27 October 2016, Readings Kids, Carlton, Melbourne, Australia
Kristen Hilton, far right, is a Commissioner at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
Acknowledge traditional owners of the land
Because this is a time slip novel I am going to go back about 20 years when Kim and I crossed paths in the ‘Tower of Babylon’ also known as the John Medley building at Melbourne University studying German. A few years later we ended up at the same law firm – not the spiritual heartland for either of us as it turned out and some years later found ourselves sitting side by side at the Professional Writing Course at RMIT. It was during that course, maybe a decade ago that I first heard the voices of Gert and Madeline and it is cause for celebration that those words and ideas now find themselves in this beautiful book, in this lovely new shop (Readings Kids) and I hope, in the future, on school syllabuses.
Because the story is not just a one of imagination, rich character development and intrigue - it tells, in part the story of the development and maturation of our country. As the golden, serious and disappointingly sleazy Master Williamson drafts the laws of the federation, his sister leads the suffragist movement from a clandestine printing press set in Drummond Street not far from here. I wondered as I read of the volatile relationship between these siblings how our country might be different today if Master Williamson has listened more closely to his sister – if the women were at the drafting table instead of holding séances.
The book also points to the other critical civil rights movement which took place around the time, as Percy returns to Corranderk, a thriving Aboriginal enterprise and place of activism. When I go to talk to students about the history of social justice movements and human rights many of them refer to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parkes – this is right and true, but what goes shamefully undervalued is the strong Aboriginal rights activists who have positively shaped our national narrative – people like Peter Coppin, Margaret Tucker, William Cooper – there is enough defiance and spirit in Percy to imagine that he might have belonged to this kin.
In addition to When the Lyrebirds Calls I read another lovely piece of literature this week. It was by a little known writer, Tom Schroeder. He sent me a letter – compelling and brief. In it he wrote:
“Dear Commissioner, it is unfair that women don’t have the same rights as men. If they have the exact same job, they should have the exact same rights. For example, did you know that women don’t get the same payments as men in some jobs. Here is a fact: women were not allowed to vote until 1908. Isn’t that crazy?
Men and women should be treated the same and fairly.’
Tom – Grade 2, Wembley Primary School.'
This letter resonated with me for lots of reasons. It is a letter of which Aunt Hen would have been proud, unlikely for her to imagine maybe that it was written by a young boy, and like many of Madeline’s sharp observations, it reminds us that while much has changed - the unbinding of corsets, celebration of the physical prowess of women, greater understanding of gender equity - our progress is not linear and not complete. At one point Nanny scolds Madeline telling her that ‘forthrightness is terribly unappealing in the female sex.’ Today, even in our national discourse, strong women with ideas and assertion are described as ‘shrill.’ Nanny’s hard line did not die with her. If you a woman in this country you are four times more likely to be subject to violence, you are more likely to be poor, you are likely to be discriminated against and the picture is even bleaker if you are a woman of color.
I also used the letter to goad my own grade 2 boy into doing his homework. I read it to him and he said “He is lying Mum.”
I said, “What do you mean? I have been talking to you about the gender pay gap all year.”
“No,” he said. “There is no way that kid is only in Grade 2.”
But back to this author – when my 5 year old daughter finishes reading Ginger Green I will give her this book. This novel that is delicate in its detail and strong in its message. This novel within which you find characters across centuries of spirit, humour and passion – this book that is about ideas, loyalties and friendship – the collision of cultures and times. A work of lovely literature but also a girls’ handbook for activism.
Kim will tell you this book took 10 years to write and much has changed in her life in ten years and then again, maybe as Madeline reflects, not so much after all, because here we are a stone’s throw from Melbourne Uni, the RMIT writing class just around the corner, hanging out in Readings talking books.
It is a pleasure to commend your book Kim.