Pushing Back: An Accretive Ethics of Resistance
It’s a hard life for a kid these days. It’s a hard life for a drug addict too, and for a drug dealer for that matter. Hard for a parent, for a shearer, for a budding magician, for grey nomads. For students, for travellers. A hard life for real estate agents … well, maybe not so much, in this economy.
This world is certainly a complicated, often painful one to navigate, no matter which of John Kinsella’s characters you happen to be. In Pushing Back, Kinsella’s latest collection of short stories, people of all occupations and persuasions struggle variously with trauma, addiction, bullying, environmental catastrophe, and paranormal activity. But for all these people, Kinsella suggests, chances exist to reject the unjust, the hateful, the destructive, and to push back against them.
Kinsella’s ethical vision in this collection is an accretive one. Characters range from “radical” or “ratbag left” (39) to the more subtle ecologically and economically conscious, and the conservative or reactionary (although these are often cast as antagonists or as worthy of scorn). There is no distinctive, unified political thrust expressed consistently from story to story. Instead, lines of discursive prose and dialogue, lyrical narrative moments, and subtle shifts in many of the tales layer an overall blueprint for resistance and re-imagining.
Kinsella builds a world of possibility, in which all kinds of people can live as examples of a socially and/or environmentally progressive ethic of resistance, however that might be expressed in their particular circumstances. The security guard in the “false climate” of the airconditioned shop in ‘Green Light’ turns a blind eye to poor kids taking fruit they won’t otherwise get to eat—rejecting, as other characters in this collection do, the received expectations of what constitutes right and wrong under capitalism (57). In ‘Barrows’, young Sarah trusts her relationship with the pigs on her farm to punish some disturbingly misogynistic city teens, in a more-or-less symbolic castration of their toxic masculinity.
These more overt moments of resistance are joined by subtler ones. In ‘Surrounded’ and ‘Backstroke’, the pushing back is a simple act of opening up, or reaching out, from popular kids to those bullied and on the margins. These are not a resistance to capitalism or eco-destruction, but to simple ignorance and simmering hatred. Other stories centre on more ineffectual-seeming characters who allow those with more assertive personalities to get away with pillaging the environment or terrorising the marginalised. Or, as in the case of ‘Night Train – Patras to Athens’, performatively political characters struggle with taking assertive action in moments of personal potential. These stories are useful counterbalances to those with more emphatic or clear-cut moments of change. The possibilities for a pushing back against violence or against passivity remain but aren’t necessarily taken up, or not fully, within the narrative time of the story. And yet they further layer and enrich the overall world or worlds of the collection—possibilities for a change, a pushing back, are always offered but not always grasped. That some characters fail to challenge their status quo despite the opportunity to do so feels like an authentic rendering of a group of characters as diverse as the motley crew in this collection. This is particularly so when conditions of drug addiction, power imbalances, or regional isolation conspire to make action even more difficult.
Kinsella is known for his vegan-pacifist-environmentalist-feminist-activist poetics and ethics, in his writing and own life in the WA Wheatbelt—see his blog with Tracy Ryan, ‘Mutually Said’, for many examples (Ryan and Kinsella). In Pushing Back, he carves out ethical possibilities for change even for those living a lifestyle which contradicts his own strong ethics of responsibility. ‘A Viewing’ is narrated by a real estate agent showing an overpriced rental property in ‘The Hills’ (WA’s Darling Ranges) to a family with strong environmentalist beliefs. The narrator presents herself as “socially progressive and economically conservative”, a “hard-core capitalist” with some “sexual and identity tolerances” (176). While she presents herself as “ethical and tolerant”, she is increasingly piqued by the family’s views on pesticides and herbicides—what she sees as their “twaddle” (180). But in the end, Kinsella writes possibilities for both the judgemental, commercial narrator (who lives a life and politics far removed from Kinsella’s personal beliefs) and the judgmental, rigidly principled family—possibilities to push back against their contradictory qualities and make some overall progress towards better environmental management and greater kindness. As the family leaves, the real estate agent calls out to them to suggest the property’s gardener use “something organic” in place of synthetic chemicals:
She felt stupid saying this, as it didn’t really make sense, and waited for the goth girl to come back with a withering sarcasm regarding weed-killing and organics being a contradiction, but instead the girl smiled and so did the boy and the father said, Thanks for caring.
Thanks for caring. And it was said without sarcasm.
Pushing Back is an often witty, regularly ironic, and commonly dark or depressing collection. But moments like these, scattered throughout, lend it an overall sense of hope and of generosity. This is a vision of small possibilities layering into the larger potential for an incrementally transformed world. It’s not a utopian vision by any stretch, but might be read as occasionally expressing tiny moments of utopia within various visions of environmental and character-personal degradation.
Kinsella builds his vision of an improved world through solid connective writing framed by regular passages of skilful, poetic prose. There are moments of unsubtly direct political statement (“a middle-class white American feminist who serves sisters of my choosing whilst being in the service of the patriarchy” (33)), but overall Kinsella’s writing is guided by a poetic sensibility that rejects the soapbox. In his reflective work on his writing practice, he has been insistent on the convincing potential of lyrical rather than directly ideologically writing. In Activist Poetics, he outlines how “long ago I differentiated between polemic and open-endedness, between rhetoric and, if one likes, the lyric impulse” (1). As is evident (for the most part) in this collection, “ultimately, though not exclusively, I try to keep the balance in favour of the open-ended lyric rather than propagandist rhetoric” (1).
At times, Kinsella’s pursuit of a productively mysterious ambiguity feels forced or underdone. In ‘Globe’, a relatively straightforward story is suddenly invested with a sense of deep mystery for just a couple of incongruous lines before a pivot is made back to the ordinary. A houseguest speaks to her host about the light globe at the centre of the tale:
… it’s not good for – excuse me – older eyes to strain in their trying to find things.
Find answers? whispered the old woman.
Yes, said the guest. All the answers still to be found. But anyway, a floor lamp could be plugged in …
This sudden intrusion of suggestive mystery is a little too sudden and unexplained. Occasionally underdone moments like this in the collection mean that this story and some others feel almost like drafts or tracings rather than completed works. But these moments of rush or sketchiness can probably be forgiven in an expansive thirty-five-story collection like this. So too can the moments where characters spout lyrically dense dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true in otherwise realist settings; sometimes these are off-putting, but other times they are meaningful and mysterious, encouraging suspension of nagging disbelief. And for the most part, lyrical writing—particularly of the environment—guides and focuses the impetus of the most interesting, affecting, and ethically driven stories in the book. Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Echolocation’ and the tale immediately following it, ‘Lightning Memory’. In each of these stories, the central character has been deeply affected by the natural world: one by the “entities” released by the “clearing and damage to the mountain” which looms over the setting (130); and the other by a long-ago lightning strike. Together, these stories represent skilful lyricism of the kind Kinsella considers more convincing than polemic.
The protagonists of each of these stories are granted incisive revelations by their unconventional connections with the environment, by “the fury, the fire, the trauma of country and sky” (146). Their open-ended tales, infused with productive ambiguity are examples of when this collection works best—both “in terms of “artistic integrity” and making a political stand about an issue”, to refigure the author’s own words (Activist Poetics 149). The central characters arrive at environmental conclusions that are two layers of the same soil: the first understands their implication in “rapacity” and “destruction”, and “just want[s] to be, nothing more” (136), while the second is “reborn – in a pantheistic sense” (141) and craves deeper understanding, “to be struck again” (146).
Impressively skilful and incisively wise, these stories add to Kinsella’s decades-developed accretive vision of a potential world resistant to the ecologically damaging, the ignorant, the received, the ordinary. And as for the ultra-nationalists in ‘Little Red Car’? Without spoiling the details, this story pushes back very directly against hatred and ignorance. The eventual comeuppance for its disturbing antagonists is an absolute work of art—pure and, in the end, simple.
Kinsella, John. Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley. Liverpool University Press, 2010.
Ryan, Tracy, and John Kinsella. Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist. 12 January 2008, http://poetsvegananarchistpacifist.blogspot.com/. Accessed 12 March 2022.
Pushing Back by John Kinsella. Transit Lounge, 2021. ISBN 9781925760712