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Life with Birds – Bronwyn Rennex – Interview

My friend Bronwyn Rennex has written a book called Life with Birds,  she calls it a lament : a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. I finished reading it last night, I nearly cried ... I don't cry, I also laughed out loud. This little book is a searching, brave, honest to its bones but has the wonderful Bron drole voice throughout, so there are laughs, a lot of laughs. It is a must read.

Buy it here

Also at Gleebooks and Ariel

This is an interview I did with Bron about the book..

LG: So Bron I know you from Stills Gallery (Bron was the Co-Director) I didn’t know you were a writer, so how did this project come about?

BR: It’s always been pictures and words for me and when I was at Stills pictures were a major part of what I thought about and what I looked at all the time, but even so most of my pictures had words in them. The first show I had a Stills “The Approximate Place of the Heart” I’d written titles and engraved them onto the perspex onto the images … so words have always been there, but they have definitely taken a back step, in fact, when I studied photography, I did a minor in creative writing at UTS.

After Stills closed in 2017, it was sad that it closed, but I guess it gave me an opportunity to return to my own art practice. People always say that they feel like they have a book in them. I had been tinkering away with parts of this book … before Stills Gallery closed and when Stills closed, I decided to enrol in a Masters and concentrate on what was inside me that wanted to come out. So that’s how it started.

There were a couple of catalysts for the germ of the book. One was from years ago … I was adult, my parents had both died, I was at my Auntie and Uncles house for Christmas – my dad died when I was quite young – he had served in Vietnam and prior to that in Japan, but because I was quite young when he died, in my mind he was a projectionist in Japan and in Vietnam and I didn’t really delve into any of it.

LG: How old were you when he died.

BR: I was fifteen when he died. I never, not even as an adult did I go ..what was all that about. It wasn’t talked about in our house, like many veteran families. So, I was at my Auntie and Uncle’s house and I said something about my Dad being a projectionist in Vietnam and my Uncle was like …oh no he wasn’t a projectionist he trained men in jungle warfare. I was like oh and suddenly my picture of my father was not the one I had, it just disappeared in a puff of smoke. Who was this person then? That was one thing that just stayed with me, once you find out something like that it tilts your axis a bit.

So that question sat inside me, who was he? After my mum died, many years after, I started to get curious about her experience, as someone who’s partner died way younger than he might have.

I knew that she had written a letter to claim a War Widow’s pension. My dad died in 1980, but he returned from Vietnam years earlier than that, he returned different, a changed man. So, I became curious about what my mum wrote to claim a War Widow’s pension at the time when he died. I was curious about partners and children of veterans but also, the administration of war, post conflict, a lot of experience of veterans is in administration and form filling. The stuff that is unremarkable, the stuff that doesn’t make the news.

The book is kind of an account of me trying to reimagine or recreate my father using the bits and pieces I could find. My mum’s love letters, her claim for a War Widow’s pension, my teenage diary.  There’s also stories that I’ve written, documents from the war memorial, all sorts of things. When I bring them all together, I’m not necessarily trying to create a narrative, because I don’t really think there’s closure, or there should be closure. It’s more creating an image of an experience. I’ve left it as these fragments that have come together because also, as a child, that’s how you understand your world. Someone may have dropped a fact here, a fact there, some things are talked about and some aren’t so, you have to speculate about what things may mean.

I didn’t speak to either of my sisters about dad’s death until I was writing this book. In the book there is an interview I do with my sister 38 years after he died about what she remembers about the night.

She is a scientist, and she remembers a puppy came to the door the next day and she thought it was dad in puppy form. She said, “I don’t believe in that stuff, but that was dad”.

We had not had that conversation for 38 years.

LG: How did your Dad Die?

BR: He died of a heart attack. I also have the medical records from Veteran Affairs, and they say… well there is no reason to think he was under any undue stress in Vietnam and on his return if couldn’t stop smoking and he got fat, it could have been that he was just bored and had trouble adjusting to a civilian life.

The reason my mum got a war widow’s pension, was because of other women prior to her – who had had their claims denied – had taken their claims to a higher court. For a War Widow’s pension, the onus was not on my mum to prove that his death related to war service it was on Veteran Affairs to prove it wasn’t, it was a different burden of proof.

LG: Did you remember your dad before he went to Vietnam?

BR: No

LG: So, your own real memories of him are post-Vietnam

BR: Yeah, yeah, and he didn’t really speak of it.

LG: Did he speak to anyone about it?

BR: Not to my knowledge, he went to the RSL. My best friend, her dad, and all the dads would go to the RSL dressed up in their shorts and their long socks, loud shirts and ties and we thought they looked like budgies – because they all had beer guts and skinny legs – So we said the budgies are off to the Rissole Club. I assume they talked about stuff there.

The only hints, the only way he would talk to us about it… there’s a bit in the book about it. He sat my sister Maree down on the back step when she was about ten and gave her some lessons in self-defence. It was like, how to gouge you’re attacker in the solar plexus how to break their arm by snapping it over your knee, how to disable them .. to my ten-year old sister. Who then practised on me.

So, there were little things like that, and he did sometimes show slides of Vietnam, but I don’t remember there being a conversation. There are some of those pictures in the book from Vietnam.

Little bits and pieced which is why the book is the shape it is.

LG: Was he affected by the negative reaction in Australia at the time to the Vietnam Vets?

BR: The Vets weren’t allowed to march at the Anzac marches until 1987 by which time he had died. He didn’t talk to anyone in the family about how he felt about that. I have no idea what his feeling was about that. He had been in the army for quite a bit of his life, he was sent to Japan as part of the occupying forces, he was eighteen or nineteen. He was a projectionist there. The British army had a unit that travelled around Japan showing movies to the troops.

LG: What did he do post the Army.

BR: Went to BP and sold petrol pumps, a clerical job.

LG: I often wonder what it is like to come back to a suburban ordinary life after a life like that.

BR: Well, I think to a greater or lesser extent I don’t think you can ever come back to life the same person you left, you know.

In the letter my mum wrote, she says you know he changed, and it had been left to her to deal with things that he just wouldn’t deal with anymore.

As part of my research, I went to the Productivity Commission hearings about Vet Affairs. There were these women who said, you know we are invisible when the veteran is alive. You know my husband is sick, I have to mow the lawn and it nearly kills me, but there is no assistance for help with things like that, another woman said (and this is 50 years after the war) When my husband wakes up having a flash back and is violent who do ring, there’s a veteran’s line but I’m not a veteran? Like there’s no line for me to call, little things like that. Fifty years down the track, women are still dealing with that. So, I wanted to shine a light on these things, me losing my dad, these women, my mum’s experience. Those moments that accumulate around war, often the conversation about war is heroism and battle about trauma. Not to say that one shouldn’t talk about trauma but if it’s the only thing that is talked about. There is a big space in the middle, it’s not newsworthy it’s the everydayness.

In another part of the book, an Afghan vet called Jessie Bird, his parents wrote 2 submissions to the Parliamentary enquiry into Veteran suicide. The first submission, they wrote was we are very worried about our son, his pension was denied because his PTSD was not labelled permanent and stable. They wrote another submission…well congratulations it is now stable and permanent he killed himself with all his military gear around him!

An inquiry into his death found that one of the contributing factors was dealing with the administration in Veteran Affairs.

That battling with bureaucracy, that administration is a huge part of people’s lives. Just the day to day grind the battle. This is huge part of what I wanted to highlight in the book.

LG: What do you think you have gained in the process of making the book.

BR: It’s part lament, when my dad died my sisters weren’t living at home. So, I was living with my mum who was a heartbroken mess. I was a teenager, there was nowhere for me to put my grief or my feelings. My mum didn’t want me to go to his funeral, so my sister and I didn’t go to his funeral. So, part of it is a lament and part, a political rant. Part is, why is this shit still happening and the way we talk about war is so skewed in Australia the focus on Anzacs and the blokey heroism, it’s a convenient way for the Government to frame the conversation around war that hides all these difficult truths that are continuing to happen.

Jessie Bird’s mother uses the term unglamourous truths. So, all this focus on Anzac and the Australian spirit the War Memorial … don’t even get me started on that! The more you look at it, there is half a panel on Agent Orange in the Vietnam section… when you know of the devastation that left behind.

As a child of Veteran, if you goggle that … its PTSD, PTSD, Orange Agent, Orange Agent so I didn’t feel like my experience was anywhere. If I say to you … I’m a child of a Vietnam veteran …do you think, oh damaged person.

LG: I probably assumed that your dad killed himself.

BR: Oh yeah, that’s interesting. When I goggled my dad one day when I was researching I came across a spreadsheet with information about what Veterans died of, I’m not sure the Government was keeping any records, it was shocking it was suicide, suicide, cancer, heart attack ...drove into a tree etc. And because it was an excel spread sheet you could arrange it by age, so I did that in the book and you can see … and you think fuck you extrapolate that out to all those families …

LG: So, at this end of the process, with the book in hand … how does it feel?

BR: I finished writing it a year and half ago now, I did it for my Masters. I was awarded the Dr Colin Roderick Prize in Australian Literature, for the best thesis on a topic in Australian Literature. …

It’s funny longer it gets from finishing it, it feels like I had very little to do with creating it. It’s like I’m it’s mid-wife not it’s mother I helped you into the world…good luck.

Having said that there are also laughs, because you have to laugh. It is very heavy but it’s also me stomping around the neighbourhood with birds, I grew up with birds around me. I also reflect on secrets and families and how weird families are, and how great birds are.

The birds are a parallel to the people. There is beautiful woman called Gisela Kaplan, she writes about scientists studying birds, for years research only looked at male birds, the ones that sing.  They thought that the female birds didn’t know anything, so she asks, how do you think they knew who was a good or a bad singer if they didn’t know anything about singing? So, she is saying even in science the women are overlooked because it’s the men that do the singing. So, there are just these beautiful parallels between birds and people.

When I was writing it, I was staying at my boyfriend Adam’s house, and these birds set up a nest outside his house so during the writing process we watched the birds’ nest, laying of the eggs, they hatch the birds grow up the parents looking after them …they leave…so many parallels.

Where I grew up in North Ryde everyone had birds….

Life with birds, the book, was let out of it's cage and set free at The Hollywood Hotel last Sunday.

The image to the right is the author with her daughter Stella, her first production, at the launch

Bron's eyebrows by ......http://eyebrowthreadingsydney.com

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Comments 3

  1. I’ll be reading that! I’ve been a bird lady for the last 10-15 years… And just as I wrote that a small flock of black cockatoos screeched overhead! Having lived through trauma myself I wondered whether I’d be able to cope reading through the hard stuff but the ‘laughs’ and birds have convinced me to give it a go x

  2. What a beautiful and inspiring blog Bronwyn. Can’t wait to have a read. Congratulations.

    1. Thanks so much – and thanks to the legendary Lorrie Graham for taking the time to read and reflect on the work.

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