Nadia Rhook is an historian, educator, and poet, who lectures in History at UWA. Her debut poetry collection was boots (UWA Publishing 2020). Now Nadia has just had her second volume of poems published, Second Fleet Baby (Fremantle Press). She chats to The Starfish:
Nadia, congrats on Second Fleet Baby.
Thank you. I’m very excited it’s out in the world, finding its way into reader’s hands and imaginations.
What prompted you to write this collection of poems?
Second Fleet Baby has lots of beginnings – in humans crawling out of the ocean and learning how better to breathe, in infertility treatments and pregnancy, and in my time lecturing in Indigenous Studies, where I’ve been moved to rethink ways of relating with the past I’d learnt as a disciplined historian. One experience that particularly energised me was the publication of a poem called pink petals, about injecting myself with oestrogen during an IVF cycle. Its reception helped me realise I didn’t need to apologise for the ways my very specific relation to motherhood was, for me, profound and full of feeling and transformation and knowledge. I decided to run toward those specificities, and was compelled to write about my maternal history too.
Some of your ancestors were convict women; is that what inspired you to write many of the poems in this collection?
At some stage in the process of working on the proto-collection, I remembered a book called The Floating Brothel that my late grandmother had read. I remembered how my family had felt special knowing we had an ancestor who’d made it into a book. I ordered a copy, and finally read for myself about the journey of my ancestor, Susannah Mortimer, and of her contemporaries. Susannah’s story of being criminalised, transported away from her home, and becoming pregnant and giving birth at sea really captured my imagination, especially with the transformative experience of giving birth still fresh in my memory. I found threads in her story that connected me not just to oceans but to water more generally, which became very generative to follow.
I think the context of the pandemic really shaped this interest. The poems about English convict women really come from wanting to be closer to my family during the pandemic, during a period when the enforcement of inter-state borders meant I couldn’t visit them. I could, though, draw on history to create a sense of being part of a family story and a lineage of strong, cheeky women.
Tell us who they were and what they went through?
In 1789, the colonial population was small, starved of food, and had a pronounced gender imbalance. The first lot of ships sent to invade Eora Country – known often as The First Fleet – had carried a vast majority of men. The Lady Juliana carried a majority of women, who would, it was hoped, help to provide the colony a minimum quota of women to fulfil men’s sexual and – to a lesser extent, marital – wants. Its delayed passage from Portsmith to Sydney took around 300 days, with about 225 women onboard. It was the only ship of The Second Fleet not owned by the slave trade company, Camden, Calvert & King, and while it was no ‘carnival cruise’, the death rate was much lower than on the rest of the Second Fleet. There was a ship surgeon, the ration supply was adequate, and the women had long stays in ports and free access to the deck. In this way, my ancestor was fortunate.
As an historian, have you spent much time looking at the history of Australia’s convict women who arrived from Britain?
My research expertise is about Asian migration and whiteness in colonial Victoria, especially the themes of law, language, and medicine. I undertook research for ‘Second Fleet Baby’ with a select focus, which was the context that shaped my ancestor’s experience of giving birth at sea, and the ways in which these convict women resisted the patriarchal government and authorities who sought to control their bodies, lives, and desires. I relied a lot on published archival records and the very thorough research done by excellent historians before me, which allowed me to focus my energies into imagining my ancestors’ experiences. I began to think of as the stories I was reading as lightning bolts of charged history that I was channelling, earthing, into language with sculpted, personal meanings.
Do you think enough Australians realise how tough it was for the convict women from whom so many of us descend?
Yes and no. I think many people have a sense of the hardships convicts lived through – after all, they were by name, prisoners. At Fremantle Prison, for instance, there is much emphasis on the victimhood of convicts. Indeed, they built their own prison! If you visit the Female Factory in Hobart, the hardship of convict women’s lives really hits home. In recent decades, many more Australians have become proud of their convict heritage, previously imagined as ‘the convict stain’. As some historians have observed, there can be pleasure in victimhood.
But away from those sites of memory, I’m not sure there is much public imagination of convict transportation, especially among younger generations. I probably wouldn’t have thought much about convict women if my own ancestor wasn’t one. It’s interesting to me what we make of convict suffering. While writing the collection, it felt strange anew to me – perhaps even perverse – that English people who had been criminalised by their own government then engaged in the criminality of colonising and occupying Indigenous lands and waters. I wanted to make this history of convict transportation feel strange anew, as it did and does for me.
What were some of the key hardships these women endured?
They were forced to leave their homes and loved ones. They endured difficult conditions on the passage and in prisons. Their bodies and lives and maternal powers were often treated as tools for colonial progress and expansion, which was dehumanising.
Other poems in the book are set in the present; would our ancestors laugh at us, do you think, if comparing our contemporary struggles, eg contending with IVF, to theirs?
I hope they wouldn’t laugh at me! I like to think my ancestor would have had compassion for me, someone wanting to be a mother, as she was.
Your poems are powerful and often harrowing; did you shed tears while writing them?
I’m glad you found them powerful. I don’t often write in tears. My poems do give me permission to be kind to myself about experiences I’ve moved through so sometimes I cry when I read them back. Those are also tears of gratitude that language can be a place of truth and softness in a world that can be denialist and hard.
How long did it take to put this collection together?
It was a bit over two years in the writing, but it draws on around two decades of learnt knowledge of colonialism and history.
This is your second poetry collection; how different is it to the first book?
‘Second Fleet Baby’ is more strongly themed and has a structure that intentionally plays with temporality, both within poems and across the collection. It has a narrative arc that moves from the 18th Century to the current day, but parts of the stories are out of chronological order. Is it possible to be ‘mother’ before becoming pregnant? Is it possible to know how your story goes before you live it? Is it possible to escape the colonial condition we live in before it’s finished? Those kinds of questions of time play in the collection.
I wrote boots (UWA Publishing, 2020) in my early years of lecturing colonial history, while struggling with infertility, and adjusting to living in Boorloo/Perth after living in Naarm/Melbourne for over a decade, and living in Vietnam before that. Moving to Perth was quite challenging, and when I read it back, I feel how ‘boots’ has so much dislocation in it, as well as love for the places I’ve lived in. Second Fleet Baby taps into different energies – those of pregnancy and new life and possibilities. While it remains attentive to colonial violence, it is, I hope, suffused with the joy I felt while becoming pregnant and a mother after struggling for years with fertility.
Does society appreciate poets enough?
No. Where’s our Australian poet laureate?! But I think people very quickly appreciate poetry if given more chances to. Many people have misconceptions about poetry as being lofty, but it speaks so closely and beautifully to the most sacred and mundane stuff of daily life. You can write a poem about cutting your toenails and suddenly your life is art and wonder!
What is it about being a poet that appeals to you?
Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about what the great poet Audre Lorde has said, that: ‘Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’ Reading this made me realise how being a poet scaffolds my life, giving me somewhere safe to sit and rest and listen, as well as a place to build from.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem, and can you remember what it was about?
I remember it vividly! I was 13, in Year 8, and it was for an anti-racist poetry competition created by an English teacher, Mrs. Maksay, at my school in Ballarat. She was a brown woman in a dominantly white school and city, which must have been a challenging position to work in. That experience had a big impact on me as poetry has been for me, in part, a way to reckon with inequalities ever since. That poem was in rhyming couplets, and I also remember not long after learning that poetry didn’t have to rhyme. The possibilities of free verse were exhilarating.
Who’s your favourite poet?
Currently, Natalie Diaz, whose Postcolonial Love Poem I’m reading a second time. It’s radically powerful in its honesty and astonishing sensuality, and exposes ways colonialism can affect the most intimate parts of life, as well as the possibilities for love as sustenance. It’s devastating, but in a way that makes you tune into the ways poetry is a magnificent site of knowledge about freedom.
Second Fleet Baby (Fremantle Press) by Nadia Rhook is out now.