A tribute to the late Kerry Reed-Gilbert given by Melissa Lucashenko at the launch of Aunty Kerry’s memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter, at the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane on 16 September 2019
Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert was a Wiradjuri poet, elder, editor, educator and a champion of up-and-coming Indigenous writers. Her contribution to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literary community — and to Australia’s rich literary landscape more broadly — is hard to overstate. Aunty Kerry co-founded the First Nations Australian Writers Network (FNAWN) and edited many indispensable books of Indigenous poetry and prose.
When Aunty Kerry died in July this year, she’d just completed the manuscript for her memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter. In the book, she tells the story of growing up Aboriginal on the fringes of outback towns in New South Wales. It’s a story about poverty, racism and persecution and about the bravery and resilience of Aboriginal women, particularly her father’s sister, Aunty Joyce Hutchings, who raised her along with her own children.
I had known Aunty Kerry for some years when she spoke to me about her memoir of growing up in country NSW, fruit-picking and travelling the orchards with her family, from the age of five or six.
I’d known her as a senior member of the Canberra Aboriginal community, and as a poet and writer and activist in the South. I guess because Aunty Kerry lived in Canberra it had never really struck me to think very hard about just how she had grown up.
It was fascinating to eventually realise just how Aunty Kerry’s sixty something years on the earth embodied so many of the great issues of Aboriginal life in the 20th century. From running from the Welfare, to the sometimes virulent racism of small country towns, to the devotion of the large family who surrounded and mostly protected her, her life was testament to all that Koori people faced. And all too often, continue to face.
When Aunty Kerry asked me to help her with her memoir I said I would be happy to. Not only because I expected it to be a terrific yarn, but also because of who she was. You couldn’t turn around in Canberra in the years I was there — and no doubt for many many years prior — without running into Aunty Kerry doing a reading, or leading a protest, or helping someone in the community in some quiet — or occasionally loud — way.
I came to know her best as the outstanding leader of the Us Mob writing group which met at the TAFE building on the city fringes, in the early 2000s. A bunch of Koori and Torres Strait Islander writers would gather in that centre of whiteman’s education to carve out ideas and images in our own way, in our own black space. It was a terrific group and I believe still is. Little did I know at the time how appropriate that setting on the outskirts of the city near Lake Burley Griffin was, because fringe dwelling was something Aunty Kerry knew very well indeed.
By the time editing the book came to pass, Aunty Kerry was running not just Us Mob writers, but, incredibly for someone as sick as she was, and with so many family responsibilities, she was running FNAWN as well. That’s right! Just like the unstoppable women who raised her in the dusty towns of central NSW, Kerry thought that having one job, or two jobs, was no way to build a revolution. Everybody needed to get real busy, and she led by example. She was raised picking fruit, harvesting resin from wattle trees, literally building bridges across troubled waters, and fighting with her mouth and her fists for the respect that whitefellas sometimes were reluctant to give a little black girl like her.
So we worked on this book over the course of about eighteen months. I read several drafts and sent her my thoughts; finally we sat down in Canberra for a week last year and among many cups of tea and plenty of laughter, we knocked out a draft to send to Wild Dingo Press. Her granddaughters were often by her side in the house with the blue fence; I know Aunty Kerry was really thankful that Kaylarnie especially got to spend the time she did with her nan, because they both needed that time.
By then Aunty Kerry was very sick indeed. She’d been on oxygen for her emphysema for a long time and now she didn’t go anywhere without her oxygen tank. It followed wherever she went on wheels, like a strange metallic pet, one that was literally keeping her alive. At the FNAWN national conference in Canberra in 2018, it was difficult for Aunty Kerry to even get from the car into the building, but she was still at the centre of everything. Organising, yarning, disputing and laying down the law.
One thing I remember most clearly was Aunty Kerry saying with great satisfaction that when people read her memoir they would be forced to shut up about her. She laughed long and loud about being called a ‘privileged black’ by someone or another, and when she told me I laughed too. By then I’d read her life-story, and I knew how ridiculous that accusation was.
What I learned after already knowing her for many years was that Aunty Kerry grew up in grinding poverty, a State Ward, constantly at risk of being taken by the Welfare. I’ve known plenty of people who were taken away, and many who were raised on missions, but not a lot of people who escaped that fate so narrowly. Aunty Kerry and her family had to live with the nerve-wracking fear, month after month, year after year, of her family being ripped away from underneath them. And that fear came on top of earlier trauma too, the death by murder of her biological mother at the hands of her father, the writer and activist Kevin Gilbert.
The Cherry Picker’s Daughter is a book about the NSW underclass in the mid 20th century. It’s a book about being Koori on Wiradjuri land, and how being Koori looked like for one Wiradjuri clan. It’s the voice of a much-loved Elder, a woman who could yarn like nobody else. Kerry was fierce, loving, brave, passionate, whip-smart, funny and she knew better than anyone that it’s our families that sustain us and make us who we are, for better or for worse.
I didn’t know her very well, but I grew to know her better in the course of working on this book. In launching The Cherry Pickers Daughter, I want to acknowledge her leadership. She taught us to be braver. She taught me how to be a better parent, and a better community member, and although I have only a very small claim on her memory compared to others, I do miss her dearly. She was an amazing and powerful person; this extraordinary memoir, The Cherry Pickers Daughter, goes some way to explaining who Aunty Kerry was, and how she came to be the deadly Wiradjuri woman we were lucky to call an Elder.
Kerry’s memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter, will be launched in Canberra with tributes by Yvette Henry-Holt and Samantha Falkner on 12 October at the National Library of Australia. Register for your free tickets here. It will be launched by Terri Janke and Cathy Craigie at Gleebooks in Sydney on 7 November. RSVP here.
Melissa Lucashenko is an award-winning Goorie novelist, essayist and community worker. Find more from Melissa at her website.
A Wiradjuri woman from Central New South Wales, Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert performed and conducted writing workshops nationally and internationally. She was the inaugural Chairperson of the First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN) 2012–2015 & 2017-2018. She was a member of the ACT Us Mob Writing (UMW) group and was FNAWN co-editor for the Ora Nui Journal collaboration between First Nations Australia writers and Maori writers. In 2016 and 2017 she compiled and edited editions of A Pocketful of Leadership in the ACT 2016 and A Pocketful of Leadership in First Nations Australia Communities, a collection of First Nations voices from across Australia. Kerry was a former member of the Aboriginal Studies Press Advisory Committee and her poetry and prose have been published in many journals and anthologies nationally and internationally, including in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. Her works have been translated in French, Korean, Bengali, Dutch and other non-English speaking languages.
Aunty Kerry passed away in July 2019. She had just completed the manuscript for her memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter. Purchase it online from Wild Dingo Press.
In April 2019, Verity La Managing Editor Michele Seminara interviewed Aunty Kerry. Listen here: