At home with Kirli Saunders

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning international writer of poetry, plays and picture books. She is a teacher, cultural consultant and artist. In 2020, Kirli was named the NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year.

Kirli created Poetry in First Languages, delivered by Red Room Poetry. Her debut picture book The Incredible Freedom Machines was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and CBCA notables. Her poetry collection, Kindred was shortlisted for the ABIA 2020 Book Awards. Her verse novel, Bindi was the inaugural winner of the WA Premier's Book Awards and the Daisy Utemorrah Award.

Kirli has been shortlisted for the Nakata Brophy prize in 2018 and 2020. She is an esteemed judge for the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, QPF Val Vallis Award and Blake Poetry Prize.

As a playwright, Kirli is co-creating Dead Horse Gap with Merrigong Theatre and South East Arts. Her first Solo play, Going Home has been supported by Playwriting Australia, and will take the stage in 2022.

Kirli mentions Ali Cobby Eckermann's verse novel Ruby Moonlight, and you can listen to an interview with Aly on The Garret about Ruby Moonlight here.

At home with Kirli Saunders


ASTRID: Kirli, welcome to The Garret.

KIRLI: Oh, thank you so much for having me on. I'm dialing in today from Dharawal country down on the South Coast and it's a rainy day today, but we've got black cockatoos calling out in the background so you might hear them a little bit. I'm under the beautiful frangipani tree and the ocean [inaudible 00:01:01] is a little bit wild today. I went and sat, and did my reading, meditation and yoga this morning by the sea. And it's really nice to be here on this country and sending my respect out to the ancestors who have always cared for this land.

ASTRID: Kirli, thank you for letting us know where you are. And I haven't told you this yet, you are going to be the first interview on The Garret this year, so thank you very much for…


ASTRID: ... joining us here today. Now, Kirli, you are an award-winning writer, poet, educator, teacher and you write for a wide range of audiences, including children. Your first picture book which came out in 2018, I believe, The Incredible Freedom Machines, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards and was listed as a notable book by the Children's Book Council of Australia. Your debut poetry collection, Kindred, which came out last year, 2020, was just shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. Congratulations.

KIRLI: Thank you so much. It's a special award, but also just all of the writers in that award, in my category, I admire so much. I'm like, I'll have to wave to all of them, they're so impressive. And I grew up listening to Uncle Archie. I love that he won this year.

ASTRID: It is a fantastic award. I mean, I do love all of the awards, but I live in Victoria and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards tend to be pretty damn impressive, so well done.

KIRLI: They're pretty good. Thank you.

ASTRID: But I actually haven't finished listing your notable achievements and awards yet. Your latest book is Bindi and it is a verse poetry novel for middle grade readers and that in itself, I find fascinating. But Bindi actually received the Western Australian Premier's Book Award, so again, well done. We are going to be talking about your works and your poetry, Kirli, but because you are a creator across so many different mediums, can you tell me what is your favourite medium to tell stories, and to express yourself, and how do you choose between them?

KIRLI: It's so hard to pick just one. I think it's very dependent on the day as to how I choose to express myself. As a child I loved to paint and I loved to draw. And I didn't find curiosity or affluent with words until probably year 11 and 12 at school when I was studying poetry. I would say, poetry is the backbone of all of my writing, so if I'm choosing to express myself through writing then poetry would be the way that I would like to do it. And perhaps that poem turns into a picture book, or a play, or a song, who knows. And if I'm making art, I'm really enjoying at the moment printmaking and I also really like to paint. it can depend on the day, sometimes it's I need to move the feeling so I'll go and do some yoga, or then I'll need to sing the feelings so I want to go and jam with my friends and family and make some music. It can really depend on the day.

ASTRID: I am intrigued that you fell in love with poetry at school. I admit, and I have admitted this on The Garret before, I loved reading, and writing, and English at school and yet I was a kid who didn't enjoy poetry at school. And it is only in the last decade, now that I am much older, that I have come to appreciate and start to understand and choose to pick up a volume of poetry. So, what was it about your experience at school? And I know this is a really broad question, but what was the in for you in that kind of school environment that still made poetry sing to you?

KIRLI: Oh, I have to give it with a caveat of we were learning poetry from dead white guys in a very colonial school and because of that, I think we were reading Patterson and we were reading Wilfred Owen, and I just adored the witty wordplay. I liked the rhythm, and the symbology, and the story that played out through this really concise form. And that it was ambiguous. It wasn't pretending to be anything. It was just unknowing. I kind of liked that about poetry.

And I had a wonderful English teacher who sat me down with these books and put them across the table and said, ‘Kirli, you might like these ones’. I think you'll like the way that they sound or the way the words come together in this. I think there's such a way to go in decolonizing the literature space, especially in school. And I really love working with schools now and seeing so many of our Black, migrant, CALD… Diversity – and I hate that word – but that's kind of the span of something other than what's been there colonially in our school system, being accessible to children and I know I would have loved that as a kid.

ASTRID: I am so upset with the school curriculum. I was at primary school in the 1980s and when I see my nieces or kid these days studying the same texts that I was studying back in the 1980s, that's pretty horrifying. I mean, I guess Shakespeare doesn't date, but we really can find more contemporary Australian poets, and writers, and thinkers to share with the next generation and I think we actually have a responsibility to do so. You are actually also a teacher. You have experienced standing in the classroom, and this is kind of a complete question without notice, but that experience in the classroom, including in the primary classroom, how much of that, if any, have you brought to your writing for children?

KIRLI: Oh, all of it. So, I trained in primary, I've consulted in early childhood, and I've worked in secondary and behaviour intervention, and a little bit of tertiary as well. And working in the education sphere for me was soul work in the same way that writing is. I think being a storyteller and being a teacher are something that I was born to do. I feel very like that's the dream and path, that's the way I've got to go, healer, storyteller, teacher, these things are all wrapped up in one. And I think I would sit there with my children with the books that I would prescribe for my class, and I'd manically race through the library, and find this great big box of books and huddle off to my classroom with them. And I loved that process of reading so many writers every single day and bringing that joy of literature into the classroom with young people, particularly.

So, I think having access to so many books, being in a library every day and trying to find texts that reflected the community of students that I had in my classroom and that were very diverse, again, that word, but students from First Nations backgrounds, students from a range of different family makeup, students who were migrants and of refugee backgrounds as well. And I think trying to cater a classroom of literature for them meant that I got to read so many different writers. And they definitely shaped the way that I would write and the way that I would hope to tell a story that can include children, can make them feel like they're seen and heard and understood when they read a book. That they're not just reading someone else's story, but maybe they get to feel like they're part of the story too.

ASTRID: I suspect that middle grade readers, so kids 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, who pick up Bindi will not only feel seen, but they're going to have fun reading Bindi. So, Bindi is written for middle grade readers. It is the story of a young girl who goes to school and has all the things that young kids experience and face at school. But also, she is experiencing the world in the way we all are, it's a changing world, there is climate change, there are bush fires, there are adult stresses that exist and impact on her world. You are writing from the point of view of an 11-year-old, how do you as an adult put yourself back in the heart and the point of view of a young girl?

KIRLI: I think I wanted to write the book that I wish I had when I was that young, is one part of it. I also had a lot of, I think, doubts about myself at that age and I think so many 11-year-olds do. And the things that I know about myself now, I think about telling that to me as an 11-year-old. I'm like, well, we have to rewrite Bindi a little bit. She's going to be a little bit more confident, a little bit less concerned about these things or a little bit more brave in a conservation, in her sustainability, in her cultural actions.

When I was young, I didn't have a lot of access to language or to culture and community in the way that Bindi does, especially on Gundungurra country where I was born and raised in the Southern Highlands, which is a fairly privileged community. And the only reason we came to be there, I guess, was mum was moved there as a child, and removed from her family, and raised in children's homes there. So, we had a strong connection to the Highlands, and I wanted to try and talk to that through Bindi. I wanted to create a place for a childlike Bindi in current day in school and to celebrate culture, and language, and that connection for all children and not for just our First Nations children. And to not allow it to be othered because I think when I was a kid, somebody who was like Bindi, someone like me, there was an othering that happened that wasn't intentional, but it came into play.

It's been more soul work writing Bindi. I've loved it.

There's so much of my family in there, I've changed the names of the characters, but these are stories from my childhood and they're hilarious. When I call up Jesse and Pip, my sister and brother now, or mum and dad and I say, ‘Hey, I'm writing a sequel for Bindi and we're going to have to unpack some more family stories. Get ready, it's going to be good’. ‘Oh, great, which one is she going to dig up now?’ But I grew up riding horses. The horses, they're real, the bush fires, these are real things and that eco-anxiety that I experienced as a child and that our young people are experiencing now with climate and continued fires creeping into community. They're facing very real extinction in bigger ways than we have. I want to talk to that for our young people and make it accessible and create a space for yarning around those ideas in the classroom.

ASTRID: I am an adult with eco-anxiety, and listeners of The Garret know that very well, and I was struck by the way you bring in that awareness of the environment, and climate, and fire, appropriately, for want of a better word, but you also touched briefly on stolen generations and colonisation and attempt to genocide in Australia.

On page 63, I have Bindi open in front of me, in the poem, ‘Bedroom Wall Mural 3, it's a one-line poem and it simply says,

Once they told us we'd die out too.

And I could have a conversation with my 10-year-old niece because of this poem that you've got here. And I probably wouldn't have the confidence to be able to bring up that conversation without holding a book like this in front of me and without reading it with her. I guess as a writer who not only is taking on the point of view of an 11-year-old girl, and bringing your personal experience and your family experience to it, but when you are talking about eco-anxiety, and the stolen generations, and Australia's dark history, how do you find the words that make it accessible and okay for a young person?

KIRLI: Well, I think that's where the poetry comes into it. Poetry for me is taking a big emotion or a big idea and making it concise and tangible. And I think that notion of taking big texts, big ideas, big feelings, big thoughts, big history and packaging it in a way that is a one-line sacred poem, something soft, but that punches, allows for you to be able to have those conversations. And within that one particular poem too that you're speaking to, there's this idea of the synergy, the oneness with all living things. We could be talking about any of the things that we've already lost, but we're also talking about genocide and we're also talking about the very likely possibility of extinction. I think those ways of speaking is so important. And more than ever, our young people get it. Kids are such hearty spirits who rock around in the world. I love being around children and witnessing that unguarded enthusiasm they have to care for something. They're so caring and I think our kids really get it more than so many adults do.

ASTRID: What responses have you been getting from your young readers?

KIRLI: Oh, I think the seal of a good book in my world is when a friend or a family messages me and says, my two-year-old or my three year old can't go to sleep without taking The Incredible Freedom Machines into bed too. And I'm like, ah, I don't care what awards I win, that's a winner. And the Bindi one was, a friend of mine recently messaged on Instagram and was like, ‘Look, my daughter won't read, but she won't put Bindi down and thank you for writing a book about a girl who is like my daughter, who can also exist in the world and also be sensibly reading, thanks for making her feel seen as a kid who cares about the Earth, and who loves to ride horses, or who plays sport’. I wanted Bindi to be accessible to all children and that's a big thing to try and do as a writer, make a book that's accessible. But the feedback that I'm getting is that it's hitting some hearts so that's a good thing.

ASTRID: That is a wonderful thing. Now, Bindi is a verse novel, I haven't seen many verse novels published in Australia. There are some, and I think probably one of the more famous in Australia so far is Ali Cobby Eckermann's, Ruby Moonlight, but a verse novel for children is relatively rare. How did you choose that form? I mean, I know you're a poet, but how did you choose that form and essentially write what could have been a novel in verse form?

KIRLI: I love that you were just talking about Ali's work because when Rach, my publisher, Magabala and I were talking about this, she goes, Oh, I'll send you Ruby Moonlight, that'll give you some inspiration. I was like, Oh, I've already read it, but please send it because I'll read it again. And if you haven't read Ali Cobby Eckermann's work, please do so because she'll make you laugh, she'll make you cry, she's remarkable.

ASTRID: Often at the same time.

KIRLI: A writer that I really deeply admire. Yeah, at the same time. I guess, well, so the Daisy Utemorrah Award, which Bindi won in its first form, it was a long form poem and that's how I usually write poetry that will turn into a picture book manuscript. And I intended for it to be a picture book. And Rach called me after I won the award and said, ‘Cool, how do you feel about a verse novel?’ And I was like, let's change this up, let's expand this idea into rather than just one great big, long rambling piece but make a hundred rambling pieces that lead into each other.

And it was a really interesting process to write because I'd kind of written three quarters of the book manuscript before the fires had started happening on Gundungurra country, on Yuin country where my mum was born. I was born on Gundungurra, mum was born on Yuin country and my grandfather and grandmother's family are from Biripi country. Well, grandfather's from Biripi and then my grandmother's going to be from Gadigal. So, all of those areas were on fire.

And I called dad and he was talking to me through, Kirli, there's ash falling from the sky. I'm like, ‘Dad, I'm there in a heartbeat. We'll pack up. What do you need?’ And it just brought back these rushes, the feeling of having to pack up everything like we did when we were kids when a fire would creep up over the mountain and all of that fear and anxiety. I scrapped the whole manuscript and started again. And wrote it from start to finish in this rapid space. And I think everybody remembers that time and I'm sending love and compassion to anybody who's still experiencing the hardships of having lost things to fire, and people, and loved animal spirits, friends, family, because I know that the rebuild is still ongoing and the impact of our bushfires, they're not a past thing, they're present, very much so.

That process of trying to rapidly check. So, there's New South Wales, and the fire app, and all of these things just to make sure that the roads were still open, and that my family would be okay at home, and that families down the coast were safe, was unfolding at the same time as me writing this book. I thought we've got to catch this, kids are going to remember this now and if they don't remember it now, this unfortunately looks like it will happen again, and we need to know how to act next time. And our kids need to know how to feel and how to move on those things next time.

ASTRID: They do need help and guidance about how they can feel and how they can react and how they can process what, as you say, will happen probably many more times for all of us. You said that this started out as a picture book and obviously it changed, it became a verse novel. That said, it is still illustrated, not in traditional picture book format, but there are beautiful illustrations on almost every page from Dub Leffler. Can you talk to me about what it's like for someone to illustrate your work and if you ever change anything as a consequence of what comes up from the illustrations?

KIRLI: Oh, Dub is... I've said this, I don't know how many times, you couldn't count them, the amount of times I'm like, Dub Leffler, what a magician. He's so magical. He's work is absolutely captivating in everything that I've ever seen him create. And he is such a thoughtful, connected spirit and I love working alongside him. This is our second co-creation, the other being Our Dreaming, which comes out, I think next year now. Things in the publishing world have been pushed back because of COVID and everything else. And the way it usually works with Dub and I is we'll have kind of initial yarns around the original draw when I'm formulating the draught of the text, and then he will get the copy of the final text and work on illustrating the final or a penultimate draught, I suppose. And we'll have a couple of long rambling yarns on the phone, which talk mostly about life and sometimes about books. And then he'll sit down, and he'll get to working and will kind of flick me these updates back and forth.

And he has this innate knack for knowing the spirit of the thing. And he will send me, ‘Kirli, I've been thinking about this particular bird’, or ‘I've been thinking about this particular animal’, or ‘How about this synergy here?’ And I go, ‘How do you know that? How do you know that's my grandmother's totem? Or how did you know that bird is deeply important to me? How did you pick that animal?’ He goes, ‘Oh, it just popped up in the garden, I thought it must be the right one’.

He's so special to work alongside. And I love what he's done, particularly with Bindi because he's taken the seedling cinders throughout the three different sections of the book chapters, I guess, and has mimicked the idea of the cycle of death and renewal with this beautiful grass tree. And the sketchings of these gorgeous glossy black cockatoos, an endangered species at home, he'd caught them in all of their glory. And I just adore this bird and he's done such a remarkable job. If you don't know Dub, go and check him out. He's incredible.

ASTRID: In addition to being beautifully presented, I mean, my copy is actually a hardback, and beautifully illustrated, this is a verse novel that uses language. Now, I'm a White woman and the fact that I don't understand language is reflective of so many things, including the fact that it never appears in our education system, the local languages of where we grow up. And you include a word list at the end and when I realised it was there, I kept flicking forward and back. But I also kept trying to read your poetry without knowing the actual meaning that you're giving me in the dictionary at the end. I was trying to feel the words and figure out what you were referring to. And I found that a really wonderful experience even as an adult reader. But I'm interested in what children and adults say to you about the use of language and the different types of reactions, or responses, or comments that you get?

KIRLI: Yeah, the comments are largely really positive. But I suppose my language learning journey started when I was 27. I was on the banks of the Shoalhaven River and I could hear the sounds of anthem singing. And it was this crazy experience. I'm looking over my shoulder like, this can't be real, right, that idea of wanting to learn language and not having been taught it. I know that feeling. And I think that so many First Nations people who've grown up in colonised areas, know that feeling. And I felt really, really sad about it. I had a lot of grief about it.

So, I went and created a project called Poetry In First Languages with Red Room Poetry, and we would meet with Elders and Custodians on country, and create programs that would allow children and poets and Elders to sit together, to teach and learn language through programs.

Like on Gundungurra country where we would be planting she-oaks, talking about the significance of the black cockatoo, and then we would have the children write poems about the black cockatoo that would fly around with language on the back of buses. And then the community would learn these words. And if you don't know much about Red Room, go check them out because they're incredible. They do wonderful things. But it also meant that I got to learn or be a part of language, repatriation, celebration, sharing, preservation in 12 different communities with 60 different workshops. And it taught me a lot about the complexity of teaching and learning language and I think this will be a learning journey for me for life. I'm so fascinated by the ways that community want to share or hold onto language, what's appropriate or not to share.

So, there's a lot that goes into sitting down to write a book like this. Years of learning the language, of knowing which words I can and can't share. And the 30 or so words that feature in Bindi are words that have been purposely selected because they relate to country particularly, but also because they're words that I think everyone could benefit from using in a more sort of everyday experience. They're names for local land things, or plants or animals, so things that we see and we could talk to. Because if you've ever tried to learn any kind of language, if you don't have the ability to use that word then it will not be later and you forget about it. But I've chosen them on purpose.

Teachers have been great when I've been sharing Bindi in the classroom, they're excited to share it and to read this story. And I made a very intentional choice to put a pronunciation guide in the back of Bindi so that this is not a dictionary, it's a language list or almost a glossary. And it's not designed to be taught out of isolation because if we're teaching language, we need language teachers in the classroom. We've got to get community in, they've got to paid and remunerated for their time and their wisdom, and it has to be done in consultation and collaboration. So, Bindi was almost the impetus for teachers to do that. ‘Oh, great, I've got this beautiful book and it teaches language. Now what?’ Well, now call your local land council and your local community group, and get a language teacher in, and teach language alongside each other, read this book but teach local language. This is only one language of 250 that have been identified on a map written sometime ago, and 650 dialects, and there's such a richness that we're able to access.

ASTRID: There is a richness and this is something that you are giving to and have created for the next generations. And that is a wonderful thing Kirli. I have one final question about before you publish a work, before you publish Bindi or anything else, how much do you share with your family, how much do you get approved from... what is the process?

KIRLI: So, a lot. I acknowledge the Elders and Custodians who have been involved in the Poetry in First Languages project, particularly because learning how to plant the she-oak, spending time out on country with Aunty Sharyn Halls, and learning language, and the time and learning language from Trish Levett, alongside the community down the South Coast, Adrian Webster, and Jacob Morris, and Joel Davison, these people have all given up a lot of time. So even before the book begins, the book has begun. The content is being learnt and curated. And I think that's an important thing for every time anybody goes to write a book. We're writing a book about perhaps experiences or thoughts that have been seeded for a time.

So, there's all of the time pre-writing, and then there's the time writing and sitting down with community and saying, all of the poems that I wrote about people, I made sure I sent it to them and I clarified, this is the way that I wanted to use your name, this is the reason why I have chosen you to be included in this book. The teachers involved, Mrs. Ernie and Mr. Milburn, are my actual teachers from school, one of them was a tutor. And so, I've sent them copies, and I can't wait to get a coffee, and sit down and have a yarn with them. There's a lot of consultation that goes into shaping a character. And I think that's really important because Bindi I suppose is my story and that I wrote it, but Bindi wouldn't have happened at all without those characters in the first place being in my life and shaping my story. Lots of yarning.

ASTRID: On your website, you say that you have five projects coming up. Now I believe one of them might be Bindi and you have mentioned a few. But can you tell us all of the projects that we can look forward to?

KIRLI: I'm working on a few plays, which is very exciting. My first solo work has been supported by Playwriting Australia and it's called Going Home. So, for the last week, I've been travelling through Yuin country, down onto Gunai country and tracing my matrilineal family line. More recently, actually it was a little bit last year, I took mum down onto Yuin country and we reconnected back home. So that play will be about reconnections to home and healing those intergenerational traumas of being removed from country, and the constant relocation and dispossession of land, and language, and culture that has come with so many First Nations communities with being moved on and off missions.

Then we've got Dead Horse Gap, which is a play with Merrigong Theatre and the Crimson Rosella theatre companies, so South Coast and South East Arts. And I'm just a co-writer on that, but I'm learning an awful lot. It's based on actually an old film, well, loosely based, but readapted, I suppose, in a lot of ways with Johnny Depp in it, called Dead Man. And I don't know if you've seen it, but fascinating film, incredible soundtrack. And we're working with some total magicians there. So that's a beautiful learning curve for me. Both of them are and I'm really enjoying it.

Then I've also got Our Dreaming, which I mentioned earlier with Dub Leffler and Scholastic. I'm really excited about that. Talks about the dreaming, because I realised more and more that when I speak about the dreaming, a lot of people look at me like, Hey? What is this wonderful spiritual way of being and knowing? I want to know more about it. And I wanted people to have this, and particularly children to have a framework of understanding that the dreaming isn't just dream time that's passing but it's continuous and it's a responsibility to ourselves, and to others, and to the earth. Afloat is coming out with Hardie Egmont, and Matt Chun is illustrating it. And he is another incredible wiz, if you don't know Matt's work, follow him on Instagram and then follow his @Un_Monumental, because he's doing amazing things in the decolonial space. And his works are just beautiful. Daybreak came out recently, go and buy it for every one of your children and all of their friends.

What else have I got? Many, many more books. Bindi, a sequel. Yana in the Bawa means ‘walk in the bush’, it's a very early childhood children’s book, which has been really fun. I'm also working on a work with David Cragg and Noni Cragg, and that one's called at the moment untitled, but that is mum’s story of being removed from country. So, it'll be more heart and soul work.

And I'm working with really wonderful people at Magabala, and Scholastic, and Hardie, and some incredible different play writes. And on top of that is Returning, which is a visual arts poetry exhibition installation, drawing together poetry and art to talk about the process of decolonizing the self, which is messy and convoluted and it's taken so many shapes in my life, but it will appear at a gallery, hopefully in the Southern Highlands on Gundungurra country later in the year.

ASTRID: Kirli, that is such an impressive list and I have to say that is more than five projects. You need to go and update your website.

KIRLI: I need a holiday. Yeah, no, it's a big year and COVID has affected so many things. And I'm sending lots of love also to all the creators who are still making things, who are in the podcasts and the storytellers. What a hell the year 2020 was and I can see this beautiful, positive enthusiasm that's bursting out of people at the moment. I really commend that. It's been a hard time for so many artists that I love and adore and art has been the thing that's continuously got me through. The making of it, the consuming of it, the bathing in it. So lots of love to all those creators. Keep making so that we can keep fighting.

ASTRID: So well said Kirli and thank you very much for bringing The Garret back in 2021.

KIRLI: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I can't wait to tune into more episodes this year.