Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2021

The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis

Merlinda Bobis is an award winning Filipina-Australian writer who these days hails from Canberra.  A prolific author, she writes in Filipino and Bikol, and fortunately for us, also in English.

Amongst her Australian literary awards are

  • 2018 Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year for her poetry collection, Accidents of Composition;
  • 2016 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Locust Girl. A Lovesong, see my review;
  • 2013 MUBA: Fish-Hair Woman, see a Sensational Snippet here;
  • 2006 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for Banana Heart Summer; and
  • 2000 Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories: ‘White Turtle’

She has also won a swag of awards in the Philippines and elsewhere.  (See Wikipedia).

The Kindness of Birds is a collection of linked short stories, connected by common characters and the symbolism of birds.  It’s also the first book I’ve read that specifically addresses the pandemic and how kindness has nursed us through the difficult times. This is the blurb:

An oriole sings to a dying father. A bleeding-heart dove saves the day. A crow wakes a woman’s resolve. Owls help a boy endure isolation. Cockatoos attend the laying of the dead. Always there are birds in these linked stories that pay homage to kindness and the kinship among women and the planet. From Australia to the Philippines, across cultures and species, kindness inspires resilience amidst loss and grief. Being together ignites resistance against violence. We pull through in the company of others.

The Covid experience in Australia has been very different to the rest of the world.  But Bobis reminds us that even as we live a life that looks much like normal, our friends may have family far away where things are very different.  Nenita’s family is in the Philippines, where they are in ‘military lockdown.  Top guy says, “Shoot them dead”, those who violate it.’  ‘So different to here,’ sighs her husband Arvis…

‘Of course!’ she snaps. ‘Those who violate the lockdown there are often the most impoverished, desperate to leave their homes to find food for their families.’ (p.141)

(Remember the media furore because a wealthy middle-class young woman on L-plates was fined a token amount for breaching Melbourne’s lockdown because she wanted to practise her driving?)

In ‘Naming the Flowers’, set in 2017, Nenita has returned from burying her father in the Philippines where rituals are different, and the demands of life in Australia meant she had to fly back before the 40th day of his passing, the final celebration that will conclude the mourning ritual.  One of the saddest aspects of Covid around the world is that families have been denied mourning rituals and this is distressing no matter what cultural background they have.

I enjoyed ‘The Sleep of Apples’ in which Nenita travels round Tasmania with her friend Ella.  She goes to places I know, like the Apple Shed museum and the Wooden Boat Centre in the Huon Valley.  This trip, however, is about resolving an awkward relationship with an act of kindness.

There are moments of didacticism which mar the book a little.  Back in 2017 Nenita explains to her mother in the Philippines about Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart—and her mother responds by noting the recognition of First Peoples in the Philippine Constitution.  And though this dialogue expresses the hurt, disappointment and anger that many people felt about the dismissal of the Statement, the episode registers more as a forced opportunity to teach the (Australian) reader a moral lesson.  The dying woman asks about the call for Australia’s Indigenous People to be recognised in the Constitution:

‘What—they’re not recognised?
‘No, it’s a continuous struggle for them.’
‘Thank God, our IPs here are recognised.’  In 1997 the state recognition and protection of the rights of 14 to 17 million Indigenous Peoples from 110 ethno-linguistic groups were mandated in the Philippine Constitution.’ (p.112)

The conversation goes on to explain about the content of the Statement, and why it’s necessary, and what should be done.  I understand, I think, why this episode is included.  Individual acts of kindness or pity are no substitute for justice or recognition of suffering, and a mother who’s always been interested in politics might possibly be interested in Australian affairs in her last days, but still, it’s an awkward scene…

In ‘Grandma Owl’ we see the difficulty of quarantine.  A grandmother takes her grandson for an extended holiday in her Philippines hometown, and their return is delayed first by a family wedding and then a typhoon.  Having missed two weeks of school, the boy then misses a further two weeks because of quarantine.  The boy understandably is fed up before long, and he wants to see his mother.  (I was a bit surprised to see this story set in self-isolation in the grandmother’s flat—I thought all arrivals had to be in hotel quarantine, especially if there was an infected person on the plane—but perhaps arrangements are different in the ACT?)

The cover design by Deb Snibson is stunning.

Author: Merlinda Bobis
Title: The Kindness of Birds
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781925950304, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press


Responses

  1. On my list! Thank you. I don’t think we have a hotel quarantine system in place at present which is why the Prime Minister is isolating at the Lodge.

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    • Unless the plane arrives directly in Canberra, hotel quarantine would normally take place in the city of first arrival.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What would you do with people coming from hotspots in Sydney??? Ha ha, do they get put up at The Lodge?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. I think we’ve taken two flights for hotel quarantine but most (all?) international flights arrive elsewhere.

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        • But what is the system for people driving into the ACT from somewhere that’s a hotspot. Where do they quarantine?

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  2. We are fortunate here in Tassie. Not a single Covid case in more than a year. People become complacent though. This book sounds really unique. Not familiar with the author. The cover is gorgeous. 🐧🌷

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  3. The first quote is surprising, and lovely. Agree with TravellinPenguin about the cover – stunning!

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    • That Philippines president is something else…

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  4. That cover is amazing.

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  5. I have this book too, so will come back and read this when I eventually read my copy. I have read the comments though. I think Jennifer has explained the ACT situation. I’m astonished at how the ACT has managed to stay so relatively clear given we are not an island like Tasmania, but so far our systems seem to have worked.

    I was pleased to read that in Sydney’s recent super-spreader birthday party, none of the people who were vaccinated got the virus.

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    • Yes, if only we had enough vaccine!

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      • True, but there is hesitancy as well, so it’s a complicated issue. I don’t love that I had to have A-Z, and feel the government made poor decisions last year, as we all thought then too, but I also felt I needed to do it for me and for everyone else?

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        • I think I’m very fortunate to be one of the lucky ones to get anything at all.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Of all the things I criticise the PM for AZ is not amongst them. It works and the risks from blood clots are miniscule compared with the risk of catching Covid-19. What is unforgiveable is the Federal government’s delay in getting any vaccine at all to carers (and the ramshackle nature of hotel ‘quarantine’). The case I remember is not the L plate girl but the rich family who were forgiven for sailing their yacht up the coast to get around Qld’s hard border.

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    • Actually when you think about it, it is bizarre that country like ours doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture its own vaccines. I don’t know whose fault that was, but it’s disgraceful when lots of people seemed to know that a pandemic was inevitable, and there was even a planning group for it until some clown shut it down to save money…

      Liked by 1 person

      • We can make A-Z Lisa, as you probably know … but yes, I agree re an overall capacity.

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  7. I love the sounds of this linked collection and have added it to my TBR. As others have said, too: gorgeous cover!

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    • There are so many meh covers these days, it feels like a gift when a good one comes along.

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  8. […] my thanks, to Lisa for her review The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, which led me to read this […]

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  9. […] Bluebirds of happiness? Another is Melinda Bobis’ most recent book, The kindness of birds (Lisa’s review). The back cover blurb starts […]

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