Winnie Dunn reviews The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis
The Pigeons Are Taking Over: The Kindness of Birds
by Merlinda Bobis
Reviewed by WINNIE DUNN
The beloved bin chicken is always feeding off scraps of bread whenever I walk to Fairfield station. Because it is a sin to throw away the sacredness of bread, those leftovers become a well-meaning gesture shared by members of the south-west Sydney community. I clutched my copy of The Kindness of Birds (Spinifex, 2021), a short story collection by Merlinda Bobis, as I watched the ibises peck peacefully between pigeons for crumbs.
Short stories are like ibises. Ibises are displaced from their homes due to global warming yet they still choose to stay in large groups and consistently work towards common goals. Likewise, short stories are in themselves self-contained. But when interconnected, their morals, moments and memories take over time and space in a deliberate way for the reader. Short stories aggregate like a flock (Bobis’ collection has 14 individual stories) and yet are shunted to the margins when one thinks of books (short story collections are the least sold or noticed in our industry).
It is the image of the ibises gathering together which I carried into my reading of Bobis’ latest work. Her collection is a series of small gestures, revelation of cultures and feathered symbolism that make up the book’s overall theme – kindness and its many forms in the face of adversity.
The title of this review takes inspiration from Vietnamese-Australian writer, Shirley Le. It was her narrator’s opening line in our co-written play, Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls (UTP, 2021). Used as a symbol for British colonialism, the pigeons flock at the narrator’s Yagoona home window, leaving dirty marks on the glass. Yet, the pigeon is remarked by the narrator’s mother as “much nicer” than the native magpie – the magpie in this sense being used as a symbol for First Nations people’s sovereignty, which was never ceded. As migrant settlers who are writers, it is a constant privilege to know how best to respect this sovereignty, when and where to tell our own stories, and when we are taking up too much space.
In this way, Bobis acknowledged and paid respect to First Nations people’s sovereignty throughout her collection. The stories ‘Candido’s Revolution’ and ‘My Tender Tender’ especially speak to the complex history of colonialism, migration and sovereignty on this continent.
It is the singing of a folksong, reimagined by a Filipinx poet named Remy, that stays with me as I read ‘Candido’s Revolution’. An infamous Manilaman pearl diver hums from atop a tree, “Dandansoy bayaan ta icao” (p54), capturing the attention of Mary (1893 Australia would simply refer to her as “a native woman”). Without a shared language between them besides the complimentary phrase, “Can-do good song” (p55) they still look at each other through the trees. The initial allure they shared is eventually cut short by racist laws and the call for a revolution in the Philippines. For The Kindness of Birds, this interaction marks the historical beginning of inter-cultural dialogue between First Nations people and Filipinx migrants – a connection that is often left unrecognised.
This connection continues in the short story, ‘My Tender Tender’. One of the main characters Uncle Freddy Corpus, swears on the Bible when he tells Nenita of their shared Asian ancestry – she Filipina and he Filipino and Yuwuru. After telling stories to Nenita of miraculous feats of diving to survive the perils of colonialism, Uncle Freddy Corpus eventually “takes out various memorabilia from [a] satchel. He opens one: it’s a copy of a marriage certificate of his Filipino grandfather Servo Corpus Felipe and Yawuru grandmother Maria Emma Ngobing. She’s speechless, honoured […] touched by this gesture affirming their Philippine connection.” (p82) In this way, Uncle Freddy and Nenita’s intercultural dialogue shows how us settlers should act as we walk on stolen lands – nothing but intent listeners, sharing only when asked and only when it will foster healing.
Colonialism would have us all believe that there are only pigeons at the centre of history, Bobis’ writing shows us how wrong that is.
In Tongan culture, an omen of death arrives in the form of a bird entering our houses. One summer, a common mynah flew into the open doors of the top-storey balcony and flittered in circles on the living room ceiling. Even with the doors wide open, the petite brown blur still struggled to find the exit again. ‘Shoo-shoo-shoo!’ my aunty Lahi pleaded, her doughy belly rolling as she battered a straw broom above her head, hitting the plastic chandelier as she did so. ‘Fuck!’ Lahi swore, sweat dripping from her short strands of brown-black hair and into her freckled and frumpled face. Hearing someone swear, (that someone being technically my mother in Tongan culture), made me stifle a giggle. The mynah gave a series of squeaks before finally finding the open balcony. I watched as its fluffed mass disappeared over the streets of Mt Druitt.
Within the short story ‘When the Crow Turns White’, a half-dead bird is carried into parliament injured from the hailstorm raging outside. Two cleaners of Filipinx heritage, Orla and Corazon, wrap the crow in white cloth remarking, “Climate change is scary.” (p14) Throughout their debates in the empty chamber rooms about legislations, the constant arguing of old white men and the winds of change with the first Aboriginal woman elected into the house of representatives, Corazon holds a secret. She is a descendant of crows, a unique culture connection that makes her a born healer. From acts of miracles long ago, she still has memorised the chant, “Ilayog, ilayog ang ilo sa bagà. Ilayog, ilayog ang sakit ni padabà. Fly, fly away the poison in the lungs. Fly, fly away the pain of the beloved!” (p20)
So what happened when the mynah visited us? My grandmother died a week later from a heart attack.
And what happened when the crow flew up in a bundle of white cloth within our parliament? A series of “bipartisan”, “polite” and “caring” (p25) MPs across the political spectrum seemingly overnight.
Why? Only the birds know.
The mammal (not a bird) that started COVID (racists love to use this as an excuse to call east and south-east Asian people “dirty”). The pandemic is threaded throughout Bobis’ short story collection – a grandmother and grandson are quarantining in an apartment together after returning from a trip to the Philippines (‘Grandma Owl’), a lover’s well-meaning yet blasé attitude towards mask-wearing (‘My Love, My Nerūsē’) and a nurse holding a pained patient’s hand even as it went against protocol (‘Angels’). It is these small gestures, hidden between dialogue, that readers should pay close attention to when reading The Kindness of Birds. Bobis’ work on the subject reveals it was not COVID that reshaped our society but rather all the small acts of kindness individuals chose in order to look after each other.
The only school assignment my father ever helped me with was a cardboard presentation about pelicans I did in Year 2. We printed out blurry Google images of the impossibly large white birds and glued them (using a mixture of flour and water) onto purple cardboard we bought at the Plumpton Newsagency for two bucks.
My favourite story in Bobis’ collection is ‘My Father’s Australia’. Nenita (a recurring character), stares at the tailored suit she had once bought for her father. The suit, a pasalubong (homecoming gift), was given to her father with the intention that he would wear it when he took his first steps in Australia. In its navy hues, Nenita remembers how her father lived “on tilted earth” (p91) at the base of volcano in Legazpi, fixing people’s aircons in order to provide a better future for his children. In the suit, Nenita hears the memory of her father reciting in English, “To Oz, to Oz”(p92) for a trip that would never eventuate.
The love between Nenita and her dad reminds me of the only time in my childhood when my father was not existing in survival mode (being a Tongan man with eight children would do that). When we spoke of pelicans, he seemingly had all the time in the world for me as we took our first steps in my education together. ‘To uni, to uni,’ my father, who dropped out of Year 12, would remind me after each school year ended.
In this way, ‘My Father’s Australia’ is the standout of the collection.
It was only when I moved to Fairfield in south-west Sydney that I saw the native parrot of South America. The suburb is home to a small yet strong Latinx Australian community. But it still didn’t make sense to me how the blue-feathered bird the size of a small television was caged away in a dilapidated second-storey balcony.
What I found the most striking about Bobis’ writing, was how effortlessly she was able to reflect the true diversity of Australia without it ever feeling like it was forced or there simply for the sake of it. A woman Nenita passes by when swimming at the beach yells out “Jidoo!” (p222), Grandma Lou’s Chilean neighbour Matilda is the only person that calls Lou by her real name “Luningning” and reminds readers that as people of colour we’re always being interrogated for our skin, our accent and our names (p174). Nenita with her Latvian partner, who is always leaving her sweet notes like, “Gone walking. ♥” (p138) – a gesture that makes all the difference when choosing to grow old with someone. All realistic depictions of the inter-cultural connections we all share with neighbours, friends and even family.
Halfway through my reading, I took a break and went outside onto my own second-storey balcony. I stared at the yellow underside of the parrot. Still wondering why on Earth a giant South American bird was flapping its wings with the sound echoing off the brick and concrete of endless rundown apartments. Laughing as I realised I was standing beside my own cultural marker – a potted frangipani tree.
To me, the lorikeet is the kindest bird there is. Eternally squawking in bushes as if laughing. Eating with such fever and frenzy because they’re so cheerful that they hardly notice what is in their beaks. Darting in pairs across busy streets. Flocking in the afternoon sky so fast they become little black spots, dotting the daytime like stars. From Orla and Corazon, Lou and Matilda, Ella and Nenita and finally Remy and Belen – it was the sacred sisterhood of the women characters Bobis’ paired together that carried this collection. Remy put it perfectly in ‘The Air of The Times’ when she penned in poem:
“So enter, sister,
without gun or armour,
still magnificent.” (p52)
If the ibis is what I took into my reading of The Kindness of Birds, the Rainbow lorikeet is what I took away from it, long after I had turned the last page.
WINNIE DUNN is the General Manager of Western Sydney based literacy movement, Sweatshop. She is a writer of Tongan descent from Mount Druitt and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, Griffith Review, Meanjin, SBS Voices, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Red Room Poetry and Cordite. She is the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, and currently working on her debut novel as the recipient of a CAL Ignite grant.