from the editor's desk

Mia Kelly

Mia Kelly: Writing Stolen Country in a Climate Crisis

With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with KSP Writers CentreWesterly delivered our fourth Writers’ Development Program in 2019.

Four talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, while we celebrate the publication of their work in the new Westerly 65.1.

What makes writing worthwhile? What does writing do?

There is a sense in which writing creates a body of experiential knowledge, enabling readers to directly participate in ‘what something is like’ and hence extend, alter, mobilise or deepen their frame of reference regarding what is possible. Reading is thus an exploration of different ways of being, feeling or perceiving; an exploration that is both distinct from but continuous with how we participate in other facets of everyday life. And because of the connection between literature and the way our cultural positioning informs our thinking patterns and actions, writing is not politically neutral: the first step towards writing something worthwhile is writing ethically.

It is in terms of my situatedness as a white Australian during a climate crisis that the problem of what my writing should be doing is so troubling. Here on stolen Country, the climate crisis now impossible to ignore after an unprecedented summer of bushfires, failing to engage with colonialism and the climate crisis feels like a kind of evasion, denial or erasure. Engaging meaningfully, though, is difficult.

I was born on stolen Country and I go on living here, and writing here, and reading here. My privileges, and the privileges of the characters that people my imagination, arise directly from the brutal colonialism of my ancestors—a colonialism whose mark is indelible and which continues in forms old and new. I feel as though I love the landscapes of this country, and from this love comes the desire to write these landscapes, but my love is fraught: I do not know this country; I do not know how to live with proper care for it, and it is not my place to know all the stories through which the Noongar people forged, and forge, intricate relationships with it.

More broadly, what I mean to say is that being white in Australia means occupying a position of power within the racist systems that have emerged directly from a colonial history, and it also involves a particular kind of ignorance. This ignorance arises because from an internal perspective, privilege is often invisible, or can be naturalised as ‘deserved’. And when living a full life of varied preoccupations in Perth’s suburbs, it’s easy to overlook how imported European ways of life have been devastating to both the local environment and its original custodians.

As blak activists have been urging for years, this ignorance can be mitigated through listening to voices and stories from other perspectives, especially indigenous perspectives. But what anybody writes in Australia is always going to be part of Australia’s bigger history, regardless of who writes, and regardless of the narrative’s engagement or disengagement with issues to do with colonialism. After all, disengagement is also a political act. What this means is that as a white writer, when I write about people living in local landscapes, I am necessarily writing stolen Country; necessarily engaging with the politicised process of placemaking through cultural imagination. So, how can I write ethically from this position, given that just living in this position is already ethically fraught?

My starting point for approaching this question is feedback I received on a piece set in a northern hemisphere landscape, which I submitted for an English assessment back in high school. My teacher, a Canadian, pointed out to me that, contrary to what I had written, snow doesn’t actually make a sound when it falls. ‘Of course, you’d have no way of knowing that,’ she said. Reflecting on this, it becomes clear that while I may not know this country deeply, at least I inhabit the not-knowing: I recognise the crow’s harsh claws and caw on the tin roof early in the morning, even if I do not know how the crow fits into the intricate cultural knowledge of Country that has been developed over tens of thousands of years. So, ultimately, if I cannot write away from the unease, I must write towards it. How? In spite of all I’ve said, it would be disingenuous to foreground Australia’s oppressive status quo in every piece of literature simply to tick a box. That would not be a nuanced way of exploring what it’s like to live full, varied and complex lives on stolen Country. But holding an awareness of this knowledge constitutes a different way of being and perceiving, one that frames even simple moments differently. It is finding a way to write this different framing into the particular specificities and complexities of stories that is the challenge.

In many ways, the problem of creating art in a climate emergency runs parallel to the problem of writing on stolen Country. As Amitav Ghosh asks,

When sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? (Ghosh)

Once again, whether I engage with the climate crisis in my writing or not, that in itself is part of the bigger story about the way people are responding (or failing to respond) to the crisis. And if stories enable direct experiential knowledge of new ways of being and perceiving, then in the situation where so much as thinking about the crisis is almost intolerable for many who are aware of the facts, we are sorely in need of new stories. The challenge that remains for writers and other artists is how to create these new narratives when we, too, are terrified. After all, if, as a global community, we continue down our current path of warming (4C by 2100), then by the time people of my generation are old, many major cities, island states and coastal communities will be flooded, their citizens fleeing in unprecedented waves of refugees, estimated to number two billion by the end of the century (Vince). At the same time, arable land will be growing increasingly scarce, and natural disasters like cyclones and bushfires will be occurring with more frequency and intensity across the globe (Vince). While I try to be hopeful about the potency of climate activism movements, I don’t expect the later lives of people of my generation to involve much more than trying to survive.

It is difficult not to be paralysed by this awareness, or to try and numb it by avoiding media on the subject. There is a wealth of stories attempting to sensitise people out of their unresponsiveness to the crisis through grim futurisms, but I am not aware of many stories that explore ways of developing emotionally sustainable types of engagement with the crisis in terms of its place in our everyday lives. And yet while writing these stories seems important, it is also exhausting to consider engaging so closely with the fears I suppress a lot of the time. I can’t help but wonder, if writing is continuous with the rest of life, whether I’m really the person to write on this theme. My dedication to climate activism waxes and wanes depending on my exhaustion, anxiety and distraction at any given moment—I show up to actions and protests but have done little in the way of helping to organise things. There are so many activists in Perth’s Extinction Rebellion movement and School Strike 4 Climate movement far more active than I—people who seem to have far more effectively integrated their response to the crisis into everyday life. So, what’s the way forward?

With regards to finding (the beginnings of) a way to write towards these two challenges, the Writers’ Development Program has been a gift—especially in terms of my mentorship with Susan Midalia. The creative non-fiction piece that I have developed for publication in Westerly’s upcoming Issue 65.1, ‘Thinking Banksias in Words’, is what has grown out of not only my own attempt at engaging with these challenges, but also Susan’s insight in critiquing this engagement.

I originally submitted the creative piece that would become ‘Thinking Banksias in Words’ to an English unit, ‘Writing the Environment’, which happened to be run by Westerly’s General Editor, Catherine (Kate) Noske. As I had been accepted into the program at the time of receiving feedback on the piece, Kate suggested that I expand it through the mentorship to engage more closely with a framework of related criticism that could contextualise my creative work. Now, more than a few drafts of Susan’s astute and imaginative feedback later, this piece feels like a beginning. Having lost my adolescent assuredness about the value of my writing (of course my novella-length melodrama about competitive table-tennis is what the world needs!) to a sense of uneasiness fostered by greater critical faculties and awareness, my work on the Banksia piece feels at last like finding a way forward—a way to write into the unease, making something of it both ethically and creatively.

My piece reflects on a morning I spent sitting in Kings Park’s Banksia Garden, hoping to learn something from the banksias, but instead encountering the conundrums involved in trying to reach past my own cultural, lingual and aesthetic perspective. I tried to write with a sense of space, care and presence into an awareness of the climate crisis and the changes it is bringing, an awareness coloured by the knowledge that the changing environment I am reflecting on is stolen Country. Susan’s suggestion that I write about the academic research my piece involved not as abstractions woven into the piece but as a process constructed under particular conditions and necessitating its own kind of presence was just one of the revelations gained from having a set of thoughtful eyes watching over its development. The way Susan was able to notice and theorise aspects of my work increased my consciousness of those aspects and hence ability to control them; I hope to develop this sense of slow presence across future work.

Having a mentor to discuss ideas with and receive feedback from was a lesson in the importance of conversations of all kinds, which is especially relevant when considering the ethics of writing from limited perspectives. Other local writers before me have written towards challenges unique to our context, with work that reflects with nuance on ideas about Country, oppression and the changing world featuring prominently in Westerly’s publications. As John Kinsella ruminates in his essay on writing Geraldton in Westerly 64.2,

How do we talk about [the crisis of presence, of settlement]? Well, literature is one means, and over the decades I have realised that literature is not about the self, but about ongoing conversations with others. (Kinsella 44)

My aim, now, is to contribute to these conversations in a meaningful way.

Works Cited

Ghosh, Amitav. ‘Amitav Ghosh: Where is the Fiction about Climate Change?’ The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/28/amitav-ghosh-where-is-the-fiction-about-climate-change-.

Kinsella, John. ‘To Find a Way Through: the inaugural Randolph Stow Lecture.’ Westerly, vol. 64, no. 2, 2019, pp. 33–46.

Vince, Gaia. ‘The Heat is on Over the Climate Crisis. Only Radical Measures Will Work.’ The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/18/climate-crisis-heat-is-on-global-heating-four-degrees-2100-change-way-we-live.

Mia Kelly is undertaking an Honours course in English at the University of Western Australia. As an undergraduate, her second major was Philosophy. She is the previous President of UWA’s Creative Writing and Poetry Club, and is now patting her cat while waiting for travel restrictions to ease.

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