The Emerging Writers’ Festival work, learn and play largely on the land of the Kulin nation, and pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.

EWF celebrates the history and creativity of the world’s oldest living culture.

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Bound By River

Illustration by ppdans

Written by Vanamali Hermans

My hometown, Murwillumbah, is carved up by the Tweed River. It flows through this place, Bundjalung country, until it reaches the coast and joins with the ocean. The river is everywhere. It follows you through town and unfurls out into the surrounding villages. Much of my childhood revolves around the river – hot summers learning how to swim, graduation photos along the riverbank, scattering ashes of family into the water. The river is constant, and I can’t imagine life here without it. When I leave, its flow is etched in my memory.

When I return home, there are times when the river creeps closer and comes to meet me. It is April, and the floods have hit later than usual. The Tweed River has burst its banks and half the town is submerged. Creeks and tributaries run brown, and waterlogged possessions line the streets. When I was younger, the floods were exciting; waiting in anticipation to see if the bridge would go under, being sent home early from school. Now the water disrupts life. I feel trapped scrolling social media, cut off from the world around me.

Jump forward.

I am sitting on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. It is boxing day, and the fires have started. The sky is hazy, but we can still breathe. None of us have bought masks yet. I
smother myself in sunscreen and slide into the river. The water holds me as gravity dissipates. I feel relief in my joints, swimming is good for chronic pain. I want to ask the river how my body feels to hold – if it notices its difference. I float on my back, staring at the casuarinas overhead. I don’t think it does.

Time has rewound.

I peel the cling-wrap back from an egg and lettuce sandwich and toss a bit of crust to a wary gull. Here the Tweed River smells of salt, and the water strikes against its rocky barrier with more violence than it does upstream, where the river is closer to the mountains. I am hiding out the back of the hospital, taking a break from fluorescent lights and lino that reeks of disinfectant. In a couple of day’s time we’ll transfer mum into a manual wheelchair, and she too will get to hide out here with me, if only temporarily. It is the first time in months she’ll feel the sun on her skin. We’ll share a ciggie as we watch the river.

Fast forward. To a different time and different place.

I am farther south, on the banks of the Milawa Billa, the Murray River. The sun is setting, and dusk sits softly on the water. We are travelling back home after visiting Djab Wurrung. Mum has just died, and time has lost all form, bleeding into itself. We’ve stopped in Albury to get fuel and end up visiting the sculpture walk along the river. It is nice to rest and listen to the pelicans as they talk to the wetlands. I wish I knew what they were saying.

Time keeps moving forward.

Mum has been cremated and I am back here, followed by the river again. We find our way to Korrumbyn creek, where I first swam as a baby, and where mum requested to come back to. The water is low as drought continues to suck country dry. It is painful to leave her here. When I come back for mum, many months later, the road to Korrumbyn creek is blocked off. Road and National Park Closed due to COVID-19. We jump the gate and wade through the rain to meet her. She has probably flowed into the Tweed River by now – it is hard to tell if any part of her has stayed.

Like time, these rivers weave in and out of view. I am held by them through pain, through grief, and through joy. When the world has stopped, the flow of their waters brings me back to the living. It is impossible to feel time collapse in on itself, to become stuck in stagnant sorrow when I watch their currents move forward. I often think of the many others that have been carried forward in this same way.

My hope is that these rivers know how they have shaped me. It is through their waters that I have learnt to hold others as they have held me. I feel bound by them, as they continue to cycle through my life. I know I will speak to them, again and again.