in their stride, always beat the bad guys and always get their man. They almost always wear Akubras, and if they don’t, they’re almost always miraculously able to travel the world being multi-talented while overcoming every single obstacle in their path. They are loads of fun but fairly shallow – and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve watched the pressure to conform grow. I’ve been on the receiving end of that pressure myself and it’s as upsetting as it sounds: write to market-tested template or fail. I’ve chosen the latter, at least in spreadsheet terms – because I’m trying to forge something uniquely my own, however foolhardy that choice might be. The publishing industry isn’t somehow deliberately devaluing female protagonists, though: if difficult women equal difficult selling, in an ever contracting and perhaps steadily failing traditional business model, they have no choice. Whack a chick on the cover, whack her on the shelves of as many discount department stores who’ll have her and cross fingers for maximum units moved as quickly as possible – they’re compelled along this track to financially survive.

But what of the ‘literary’ side of the story? One publisher friend made the observation that trends here have seen grittier female characters cast as unreliable narrators for the tricksy plotting possibilities they provide, or used as vehicles for exploration of the troubles of the world, limbecks for the distillation of today’s big-ticket political agendas of gender, race, climate, and going to hell in a handbasket as lyrically as possible.

That particular conversation led me to wonder if the whole idea of heroes is a bit passe now. Perhaps we’re so chained to the idea that we’re indeed going to hell, heroes as such have become pointless diversions from reality.

And that led me scrambling back to the Greatest Australian Woman I know – the one who’s had the greatest influence on me: Henry Lawson’s nameless bushwoman from ‘The Drover’s Wife’. It’s a tiny thing, this short story of 1892 – read it here over a coffee – but it defines the female hero for me, and one that can be found nowhere else on earth but the land I call home.

The drover’s wife lives in a kind of hell – on a remote and ruined sheep station Lawson tells us is remarkable only for its lack of anything resembling beauty or safety or peace. Her husband has been gone, droving, for six months, and she’s alone on the property with her four kids and their dog, Alligator, when a deadly snake is seen slithering under the house.

In no-nonsense fashion she bundles the kids into the earthen-floored kitchen set back from the main house, and makes up a bed for them there, where they’ll wait out the night – and wait for the snake to emerge so that it might be killed before it kills one of them.

As her children sleep, ‘she has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal.’

Like all great heroes, she locks into a lonely psychological struggle against her enemy, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her mending and her enjoyment of her preferred magazine – of course!

The struggles of her existence are overwhelming, and she reflects on them through the night: she’s given birth to two of her kids in the bush; and when one them died, she had to ride nineteen miles for assistance. When bushfire threatened the family home, she literally donned her husband’s trousers and fought it off as best she could until help arrived. When flood threatened the family home, she dug an overflow trench herself, but failed to save her husband’s crop. She once fought off a mad bullock, shooting him and skinning him, selling the hide; and she has regularly fought off the unwanted company of wandering swaggies, too.

To the superficial gaze, she is a woman made hard by her circumstances and her grief, but she’s as sensitive as any other: she weeps at her losses and she loves her children fiercely; she loves her somewhat hopeless husband as well, for the goodness in him. Above all, she laughs. In tears at being hurt by a falling woodpile that stressful night, she attempts to wipe her face only to have her thumb rip through her threadbare handkerchief, and she laughs now, too.  She has, so Lawson tells us, ‘a keen, very keen, sense of the ridiculous’.

So much so that she religiously dresses in her best every Sunday, dressing up the children too, and they walk for miles through the bush, seeing no-one and going to no church.

Her moral compass is internal. No-one instructs her. She is entirely herself and she is the fulcrum of her world.

When Alligator does his job, thrashing the snake to death on its reappearance at dawn, the bushwoman throws it on the fire and cries quietly again. Why? In relief at the ordeal ended, or in some sorrow for the snake, Lawson deftly doesn’t say.

Does she exist today? Can she? I peppered my first novel, Black Diamonds, with references to her, and every novel since has celebrated the heroic in those like her – the unseen and unsung, the extraordinary in the ordinary – but all my characters, all my women heroes, come to me from the past, too.

And perhaps here’s the answer and the challenge: I’ll have to write a Great Australian Woman for today myself. One day.

In the meantime, I’m sure she’s out there already. I’m sure she’s with us. In the as yet barely navigable and ever expanding realms of independent publishing, she’s there. In the dreams of hundreds and hundreds of Australian writers, she must be there.

Waiting for her dawn…


Image: ‘The Drover’s Wife’, Russell Drysdale, 1945