Many moons ago when I was teaching at UWA, I heard a creative writing lecturer talk about how writers often find themselves ‘worrying at a particular knot’. Maybe they’re writing all kinds of different things, but somewhere in the midst of each of them, if you look deeply enough, or from the right angle, you’ll find some version of this one theme or concern.
The writer, of course, doesn’t always know this. Slightly fewer moons ago, when I was easing out of teaching at UWA, I had a student say to me, “It’s interesting how so many of your poems are sort of about containment.”
And I said Huh?
And she said, “You know … how you’re always talking about borders and margins, inside and outside, about edges and stuff like that.”
And I said, No I’m not … am I?
And then she showed me. And lo and behold, I was. And still am. At least in my poetry.
No, it’s not the use of exclamation marks in titles, though I wholeheartedly approve.
Neither is it a predilection for waddling birds. I actually hadn’t realised ducks and penguins had this in common until Boomerang Books pointed it out. Now I think about it, I do love the waddle, but it’s not my knot.
My knot in this case is a big one. It’s that feeling of powerlessness we have as children, the frustration at not being heard, or taken seriously, of fundamentally not having an equal voice.
This is one of the feelings I remember most keenly from my childhood. I was a bright kid who had a lot to say. And I was listened to a lot. By my parents. Sometimes by teachers. But not by everyone. This was probably as it should be. I was possibly raised with a little too much belief in my own importance. Still, I found this baffling. I HAD STUFF TO SAY! AND MORE STUFF! AND WAIT … I HAVEN’T FINISHED YET… WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
I have lots of vivid memories from childhood and one that stands out is from when I was around eight, when we went on holiday to South Australia and stayed with some family friends. One day, we all went to the beach and did a bunch of cool stuff like fishing and dune-buggying and beachcombing. Mum and I collected a bucket of semi-translucent pink and orange shells; they were all over that beach but unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Mum said that when we got home, she’d make me a lampshade out of them.
In the afternoon, while a bunch of the others were off dune-buggying, I laid the shells out on the sand. I could already imagine what the lamp would look like, the way the light would soften the shadows in the corners of my room. But that was for later; for right now, I had another idea.
Among the family we were staying with was a woman called Hazel, and I didn’t think she was sufficiently impressed with me. I needed her to see that I was special, not just any other kid; I needed her to pay attention. I decided I would achieve this by using the shells to spell out her name in huge letters on the sand.
This took a surprisingly long time, but when I finally finished, I was thrilled. What I’d made was not only huge but also beautiful. I had given a lot of thought to the placement of the shells, trying to find the right blend of colours and shapes for each letter. With the leftover shells, I had made a couple of flowers, one for each end of Hazel’s name. It was a masterpiece and I couldn’t wait for her to see it.
I called over to where she was sitting with one of the other adults. They were probably talking. I was probably interrupting. She turned her head, then turned back. I called again. She shushed me. I walked over. “Come and see─” She held up a hand.
I had to wait. I waited. And then she looked up and it was my turn so I started again. “Wait until you see─” But she was looking past me, down the beach. She was standing up, brushing sand off her legs and walking past, waving her arms above her head. Because the dune buggies were coming back. Now everyone would see and I didn’t mind that, but I wanted Hazel to see it first, alone. I wanted us to have our moment. I wanted her to look at me and see my specialness.
I tugged on her pants. Even as I was doing it, I felt silly, like a child in a storybook. Oliver Twist and his “Please sir …?” I kept doing it anyway. She looked at me oddly and extricated herself, kept walking. She was going to meet the dune buggies but that was okay because the shells were in the same direction. I would follow her and show her and we would have our moment before the dune buggies arrived and it would be just as I had imagined.
We were almost there. The shells looked great. The colours, the patterns. “See what I made!” I said. “Look!”
Hazel wasn’t listening. She was focused on the dune buggies. She was walking towards them and towards them, waving and calling.
I don’t know what she was calling. I didn’t hear it. I was focused on the shells. And then I was focused on the dune buggies because I could see them in the corner of my eye as they got closer and then closer still and then I yelled out “Hazel!” and “Stop!” but no one was listening and then I was focused on the wheels of the dune buggies as they rolled right over the shells, crushing them into a thousand tiny pieces so they looked nothing like anyone’s name, so they could never be used for a lampshade that would soften the shadows in my room.
Maybe this seems like a small thing. Maybe it seems like I’ve written it in an overly dramatic way. But if I have, it’s because that’s how it felt. And when I remember it now, I still feel it in my body – the helplessness, the sense of injustice.
Those feelings – the strength of them – are a big part of where both DUCK! and The Penguins are Coming! come from, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. In DUCK!, the other animals ─ the bigger, taller, more important animals ─ won’t listen to our small feathered friend. He’s just interrupting! He has nothing important to say! But Duck sees something none of the others do. Duck is special. And as the ending makes clear, he really did have a message worth hearing.
In Penguins, the zookeeper tells the animals to be quiet. How ridiculous they are, thinking they know anything about penguins! Luckily, he is an expert so he can tell them the truth about things, in an extended, emphatic, brooks-no-interruptions monologue. But in the end, when the penguins arrive, it’s of course the animals who are vindicated.
In both books, the voiceless, the overlooked, and underestimated have their moment. They’re right. They’re important. Their voice matters.
This is the knot and I suspect I’ll keep worrying at it for ever. I’ll never forget what it was like to be a kid, to have to wait and wait and wait for my turn, to maybe never get one. To go unheard and unseen. To feel dismissed, like I was just a person-in-process, my voice not valid until I got older, bigger, louder.
I’ll never forget that day on the beach. And I still wish I had that lampshade.