Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Politics

image

THE UGLY AUSTRALIAN

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past twenty-four hours on how and when Anzac Day became hijacked by fascists – by the kinds of people Australian servicemen and women have sacrificed themselves in fighting across various wars for more than a century now.

Of course, I’m referring to their howls yesterday that writer, engineer, TV presenter and general over-achiever Yassmin Abdel-Magied be sacked and deported to some unnamed corner of hell for daring to suggest that we might, on our day of remembrance, spare a thought for those we have locked up in indefinite detention – those refugees who by some savage irony have, in their attempt to escape one form of authoritarian evil, found themselves deep inside Australia’s special version of same.

I’m not going to recount Yassmin’s tale here – plenty has been written on her crimes of unAustralianness already, and it’s all already boring. Strip it down to its pathetic nuts and bolts and we have a woman who, in exercising free speech, has not only said something plainly true, but has had it viciously condemned by those who purport to be the great white defenders of freedom in our land. It’s an irony sandwich with onions.

But the conversations behind the headlines have provided rich fields of thought. In one lively chat among a bunch of women, one asked if it was John Howard – the prime minister who went to war with Bush on Blair on a lie, sending the West on a spree of war crimes after September 11 – who reshaped Anzac Day in his own image.

And I replied, no, not exactly. In the red team/blue team death spiral that passes for politics in Australia, the left blames the right for everything morally corrupt (and vice versa) and tends to unremember that ‘their’ Labor leaders have been just as guilty of firing up the undesirables as the conservatives. It was our beer-drinking, working-class Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke who unleashed a new Aussie pride in the build up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, encouraging public involvement in Anzac commemorations that hadn’t been seen since the First World War, painting all in the bright colours of some kind of sport. And of course, lest we forget his Zegna-suited successor Paul Keating, while eschewing reflected military glory or anything that might ruin his manicure, set up the system of offshore immigration detention in which those refugees Yassmin was referring to languish today.

Next, John Howard, being the whore for a score he is, picked up the ball and ran with it. That ball was Australia’s working class. Their new wealth, new confidence and new pride, became a potent political force and remains so. They’re goaded by politicians, conservative commentators and radio talkback narcissists to hate anything and everything they deem unAustralian. They’re encouraged every day and in every election to blame everyone but themselves for any problem the country might face. They are anti-socialist, anti-union, anti-immigration, anti-compassion, anti-thought – anti everything that’s brought them the good life in the first place. It’s revolting, yes, and what they’ve done to Anzac Day – with their jingoistic displays of arrogance, drunkenness and violence – would embarrass and confuse my working-class grandparents.

And it’s this thought of my grandparents that had me walking away from yesterday’s bunfight with a gnawing knowledge that our ugliness runs much deeper than this. Perhaps the unthinking jingoes are louder and brasher now, but they’ve been with us from the beginning.

During the First World War, my Irish grandmother, as a little girl, regularly had rocks and other abuses thrown at her walking home after school in inner Sydney’s Surry Hills, because she was Catholic and poor and deemed a traitorous Sinn Feiner, even though one of her brothers was at that time away fighting in France – and copping mustard gas that would send him to an early grave.

On the other side of my family, my schoolboy grandfather’s name was changed from Schwebel to Swivel, because the violence against German Australians was gathering steam, even though one of his cousins was at that time away fighting in Flanders. In fact, there was a ferocious campaign waged at Marrickville Council to change the name of Schwebel Street to something unGerman, which was only abandoned when Henry Schwebel was killed at Zonnebeke and the jingoes were shown up for deadshits they are.

I woke up this morning with all this ringing in my ears. Because of those who hate, my name, the name I grew up with, is not my own. Of course, I’ve always known this – the stories of bricks through windows and reputations trashed has been with me since I was a little girl – but it came to me with fresh sadness.

How fucking dare you, was my next and predictable thought. You load of nano-minded human pollutants. I could hate, too. But somehow the lessons of history have settled in me – and across my family – with a greater need to love. To learn. To choose to be grateful, too, for the luxury of peace that enables me to love and learn so freely.

I channel those questions of homegrown hatred into all my writings, my stories about Australia, and I throw love at them there, too. It’s curious that this has seen my work labelled as romantic and sentimental over the years, made some literary confreres a little squeamish at what I do. But good grief – fuck you, too.

The Australia I work for is an inclusive one, a fair and just one, and the moral high ground is a figment of the conceited on each side.

I will seek out and sew the threads of all that’s beautiful about us until the day I die. I will hurl my salvos of love at every ugliness – at every hate and every hurt.

image

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.

image

CULTURAL RELEVANCE

As the aftershocks of the Alt-Right quake continue to rock the Western World, there’s been much browbeating about who to blame for it. Quick out of the finger-pointing blocks has been the assertion that ‘identity politics’ is the culprit here.

Apparently, all of us who believe that encouraging tolerance of difference, rather than always pressing for sameness, are the reason why the poor and desperate are revolting. Ahem. Nothing to do with economic insecurity caused by corporate greed and the demonisation of any collective action or social policy that doesn’t make money for the rich. Duh.

How could we have been so blind! Oh well.

Identity is inescapable. From the time we each get up in the morning and look at our faces in the mirror, we’re aware of who we are in the scheme. We carry the physical and genetic markers of who we are around with us all day: fair, dark, ginger, injured, young, old, indifferent, tall, short, skinny, fat, fabulous and ugh.

What I see personally is a woman who, apart from a need for spectacles, has pretty much won life’s lottery in terms of privilege, status, the ability to do whatever I want. On the surface of things, I’m so in the middle of the pocket of acceptable norms, among my major complaints is that I never get the bumper specials on frocks and shoes because my size is always gone first. Boo hoo.

But more powerful than the obvious is the invisible: the histories each of us carry behind our eyes. Generational racism and dispossession, intimate struggles with sexuality, memories that flicker with violence and fear. These things can’t always be seen, but they can hold a person back from giving all they have to give and getting the best from life.

How can it be wrong to say at the highest levels: your difference is respected and acknowledged as important to the fabric of humanity? Of course it’s not wrong. Blaming ‘identity politics’ for the scary place we find ourselves in right now is just run-of-the-mill, look-over-there scapegoating – a familiar and distinctive feature of the fascist, authoritarian brand. Bajeepers, ‘Alt-Right’? That’s just another euphemism for opportunistic arseholes who exploit the despair of others.

We’ve been here before – loads – and most notably in the late 1930s when the world lurched into another mega war. Part of my personal identity is a wonder about one German politician, Georg Schwebel, member of the Social Democratic Party, who spent that war in a concentration camp care of the Nazis. He represented the home town of my Schwebel forebears – Wald Michelbach in Hesse, in central Germany – and he makes me curious as to whether the rich vein of social democracy that runs through this part of my family is some quirk of heredity, like the name Georg.

For me, there are also the whispers of my Jewish forebears, the Miers and the Woolfs, one slim thread of which ended up in Australia. Why? Who knows? But they make me related to the guy who co-wrote the lyrics for the Wizard of Oz – Edgar Allan Woolf, a New Yorker and purportedly quite a wild thing. Some quirk of heredity there, too, perhaps, for the similarly rich vein of performers and storytellers and storylovers who live in my family tree.

But the strongest strain of all, of course, is my Irish heritage – and its chin-up, show-em-what-you’re-made-of grit. Courage, decency, loyalty, faith, I can still feel the warm hands of the one who gave me these precious things: my grandmother, Nin. As well as a soft spot for sentimentality and an inclination for kitsch.

So, when I found this little carving of a kangaroo and her joey a couple of weeks ago at a local op shop, my heart did a triple somersault of joy. Nin had one just like it all the years of my growing up. I don’t know what became of it except that it’s here with me again now.

A small but significant representation of where I’ve come from.

A reminder of how heartbroken I would be if some Alt-Right jackboot told me I could no longer identify as me, could no longer cherish these bits and pieces that make me. That’s never going to happen of course – I’m too much a Joe Norm. But if you’re black or gay or Muslim, it might just become an unpleasant reality if we let bullies rule.

I look into the fake emerald eyes of my little roo and she tells me to reject absolutely those who attack others for their own gain. Reject all nastiness of spirit. She tells me that there is nobility and honour in caring for others – that everyone really does deserve a fair go.

This is my culture. This is who I am. A fiercely proud Australian.

factory

TRUMPET

People do crazy things when they’re hurt – like voting to install a flagrantly manipulative narcissist as leader of the free world, or leaving the European Union, or imprisoning refugees indefinitely in concentration camps on remote equatorial islands.

When hope and opportunity are ripped away piece by piece over time, it wears down resilience, and blows away empathy with it.

The woman who serves me at the supermarket checkout or the young man who wipes my windscreen at the carwash don’t care about me or how shocked and disapproving I might be at recent radical political shifts which threaten the peace of my pleasant, middle-class life. Nor should they care.

Because we – the privileged – have let them down.

Regardless of which way we vote, or whatever hackneyed, hypocritical rubbish we spout about equality, every time we indulge in such perks as tax minimisation and negative gearing and the moral superiority that makes it all possible, we hurt the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash. We shrink their world to keep ours comfortable.

When the darling of Australia’s left, Paul Keating, began the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and brought in superannuation tied to the stock market, I thought this wouldn’t end well. When I expressed this worry, I was scoffed at by my uni mates who knew so much better.

They didn’t, but I didn’t know better than to doubt myself. I’d dropped out of uni for a spell and was working at the Commonwealth Bank at the time, in the late 80s; before that, I worked at Coles variety store in Redfern. I watched workplace agreements and their attendant secrecy divide colleagues, destroying not only solidarity but camaraderie.

Later, I watched Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ result in mass sackings and pave the way for more and more corporate gobbling – the mergers and takeovers that would result in more and more economic rationalisation, aka more sackings and lower wages.

We walk the same streets today as those who never recovered their dreams, their promised lives, from those strokes of bad luck that had nothing to do with them.

And yet we blame them – the unlucky. Or perhaps choose not to see them. We smile perfunctorily at the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash, unseeing smiles that judge them for their losses and their lackings to stave off our guilt at having all that we have at their expense.

Because this is the way it works – and we know it. We know the economic pie is finite. We know the disparities inherent in the way we value labour are a disgrace – because we all learnt that at university.

A note to those traumatised today at Trump’s ascendancy: stop the bullshit right now.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle dreamed us – the middle class – into existence. He called us the ‘mean between extremes’ – those who would be so fearful of falling into servitude but so constantly, graspingly aspirational that we’d be the tiller, the steadying force of democracy, keeping revolution at bay, keeping all bastards honest.

We have failed. We are a waste of our education – which most of my vintage largely got for free, before we started chipping away at that, too, to pay for our chardonnay, our turmeric shakes and quinoa salads.

We sigh at the enormity of the problem. Globalisation and mechanisation have smashed the unlucky further down in recent times but how can we possibly help? All our investments are tied up in the corporations that are keeping them in relentless poverty. It’s becoming positively Dickensian.

But really, what can we do?

Deny all responsibility. Shrug our shoulders as history repeats and repeats. Be horrified at what checkout woman and carwash boy have done.

Pretend sometime in the far away future that we were the good Germans because we bought free-range eggs.

surf

CONSCIENCE CALL

This morning I woke up inside a dream – a nasty one. I was walking along a Sydney beach – Maroubra Beach – on a beautiful sunny day and, as I headed south, I passed two young men and their surfboards.

I saw the water glistening on their deep brown skin, their black hair still heavy with the sea, dripping onto their shoulders. I heard them chatting to each other about the waves. Just two young men who could have been any of the young men I grew up with in that part of the world.

Over my shoulder, I watched as two policemen approached them. There was a brief exchange, one of the young men trying to convince the officers that he was a student at the University of New South Wales, and then – BANG BANG – both of the young men were shot dead.

I stood there in shock, unmoving, a scream trapped inside me.

I woke up with my heart belting, my stomach turning, and my husband asking me: ‘What’s wrong?’

I know where this dream has come from.

There’s been quite a ruckus the last few days over Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writers Festival speech examining cultural appropriation and political correctness – howls of outrage that a white woman should think the preserve of fiction, and the strength of fiction, is to pretend, and to do so fearlessly. On all manner of social media threads, anyone suggesting Shriver might have a point in there somewhere has pretty much been told to check their privilege, get back in their white boxes and shut up.

Meanwhile, people of deep brown skin continue to languish on Nauru and die in police custody in Australia, their stories largely untold to the mainstream, or largely ignored. Facts too often drowned out by the relentless white noise of opinion seething from all quarters.

The greatest power of storytelling, of fiction in particular, lies in the way it can spread empathy into popular consciousness. An author can borrow another’s hat and shoes for a time to give readers an enlightening glimpse of what it might feel like to be that other person. But right now it seems we’re imposing rules upon what white authors should or shouldn’t empathise with through fiction – what characters, what identities and histories writers like me can write.

It’s affected me personally. I’m struggling with the ethics of having written a black heroine in a manuscript I finished almost two years ago. On the one hand, do I have any right to speak through a character whose skin and life experience are different from my own? On the other hand, can my conscience deal with being silenced when this character’s story might just have a whisper of a chance to broaden a narrowed mind?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether my story sees the light of day or not – I’ve let stories go before, because they’re not ready or not mine to be told. What’s got me caught up here is a deeper, more fundamental question of what I’m allowed to write. Should that even be a wonder? Am I being a coward in my hesitation? Or virtuous?

My heart can’t draw characters without love – that’s not a moral decision but just the way I roll. I’m no intrepid pillager; I know that my explorations of others’ points of view are never cynically undertaken, never gratuitous or exploitative. These are real people to me, these imaginary friends: never embellishments or trophies. My black heroine represents about forty-three years’ investment of thought. She is part of me somehow, in that way people who are important to you work their way into your soul.

And yet I’m so conflicted over the rightness of these explorations that I am, for the moment, stuck on that beach, struck mute – a guilty witness to crimes my silence will only condone.

The answer will come to me, eventually, at least for my story, but I’m not sure this shutting-up is a good thing for anyone generally. Is it really going to lead to better structural parity of creative opportunity for writers of all colours if white writers stick to writing only white stories, or will it tribalise us in ways that make divisions and misunderstandings worse? Will it only mean that some stories in want of telling simply won’t be told? I just don’t know.

 

roof aus

WHAT HAVE THE POLES EVER DONE FOR US?

This morning I woke up to the news that cards are being dropped into letterboxes in Britain saying, ‘Leave the EU. No more Polish vermin.’

Vermin.

How long will it be before these faceless bigots bring out the arsenic and brickbats to get rid of them? It makes me shiver for all the Polish people have endured over the past century by way of psychotic hatred from their neighbours – Germany and Russia have both had a go at mass extermination.

But really, what the actual freak is this about?

There’s the theory that Poles are simply an easy target because they’re white. It’s not politically correct to attack a person with brown skin these days, but kicking a Pole is somehow fine. That makes a horrible load of sense, sadly.

But it feels personal this time. It seems most of my forebears – all of them white – have at some point in time been referred to as vermin. Of course I grew up with the stories my Irish grandmother told me about her own experiences of the phenomenon – and I wrote all about it in Wild Chicory. The narrator of that tale, Brigid Boszko, just happens to be half Polish, too, her paternal grandparents having immigrated to Sydney after the Second World War.

The Polish in Australia are everywhere, for me. Polish miners worked the diamond drills that excavated dams for one of our many Eighth Wonders of the World – the Snowy Mountains Hydro. Before that, the geologist Pawel Strzelecki named our highest peak after Poland’s greatest national hero – Tadeusz Kosciuszko – and went on to have the Strzelecki Desert named after himself. And then there was my great great grandfather, Benjamin Mier, who played his part in making me.

As for the world, what would it be without Chopin’s Nocturne In E Flat Major, Op.9 No.2? Even if you don’t know the name of this piece of music, you know it like it’s in your bones – listen to it here.

What would the Battle of Britain have been without Polish Squadron 303, those wildly brave men who brought down some 140 enemy Luftwaffe planes, and flew 9900 combat sorties?

Where would the NHS or Medicare be without Marie Sklodowska Curie’s self-sacrificing studies into radioactivity that, with terrible irony, brought us one of our greatest weapons against cancer?

Today’s irony, I suppose, is that the news also tells us there’s been a flood of Brits applying for Irish citizenship. Ouch.

I am sad for Britain but at the same time whatever slim ties I might have had to that land seem to have stretched to even slighter threads. I am happy to be vermin, if that is what I am.

Na zdrowie. Sláinte. Cheers.

*

The photograph above was taken on a recent ramble in Kosciuszko National Park.

Want to read Wild Chicory? Go here.

 

 

 

 

 

red flag

COMING TOGETHER AND FALLING APART

Hello. It seems an age since I’ve been here on the blog. A month, actually. I’ve been hunkered down smashing out the first mad draft of a new novel – that Snowy Mountains story I mentioned a couple of months ago – and I finished it just yesterday.

Spies, lies and Cold War treachery, this story wrapped itself around my head and shook me senseless. It took me places I’ve never been before narrative-wise, too, and I’m thrilled to have made it through to the other side.

But today has been another story. While we’ve been blessed here at The Bend with a fabulous fall of snow, a lovely omen for my novel, over the other side of the world, Old Blighty appears to have torn itself asunder in the midsummer sun. I have no particular view on Britain’s exit from the European Union, its pros and cons, and I don’t know the intricacies of the politics, but what has made me sad today is the anger and despair unleashed by the Remainers.

It’s a conundrum, isn’t it, when those who are the loudest champions of democracy are appalled when it doesn’t deliver the result they wanted. There’s been a pretty unedifying display of name-calling from these same left-wing champions decrying all Leavers as ‘idiots’, ‘racists’ and ‘philistines’. Don’t worry, I’ll probably be doing the same thing when the radical-conservative oxymorons sabotage the marriage equality plebiscite here in Australia.

But right now, and more broadly, there’s also been a lot of desperate talk about this event signalling a dangerous shift in the course of history. A backwards shift towards belligerent isolationism, nationalism, fascism. A breaking up of long-held peace in what we think of as the civilised world. That may well be true, too.

It seems to me, though, that there are a few things we can do to try to arrest that slide. First, the tub-thumping middle-class left wing – that is, the traditional representatives of ordinary people – can stop calling ordinary people idiots for being ordinary. The uneducated, the poor, those who can’t afford solar panels and organic produce, can do without being derided by hypocrites deafened by their own clanging self-righteousness. Second, we can start addressing the common enemy: rampant corporate capitalist greed.

Every time we argue and moan among ourselves, the plutocrats grin with their hands in our pockets. A house divided cannot stand, and that is what has happened to the left wing, and to socially responsible democracy. We’d better snap out of it quick, or we might well slip towards a time of greater inequality, violence and grief.

It’s happened before, history repeats and repeats, and it will happen again – unless we decide to stop it. And start asking the question: what do ordinary people really want?

The answers are always pretty simple and familiar. Love. Respect. Dignity. A fair chance. Less shit. I spend my writing life pushing a little barrow spilling with these thoughts, a thousand little red flags of wonder. I will push it until I fall down dead. I’m pushing out a plea tonight to my comrades: now is not the time for feelings of thwarted entitlement and superiority. It’s time to listen.