On the road and in gaol to write her books

Her research skills were out there and unique, but there was no doubting her stories were realistic and accurate portrayals of the underprivileged in Australia.


Kathleen Tennant, better known as Kylie, was born in Manly, New South Wales in 1912 and educated at Brighton College in her hometown and later Sydney University, although she left before she graduated. Her career included being a publicity officer for the ABC, working as a journalist, reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald, a publisher's literary adviser and editor, was a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund advisory board and was also a union organiser.


She was married to Lewis Charles Rodd, who she met at university in 1932 and had daughter Benison in 1946 and son, John Laurence in 1951. During the war they lived in Laurieton, NSW, where Kylie befriended a cattle farmer and fisherman who built a hut for her to write in. The Crowdy Bay Hut surroundings became the setting for her 1971 novel The Man on the Headland. The hut was unfortunately destroyed in the recent 2019-20 bushfires.


Crowdy Bay Hut. Photo Courtesy: By Grahamec - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3351754


Before they were married, Rodd had taken up a role as a teacher in Coonabarabran. Kylie walked the 280 miles (450km) from Sydney to join him. While on the road, her eyes were opened to the hardship and suffering of the rural unemployed in the early years of the Depression. It would be the first of many treks Kylie did that provided the backdrop to her novel on the effects of the Depression on rural life, called Tiburon. In 1935 she won the S. H. Prior memorial prize for it.


Kylie wrote six more novels after that. It was her third novel in 1941, The Battlers, that brought her recognition for her vivid portrayals of the itinerant unemployed. She was even internationally compared to John Steinbeck, although she found this irritating as she had never read The Grapes of Wrath.


It was definitely her research style that drew attention. While writing her book (1939) Foveaux in 1939, Kylie lived in a rundown boarding house in the slum area of Redfern to write an accurate account of life there. She even spent a week in Parramatta gaol to write her book The Joyful Condemned in 1953.


Kylie used humour to get her social message across. It sometimes got her into trouble, such as the time she was sued by a member of the Communist party who was offended by the use of their alias name and satirical portrayal of the character in her novel Ride on Stranger.


Kylie was a good friend of Patrick White and continued writing her novels as well as plays for children. In fact she won the Children’s Book Council of Australia award in 1960 for All the Proud Tribesmen.


As her writing career blossomed, her private life had become tumultuous with both her husband and son suffering depression. In 1961, after many episodes of severe depression, Lewis threw himself under a train at Circular Quay in Sydney. He lived but lost his arm and a foot.


Only 10 years later, their son John, nicknamed Bim, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By 1975, after Lewis had another breakdown, Kylie made the ultimate decision to move her family to the Blue Mountains; a farm in Blackheath. She believed it would be healing for both Lewis and Bim.



Kylie Tennant. Courtesy Wikipedia.


She suffered a mother's heartbreak three years later when Bim was found unconscious in a King's Cross house. He had been bashed and robbed in a drug deal. He died shortly afterwards. Lewis died of cancer a year later, nursed by Kylie and their daughter Benison.


Once again she put her personal experiences into her literature and released her book Tantavallon in 1983 as a farewell to her husband and son, drawing on her knowledge of suicidal depression and drugs.


Awarded an AO in 1980 Kylie also received a D.Litt. by Monash University in 1987. A year later she died on February 28, 1988 in Chatswood and was cremated.



References

  • 'Kylie Tennant', Wikipedia, accessed online 7th February, 2022, Kylie Tennant - Wikipedia

  • Jane Grant, 'Tennant, Kathleen (Kylie) (1912–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tennant-kathleen-kylie-15669/text26865, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 13 February 2022.

  • 'Kylie Tennant's Hut', Atlas Obscura, accessed online 14 February, 2022, Kylie Tennant's Hut – Crowdy Bay National Park, Australia - Atlas Obscura


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