Oh Creative Lady: Meet Kirli Saunders

Oh Creative Lady: Meet Kirli Saunders

Bindi by Kirli Saunders is a junior fiction novel written in verse. Written “for those who plant trees”, it uses both Gundungurra and English to explore a young girl’s relationship with her friends, family, Country, Culture and creativity. The story is set against the backdrop of devastating bushfires whilst sharing First Nations knowledge about the healing power of fire. Kirli’s expressive language is beautifully paired with the equally expressive illustrations of Bigambul artist Dub Leffler. This is an exquisite book to share with students in upper Primary through to the early years of High School.

I came home from school at about 5pm on Friday to discover Bindi on my doorstep. (Thank you to the team at Magabala Books for sending it through for review.) As we navigated dinner, bath time and pre-bedtime shenanigans with the kids, I devoured this book. By 7pm I had finished this beauty of a novel. It’s now Tuesday and it is still lingering with me. I keep getting flashes of imagery and phrases from the book. It is a visceral read and bone-achingly moving. Without being preachy or didactic, it is a brilliant call-to-action to young people to acknowledge their role in caring for Country.

Enough of my adulation.

Meet Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning international writer of poetry, plays and picture books.

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Meet Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning international writer of poetry, plays and picture books. Image: Tad Souden Film & Photography (c)

I am… Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai Author and Artist and I’m penning this on Yuin lands, my Mother’s Country among the spotted gums and ferns by the ocean. Here I acknowledge the Saltwater peoples of this Country, my Ancestors, who have always cared for the lands, seas and skies.

It’s a pleasure to be spending some time with Mum down here, reconnecting to community, after being raised on Gundungurra lands, over the mountain. I have always loved being with Mother Earth in the valleys and highlands, and appreciate learning so much on the coast too.

I studied teaching at UOW and have lived around Yuin/Dharawal land since. I left the classroom to manage my Poetry in First Languages project at Red Room Poetry, facilitating workshops with First Nations communities on Country, to support students and poets to create works about the land and identity in language.

This year, I left Red Room Poetry, to pursue full time creative work, which currently includes storytelling in many forms (poetry, art, picture books, plays) and consulting for a range of organisations on education, systems change and decolonization.

I find inspiration… My greatest inspiration is by far Mother Earth, who is also my greatest teacher. From an early age we were spoiled with bushwalking, and ocean time tapping us into a unity with the land. The storytellers in my family, have always encouraged us to attend to the relationships between living things, and to understand our interconnectedness with them. All of my work speaks to that oneness in some way.

I start each day with yoga, meditation, a walk by the ocean or a surf, with the aims to find that synchronicity with the body, mind, breath and other spirits. For me, this balancing, gratitude, awareness and grounding is so important.

When I’m attuned to the Earth, I’m a stronger change maker and storyteller.

Meet Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning international writer of poetry, plays and picture books.Image: Sarah Tedder of Bear Hunt Photography (c)

I am excited about … I’m based on the far South Coast of NSW this week for a writer’s residency with South East Arts and Merrigong Theatre for a play titled Dead Horse Gap. It’s been magical settling into the landscape and having the time to write and connect to community.

It’s also a super special time, as I’m celebrating the launch of my verse novel, Bindi, the inaugural winner of the Daisy Utemorrah (WA Premier’s) Award 2019! Illustrated by the incredibly talented, Dubb Leffler, Bindi is largely autobiographical, with so many memories interwoven from my childhood on Gundungurra Country. It was written as the bushfires on Yuin and Gundungurra lands broke out last year, with the aims of exploring cultural knowledge of care for country and the hardships of bushfires within communities, in trauma aware and culturally respectful ways.

Bindi features language taught to me by Aunty Velma Mulcahy, Trish Levett and Sharyn Halls. For me, thinking and speaking about Country is deeply interwoven with Language. I feel deeply grateful to be able to learn the language of the land that raised me and to also share this with young ones, to encourage them to connect to the Earth and protect her.

Outside of Bindi, I currently have two large artworks in First Nations and decolonial exhibitions at Shoalhaven Gallery, for Terra Within (10 Oct – 5 Dec) and Wollongong Art Gallery, Here + Now (17 Oct – 29 Nov). It’s super exciting to be pursing art-making, as it’s always been a dream of mine to share stories in wordless ways.

For the next year or so, I’ll be working on developing a sequel for Bindi, Cloudspotting, a picture book series with thanks to Magabala’s creative scholarship program, Returning a poetic arts installation and publication with support of Ausco and Going Home, supported by Playwriting Australia.

Meet Kirli Saunders, a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning international writer of poetry, plays and picture books.

When I’m in a creative slump, I… move! I studied my Yoga Teacher training at Byron Yoga a month or so ago to ground myself in a deeper practice and absolutely loved it.

I also meditate. I am exploring Transcendental Meditation (TM) and breath awareness as well as pranayama at the moment. Creating from calm spaces helps to get grounded in a central idea.

I journal and write with a stream-of-consciousness. The late Candy Royal (powerful poetess who everyone should read) taught me this method of continuous writing to release ideas without editing it. And I found it really helpful for moving past the critical mind and opening to possibility.

I jam. I love singing, and playing with other musicians, I’m trying to be braver in this space and am working up to performing!

If all else fails, I jump in the van and we dance our way to a bush walk, and I give myself permission to skip writing for the day and just reconnect to the Earth.

Image: Sarah Tedder of Bear Hunt Photography

I’m really proud of… being an Aunty, watching my nephew grow and being a teacher and guide to him is so profound. I’m also really proud of my community. There’s been so many hardships in 2020, and I’ve watched everyone around me band together during bushfires, COVID isolations, mental health hardships and charitable moments. I feel really grateful to be held in these spaces and to contribute to them.

Someone once told me… Recently one of the Northern Rivers Aunties told me ‘bub, they picked the right person to embody the gift, cause they knew you wouldn’t waste it’ and I love that notion. I think it speaks to the magic everyone holds – they chose YOU to have that gift, because they (the Ancestors, God, The Universe) knew you could enhance the world with it.

My Dad’s advice of ‘stop and smell the roses’ is an oldie but a goodie too. Slowing down this year has been mandatory with some health woes, and it’s been an absolute gift to take my time.

My advice to you is … (I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice!) but someone who is, is my Mum and she would say ‘always be kind’.

You can find me … 

Out in the bush or ocean, or on Insta + Twitter: @kirli.saunders