Keepawhile (or an imprint for our times): Ellen Van Neerven The National 4

In the short story, Keepawhile (or an imprint for our times), Ellen van Neeven responds to shared ideas across The National 4: Australian Art Now, including intergenerational learning, collaboration and the role of personal narratives in acknowledging broader social and political issues.

She feels better now. It is a small gesture. Her hands are in the soil, never forgetting she is a nation too. Deep and archival. She recalls the sweet throaty laugh of her Grandmother, a sound that feels like it made perfect sense here. She starts with seeds, stored. Seeds of the future. She is close to plants. They are a connective force.

Surviving in this world, sky on rain, rain on sky. Sharp teeth. Foreign birds with yellow beaks.

After leaving for a while, she has come back to sit here. It is time to know quiet tide in the quietude, to accept help when it is needed.

She has been dying in images and living without words. Her mind will not stop travelling. It hurts to be so visible. Where will you encounter me? She wonders. Will this last? She has been worried about the accuracy of her short-term memory. She has been worried about the colonisation of her memory. There is a persistence in gathering past. In that way, she remembers the day her Ancestors first met colonial- induced climate change and racial capitalism. She has been told these are chronic conditions.

Coming here to this place to plant seeds, she is three lifetimes’ tired, injured for generations, breathing laboured and secret. She has stopped dreaming or remembering her dreams. Spun from self-help tapes. Shaken like a storm cycle. She is confronted by the accumulation of these injuries. Everything feels like too much effort and she sits down, her head sinking heavy and begs for all to stop.

Hears her Grandmother say: Would you choose to be changing? Or to stay the same? Child, yes, without change, there will be no more harm. But no more growth.

Bush glue can’t stick time. Welcome to the change.

Her hair is silver. Or how to live on a river. Her hands are soft, like Grandmother’s. And warmer than fire.

Will this craft fit her body in the future, in all its infinite dimensions? The big polluters, the rubbish tip. Amongst the silence, certificates of living. How can she hold this together?

Never has a place called out more in its voice, take care, take care, take care, take care on the water, take care on the beach, take care by the cliffs, take care on the rocks, take care on the footpath, take care on the road. The trees are shedding bark, dropping branches. Pay attention now, they say. Be in a collective presence.

Don’t pathologise her heart, which speaks in poems. Don’t brutalise her living, which is tied to Country. What is she going to do with all this coldness? A loss and damage fund for climate-hit nations. A flood begins everything. Seeds and plants. Relationships, kinships. Ourselves.

When she finally allows herself to listen, in a grouped silence, she is amazed to hear the river mouth speak in three distinct voices. The voices each say one thing which became three, ‘Be bad, be kind, and be abundant.’

And on kindness, she resolves from now on to let every person she loves and is in relation to in on a secret. Her armour is made of paperbark and even the gentlest breeze can move through it. In other words, she is vulnerable because she loves. This is to admit a strength. Consideration and thoughtfulness to others makes work meaningful.

Green is the colour the eye can most determine shade and shape. The colour of renewal, range, and body between the breaths.

The flannel flower blooms like a lifetime after fire.

She makes a note to pay attention to what takes place between the gaps of sunlight, and the kind of interactions between the text and installation of memory. She chooses water. The path is made to the past.

River trees bring digging sticks. She sees women working with ashes from cultural fire, tilling and breathing soil. The complex transformation, the reuse, utilisation of the present.

The native grasses, growing tall so she can see them. Fighting for presence against invasive species. They belong here.

The diversity of Country reminds her she is not in deficit. She is abundant. She is not lacking within. She has everything she needs.

Harvest without killing. Compost like a poet. All materials on Country have use. Plants become lamps and steps and dreams.

On the hill in the horizon, she knows of a cluster of sacred macadamia trees burnt in last year’s fires. She wants to be always close with her family. Relationships are duty-bound, they are also a place where everything is in flux. Sometimes the real work is in taking care of others. There is no real rush or need to force the moment. Colonial time is false, fake. Take your time. Do things at an unhurried pace and at the right season.

For as long as she can remember, she has felt relational pressure to care for others and to save resources, make shelter, be responsible for everything. This has combined with a sense of feeling pushed and pulled in many directions by the dishonesty of a hieratical hegemony. There has felt like there has been no room for pleasure and risk in her life, and she has suffered. She has chosen stolen moments when she could find out each fruit smells like home or perhaps something a little stronger.

She is still learning what is close versus what is closed. There are ideas outside the machinery she spent too many years inside.

Be bad, be bold, the river tells her in its bright voice. Stop being the good colonial citizen you were told to be. Instead, let me encourage your badness, your spontaneity, your rebellion. Break away from what’s expected, invest in yourself, it will help us all. Make a promise, a leap, a decision today.

The clouds are pink beyond the grey trees, and the white cockatoos are gathering at sunset in broad song.

How to be tender in a Nation State, or tender in a State of Nation. With a sisterhood, a pattern of support. Small gestures. Repetition, reinforcement. A chorus of Aunties.

Her Ancestors are masterful at wayfinding. Between stars and waves, they always know the way back home. A compass is growing feet.

Keepawhile, she says softly. She knows she can’t cheat her Ancestors. They are the collaborators on every story. She wants her planting and her wet hands to say, I’ll keepawhile, I’ll never let go.

The urge to tell stories is a deep one. And she wonders, where does it come from? Some sort of ancient water source, the lifeblood of all life?

Or a basket, a string-making, a weaving, a craft, like her Grandmother and her Grandmother’s Aunties. Even Le Guin’s bag of stars. A keepawhile all-time carrier of survival.

Frogs in the great sky, feeling like great things are yet to come. Every place has its danger and its protection. Ancestors: what are you preparing me for?

When she makes a mark it goes against the cultural amnesia, the great forgetting, it is embodied sovereignty.

She speaks to her Grandmother, making a full circle with her arms, Grandmother, you show me who you are, and through doing so, what I am. Through you, I see my own ingenuity.

By the river she doesn’t need to give up any of her multiple selves. She can be more than one thing. There is the possibility for thriving beyond surviving. A trusting in herself, in all of the worlds she has stepped in, knowing the flow of water and her Ancestors are by her side.

And yes she did kiss an empty mouth, inside an empty house. When she wakes to scratch her arm, the insects meet the skin, trust in me.

As concrete as dreams, eels swim. A turtle moves in. Rain on her back.

If this river is an imprint of time, and she a nation.

She is resting in what is close. Which is not what is closed. The pleasure of being held in the right name.

Her thoughts are bogged down like the mud. Slowly shifting. And then a craving, always, for the rhythm of the water, and to be reset by the tide.

Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali writer from the Yugambeh Nation. Ellen’s most recent title is Throat (UQP, 2020)


The National 4: Australian Art Now
30 March – 25 June 2023
Wed – Sun, 10am – 5pm