Kim Kelly

Australian Author

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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.

It’s never too late. There will never be enough hours in the day. Life will always get in the way. So now is as good a time as any? Isn’t it? To do it. To push your little boat out from your safe harbour and chase that dream.

I’m almost forty-six years old and it took me about thirty-five of those years to summon the courage. I’m so glad I did. Grateful every day. In a few short weeks when my third novel, The Blue Mile, hits the bookstores, a total of 400,000 of my words will be in the world. I’m finessing the next novel right now and then I’ll have half a million words under my belt. This blows me away.

It’s hard work, most of the time. Life certainly does get in the way. For starters, a year ago, I almost lost my husband Dean to acute renal failure. That really would have put the kybosh on romance for a while had the worst happened. But it didn’t. It’s been a wobbly old road back into normality, whatever that is, with crazy rounds of doctors’ visits and tests for me to see if I can sling him one of my kidneys – and I’m pleased to say I can, and we’ll be bonding in this extreme way in the next few months, all being well. In and around all that, though, I’ve been missing my ‘grown-up’ kids terribly, searching for a house to call home, together with worrying about money and how to fit writing around proper-job work and all the shit that goes along with being alive day after day.

Never frigging stops, does it?!

But day after day I have recommitted to writing, too. My push back at the shoves I’ve received. Sometimes it’s an escape. Sometimes it’s a blessed relief. And it’s always a challenge, to myself: just bloody do it.

You only get one life. Mine is half over, I reckon. I have to do it. And whatever dream you cherish and long to fulfill, I hope you do it too.

Yes, if you’re wondering, that’s Dean there in the photo above, a few weeks out of ICU, down on the Macquarie at Ophir being in his element, being alive. Being a bloody legend.

So do it. Start now. You know you want to…

For the sadness of children,
Butter hard, bread stale,
Knees stinging on the inside,
Bones jellified,
I cry.

Scrambling back to apologise,
Milk spilt, fruit bruised,
Bolting a plateful of cold peas
And awful cheese,
Yes, please.

Anything, for you.


When I first moved permanently to the Central West about a year ago, I had a conversation with a local amateur historian from a family who has lived in Orange for generations – pretty much since the town was little more than a camp called Blackman’s Swamp. The conversation went something like this:

Me: ‘I’m really interested to know what stories you might have of the Wiradjuri who were originally here – I can’t find anything on them.’

Local: ‘That’d be because there aren’t any, really. They did some bark cutting for the settlers when they came, they wore possum skin capes and then pretty much disappeared. We don’t think Orange was a place they actually lived in.’

Me: ‘Yeah, right.’

Pretty much terra nullius then, ay? Hm.

I mentioned this exchange to my husband, who’s also a Central Westerner, born in Bourke but raised in Orange, and he said: ‘Well, that sounds like a bit of bullshit. Hadn’t the bloke ever heard of Yuranigh?’

Apparently not, and neither had I.

Yuranigh was, in his time, a famous Wiradjuri son of this part of the country, a stockman hailing from the Molong district just to the north-west of Orange. He was a guide and great friend to the surveyor Sir Thomas Mitchell, accompanying him on his 1846 expedition into central Queensland. Yuranigh, along with two other Aboriginal guides, enabled Mitchell and his party to survive the trip, finding them water along the way and acting as cultural interpreters when they encountered groups of other Aboriginal men who were not so much pleased to have them in their country.

No-one knows when Yuranigh was born but he was probably in his mid-twenties when he and Mitchell first met. It was a relationship that obviously deeply affected the much older Scotsman, Mitchell describing him as ‘guide, companion, counsellor and friend’, and writing of him that ‘his intelligence and his judgment rendered him so necessary to me that he was ever at my elbow … Confidence in him was never misplaced. He well knew the character of all the white men in the party. Nothing escaped his penetrating eye and quick ear.’

They remained friends until Yuranigh’s death five years later. Such great friends that Mitchell arranged the formal fencing of Yuranigh’s traditional Wiradjuri grave at government expense and had a headstone erected there at his own, inscribed: ‘To Native Courage Honesty and Fidelity. Yuranigh who accompanied the expedition of discovery into tropical Australia in 1846 lies buried here according to the rites of his countrymen and this spot was dedicated and enclosed by the Governor General’s authority in 1852’.

So famous was Yuranigh, a lagoon, a district in Queensland and a creek near Molong are named after him. His grave still sits where it always has, between Molong and Orange – you can visit it anytime. But what I’ve written here is just about all we know of him. And this is a shame.

History is lost all the time, of course. And it’s always a shame when that happens. It’s like forgetting an essential piece of ourselves. A kind of collective dementia that plagues us humans.

Which is why we should do whatever we can to keep telling and retelling our stories – and passing them on. So that we can try to understand our history whole, both the bits that require black armbands of sorrow and the bits that evoke pride and joy. So that we can keep pushing for a better crack at the future for all of us who live here and those to come. Keep pushing for the respect and understanding that Yuranigh and Mitchell shared.

(Information on Yuranigh sourced from Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1967)

‘Anything worth doing is scary,’ so says seven-year-old Agnes in The Blue Mile. Having a red hot go at life means taking risks. Being brave enough to back yourself. For Agnes, growing up in Sydney in the 1930s, it means believing her big brother when he tells her his sandshoes make him stick like licorice to the Harbour Bridge where he works as a labourer in a riveting gang. Scared out of his mind just about every day.

Courage – what it is and where it leads us – is a recurrent theme in all my novels. It’s an inescapable theme in Australian culture generally. We love our heroes, don’t we? But from the bronzed Anzac to the boofheaded front row forward, we tend to equate heroism with men doing violent things. Politicians like to stand beside them for photo opportunities. Oi.

The courageous men who inspire me tend not to be football players, though a few have been soldiers. I’ve had the privilege and joy of working with two of the loveliest soldiers this country has ever produced: the late Sir Roden Cutler and the still-yarning-strong Ernest Brough, one an officer, one an ordinary enlisted man, both gorgeous. Both mind-blowingly courageous in war.

It’s not only our soldiers who do crazy brave things, though. The quiet, unsung heroes who build our everyday world possess a courage that fascinates me. Construction workers, miners, engineers, truck drivers, linemen…my stories are filled with the kinds of men who make what we take for granted.

Each day they go to work there is a risk that they might not come home. For me, this makes the world they build for us even more beautiful.

Why do they take these risks? Because the money’s all right, because they love the outdoors work, because they love the blokey atmosphere they work in? Maybe. But more often than not the ordinary hero does it to pay the mortgage and the kids’ school fees, to buy that engagement ring, to take his very best mate, his wife, on that holiday they’ve been planning for years. He does it to build the life he wants for those he loves.

One way or another, it almost always comes back to love, doesn’t it? The reason behind every good thing we do. That happens to be the scariest thing that any of us ever do. The biggest risk we ever take. The greatest dare. Love.

(Photo credit: Henri Mallard, 1930, National Library of Australia)


I always blink whenever I hear someone say, ‘Oh, I’m not very creative.’ We’re all creative. Sure, some of us enjoy being spectators more than playing the showoff, but we all express ourselves creatively, whether that’s in secret scribblings, or making patchwork masterpieces, magicking up feasts, dancing a mean tango, crafting a piece of furniture from wood you’ve turned yourself. That treasured thing you do requiring skill, imagination and love that can only come from you and no-one else.

Maybe this reticence to admit to our own creativity comes from an idea that only things of artistic value are truly worth acknowledging. Which always makes me wonder: what is art? There are as many definitions of that word, it seems, as there are expressions of creativity. Who decides what art is anyway? Well, usually vested interests – duh. Not so much gate-keepers of our culture as people with mortgages and overblown credit cards who, creative in their own ways, are compelled to justify their jobs as curators, publishers, critics and commentators, however they must.

I have to try to remember to forget all that crap about worthy and unworthy art myself or I’d never write another word. It’s crushing to pour yourself into something and have others dismiss it as rubbish. It’s hideous to put yourself out there knowing that someone will sneer and say you have no taste and no purpose. They might not do it to your face, but rest assured, some self-appointed arbiter of all good things will say you’re a waste of oxygen. Which all makes the definition of ‘artist’ quite easy. The artist is the one who says in return, ‘Stuff you, Joe Blow, I’m doing it anyway.’ Or has a nervous breakdown. I’ve done both in my time, on occasion all at once.

If the artist is the one who persists, who is fired by curiosity and love to keep going deeper, keep burnishing that treasured thing, despite knockbacks, setbacks and little financial reward, then that’s me, or at least that’s what I try to be. And in one way or another it is, I suspect, most of us. But most of all, whatever it is you do to bring your treasure to the table, however large or small, it is always a good thing to do. As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut said so perfectly:

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something (from his essay collection, A Man Without a Country, 2005).

Who is anyone to nay say that? No-one.

Be bold then. Feel the wind in your hair as your heart races with joy and fear. Do it. Live.

Like this fellow in the photograph above. He’s called Frog Extraordinaire, created by sculptors Stewart Caldwell and Mark Oates, and he sits on the Mitchell Highway outside the scrap metal yard he presently calls home at Molong. Who says the Central West is not a premier centre of artistic excellence, hm? Whatever, I doubt Mr Frog gives a flying tricycle.

(For more info on the work of Caldwell and Oates go here http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/03/08/3158040.htm or contact the scrap metal yard at Molong direct.)

Ooooeee, it’s hot in the Central West today. Whinger that I am, though, something in my DNA loves a heatwave. I feel robbed if I don’t get at least one serve of Hades’ breath per summer.

As I strip off to singlet and sarong, I wonder how my Irish and German ancestors felt stepping off the ship in the 1800s in all their heavy gear and many skirts. Imagine that first scorcher and how they must have despaired: ‘What have we done coming to this small corner of Hell?’

This is what Charles Darwin thought when he stopped off here in New South Wales during his voyage on The Beagle in 1836, arriving in midsummer, and in the midst of a drought:

We experienced this day the sirocco-like wind of Australia, which comes from the parched deserts of the interior. Clouds of dust were travelling in every direction; and the wind felt as if it had passed over a fire. I afterwards heard that the thermometer out of doors had stood at 119 degs., and in a closed room at 96 degs. In the afternoon we came in view of the downs of Bathurst. These undulating but nearly smooth plains are very remarkable in this country, from being absolutely destitute of trees. They support only a thin brown pasture…

You can almost feel his longing for a quenching ale as he traipses along on horseback. Darwin’s is one of my favourite early descriptions of this country and well worth a read, especially for the weariness that seems to come through his writing as he travels further west. He finds much of interest, but very little beauty, which always seems strange to me. Somehow my understanding of beauty has been shaped by being, so many generations on, born of Australia and nowhere else, too.

I don’t know how place works its way into your soul, but it does. Rolling fields of golden, parched grass and trees sparsely dotting the land to the horizon make some kind of awesome beauty for me. Or one of its many faces here. The photograph above is a snap I took of thirsty pasture at Wellington, between Orange and Dubbo. And oooeee, did I tell you it’s hot today?