In his latest collection of short fiction, John Kinsella provides 33 frankly written, tension-filled glimpses of life in Western Australia's wheatbelt region.
In the Shade of the Shady Tree: stories from Australia's wheatbelt
Western Australia is a vast region within a vast country, comprising one-third of the continent – 2.5 million square kilometres populated by 2.3 million people, most of whom live in the capital Perth.
Stretched over a portion of this immensity is the wheatbelt, more than 150,000 square kilometres of farmland, an area just less than twice the size of the UAE. Flung about this vast expanse are countless sheep, farms and oft-abandoned mines that sustained families for generations, dotting the land like points in a constellation that shifts over time with people’s fortunes.
John Kinsella is Australia’s foremost poet and he has deep roots in Western Australia. He’s a prolific writer, with plays, novels, an autobiography and several books of non-fiction to his credit. In his latest book he says that many farmers in his home region, including his ancestors, saw themselves as caretakers of the global region’s “food bowl” and took pride in the idea that they were “feeding the world.” Many still do.
But in his heartfelt introduction to his latest collection of short fiction, In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories of Wheatbelt Australia, Kinsella is quick to point out hard facts that undercut the fantasy of this region’s pleasant history. “On lands that are traditionally Ballardong Nyungar (the aboriginal people of the Avon River Basin), clearing and poisoning and other abuses of place have taken their toll, and continue to do so,” along with the “devastation caused by monoculture farming” that Kinsella blames for “every-increasing land salinity” and “changing weather patterns”. He takes the duty of conservationist seriously.
Kinsella has written much about his complicated relationship with Western Australia. His grandparents owned a farm there called Wheatlands, where he spent many summers as a child and in his youth he says he was “traumatised” after seeing how “the Yamatji people of the region were cut off from their traditional lands”. He’s published 20 books of poetry thus far, of which his most celebrated is Peripheral Light, a masterful volume of tender and often abstract work about Australian history, its lands, and aspects of the national character.
A more recent book, another homage to the land – and to Dante – is a thick, 400-page book of poems called Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography, and in its way, In the Shade of the Shady Tree, is a companion volume of prose about a similar journey.
“My poetics and sensibilities formed not only in the paddocks and remnant bushland, but also on the vast salt scalds where very little grew or even lived.” About his various approaches to writing about the place, he says, “The poetry has been about place in a very empirical way, concerned with damage and its implications. But in my stories I am more concerned with glimpses of the people who live in the wheatbelt. Whether I approve of their activities or not is irrelevant.
“What is at issue is how they interact with the place, and how they make that place what it is.”
The chief strength of this large group of 33 “glimpses” in Shady Tree is the direct writing style, a frankness driven by Kinsella’s complicated sense of purpose. “Underlying all these glimpses is the knowledge and acknowledgement that I am writing about a land stolen from indigenous people; that in truth it is still their land, if it’s anyone’s.” The tension in the stories is hinged around three points then: the beauty and harshness of the land, the people’s struggles on it, and Kinsella’s sense of injustice as part of the region’s history.
The stories created within this area of tension “are a jigsaw puzzle that offers the reader,” Kinsella says, “a way of seeing how small fragments of the place work, or don’t work.” Among so many puzzle pieces, some ere indeed merely quick “glimpses” and others are intense, rich panoramas with finely-etched characters. All are short – none exceed six pages. Some are clunky fables and minor anecdotes with little apparent value, and the wisdom in Kinsella’s wide-net approach isn’t immediately apparent. But as the stories accrue, an objectivity arises, a collective view. Fewer stories would’ve struck a false tone of knowingness, as if he’d travelled, seen it all, and decided what was important enough to present as literature from this galaxy of a place, with its seemingly bottomless history.
The book is a story collage that evokes the range of loneliness and togetherness of the region’s people.
We get perspectives of young and old, rich and poor. Kinsella shows us desperate environmentalists, starving livestock, suicidal farmers, drug addiction, racism lingering against the Japanese since the Second World War, violence and indifference towards aboriginal peoples, hellish wildfires, poisonous mining operations, droughts that task the spirit, anti-Semitism, class hatred, the happiness and misery of solitude.
The tone of many of the stories is not loving, unless you consider raw honesty loving. Neighbours compete fiercely. They’re wary of each other, often barely scraping by. Most of the stories deal with big, classic themes: man against the land, or man against man.
In Fireball, a family of four survives a wildfire by hiding in a bathtub, then, like a sprout from the ashes, the young boy decides to become a naturalist. Many stories deal with the idea of what it means to depend in some degree on humanity during hard times. “No neighbours!” screams a drunk in Purchase, until illness makes him reach out to those he hates. In The Pact, a female landowner new to the area, wary of men who live nearby, finds she must have allies, not to protect herself from the men, but from a fierce weed called caltrop that poses grave danger to her neighbours’ shared livelihoods. Despite the hardships, hope never fades, which Kinsealla captures in offhand moments. “After all, it was hard to tell if they were actually in the wheatbelt or the goldfields. There was always hope of the plough unearthing a nugget!”
Stories like The Porch hint at sad and possibly terrible personal loss, as if the land could not support a society good enough for more than a few lucky souls. Stubborn, irrational bigotry flourishes in many forms in stories like Rule in Favor (racism against aboriginal people), Baby (homophobia) and The Music Teacher (anti-Semitism).
In hard lands, religion is often popular and a spiritual leader’s promises draw many followers in the story The Cartesian Diver, and ghosts of dead generations live on in The House Near the Cemetery, stories that show Kinsella’s adept hand at real and supernatural tales.
While Kinsella shifts perspectives often, his personal sense of injustice is never far away, and his sense of being an intruder on the land adds depth to many of the simple story plots. In Bats, a teenage boy and girl wait to see a sunset and she gets a bat caught in her blonde hair. They run home and cut her hair to free the bat.
“The boy gently pulled strands of hair away from the claws and membranes between the limbs, watching the sharp teeth, the tiny half-moon eyes, the veined ears, the fur.” The ending is sweet and ominous.
The pair watch the sunset together. The girl touches the new bald spot on her blonde head, which seems out of place, as if her minor ordeal was a sign from the land itself.
The title story shows how a young land developer, eager to show his hometown that he’s a success, chops down a beloved tree at the centre of town. The moralistic ending puts the character at odds with his family’s past. If it were the ending to a longer story, it would feel hollow, but as such, it blends in to the panorama. The success we dream of, once achieved, may turn out to be the opposite of what our ancestors desired. Such truths cycle throughout this powerful book.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award.