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Outside the comfort zone

  • 23 April 2006

When Cate Kennedy returned to Australia in 1999 after working in rural Mexico for two and a half years as an Australian volunteer, she wondered what to do with all her memories of a people and a way of life that had captivated her. First came the photo exhibition La Vida en la Cara (The Life in the Face) organised with the assistance of Australian Volunteers International (AVI). It was a collection of photographs that Kennedy and her then partner, Phil Larwill, had taken in Mexico. Back in Australia, images of their Mexican friends and community went on display in Sydney, Melbourne and Daylesford. (They were also recently on exhibition at the Benalla Regional Art Gallery.) Then, in 2001, Kennedy’s book of poems Signs of Other Fires was published by Five Islands Press. ‘There are poems about Mexico, about longing and about place,’ says Kennedy. But still the Mexican experience was bubbling away inside her. ‘I realised I’d have to write or go nuts,’ she says with a wry smile. And so with a couple of visual diaries she had made in Mexico, as well as a stack of letters and photos, Kennedy set to work on her first full-length non-fiction work. The result, Sing, and Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal, was launched in August at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where it was the fourth-best-selling book. Not that Kennedy would ever reduce the value of a book to numbers sold or profit. An integral part of Sing, and Don’t Cry is the notion that each culture has its own currency: what it truly values. And living in rural Mexico, working on a microcredit project for the Regional Union for the Support of Peasant Farmers (URAC), run along the same principles as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Kennedy begins to question her own cultural values and to ponder ‘… what is truly essential, and who is truly poor’. Michael McGirr says of Sing, and Don’t Cry on the book’s back cover: ‘It says a lot about Mexico but even more about Australia.’ In many ways Mexico was a surprise to the author. The idea of living in Latin America had not occurred to Kennedy and Larwill when they first approached AVI about work overseas. Yet a short time after AVI first suggested working in Mexico, and a one-month intensive Spanish language course later, Kennedy’s Mexican immersion began in Queretaro, rural Mexico. During her first day working on URAC’s microcredit project, Kennedy discovers the