Outside the comfort zone

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 five common criteria for which campesinos, peasant farmers, can borrow: for medicine, home improvements (such as wire for fencing, cement blocks or roofing), education, fiestas, or a peregrinación, a pilgrimage.

‘These are the five things considered essential for life and worth getting into debt for … I am newly arrived, so I don’t see how a fiesta could be as crucial as education, or a pilgrimage as necessary
as medicine,’ she comments in her introduction.

Just as these five criteria for lending form the backbone of community life in rural Mexico, so they provide the narrative structure of Sing, and Don’t Cry. And some chapters contain more than we might expect.

For example, in the chapter titled ‘Medicina’ we find that a fiesta may be medicinal, and that International Monetary Fund and World Bank austerity measures force not only campesinos, but the country as a whole, to swallow bitter medicine. Under ‘Educación’ there’s a wonderful scene with Kennedy, Larwill, a police officer and a refusal to pay a bribe.

Kennedy finds herself in a culture that intrigues, excites and often exhausts her. Forced to express herself in simple Spanish—at first, she jokes, she can only exist in the present tense—there is much to learn. The writer is an outsider, an observer.

In the short-story writing in which Kennedy has made her mark—winning the Scarlet Stiletto, HQ and Age (twice) short story awards—she creates the world and the characters she breathes so much life into. But in the first chapter of Sing, and Don’t Cry the author writes: ‘It’s hard not to feel a bit like an amateur anthropologist, observing these vast cultural eccentricities.’

Yet it is her observations, her reflections on Mexican culture and her comparisons with Australian culture, her dry humour, her poetic and at times earthy Australian expression that make Sing, and Don’t Cry such a refreshing read.

At one point she refers to an Oxfam study in which people from URAC microcredit project were asked to rate themselves in a wealth-ranking exercise.

The context is rural Mexico, only a few years after the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and in spite of all the promises, poverty for the majority of campesinos has increased. On the questionnaire URAC respondents invented three categories in which they identified their financial insecurity, and placed themselves in one of them: those who’ve got it, the ground-down and the buggered.
Kennedy writes:

There’s a few families around who’ve ‘got it’—usually those who have relatives in the States sending them money. If you’ve ‘got it’ you’re not exactly sipping cocktails by the pool, of course. It means you have a stove you run on gas, a house with a few rooms, and indoor plumbing. There’s an OK ratio in your family of workers to dependents.

Most people, to use the blunt but unsentimental terms of the respondents, are ground down and buggered.
You get the picture—vividly. But this is only part of the story. It is the resilience of the people that inspires Kennedy, and the way they continue to celebrate life.

At a community fiesta, Kennedy asks a woman why they ‘squander’ money on fireworks, ‘instead of putting it aside for next year’s crop, or saving it for emergencies?’

‘Well, just for the beauty of it.’

‘But it’s all over in five minutes,’ Kennedy says, ‘all gone.’

‘Yes,’ the woman replies, ‘but you’re here, aren’t you?’

‘These people survive on so little, and yet they create a whole life, a whole world, with it.’ And this is what causes Kennedy to reflect on the currency of her culture, one in which economics and profit have a higher priority than community, participation and relationships.

The scenes and the whole way of life described in Sing, and Don’t Cry—the town square, tortillas, conflict, community meetings, dancing, cactus, celebrations and fiestas, stray dogs, the children, as well as the complexity of social and economic woes—bring Mexico richly to life on the page, particularly as the author moves from outsider to participant.

Perhaps it is because Kennedy so admires this vibrant ‘developing world’ culture, one that reminds her ‘of what our culture had but has forgotten’, that returning home to Australia has, at times, been such hard work.
Kennedy has so many stories to tell, and such a hearty laugh to accompany the telling, that you suspect the book could have been twice the size.

Here’s  a story that isn’t in the book. It’s  December. Kennedy has been working six months in Mexico. She’s told, in such rapid-fire language that she grasps only a couple of key words, to make an anuncio de nacimiento. She figures that’s a birth announcement to be hung in the office. ‘But who’s had the baby?’ she asks a co-worker. ‘José, María y Jesus,’ she’s told. ‘Which community are they from?’ Her colleague stares at her as if she’s crazy. ‘From Bethlehem, of course!’

While Kennedy admits how difficult returning to Australia has been, she also stresses that the whole Mexican sojourn and the time after it back in Australia opened up a precious space—for reflection, for imagining, for writing.

It certainly has provided fertile ground for her literary creativity, and when I ask why, Kennedy responds: ‘I think to be a writer or any kind of artist, you need to be outside your comfort zone, to see things with fresh eyes. And most of us are much too comfortable to do this voluntarily. People often tell me they started to write after a crisis in their life … They had to write to make sense of it. I’d never felt this before. But after Mexico … I had so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to share, no audience with whom to share it.’
When Barry Scott—of Transit Lounge Publishing, a small independent publisher specialising in ‘creative works that give voice to Australian connections to the wider world’—asked if Kennedy had anything to suit, she responded positively.

Scott said that what drew him to Kennedy’s work was the way she writes so beautifully with respect, honesty, and humour; that this book engages with the wider world, and challenges our priorities.
Sing, and Don’t Cry is a book with spine, a delightful read that will leave you with something to think about.  

Sing, and Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal, Cate Kennedy. Transit Lounge, 2005.
ISBN 0 975 02281 4, RRP $29.95.

Michele M. Gierck is a freelance writer.



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