Displaced: A Rural Life
by John Kinsella
Published March 2020
What does the memoir offer? I pose this question about the genre and about this memoir by John Kinsella in particular. The genre bloomed in English in the early 1990s, its authorship steadily broadening from celebrities to everyone else. As a friend remarked: ‘you used to have to be famous to write a memoir; now you can become famous by writing one’. While autobiographies chronologically present the ‘whole’ of an author’s life, memoirs zoom into parts of it. The language of the memoir can also be more figurative than the autobiography.
When a writer’s work encompasses several genres – in Kinsella’s case, poetry, short stories, novels, autobiography, memoir, plays and essays – we might wonder what their memoir holds that their poetry does not. As Kinsella probes recurring subjects across his work, this is a question about the relative aesthetic possibilities of memoir.
Kinsella is best known as a poet, and as an animal rights and environmental activist. His poetry often intersects with his activism: it has made a significant contribution to ecopoetics and to the broader field of the environmental humanities. In Displaced: A Rural Life, he recounts shouting poems at advancing bulldozers to ‘thwart the machinery,’ demonstrating how poetry and activism are mutually informing in his life – and in his work.
There are a lot of memorable episodes and images in Displaced. But memorability isn’t enough, in my mind, for a memoir to stand out. Something that can elevate a memoir beyond an account of lived experience (however skilfully told), and help it flourish as literature, is when it evokes and explores the mechanics of memory: when the story is built on how remembering through writing works. Kinsella is conscious of this possibility of memoir. He writes, for example: ‘I repeat details as I build memory. These expanding echoes, thinning yet encompassing more.’ Such reflexivity and repetition – habits learned through poetry? – are used to anchor the reader’s attention to phenomena that have permeated the author’s life, and that act as portals to associative remembering.
The most famous Western literary instance of such a memory ‘portal’ is Marcel Proust’s madeleine. In Displaced, words the author uses in telling a tale – such as ‘kangaroo’ or ‘mowing’ – open out into other narrated memories, which always begin with the repeated word. In addition, salinity and the twenty-eight parrot (Barnardius zonarius semitorquatus, an Australian ringneck parrot) are motifs threaded through the narrative. The former represents the impact of colonialism on ecosystems, while the latter is an especially significant species for Kinsella, who ‘fought to protect them and their habitat … for thirty-five years’.
Certain repetitions initially struck me, while reading the book from start to finish, as unmindful, and therefore distracting. But when I reread them in isolation from the narrative, they seemed part of the memoir’s design. One such repetition has to do with Kinsella’s son Tim’s knowledge and appreciation of birds, which crops up five times in slightly different iterations. For example: ‘His knowledge of birds is profound, and Jam Tree Gully has been the epicentre of his understanding.’ And again, ‘But JTG is his home, and he knows every particle, and his love of birds means that he has insights into place that are rare and deeply sincere.’ Another such repetition has to do with ‘ownership’ of land, and occurs thrice: ‘We don’t believe in possessing, in property per se, but we do believe in the right of all people to be “homed,” and to be allowed to feel “home”’. A second iteration: ‘…the traditional owners and custodians of the land – the only “ownership” I recognise and acknowledge, as it takes precedence over capitalist notions of property.’ And a third: ‘We do not call JTG a property, or ours. We are watching over the land, we are opening it to the creatures that live in the vicinity, we are trying to keep out the hunters.’ These are in fact riffs which contribute to the mnemonic structure of the memoir while solidifying the authorial perspective on a subject.
Kinsella also presents another model for memoir in the text, when he states that: ‘It’s scanning the memories of ordinary days that makes memoir, not the big events.’ The book contains both the quietly resonant and the dramatic; examples of the former include the many domestic scenes conveying the author’s deep affection for his teenage son.
Displaced is mostly prose, but has some poetry embedded (there is also a section of twenty pages at the end where the writing blossoms into prose poetry). Some of these passages, where a poem forms part of a larger story, are the most narratively interesting. Several of the embedded poems concern the author’s encounters with wildlife. For instance, when Kinsella is stung by a redback spider, he sits down to write a poem as the venom takes effect. He tells us in the prose leading up to the poem that it was ‘extremely painful… a terrifying and agonising experience as I awaited medical attention.’ The poem is titled ‘Graphology 640: While awaiting the phantasma effects of a redback spider bite … written for Tracy to give to the Dr should I pass out …’:
flooding my palm, now extending to my wrist,
my full left hand, and pyrexia and paralysis
seem truisms […] Proteins,
chemistry, electrics, déjà vu,
to flow through victim livestock
as blood product, as antivenene,
reaction against agony to stop the poem
in its tracks, muscling in on my apostasy,
its mismanagement of 2, 4, 6-trihydroxy purine…
guanosine, all lit up as exit signs…
when the body and its guidance systems
are being overloaded with syntax
The toxic effects described in the poem then become, in the prose that follows, a metaphor for ethical problems. Kinsella speaks of the toxicity of hypocrisy. He confesses that as a young man ‘I hadn’t worked out the subtleties of irony and hypocrisy, but I knew something didn’t add up between the way I felt about the world and the way I acted in it.’ This comes after a reflection on his own hypocritical behaviour:
I loved animals, but I hunted and fished. I “respected” nature and wandered around reciting poems to trees and birds. And yet I also tore down branches and dug out undergrowth to make cubbies, and rode trail bikes through scrub, and committed other acts of thoughtless damage.
Displaced often contrasts the author’s early callousness with the care with which he and his family now tend to their environment at Jam Tree Gully, near the town of Toodyay in the wheatbelt in Western Australia. Of all Australian geographies, the wheatbelt – an agricultural area in the southwest of the state that is larger than the size of England, which was cleared by settlers in the late nineteenth century – is arguably the most emblematic of colonisation. As Tony Hughes-d’Aeth emphasises, the wheatbelt’s ‘clearing line,’ where its ‘wheat-coloured yellow’ meets ‘a muted eucalyptus green’, is the ‘most obvious visible sign from space of humans’ effect on the planet’. Tom Griffiths adds: ‘What is striking about the history of the wheatbelt is the banal, managerial, repetitive, mesmerising violence of the clearing frontier.’ Kinsella’s wheatbelt ‘property’ of Jam Tree Gully (property is usually italicised or in quotes for the author, who is not only anti-capitalist but also feels and accepts an anxiety of presence, a permanent state of unbelonging, on stolen Aboriginal land) is the centre of his existence, his mythos, and his ethics; its wildlife constantly instructs him about gentle and respectful relationships with humans and non-humans alike. It also inspires some of the most beautiful writing in the book (note below the entrancing repetition of ‘exciting’):
Jam Tree Gully is now in expansive and intense flowering mode. The jam trees are an explosive yellow, pollen dispersing across the valley in clouds. Bees are electric with the abundance. Birds are wound up with nesting, and the cross-talk is exciting and also haunting. All the fears we have of raising children in a world we are ecologically destroying are also felt on behalf of the next generation of birds … I come home to the mass flowering, and see that even the flat-topped yates planted only five or six years ago are now in bloom, and fruits are already visible. This is the first year they’ve fully flowered, and what’s exciting is that though they prefer swampier ground, the micro-system that’s been created between the lucerne trees along the firebreaks and the stands of York gum has created a suitable habitat. Blue wrens, willie wagtails, silvereyes, red-capped robins are working the insects and flowerings, and knitting their trajectories to the cascading trajectories of life on the block. It is exciting.
The highest value of Displaced to general readers, as opposed to those who may come to it through Kinsella’s poetry, and read it as an adjacent poetic text, lies in the knowledge it imparts of the author’s ethics. He describes himself and his immediate family as ‘anarchist vegan pacifist feminist’. The term ‘ethics’ has an aura of abstraction about it, evoking principles of good behaviour arrived at in advance and from a distance: theory preceding practice. But Displaced tells a different story. Kinsella’s ethics have come to him viscerally, often through being subjected to cruelty, or by witnessing it. His beliefs about the rights of animals, his deep respect for Indigenous peoples, his horror at the ongoing destruction of natural environments, his recognition of and protest against everyday violence – he arrived at all of these through formative, and often traumatic, experiences.
In one such passage, Kinsella confesses that, as a teenager, he wanted to escape the brutalities of rural isolation: violence against Yamaji people and other minorities, bullying, and the physical and sexual assaults his peers inflicted on him. He conveys that he found inspiration for this in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden – an early model for his present-day ecological sanctuary in Jam Tree Gully. Having alluded to his peaceful later existence, the passage then returns us to his teenage self, to his ‘being beaten to a pulp at the Geraldton drive-in … in the late seventies’ (‘Dictionary’ here is the bully’s derogatory epithet for him):
I was like a lippy woman, according to the leader of the pack. Approaching, asking to share green ginger wine, starting small-scale harassment like mocking ‘big words’, which he himself could use effectively and knowingly and wanted me to feel the sting of this, schoolteacher’s son that I was … and then shoving then punching then ‘speak now, you lippy bastard’, my head on the ground and held down by a bunch of less vocal boys, others holding back brother and friend who wanted out, and the cars angled up to the big screen and those crazy flipper fingers and Elton John in giant boots … and the fist coming down so hard again and again until the Yamaji guy says, Leave him alone … there’s too much blood, and the white guy smashing again so my nose splinters. Lippy bastard I was. Dictionary trying to be cool, trying to be street. My fate was sealed. My alcoholism had begun.
What also took root around this time was his pacifism: an opposition to violence in all forms. Kinsella reflects: ‘This is the thing about “radical” ethics and political choices – they so often come out of opposite experiences’. Displaced teems with such examples. The author becomes vegan after seeing human death up close, in a horrific bus accident in Nepal (‘Witnessing human death puts all death into absolute perspective’); his fierce opposition to guns, and the rituals of male bonding surrounding them, comes from witnessing how they enable monstrosity in rural places; his animal rights activism is facilitated by having to shoot a ram he has hit with his ute; his anarchism is inspired by close interactions with zebra finches, on an island of salt-destroyed earth in the wheatbelt – a viscerally if not oppositely formed ethics:
I watched nesting, I saw chicks being fed. And translating this aloneness of watching those ‘wild’ finches is how I find connection with people – to value their company and remain who I am inside, too. Community and the self and peace – equally important, and the core of my anarchism.
Kinsella has resolute (if not absolute) ethical positions. This orientation is encapsulated in the phrase ‘Wrong is Wrong’, which he tells us is a motto around Jam Tree Gully. That is, there is no justifying wrong human behaviour in the world. If something is wrong, it simply has to be stopped, or fought against. ‘This doesn’t mean there are no nuances to wrong and right,’ he writes, ‘of course there are – but when you know something is wrong you don’t try to talk your way out of it.’ Kinsella acts determinedly, even as he tries to be sensitive to the ethical paradox (a sweeter cousin of the aforementioned hypocrisy, which he is inclined to treat more forgivingly) that he recognises in his and other people’s ‘good’ intentions. In fact, ‘paradox’ is one of the most repeated terms in Displaced, along with references to human ‘rapacity’ and to the ‘biosphere’; these terms tell us much about the author’s preoccupations.
As a book about the ethical formation of a contemporary artist and intellectual, and as a literary evocation of life in the Western Australian wheatbelt – and in Ohio, Schull and Cambridge, where the author and his family have also lived – Displaced is an engaging memoir. This is despite a few flaws: a handful of distracting typos, and some dry sections in the second half of the text, including historical passages on land clearing. While Displaced directly addresses the reader once or twice, it feels as though the author has written it to persuade himself to continue being attentive and compassionate to all life, to resist racism, sexism and environmental destruction. Being able to write, Kinsella observes, ‘has been a lifeline of sanity, of working things out in figurative, autobiographical and documentary ways as part of a process of witness’. But his writing also goes beyond witness and into demonstrating alternative ways of being – ethical, socially and politically engaged, committed to animal and human rights – on our precarious earth.
Tom Griffiths, ‘The Planet is Alive: Radical Histories for Uncanny Times,’ Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, edited by Ashley Hay (2018) 61-72.
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Like Nothing on This Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (UWA Press, 2017).