“… everyone knew that all islands were worlds unto themselves, that to come to an island was to come to another world.”Guy Gaviel Kay
For most of my life, I have longed for a home the way another woman might long for a husband. It was a longing full of ache and loneliness. Four years ago, I bought a block of land on one the Southern Moreton Bay Islands and the shy hope rose in me that maybe, finally, I could build a home for me and my daughter. A place we could hold and be held by.
I was catching the bus back from the conveyancer when a young man sat next to me. “Bad mistake,” he said, “Bad, bad mistake. Place is full of maggots.”
I thought of white bodies writhing in dead meat. A swarm of flies. “Really?”
“Too right,” he said. “The people there, they’re all maggots.”
I turned to look at him. He had a face full of pimples with an unfinished moustache and the skin of a smoker. “Have you spent much time there?”
“No way,” he said as if I was an idiot. “Place is full of maggots.”
I rang one of the local police stations to see if there was any truth in this. The officer who answered the phone said, “Do yourself a favour and go back to Darwin. Those islands are full of scum.”
“Have you spent much time there?”
“You couldn’t pay me to go there.”
Over the next couple of years, I heard these stories again and again, always by people who’d never left the mainland.
The day after I moved to the island, I woke to find fresh mangos on my doorstep. Somebody gave my daughter a pushbike. Somebody else gave me a yoga mat. Everybody gave us cake. And kindness. More kindness than I’ve ever found anywhere.
There is something deeply disempowering that happens when stories are told about us by people who don’t know or care about us. This is true for both people and for communities.
This is how the Water Stories project began. I wanted to make a safe space for island people to tell their stories. I wanted to give them tools to tell those stories with as much honesty and power as possible.
We need our storytellers. As Umberto Eco said, “To survive you must tell stories.” Stories are part of how we heal.
So while this project has been about professional development and the craft of writing, it’s also been about nourishing the vulnerable and building the strength of the people and the community I love.
Because I do I love it here. This is my home now and part of making it my home has been working with the writers whose stories appear in this book.
Two years ago, with support from an RADF grant, I started running workshops on Macleay Island. We came together in a hall with open windows and timber floors. I would talk about an aspect of literary craft and then lead a meditation and give a writing exercise. The more we wrote, the deeper we went. I watched writers find their voice, develop a body of work and recognise the power and beauty of their own stories.
Writing is an act of love. We cannot write well about something we don’t notice. To pay attention is one of the best ways to love. This was where we started. What do you love and why? What are the specific details that make you cherish this person, this place, this dear creature? We sat very still and let the things we loved come in close and then we let them loose on the page.
It was this exercise that helped bring forward, To be Known by Sarah Jean, the beautiful opening piece of this collection.
We also practiced walking mediation as a way to help writers find the stories they needed to tell and write those stories with presence, power and depth. So many of the pivotal moments of our lives involve walking – up an isle, into a hospital, onto a plane, out of a marriage. I invited the writers to walk with as much awareness as possible, to feel the soles of their feet against the ground, the shift of their weight, the roll from heel to toe and the precise moment when a foot becomes airborne.
The act of slowing down helps to find a deeper way to tell important stories. It was after doing this exercise that Robbie Kirk wrote The Big Walk. Whenever I read this story, I can feel her courage and love. It was a hard story to write but it’s a beautiful story to read. It’s powerful and funny and true.
There is a lot of beauty in this collection. But there’s a lot of wide-open pain as well. It takes courage to write the big stories. Writing gives us a place to hold our wild and broken selves; a container for unacceptable grief; a way of being with the enormity of love and loss and beauty we bump up against in unexpected moments.
My daughter saw her first turtle last week. We were kayaking. Neither of us are very good. We paddled about a hundred metres from the house, then stopped and bobbed among the high tide mangroves. She told me about the boy in her class whose mother is in prison and whose dad is dead. She asked me if the man who leant us the kayaks wants to be my boyfriend. She told me about the poems she has started writing on the ferry in the mornings.
Beside us, in the dark green water, a turtle appeared. A single flipper rose and then sank again. By the time my daughter turned, it was gone. The water was flat, dark and empty. Her face crumpled.
But then we heard it breathing behind us. It sounded like Darth Vader, if Darth Vader was a Buddhist monk.
We turned towards that long slow breath and there it was – a turtle, ancient and lovely. It looked at us from a large brown eye. Its shell was glossed by water. I felt like I was looking at a unicorn. It was just wondrous and strange.
When it sank again, disappearing into the dark water, the air it left behind was different. We sat very still in our kayaks, feeling the air and how it was full of the echo of the turtle. We didn’t speak, both of us changed by the presence of a creature so wild and old.
Because this is still wild country, here. And the wildness is in the land and the water, and also the people and their stories.
Editor and producer
The Water Stories Project