Book People: Kirli Saunders

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I interviewed Kirli Saunders in 2018 when her first book, The Incredible Freedom Machines was released (see here for that interview) and I have followed her work with interest ever since. Her latest book is ‘Bindi’ (illustrated by the incomparable Dub Leffler) and was the winner of the Daisy Utemorrah Award. I adore verse novels and this one is spectacular. The characters are vivid, the themes are beautiful and it is written for ‘those who plant trees’ – what could possibly be better?.

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Kirli Saunders chats …

1. Can you talk about the origin of this story and why you felt compelled to tell it?

For the past few years, I’ve been leading my Poetry in First Languages (PIFL) project at Red Room Poetry, supporting young people to learn First Nations languages from Elders and community on Country. PIFL was delivered across 60 workshops in 12 communities around NSW, NT and ACT for First Nations students. My favourite iterations of the project were on Gundungurra lands where I was born and raised.

During these programs, Aunty Sharyn Halls, Trish Levett and the Glossies in the Mist team taught us about the significance of the Glossy Black Cockatoo, a local threatened species. As we planted she-oaks to welcome the Glossies to Country, I reflected on the significance of these birds personally and culturally and wrote my own poems in language alongside the students I was teaching.

As the bushfires of 2019 broke out behind my family home and desecrated the bushland that the glossies nest in, I knew I needed to draw awareness to the land, language and our Young People.

Bindi was seeded as I recalled my own childhood experiences of these birds, bushfires and evacuations, school, horses and hockey. The characters of this text are based on my friends, family and teachers. Bindi features Gundungurra language and cultural wisdom taught to me by Aunty Velma Mulcahy, Aunty Sharyn Halls and Trish Levett.

This verse novel aims to draw young people into language learning, connecting to land and strengthening their Custodial awareness as our emerging carers of Country.

‘Bindi’

By Kirli Saunders

2. With some weighty themes to it, how did you ensure your text remained engaging, and ultimately hopeful, for a young audience?

I’m learning to embrace vulnerability, to stand in complex spaces and to yarn from them. I was raised without language or deep cultural connection due to our family’s history of removal and dispossession (something unfortunately common for many First Nations Peoples). I learnt language as an adult.

I wanted to create a text which offered the things I didn’t see in books as a child, for First Nations language to be part of day to day happenings, and for other young First Nations children especially to feel seen and heard.

Having taught for the past eight years, I know our kids are already exploring big ideas with heart. It felt necessary to examine the interrelatedness of language and land, the trauma of bushfires and the ins and outs identity through the lens of a young person. In Bindi, these topics are explored through childhood joys, hobbies and adventures with friends making them relatable. Children have such a knack for moving with grace through hardship and I wanted to honour that.

Hope for me is my Mum’s gift. She was removed from Country and family as a child and raised in children’s homes on Gundungurra land. She’s the most tenaciously resilient person I know. Hope and kindness underpin all of her actions and she keeps us all coming back to positivity even in the direst of times. It’s her voice which underpins the tone in this book.

I think the land also mirrors that hope and resilience, the cycles of seedings, cinders and sprouts as the chapters are reminiscent of that essence. The rebuilding of community and the healing of broken wings and bones offer the reader a reminder that time heals all things. 

3. Following on from this question, my neighbour, Dr Samantha Lloyd reviews environmental-themed books for me and works as a bushfire ecologist. I’ve been fascinated hearing from her about the healing power of fire from a Cultural perspective as we tend to only hear of the devastating effects of bushfires. Was this Cultural perspective on bushfire something you particularly wanted to share with readers?

Hi Dr Sam! Absolutely, I included this to awaken our young people to Old Ways of being, to the innate wisdom of Earth, and our collective role in caring for Country.

I think it’s so important that we look to our traditional ways of caring for Country, which have sustained the landscape, her cycles and relationships for 65000+ years. More and more now, we’re seeing cultural wisdoms being integrated with western knowledge, for local, innovative and grounded solutions.

We’re also understanding collectively the deep inseparable relationship we have with Mother Earth.

Olive is my best friend.
I’ve known her since I changed schools.
We play hockey together and
swim and adventure together.
Olive loves the music
people aren’t ready to.
She plays guitar
and is kind to everyone she meets.

‘Bindi’ Page 19

4. Your manuscript for ‘Bindi’ won the Daisy Utemorrah Award for an unpublished manuscript of junior or young adult fiction which includes a prize of $15,000 and a publishing contract with First Nations publisher Magabala Books. What did winning this award mean to you?

It is a real privilege to be the inaugural recipient of the Daisy Utemorrah Award and to follow in the footsteps of a powerful poet and educator who spoke her truth.

The generous prize money gave me a space and time to do the soul work of language conservation through storytelling and the opportunity to connect with Magabala ensuring my work was edited, published and produced with First Nations leaders was a career highlight, I’m so grateful that our literary scene is shifting more and more to honour First Nations stories and publishing.

5. This is your first junior fiction title – will you stay in this space for a while and what do you enjoy about writing for this age group?   

I’m currently working on a sequel for Bindi with my editor extraordinaire, Grace Lucas Pennington. I’m loving this junior fiction space, especially as I move with verse. Poetry is my first love and writing for children, especially with verse will always be a delight.

6. What can we expect next from Kirli Saunders?

2021 is going to be electric. I’ll be writing plays, poetry and picture books full time. Including these forthcoming titles:

Bindi Sequel (Magabala 2021)
Our Dreaming (Scholastic) 2022 illustrated by Dub Leffler
Yana in the Bawa (Magabala)
Afloat (Hardie Grant Egmont) 2022 illusrated by Matt Chun
Happy Ever After (Scholastic) 2023 illustrated by David and Noni Cragg

I’ve also received a small scholarship with Magabala to produce a picture book series, Cloud Spotting.

Beyond this, I’ll be playwriting, Going Home (Playwriting Australia) and co-writing Dead Horse Gap (Merrigong Theatre and South East Arts).

More from Kirili Saunders …

‘Kindred’

‘Incredible Freedom Machines’

My full review here.

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