Thursday, December 1, 2022



The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis 

(Spinifex Press, Australia, 2021)


Merlinda Bobis is an award-winning Filipina-Australian writer now based in Canberra. Her most recent poetry collection, ‘Accidents of Composition’ was Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year, 2018 and her novel ‘Banana Heart Summer’ won her the 2006 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. 

 ‘The Kindness of Birds’ is a book of fiction informed by experience: a collection of 14 stories that show how kindness can bring about resilience and healing in a time of loss. During the writing of these stories, the author lost both her parents, and two other family members. There were bushfires in Australia, the Covid-19 pandemic was raging throughout the world and, on a personal note, the author was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an intense time of emotional and global upheaval. Writing the book became a lifeline that helped Bobis to remain focused during her treatment.

The book’s title has a certain resonance within the literary world. For me, it calls to mind Kate Adie’s autobiography ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Kindness of Women’ and Vivian G Paley’s moving stories of impulsive goodness titled ‘The Kindness of Children’. 

The eye-catching cover design by Deb Snibson is like a beautiful tapestry of leaves and flowers with a bird placed centre stage.

In an interview conducted by Kathryn Vukovljak for CBR City News  (20 August 2022) titled ‘How the kindness of birds entranced Merlinda’   Bobis relates that when her father was dying in the Philippines, he was comforted by two birds who would visit and sing outside his window. Months later, these same orioles came to sing at his grave to comfort her mother. From then on, Bobis began to notice how birds would appear to offer solace at every moment of upheaval in her life.

A connection with birds and the natural world links all the stories together giving them a unique sense of continuity. The Filipino concept of kapwa, that shared identity of psychic and physical space we all have in common with one another, also features strongly in the book. 

Apart from the solace of birds, Bobis draws her inspiration from a wide range of sources: books and articles on birdlife, historical documents on nationhood, healthcare and frontline workers around the world who comfort and sustain the living and the dying, documentary film footage and Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

In these stories, cockatoos attend the laying of the dead, a crow flies through the roof of the Chamber of Representatives and the House returns to order, two orioles sing for a dying father, a flock of birds, weebills, perhaps the smallest Australian birds, sing together in a time of Covid ‘because kindness cannot self-isolate’ and owl stories and drawings help a young boy to while away the time when in lockdown with his grandmother during the pandemic. ‘Angels’ is the author’s gift of heartfelt thanks to the doctors, nurses and caregivers who all showed her such amazing acts of kindness during her cancer treatment and continue to do so as a profession to everyone on a global level struggling with health issues during the pandemic.

Kindness and birds are the common denominators. Many birds fly in and out of these storylines: rosellas, owls, wedge-tailed eagles, plovers, crows, orioles, pied fantails and Eurasian tree sparrows, to name but a few.

Apples, too, are in abundance in ‘The Sleep of Apples’. It is a story set in Tasmania that brings about a resolution of an awkward relationship between two people through an act of kindness. The list of different varieties of apples such as Beauty of Stoke, Opalescent, Merton Worcester, Fleiner du Roi and Atalanta, add a certain sense of exoticism to the text.

The phrase ‘she’ll be apples’,  an Australian and New Zealand colloquialism for ‘everything will be alright; things will get better, don’t worry about it’ appears in several stories and acts as another thread of interconnectedness.

One of my favourite stories was ‘My Tender Tender’ which introduces the character of Freddy Corpus, a 91 year old Aboriginal hard-hat pearl diver who is a descendant of a pearl diver in Manila, one of the early Filipino migrant workers who tried their luck diving far from home. Listening to him is Nenita whose father was also a pearl diver. An immediate connection is made between the storyteller and the listener as Nenita is taken back in her imagination to another time.

I also enjoyed ‘My Father’s Australia’, a story in which Nenita (a recurring name in several of these stories) reflects upon her father’s wish to one day visit Australia – a wish that he was not, in the end, able to fulfil. Throughout the story, the dark blue suit that she had bought for him to wear on his visit remains a constant reminder of the journey he never took.

Each story is prefaced by a quotation. These quotations are extracted from poems, speeches and songs. They act as a springboard enabling Bobis to weave them into the actual text at some point in the story. The dialogue, which propels each story, is fast-paced.

Frequent reference to other languages, most notably Filipino, Bikol and Spanish, add a sense of veracity as well as variety to these stories. In ‘My Love, My Nerūsē’, Bobis says ‘love sings in any language’.


The way Bobis handles time is interesting. Time is such a slippery concept. Bobis weaves histories that have crossed continents and oceans. In her work there is a meeting of many cultures: Filipino with Australian, Yawaru with Javanese, Japanese with French. Many of these stories start in the present, travel back in time and then come back into the present again with flawless ease. There is a political side to the book as well as Bobis highlights in her texts various injustices such as the outlawing of cross-racial marriages, slavery and torture, children who are taken away from their mothers, safe houses that are not safe and the invisibility of the Aboriginal population fighting for their rights.


If the message of this book were to be summed up in one short sentence is would be this: small acts of kindness have the power to change society for the better. Read it and be moved. It is truly inspirational: a book of our time.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010), Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017); Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019) and Reading Between The Lines (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

No comments:

Post a Comment