On the eve of the release of her latest novel, Lady Bird and The Fox, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Kim Kelly to Behind the Pen. Today we’ve left the regular questions at the door and instead we’re digging deep, so pull up a comfy chair and a drink of your choice because Kim loves a chat as much as I do.
Should novelists avoid threading issues of racism into their works of fiction? Should these issues be restricted to works of non-fiction? What do you think when readers say writers shouldn’t write about racism unless they’ve experienced it?
Yeah, let’s start with an easy bunch of questions, Theresa!
Probably the first issue that needs to be laid out plainly here is that Australia has a systemic and stubborn problem with racism. It’s been with us since the planting of the Union Jack. If you’re going to write Australian historical fiction, you’re going to come face to face with it in your research – from wars and massacres to hidden slavery, from theft of lands and children to outright lies told about the character of people whose skin is not white.
To leave all of this out of our fictional stories of Australia is to softly step away from confronting it. Personally, I can’t do that. All of my stories carry an acknowledgement in some shape or form of the bigotries and the moral and actual crimes borne of them that are as much a part of where we are today as the sunnier stories of triumph over adversity and the courage of immigrants – forced and free – stepping into the unknown.
When it comes to telling deeper truths of the effects of racism – for example, relating the stories of the Stolen Generations or intergenerational trauma or any other lived experience – yes, there is much greater power in reading or hearing these histories from the people affected, or their descendants. In much the same way that Holocaust memoir and history is so much more powerful when it’s told by a Jewish person, so is Aboriginal history.
I don’t think there’s ever a place for restricting who can write this or that (unless they are going to incite hatred with their words), but there’s a yearning for truth and healing in firsthand accounts, or descendant explorations, that’s always more enlightening and moving – because history doesn’t only exist in facts, but in feelings that ripple through time, through families and communities.
Fiction is quite a different realm, though. We write about all kinds of things we haven’t personally experienced – things we can only try to imagine. It’s kind of the point. For me, I think it’s important to be careful not to present my work as history. Yes, I do shedloads of research, and for Lady Bird & The Fox, I made sure my work was read by people culturally qualified to pull me up on any errors, but my stories are just stories. Hopefully ones that inspire readers to want to go and find out more.
The personal motivations behind the story were your search for your own Jewish heritage, as well as the heritage of your closest Aboriginal friends, and a quest to understand the Aboriginal history of New South Wales more deeply. Do you think the best stories spring from personal journeys such as these? Is that the case for you in terms of bringing this novel out into world compared to your previous works?
For me, personal connections and curiosities that spring direct from my heart really drive all I write. All of my stories in some way emerge from either a snippet of family lore, or end up becoming explorations of my own history – often both!
My first novel, Black Diamonds, delves into my Irish and German heritage, during the WWI, which affected my family’s identity deeply. This Red Earth, my next novel, depicts the Sydney suburb of Coogee my parents grew up in during WWII, and represents my own journey as a writer when, in real life, I headed west for love. The Blue Mile, set in 1930s Sydney, explores the dire poverty of my Irish maternal grandfather and the fashion flair of both my grandmothers. Paper Daisies, set in 1901 just prior to the coming of the Women’s Vote, is a heavily coded allegory of the effect of domestic violence on me – one I wish wasn’t real at all. Wild Chicory is an unashamed love song to my Irish grandmother and pretty much charts the course of my own writing life. Jewel Sea, a story of a shipwreck off the coast of Western Australia in 1912, which I thought had absolutely nothing to do with me, really explores my own devastation at the loss of my mother – even the pearls that play such a part in the story are hers.
That’s a very potted history of all the personal history in my stories – but you get the idea.
Lady Bird & The Fox is, in a way, just another shift in the kaleidoscope view – pieces of me I had to explore. But in a strange way, although Annie Bird and Jem Fox, the heroes of the tale, are more different from me than any of my other characters, in religion and culture especially, they feel the most like friends. All my characters are crazily real to me, but Annie and Jem, they seemed to arrive fully formed and ready to tell me what to write. Maybe that only happens when we write from a place of love, when we’re not just writing, but listening and searching as we go – writing from a place of needing to know.
I love my Jewish heritage and I love my Aboriginal friends; I love my Jewish friends too. It’s natural for me to want to know them. These two lines of love were always going to emerge in some way – and no-one is more surprised than me that they emerged together. I’m still scratching my head at that. But it really was like I didn’t have much of a say in the matter.
While it’s true that I haven’t been on the receiving end of racial or cultural prejudice myself, people I love and people in my family history have. I carry the hurt of my Irish Catholic grandmother, as a little girl, having rocks thrown at her and called a dirty Sinn Feiner; rocks thrown through the windows of German immigrants in Sydney, too, forcing my family to change their name from Schwebel to Swivel. And I witness the effects up close too regularly: a few months ago, an acquaintance made a casual racist quip about my soon to be daughter-in-law; and only a couple of weeks ago a girlfriend, who is Aboriginal, told me over a glass of wine that she’d had to listen to a couple of white men being openly racist at a bus stop – and was annoyed with herself that she’d been too exhausted to give them a piece of her mind. None of these people were or are writers; but I am.
At the same time, I carry with me the unbeatable education I received at La Perouse Public School, where Aboriginal heritage and culture is respected and simply part of every day, and where very few of us fitted neatly into the white bread square of what an Australian is supposed to look like or be. As much as racism and bigotry disgust me, diversity and togetherness I know firsthand make a place where the best of us exists, and I want to celebrate that in my writing too.
You have written in the past about how you donated a kidney to your husband, the ultimate act of love! As funny as it sounds when you say it was a case of, ‘What do I want to be caught writing if I die?’ the gravity must have been there. Did writing Lady Bird and The Fox become more urgent for you at this time?
For most of us, probably, writing is a means of not only trying to understand shit but of trying to keep our shit together. I know I’d have completely lost my shit long ago if I didn’t have the ropeway of writing keep me from tumbling into the abyss.
So yes, when my husband and muse de bloke Deano was deathly ill with sudden and catastrophic kidney failure, the shit level was extreme. Utterly overwhelming. I never doubted for a moment my decision to give him one of mine – the most terrifying aspect of that was going through all the testing, dreading some news that my misspent youth had ruined my own health (and I still don’t know how that didn’t happen). But it’s hard to describe the nerve-jangled state of hypomania I was in at the time, especially in the months leading up to the surgery.
That’s when Annie and Jem decided to start talking to me, though. And that’s when I laughed the loudest that I was apparently writing a rollicking goldrush romance whose lovers were a mouthy, piously Christian Aboriginal farmgirl and an overprivileged, irresponsible, spoilt-rotten, Jewish rake. I mean, what the? And that was when I asked myself: ‘Well, what do you want to be caught writing if you die?’ It was this story – only this story.
Annie and Jem not only kept me joyful and full of wonder, but I poured into them all my determination to overcome this shit hand my real-life lover and I had been dealt.
NB: Of course we all got our happy ending.
What are your hopes for Lady Bird and The Fox in terms of instilling awareness about hidden Australian history?
I hope all my stories, in some small way, inspire interest in Australian history generally. We’re a lucky country, no doubt, and with our good fortune comes complacency. We don’t engage much with our own history – we’re too often taught it’s boring or that there’s not much to it – and because most of us have nice lives, we don’t have to care much about it. But we should care about it. For those who aren’t so fortunate, it’s history that usually gives us the clues as to why, and holds the truths that soothe most wounds; it also tells us where all our good fortune has come from.
The land I live on today is Wiradjuri country. A war was fought over it, but no treaty was ever signed to settle the conflict, and few people know it happened at all. Today, it’s rich agricultural land, peppered with quaint goldrush villages, full of overpriced antiques, boutiques and shiny four-wheel drives – how did that happen? One of the towns out here, Wellington, used to be a sheep station called Montefiores, named after a prominent Jewish banker – how did that happen?
History offers every life lesson we’ll ever need, and my stories are just my own tiny, thread-like quests for understanding inside it all. I hope these stories are somehow as useful as they are entertaining, and that they’re understood as expressions of love – because I love living here, in this big beautiful bundle of contradictions called Australia.
To end on a lighter note, I know you love your frocks, we share that fashion preference! Annie wears a particularly beautiful creation towards the end of the story. Was this gown inspired by any that you had seen before, either in pictures or a fashion museum, or was it entirely a wish gown straight from your imagination?
Do we love a frock or what? I have to admit, though, I had a little difficulty finding Annie’s dress. The further back in time we go, the harder it becomes to find the clothes of ordinary people. I could find Annie’s work clothes easily enough, but a pretty day dress? I couldn’t see her in the puffy leg-of-mutton sleeves or the lace and frills and ridiculously wide crinolines that were haute couture in the late 1860s. Annie is timelessly elegant – she’s also very modest. And I didn’t know where to begin in finding the frock that was just right for her.
Luckily, one of my sons had just begun his career in film and TV costume design, so we combined our research skills, and Annie was very pleased with our work. It’s so sweet, when I think of her in that dress, I see the way Jem looks at her. It’s not so much a Cinderella moment as an absolute point of no return in his love for her. There we have the power of the frock.
One last thing! Can you share with us the recipe for Raspberry Vinegar, Annie’s chosen drink, or is it one of those drinks we can only try when we visit you?
Well, I must say, I’ve tweaked the recipe considerably over several tastings, increasing the splash of vodka each time. Annie would be appalled at the addition of hard liquor, no doubt, and I’m not sure what she’d make of the mint sprigs I’ve added to the cocktail, but the basic recipe for her raspberry vinegar is: one cup each of sugar, cider vinegar and raspberries; combine with two cups of water, and bring all to the boil, simmering until raspberries disintegrate. Strain the liquid (sludge enjoyed by chooks), et voila, you have a tasty, if slightly weird cordial that was popular from Victorian times up to the early twentieth century.
Use it just as you would any cordial. But with a little fizzy water and ice, and the vodka and mint, you have raspberry vinegar as we enjoy it here at The Bend – where I live, on a ridgetop above the wide rolling Central West hills of New South Wales that bears a striking resemblance to the very place where Lady Bird & The Fox ends.
It’s 1868 and the gold rush sprawls across the wild west of New South Wales, bringing with it a new breed of colonial rogue – bushrangers. A world far removed from hardworking farm girl, Annie Bird, and her sleepy village on the outskirts of Sydney.
But when a cruel stroke of fortune sees Annie orphaned and outcast, she is forced to head for the goldfields in search of her grandfather, a legendary Wiradjuri tracker. Determined and dangerously naive, she sets off with only her swag – and is promptly robbed of it on the road.
Her cries for help attract another sort of rogue: Jem Fox, the waster son of a wealthy silversmith. He’s already in trouble with the law – up to his neatly trimmed eyebrows in gambling debts. And now he does something much worse. He ‘borrows’ a horse and rides after the thieves, throwing Annie over the saddle as he goes.
What follows is a breakneck gallop through the Australian bush, a tale of mistaken identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites tossed together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.