Kinsella, John. Displaced: A Rural Life. Yarraville: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2020. RRP $29.99, 336pp, ISBN: 9781925760477.
John Kinsella’s latest memoir, Displaced: A Rural Life is a fascinating insight into his fight for environmental conservation, rural politics, and the meaning of displacement and belonging.
Landscape and a sense of place is something that often plays a large part in Kinsella’s work, particularly given how passionate he is about nature and environmental conservation. Writing is Kinsella’s way of expressing opinion and sparking conversation. As such, Displaced: A Rural Life could be something of a natural progression. I first came across Kinsella’s work when reviewing Meanjin A – Z: Fine Fiction 1980 to now (ed. by Johnathon Green), in which his 2009 short story ‘In the Shade of The Shady Tree’ appeared. I was struck by his raw yet elegant writing style, and the way in which he so deftly captured a sense of place. So, I was eager to see how Kinsella’s work translated into an even longer form of prose when presented with the opportunity to review his latest memoir. I was not disappointed.
Having lived on rural property for most of his life, Kinsella feels a kinship to the farming community of Western Australia. Growing up, he and his brother Stephen often helped out on other properties:
We hay-baled for Italian-Australian brothers caught between traditional family ways and partying up in the city […] But these brothers loved each other, and brothers working with brothers was an intense sharing. Working with them was exhilarating, as we rounded the paddocks scooping up the cut grass for the hay-baler, collecting the square bales and packing the truck. It was good to sweat and itch together and fuse cultural knowledge. (73)
Rural life was about the conversations he had, the kinship and camaraderie he finds in farming even when he is sometimes seen as an outsider, or different.
I know how to talk with farmers, even when I frequently and sometimes profoundly disagree with approaches to agriculture […] It would seem we have little ground in common. But actually we do. (20)
That said, this book is not your typical memoir of rural life. Like his previous work, it’s confronting, raw and starkly honest in its interpretation of local and national events. ‘This memoir is one possible conduit in that discussion of how we might live our lives outside indifference,’ he writes (89). Kinsella and his family are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. In a rural town, having opinions that differ from the norm make you an outsider. As such, his quiet country life isn’t exactly quiet at all. As a child, he was often bullied by the local children for advocacy and now his son, Tim, has continued the tradition, which makes him something of an easy target for others whose views may be narrower. It’s a sad truth, but Kinsella clarifies this:
We have a saying at Jam Tree Gully. Wrong is wrong. This doesn’t mean there are no nuances to wrong and right—of course there are—but when you know something is wrong you don’t try to talk your way out of it. Confront it, sort it the best way you can. Be held accountable. (34)
This statement is about freedom of speech; something which is a strong theme throughout this book. And it’s this statement and theme that resonated with me most. Kinsella writes, ‘My door is never closed to differences of opinion, never closed to conversations. Poems are conversations […] I like to talk, I like to hear what people have to say and why they hold the opinions they do. I am enriched by listening, and I have things to share.’ (21)
Kinsella’s dedication to environmental preservation, Indigenous land rights, and standing up for what you believe in is what makes the heart of the Displaced: A Rural Life. This leads to what he refers to as an ‘unbelonging’ and displacement. While he lives at Jam Tree Gully, often writing of how he and his family feel lost when they are away from the property, ownership does not come into it;
Land and community does not have to be oppressive, and can be just and respectful, Maybe one of the reasons I have kept moving around the world—where it has allowed me to go is because of all this. But in the end, I am always drawn back to the wheatbelt, to Jam Tree Gully. (240-41)
It’s a common theme throughout the book, and something Kinsella addresses early on.
This is Ballardong Noongar land. It is stolen land and needs to be returned […] Migration and respect for Aboriginal land rights are not contradictory—it’s just that the discussion has to begin with Aboriginal people as to how the land might be respected. (20)
On the back of the book, The Australian is quoted as saying, ‘Kinsella can see into the heart of the country, and the evidence of these taut, complex stories is that what he sees there is both ferocious and unresolved’. It’s a big, bold statement in reference to his previous work, but it also applies to Displaced: A Rural Life. This is a big, bold book; ambitious yet hopeful, confronting and honest.
Displaced: A Rural Life is almost like an extended stream of consciousness, an outpouring of emotion and passion. It’s unsettling at times. If it does drag on in places, it’s only because Kinsella is so passionate in expressing his beliefs and helping his readers come to a better understanding of the nation, and the world we live in. That is what makes Kinsella’s writing and, by extension, Displaced: A Rural Life so good. It makes us question what we believe in and see different ideas in a new light. In a world turned upside down, it’s a necessary read.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.