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Harriet McKnight on landscape, climate change and writing Rain Birds

Harriet McKnight’s debut novel is Rain Birds (Black Inc.), which she says was “brewed over a long period of time but written very quickly”. She explains the motivations behind Rain Birds below. McKnight is managing editor of The Canary Press. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the 2014 Overland VU Short Story Prize, the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the 2016 Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize.  

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My childhood was split into two landscapes. My mother gave birth to my siblings and I in a stone house in the middle of the Gundaroo bush, outside of Canberra. It was romantic, dusty-gummed bush. When I was ten, we moved to the NSW South Coast. My mother’s house still sits on the edge of a large salt-water lake looking at the mountain behind it.

There are things I remember – circles of mushrooms appearing in the paddocks around the stone house after the winter rains, fairy rings. One summer dried the dam out and left the carp flapping in mud puddles. Once we’d moved to the coast, every February, the salt-water lake would flood across the road in front of Wallaga Lake Bridge and we’d have to drive right around to Cobargo to get out. Those rains aren’t as predictable now and the road hasn’t flooded for years.

I didn’t deliberately set out to write a book about climate change.

I’m not sure why landscapes have always been so important to me. I suppose growing up in the country means they’re inescapable – everything is there in front of you. The seasonal changes, the way they set off a chain reaction, the school mates that come to class with stories, Dad had to sell more cattle, there’s not enough feed for them all. As a child, the kinds of stories that captivated me were often the same – Playing Beatie Bow, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Wuthering Heights. Young women lost within landscape and time, trying to pitch themselves against something larger, more ancient, unknowable. The older I get, the more I feel rooted to the places I was grown up in. Every now and then someone will ask me, where’s your country? Belonging to a particular earth is important to knowing who you are.

Harriet McKnight

But it can be a strange and uncomfortable thing to try and explain your connection to land. The country I was born on belongs to the Ngunawal people. The country I grew into my adulthood on belongs to the Yuin people. I’ve lived on Wurundjeri land and Larrakia land. My work currently takes me to Anmatyerr, Mantuyipi and Warlpiri lands. These landscapes are intrinsic to who I am but they are even more so to others. Issues on climate change and neglect of our natural spaces become even more wounding when we realise it’s not just a commodity we’re affecting but a breathing, dynamic entity with a long and continuous memory. What does it mean for us to be so callous with something like that?

I think I’ve tried to avoid the obvious labels with this book despite the political issue at the heart of it.

Rain Birds was brewed over a long period of time but written very quickly. It’s set in country that I chose because of its isolation, its wildness and the things those elements reflected in my characters. Recent studies from the University of Connecticut have indicated that by 2100, the Earth will have lost 17% of all species to climate change and that Australia is tipped to be one of the countries most affected with a loss of 14%. What this looks like is the rainforests of Queensland’s Wet Tropics – and the endemic species that live there – emptied by changes in climate. You can drown in numbers like that. With Rain Birds, the character of Arianna Brandt is a reflection of how paralysed I can feel in my own life under the realisation of just how big each tiny battle is inside the fight for the planet.

I think I’ve tried to avoid the obvious labels with this book despite the political issue at the heart of it. Because isn’t everything we do inherently political? The choices we make, the things we stand behind – they all reveal what is most important to us. I didn’t deliberately set out to write a book about climate change. I wrote something that feels intrinsic to me and important to my makeup, that’s a reflection of the things I think about. Which is that landscape is layered – with meaning, with stories, with significances I will never be able to know and don’t need to in order to feel deeply for it. In the end, I think this is what my book is really about. There are things that are crucial to us individually and globally. How are we meant to prioritise one above the other? What will happen if we don’t? I don’t think I have the answers.

Rain Birds is the debut novel by Harriet McKnight. Published by Black Inc. and available through blackincbooks.com or wherever good books are sold. McKnight will be appearing at Melbourne Writers Festival as well as City of Sydney’s Speak Your Mind 2017 events series.

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