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HomeCultureBooksBindi encourages care for Country – an interview with Kirli Saunders

Bindi encourages care for Country – an interview with Kirli Saunders

Kirli Saunders wrote Bindi as a call to action for young people to understand their role in conservation and caring for Country. Bindi might only be 11 years old but she is a captivating Indigenous eco-activist – learning as she goes about what it means to be responsible for Mother Earth in the face of climate change, fires, and the decimation of species and their habitats.

You have said that Bindi in many ways is autobiographical. What are one or two parallels between your life and hers?

I was raised on Gundungurra lands, and had the joy of bushwalking, riding horses, playing hockey and being connected to a delightful community like Bindi.

The wisdom of Elders, and lessons in planting trees and learning language came later in life for me. I wanted to create a character that interwove those spaces. I wanted her to navigate some of today’s environmental and cultural complexities from a child’s perspective, with grace.

Bindi’s story is written in Gundungurra and English? Why is this important?

Bindi lives on Gundungurra Country and speaks the language of the land she’s raised on. This is important because it means Bindi is able to connect with Country, by speaking the language of that land. I love teaching and learning language, particularly First Nations languages and I really wanted to incorporate the language I’ve learnt so much from, Gundungurra, in my writing. 

Can you tell us about Gundungurra Country where the novel is set?

Gundungurra land spans the Blue Mountains through the Burragorang Valley, to Goulburn. It’s mountainous, and lushly green. The gum trees tower over rivers and creeks, and lyrebirds scratch around the water ways. There are caves shaped by Dreaming spirits and waterfalls that flow through rain forests and farms for raspberries and grapes. It’s magical.

I love most that I got to grow up with Gundungurra bush land and birds and that it made me want to always adventure in natural spaces.

What made you choose to write Bindi’s story as a “verse” novel?

I wanted to create a narrative that was accessible and experimental.  I love poetry and wanted to welcome young readers into alternative ways to tell stories.

There’s a horse ride and a hockey match you write in visually and rhythmically arresting verse, the meaning enhanced by how the letters and words appear on the page. Were these poems fun to write? How do junior readers respond to this kind of poetry?

So much fun to write, especially the poems that mirror the actions of that part of the story visually. I liked the idea of including letters and visual poems (accompanied by Dub’s illustrations) to welcome readers into Bindi’s world and experiences. Junior readers and their teachers have been really supportive of Bindi.

When I was Bindi’s age, I wasn’t a largely confident reader, so I wanted to include all readers when shaping this story, and welcome all of them in.

Bindi has a light but serious flavour. How did you strike this balance?

I think our young readers are capable of grappling with big ideas, and I wanted to offer them solace as we explored them. When I find it hard to strike the balance, I write the piece in three different versions, and sit with the one that articulates the direction or tone I was hoping for.

The book is beautiful in all senses. What was it like to collaborate with illustrator Dub Leffler (descendent of the Bigambul people) on the project?

Dub is a magician, I’m so in awe of his creative ability and all round earth-loving ways. Dub and I met when I was just beginning, after The Incredible Freedom Machines hit the shelves. I remember watching him create and being captivated by his work. I feel so lucky to have had him work on Bindi. The synergy between his charcoal illustrations and the poems about the landscape and fire is a blessing to witness.

Bindi grew from your 2019 Daisy Utemorrah Award winning picture book Mother Speaks. What made you want to rework the story in the wake of Australia’s devastating bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020?

I was partway through the original manuscript when the bush fires broke out on Gundungurra Country and Dad called. It reminded me of growing up on Gundungurra land, and having fires approach. I wanted to explore the emotions attached to fire, and to honour the communities affected by them. I also wanted to lean into First Nations care for Country, and to welcome young people into discussions about traditional fire keeping.

The book raises a number of important issues, including but not limited to climate change, traditional fire management to help prevent devastating bushfires, and Indigenous children who are taken from their birthparents (as Bindi’s mother was). What makes you confident 11-year-olds and other junior readers are ready to handle these issues and respond to your call to action?

I’m a teacher originally, I’ve worked in early childhood, primary, secondary and beyond. I’m in awe of the students I’ve been able to teach. Witnessing them navigate eco-anxiety, outlive bushfires, and continually survive repeated trauma made me feel as though we need stories that acknowledge their experiences with heart.

I hope Bindi does a little of that. I hope it offers a safe place to explore some of those thoughts, feelings or hopes with care and that young people find some joy too wrapped up in her adventures.

Kirli Saunders wanted her protagonist Bindi to navigate some of today’s environmental and cultural complexities like caring for the local threatened species the Glossy Black Cockatoo. Photo: Salty Dingo Media

Through Bindi’s story you hope to bring young people into the role of being Custodians and caring for Mother Earth. What is one thing you’d like anyone, young or old, to do for the land and to protect its sacred sites?

The land, sea, waterways and skies are all sacred. And we’re not separate from them. Every action or inaction we take impacts Earth. One thing I’d encourage, is this awareness – of the interrelation of all things and the need for radical responsibility to act in alignment with The Earth, and to honour her.

Tell us about the Glossies in the Mist project, its work to protect the glossy black-cockatoo and how the team helped you with the book?

I worked with the Glossies in the Mist team to lead Red Room Poetry, Poetry in First Languages workshops on Gundungurra Country. These sessions had students create poetry with Gundungurra language about the Glossy Black Cockatoo. They also learnt about how to care for her, while planting trees to ensure her habitat remained flourishing. We will be leading lessons again in March!

This program largely impacted the shape of Bindi, and allowed me to understand more about local threatened species. I feel so grateful to the dedicated team who support the ongoing conservation of the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

Magabala Books loves Bindi so much they have asked you to write a series. Can you give us a glimpse of what’s next for our spirited protagonist?

I can’t wait to write again with the talented team at Magabala. You can expect more eco-activism, more creation and more adventures on Country with Bindi and her friends – I don’t want to give too much away! 

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Bindi by Kirli Saunders and illustrated by Dub Leffler, is published by Magabala Books, $16.99.

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