Balmain, a suburb of Sydney, is a long way from the country town of Ivanhoe, NSW, where Gayle Kennedy was born, and the country town of Hay where she was raised as a member of the Wongaibon Clan of the Ngiayampaa speaking Nation in New South Wales. Gayle is an award-winning writer having published books, graphic novels and poetry as well as articles for newspapers, magazines and literary journals. Her work has expanded to radio and even a screen play. By any measure, Gayle, who likes to work late at night or early in the morning when the world is quiet, has produced an extraordinary body of celebrated work, one which most writers would only dream of creating in a life time.
What makes her story even more remarkable is that Gayle only started her writing career at the age of 51.
Gayle’s latest work is part of the much-anticipated anthology Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by writer and disability advocate Carly Findlay and featuring the stories of 46 people within the disability community.
My first impression of Gayle when we chatted for this article, is her welcoming manner and the warmth of her laugh. She strikes me as a woman who has lived her life well, with a hint of mischief about her.
Gayle lived a childhood that wasn’t like most in her country town having contracted polio at the age of two during an epidemic that swept across Australia in the late forties and early fifties.
“I can remember moments of not having polio, but I also remember snippets of being in an iron lung,” she says matter-of-factly.
Listening to her story, it’s easy to understand why Gayle felt like she led two separate lives growing up with her time divided between an orderly world of hospital care and rehabilitation in the city and her home in the country with her family, which she describes as more ‘rough and tumble’. She explains that while her parents called her by her middle name Gayle, hospital staff knew her as Beryl, her birth name.
“I think I created a chameleon like existence. I wore Beryl as my armor in Sydney and I became Gayle in my home life.” After intensive physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and encouragement from doctors, Gayle learned to walk again, and was fitted with calipers. After three years in a rehabilitation hospital, Gayle was ready to go home but meeting her parents was a huge shock.
“I was in the hospital for a long time and I was surrounded by only white nurses and doctors. There were no mirrors. When my parents came to take me home, I was shocked that they were black. I just didn’t realise, at such a young age, that I was black myself. I had no idea. My reaction must have been so hard for them.”
From an early age she developed a love of books as an antidote to often feeling isolated, and living in her own head, a fate shared by many children in long term hospital stays. She remembers watching other children riding bikes and running around but she wasn’t able to join in. It is these experiences of childhood and learning to survive in an active world that, she believes, made her head strong and resilient.
Upon leaving school Gayle decided to live in the moment and says she always knew she didn’t want to have children, nor did she succumb to societal pressures to do so.
“People thought I would change my mind,” she laughs, “ but I never felt my biological clock ticking. I wanted to go out and explore life, socially and sexually and I was old enough in the 1970’s where I could do that!”
Her early career saw her working for the public service, but in 1995, despite having no prior experience, she boldly applied for a role as a writer and editor at Streetwize Comics, who specialised in low-level literacy readers, where she remained until 1998. In 2005 Gayle’s first book of poetry Koori Girl Goes Shoppin’ was shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award. Only one year later she would win that award with her book Me, Antman & Fleabag which is still praised as a work that combines humour and politics.
“Humour is so important in my writing,” her laughter is contagious, “and with Me, Antman and Fleabag, I wanted to give people a window into our world, the world of Aboriginal people, but I didn’t want to preach. Sometimes people read it a couple of times and realise it’s more political than they first thought. I don’t mind how people translate my work but humour helps people to understand. I also wanted to honour the Aboriginal men in my family through my writing. Too often Aboriginal men get a bad rap. I like to write like I’m telling a yarn.”
Gayle comes from a family of creative people. Her father writes, she explains, and her aunties, uncles, nephews and nieces are all natural story tellers. This is not surprising given that Indigenous culture in Australia is the oldest known culture of story tellers. A culture she proudly embraces. In 2014 her book This is Country was selected to represent Australia at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy.
“To be able to reach people across the world is incredible! This is Country is such an Australian book and yet it’s very popular in the American home-schooling system. I wasn’t expecting that.”
As we chat, Gayle is preparing to be on a panel at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. She remains quietly optimistic that things are slowly changing in a positive sense for both the Aboriginal community and the disability community in Australia.
“It’s changing but there is more to do. It would be so great to see more representation in film and television where Aboriginal actors are just people, not token characters. At writer’s festivals it would be great to see more Indigenous writers on diversified panels, rather than just panels talking about indigenous literature. We’re all in this together so isn’t it time we break out of the boredom of such a white world?”
Having started her writing career at 51, Gayle’s advice to other women who have always had a dream of doing something outside of their norm is to simply do it.
“Start now!” she enthuses, “If you’re in an office and you want to be a gardener, just do it. If you have a story in you, write it. Don’t dither. Life is too short.”
Growing Up Disabled Australia is now available in bookstores, and in audio version.