Author photo by Salty Dingo Media
Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman who has released a new children’s verse novel titled Bindi. The brilliant and beautiful novel explores friendship, caring for land, and bushfires in our current climate crisis.
Congratulations Kirli Saunders on the publication of Bindi and winning the Daisy Utemorrah Award, and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. How are you feeling now that Bindi is out there for everyone to read?
It’s so exciting! I got my copy in the mail yesterday and had wet eyes while I held onto it for the first time. I was on the phone to my best friend down in Melbourne and I shared that moment with her. It’s just really special—she’s a Gomeroi woman, a singer, and [we got] to share that moment of having a cultural object of storytelling, a creative piece out in the world that can be reflected upon, for young people to connect to Country, land, and Language. Working with Magabala has been so precious—I think they’re easily industry leaders in our First Nations publishing space in Australia and they were so careful in the curation of this—in editing and the production. And working with Dub is always a dream – his illustrations are profound. I just feel so lucky to be holding it, to be able to share it, and to have it out in the world and hopefully inspire some young people with brilliant work.
Can you tell us a little bit about Bindi and the inspiration for the story?
Bindi is an eleven year old girl who lives on Gundungurra country she loves adventuring with her friends, playing hockey, and making art straight onto her bedroom wall. She is not a fan of maths and is learning about the glossy black cockatoo at school with her local community and her class. During that time, bushfires ravish her community. Bindi, in so many ways, is written for the young people of today who have just witnessed these horrendous bush fires, and it’s also very reflective of my childhood growing up on Gundungurra country where we had fires. I started writing Bindi in full after I received the Daisy Utemorrah Award for an unpublished manuscript from WA Premier’s Awards, Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, and Magabala. I rewrote the whole thing when my dad called me and was telling me about the ash falling from the sky because of the Green Wattle Creek fire out the back of Gundungurra country in 2019. It just recalled to me all of those moments of fear and anxiety, and worry [I had as a child] for the Earth, and the animals and the people around—my friends and family—and the want for better ways for land maintenance and care for country so that these fires didn’t wipe out whole species or bush land.
I had been working on the Poetry and First Languages project at Red Room Poetry, which I had delivered across 60 workshops and 12 communities in New South Wales, Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory. And working on Gundungurra country and learning about the glossy’s in this project—the glossy black cockatoo—really brought together all of those different facets for me around care for Country and Language. I wanted to create a text which would support our young people in becoming those young Custodians [who can] stand in that space confidently [while] also teaching Language in culturally safe ways within community. And making that accessible [was important] because when I was a child, I didn’t have books in Language about cultural wisdom that were just everyday experiences of being a kid [or have it] being shared in that way.
Was the story about ash from your dad something that inspired you to seek out Dub Leffler, the illustrator of Bindi, and have it illustrated in graphite and charcoal?
How beautiful is that synergy of charcoal illustrations and these chapters on seedlings and sprouts, and the story and conversation around fire? When Magabala asked me who I was thinking for illustrators I said, ‘I love Dub,’ and ‘can he please work on this with me?’ Dub and I are also working on a book with Scholastic called Our Dreaming which will be out in a couple of years. It is lovely seeing the different mediums that he can move across with such grace—he’s a magician. The illustrations are so intentional and the conversation between the verse novel poems interspersed with the illustrations is so spectacular. I am so happy with the way that it has come together and the way that it will engage with children who perhaps don’t always look to poetry as a form that they feel connected with, or are branching out of that picture book place and more into prose in their young reading journey.
Kirli, I believe this is your third published piece of work. Your first being a picture book The Incredible Freedom Machines, the second being a collection of poetry Kindred, and the third being a verse novel Bindi. Can you tell us about these different forms and how you’ve moved from one to another?
This is my third solo book but I have been in a few different collections with Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala), Fire Front (UQP),and Animals Make Us Humans (Penguin) and published in journals before then. It’s really special to have gone from picture books with The Incredible Freedom Machines into poetry with Kindred and now into a space interweaving both with this verse novel. I think poetry underpins all of my writing whether it’s picture books, or plays, or novels, or verse novels. Poetry is always the wheel that drives the direction of my writing. I suppose my spiritual belief, my Dreaming, is deeply aligned with being a storyteller, being a teacher, and being a healer and talking about the interrelatedness between landscape and people, and our relationship with plants and animals. It’s my hope that being a writer, through poetry or whatever form that turns out in, whether it’s art or the written word, that young people or our audiences will begin to feel connected with land and understand their responsibility in caring for Country and feeling equipped or more aware to do that and to feel seen and understood in walking that path with other people.
When I was reading Bindi I noticed that it often felt like I was reading a diary of sorts— you can easily read and get a feel for the characters thoughts and emotions—which reminded me of the books which I read as a child such as The Princess Diaries, and a more popular one in recent years Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But both of these protagonists are American and white. What does representation mean to you? Especially for children to see themselves as the main character?
I think it’s everything. I really wanted this book to be something that a young First Nations child could pick up and feel that they could be a part of [it]. As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of those books. The poems within this collection vary from those diary entries into sorts of little murals that Bindi paints onto the wall and poems that are about food that they’re eating at family dinners. They alter in their layout from being more traditional freeform poems into something quite experimental, and I think that change up between the different forms of poems which exist in this verse novel means that there is something for everyone. I have even included a sort of a script almost because I wanted young people to know that poetry isn’t just something written in a standardised format but it’s for everybody. I wanted our young people to have those kinds of cultural hints and Language ties and community—family, cousins, aunties, and uncles—so that they really felt like a book was being written for them.
Bindi is also written in Gundungurra Language as well as in English. Is writing and publishing works in Language important to you? How do you see the blend between them rather than writing in one over the other?
I started my Language learning journey while I was working at Red Room Poetry and I created the Poetry in First Languages Project that I mentioned earlier, and during that time I became really interested in decolonising the publishing framework and understanding the right way to publish Language. I think this is a really evolving space and a lot has changed since First Nations Languages started getting published in Australia and more contemporary and mainstream works. I really wanted to make sure that Language wasn’t a bracketed thing, it wasn’t othered with parenthesis or footnoted as something at the bottom of the page. But rather, there was this acknowledgement of the people who had shaped the Language, and there’s the acknowledgements in the back of the book of the Custodians who helped me understand culture and Language in these spaces.
There’s also a glossary with a pronunciation guide so that young people can access the Language, and the words are placed contextually so that the young person could comprehend what’s being talked about even if they’re not really sure how to pronounce that word confidently yet. It’s my hope that Language will be more and more interwoven in mainstream literature and in stories for our young people. I didn’t have Language as a child. I wasn’t able to learn Language—my family has been raised separate from Country, on missions or reserves, or in children’s homes.
Being able to learn Country, learn Language, and understand the connection between Language and landscape as an adult made me feel that it is so necessary for our young people to have that deeper understanding and have access to those kinds of learnings in culturally safe ways. I just feel so deeply grateful to my elders: Aunty Val Mulcahy, Trish Levett, and Aunty Sharyn Halls who really guided the Language learning opportunities for me up on Gundungurra country, and it’s so special to be involved in Language revitalisation programs in the community that raised me.
As you mentioned earlier, Magabala books is the publisher of Bindi. Do you actively seek out other authors/illustrators/publisher who are First Nations people to work with you? How would you describe that experience compared to working with a non-First Nations publisher/author/illustrator?
I like to work in both spaces. I think that there are some texts that I create which definitely belong with publishers such as Magabala which are predominantly First Nations, and I also work with non-First Nations organisations. The cultural protocols which are followed by Magabala, and the care that is taken there, means that I feel really safe sharing cultural wisdom and honouring First Nations stories of land and Language, and the historical ones past down when I work with them and their all-First Nations teams. There is such a special opportunity for First Nations writers to work with each other. There’s a lot of kinship and understanding there…really beautiful knowing and there’s also a really special relationship that evolves between First Nations and non-First Nations organisations and illustrators.
And likewise, it is a total joy to be able to collaborate with non-First Nations organisations and illustrators. My entry into publishing was really unorthodox. I reached out to award winning illustrator Matt Ottley who I admired and I was reading a lot of his works as a teacher. I said, ‘Hey Matt, here’s my book The Incredible Freedom Machines. Will you come and illustrate it?’ and he was so generous and said, ‘Kirli, I love this! I don’t know who you are but this is awesome, let’s go see my editor.’ I started talking to Rebecca Young over at Scholastic. While I’ve been working with Scholastic (Dub also works over there) I am able to say, ‘Hey, can we bring in a First Nations editor to be guest editor?’ or ‘Hey, we attend to these protocols.’ I think there is such a beautiful learning that happens in those places. I get to learn from industry leaders in publishing and then likewise my experience in consulting for organisations or embedding cultural protocols means that I am also able to provide support in those spaces. Working with Matt Ottley and Beck has just been an absolute delight and I feel so held and respected in those relationships and with Non-First Nations publishers who are open to yarns about change.
Lastly, for our readers, what books do you highly recommend and why?Guwayu – For All Times is a collection of First Nations poetry and I mentioned the Poetry in First Languages project earlier; commissioned poems from that project exist in this collection with ten years of other commissioned poems that were created at Red Room Poetry, and it is edited by Dr. Jeanine Leane and it’s just a beautiful collection. That one’s out with Magabala and I definitely recommend you read it. Animals Make Us Human is edited by Leah Kaminsky and Meg Keneally and that’s out with penguin—it should be in everyone’s Christmas stocking. It’s just a really beautiful book and all the proceeds go to the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. It includes a range of writers and photographers known across Australia for their love of the earth and it was written in response to the bushfires. It’s heart-warming and also earth-caring in the way that it is created—I really love that book. I assume everybody’s read Tara June Winch’s The Yield but if you haven’t—go get it. Tony Birch’s The White Girl, again, if you haven’t—go get it. Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is beautiful, powerful poetry. Solid Air is an Australian and New Zealand spoken word anthology and it’s full of power and heart, and everybody needs that one as well. Yeah, I would start there. And I haven’t mentioned any picture books but Cooee Mittigar or Baby Business by Jasmine Seymour, and Aunty Fay Muir’s Respect are incredible children’s picture books that you should also get behind.