John Kinsella, Displaced: A rural life (#BookReview)

John Kinsella, Displaced

I haven’t talked about reading synchronicities for some time, but when I started reading John Kinsella’s memoir, Displaced, I couldn’t help but think of the book I had just finished, Gay Lynch’s historical novel Unsettled (my review). Both have one word titles which play with opposites; in both cases, those opposites refer to physical meanings and more abstract, intellectual, social and/or emotional ones; and, in both, these meanings draw significantly from the colonial act of settling Australia and displacing its original inhabitants. I enjoy such wordplay that forces us to consider multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings because it encourages a deeper engagement with the ideas being explored.

Notwithstanding this, reading Displaced was a labour of love, because it is a demanding, and often confronting read. However, I wanted to know about this man who is one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets, so I persevered. My assessment? If you are interested in how one might live life as ethically as possible with regard to justice and the exploitation – of First Nations people and the environment – that is encompassed in the long tail of colonialism, Kinsella’s book is a good place to start.

This leads me, as I’m wont to do, to a consideration of form or genre. Displaced is characterised in promotions as a memoir, but I see it more as a manifesto with memoir elements. Events in Kinsella’s life underpin the book, including his stints in Ohio, Schull and Cambridge, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are used to explicate and exemplify his ethical beliefs and, more, to explore the paradoxes we all live with. These paradoxes provide the book’s main thread. They are expressed in such terms as “belonging and unbelonging”, finding a meaning for “home” that recognises Indigenous “dispossession” and doesn’t encompass the exploitative ideas of “ownership”, and feeling “displaced” while very definitely being in a place. He characterises this as “the ethics of presence”. It’s difficult to get your head around while also being very simple really. In other words, the idea is simple, but the living of it, not so!

Two-thirds through the book, Kinsella talks about conducting peace readings, and says that:

A poet has a job to do – art in itself is meaningless if it does not jolt us into self and collective action.

He then describes a sculpture in the British Museum comprising bits of AK-47s welded together. “The artwork,” he says, “jolts one out of apathy, if not out of complicity”.

For Kinsella then, art is not just for art’s sake. And so, here, this work of art, his “memoir”, has a very specific goal, to raise our consciousness regarding the lives we are living and how colonialism, and the accompanying capitalism, continue to damage both colonisers and colonised. He calls himself an “anarchist”, but not one who subscribes to chaos and disorder. His anarchism, he says, has

the social angle, it has the respect for individual difference. I do not attempt to tell people what to believe, but I do attempt to draw attention to the damage being done.

So now, let me return to my opening comment regarding the title and its multiple meanings. Early in the book, Kinsella talks about growing up in the Western Australian wheatbelt, and about the paradoxical, hypocritical love of nature and place he espoused. “Something didn’t add up”, he says, between the way he “felt about the world” and the way he “acted in it”, his actions drawing from “outdoorsmen activities and the attendant crisis of masculinity.” The things he did – farming, hunting, and so on – were counter to the things he loved. The book chronicles his realisation that

I was part of a colonial invasion force, and I belonged nowhere. What could I do about it? I wandered, displaced as an addict [literally as well as spiritually], and as someone trying to undo my own identity.

Learning a new way of being (“unbecoming what I was, becoming what I might be”) became his lifelong project, one he shares with his wife, the poet Tracy Ryan, and their son Tim. Kinsella puts this thinking into his work – in his writing (as mentioned above) and in his role as Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He speaks in the book of trying to create a new way of writing about place, “a system for working through the contradictions of presence, of time and space and catastrophe and catastrophising, of the failure of modernity and the consequences of colonial modes and modalities of presence”. That’s a mouthful, but it explains his wish to find a way of expressing how colonialism has negatively infiltrated our lives physically, spiritually and linguistically.

To explain his beliefs, he wanders between childhood, youth and adulthood, amongst relationships with other writers and thinkers, and between his current home, Jam Tree Gully back in the Wheatbelt, and those places he’s lived in overseas. Because – I think – of this to-and-fro structure, there is a lot of repetition of ideas and experiences, and these repetitions did become a little tedious at times. I get it John, I get it, I felt like saying a few times as I read. The other challenge for Kinsella was to not preach or virtue signal. He does come close, at times, but he makes clear that he understands the nuances – how does someone like him, for example, deal with feral cats or weed pests? “There’s plenty of mea culpa in my life”, he says.

In the end, this earnest, frank book is full of heart and commitment. One of the things I’ve taken away from it is a heightened awareness of how “colonialism” has infiltrated our language. Take, for example, an interpretive sign we recently saw on a bushwalk that described a tree trunk as providing “high rise living”. Or, a Wiradjuri country rural town’s proud sign promoting its “170 years of heritage”. Just 170 years? On its website, the Blayney Shire speaks more on this (colonial) heritage, and then mentions its natural environment and Aboriginal heritage. “Aboriginal relics and artefacts”, it explains, “are primarily protected under the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. Listed heritage in the Shire is mainly European in nature”. This sort of demarcation in thinking about heritage needs to change.

We can’t turn back the clock, which Indigenous Australians accept, I believe. However, they want and warrant the respect due any human being, recognition of their sovereignty and of their dispossession, and for us to listen to their wisdom and knowledge.

Kinsella, who believes that “poems can stop bulldozers”, includes many in this book. They make good reading. But I’ll end here on a positive note from halfway through the book:

The land is constantly being rewritten. We don’t have to be stuck with the damage. It can be undone.

John Kinsella
Displaced: A rural life
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760477

Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge, via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media