small town talk

Ellie Kaddatz

I filled in a personality measure last week. Many questions examined my perceptions of other people — in particular, whether I believed in their inherent good. This confused me. Coming from a community where people come together to help each other, my immediate and instinctive answer is of course. My dad, big indestructible country man that he is, is an advocate for smacking your children, training your dogs, and knowing your neighbours. My hometown, a 30-minute trip out of Mackay, has a population of a few hundred people. The main drive is a pony club on one side of the highway and the local shop, hotel (‘The Best Pub in the Scrub!’), and primary school on the other. If you don’t know your neighbours, there’s a concerning shut-in situation going on. Every Anzac Day, Dad makes friends with everyone in the pub. Rum and milk in hand, strangers clap him on the shoulder and ask if he wants another round. It’s hard to witness the alcohol-fuelled coming together of a community and believe that people are ‘bad’.

But then I remember driving down the highway and watching the (protected) bush smoulder from deliberately set fires. I remember seeing a guy finish his Gatorade and throw the bottle into the bushes next to my school. I remember my extended family throwing tantrums of epic proportions after the Yes vote won in the same-sex marriage plebiscite. I remember George Christensen and Fraser Anning’s comments following the New Zealand terrorist attacks (if you don’t remember them, just trust that they were very racist). Small town sentiment may run deep, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a good person this becomes particularly evident during election time.

My parents, though reasonable people, are fairly conservative. A few weeks before the election, I gave my dad an online political quiz. ‘I just don’t understand,’ my mother said to me, ‘how you managed to grow up so liberal-minded.’ I was too far in comp-het to say Well Mum, that would be the lesbianism, so I just shrugged. It was late, and she’d had some wine, so I excused the slight hysterical edge in her voice. My dad and brother, however, did not.

“Woah, woah. Let’s all be rational here.”

‘I am being rational! Everyone here thinks I’m just emotional when really —’ and on it went. Hayley, calm down and There’s no need to get upset Mum and all the while, I’m attempting to interject with Guys, I don’t want to fight.

‘— with parents and family as conservative as yours it just doesn’t make sense!’

I told her — defending myself to all of them — that I’d always been like this. What ‘this’ is, I wasn’t sure at the time. I only knew it was unlike them. When I filled out that quiz it told me I aligned with the Greens. But when I got to the election booth in 2019 and I was staring at that long white paper, I just couldn’t bring myself to put a 1 in the Greens box. With a family whose livelihood depends on mining, my vote for Labor was almost as bad. Small town sentiment runs deep. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve since gotten over that and have consistently been voting Greens ever since.

Regional Queensland can be a toxic place. It can latch to your insides and grow malignant. Anecdotally, small towns are hubs of discrimination and violence. Statistically, suicide rates ‘plague’ rural areas in Australia, and despite drug use decreasing in other states, it has increased in regional Queensland to the point that it is second only to Sydney. There is very little mental health support, and it was less than a year ago that the first-ever Pride march was held in Mackay. At risk of sounding too small-town-girl-in-the-big-smoke, I feel more at home in Brisbane after five years than I did after seventeen in my hometown.

There is a clear split in that town between the people who leave and the people who stay. The schism is obvious even to children — people go or stay, choose study or choose work, choose the city or choose children, choose to be in or out. The opposing opinions on leaving and staying are hotly debated in regional schools. Teachers and staff can tell you to leave all they want, but at the end of the day, there is some level of hypocrisy. If this town is such a bad place, why are you still here? It’s a regional town rite of passage to decide. Your decision affects the rest of your life, and its only basis is this: what does it take for you to be content?

When I was a kid, my best friend and I scorned and scoffed even then at the people who didn’t get out. They stayed, got married (sometimes), got pregnant (always), and lived out the rest of their lives in ‘dead-end’ jobs or volunteering twice a week at the local school tuckshop. I went to church and witnessed youth members turn twenty-one and get married and pop out a baby within a year. My best friend’s cousins and siblings did the same. We saw the messy parts of regional life up close and decided: screw that. We were going to transcend. We would move out as soon as we graduated, get an apartment in Brisbane, finish our university degrees, write some books, travel the world. We would go back to Mackay every couple of years to grace our families with our presences. If we were feeling particularly generous, perhaps we would even attend a high school reunion, if only to flaunt our child-less figures (and wallets).

I have always despised the thought of having children. Sometimes, however, in secret (especially when I am sad), my brain betrays me, and in my mind I am holding an infant and cradling its small head with great love. When anxious, I rock side to side on the balls of my feet like a nursing mother. Not only is this frustrating, it feels like a betrayal of my old self. Young me, unaware that being attracted to women and genuinely not wanting children are wonderful and valid things, is frightened. Will my aspirations always be, at their core, small-town? The thought of turning into what I swore I would never be, triggers a certain existential dread, despite being just so damn gay and in absolutely no danger of getting pregnant. The fact that nothing would please my mother more is also decidedly off-putting — among other things, we have had many disagreements about the fact that maternal instinct does not equate to maternal desire.

My mother is one of the few people I know who moved up north by choice. She is from another small town, although she did live in Brisbane after graduating high school for dental college. Though she vehemently denies it (‘I was going to Mackay regardless!’), she moved to be with my dad. She was nineteen. They were married by twenty-one. My parents are genuine, successful, content people who just happen to have streaks of racism and homophobia running through them. My younger brothers have stable apprenticeships and hate coming to the city; arguments include ‘The people in Brisbane suck’, ‘Can’t do what you want down there, you’d get arrested’, and ‘Brisbane uni students are weird as fuck’ with no elaboration. One of them proudly and unironically identifies as bogan. He describes the city as ‘too much’. While he isn’t incorrect, I daydream about taking him to a ‘real’ city like New York or Tokyo and watch him get completely overwhelmed.

Brisbane is not a big place. There is more to do and see and more capital-c Culture than where I’m from, to be sure. The difference, however, is miniscule on a global scale. Even within Australia, Sydney and Melbourne take the prize (whether it’s for culture, size, or straight-up plaintive longing from people who don’t live there, we’re not sure). Small towns are to Brisbane what Queensland is to Australia. Queensland is to Australia what Australia is to the globe. I hold no misconceptions about this, nor do I believe that there are any grounds for the argument that moving away from your small hometown makes you ‘better’. If anything, friends from school who chose to stay have far more concrete lives than me and my fellow university students/writers/casual work colleagues. Some might say more successful, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. If the criteria for success is contentment, then the girls my age who are happily married and pregnant are winning.

Small towns — hometowns — do have a certain pull. In the last decade, Australia’s population outside big cities grew by 10.6%. Each time I visit home, I catch myself absent-mindedly thinking about how peaceful it is, how quiet it is, how it could be so easy to fall back into life there. When Covid hit, my dad drove to Brisbane and picked me up and drove me back within a day and a half. I ended up staying there for four months, and I didn’t even hate it (much to my absolute horror). Not to say that the people who live there face no challenges — these towns are at the mercy of nature, and where society decides to put their money. Central and Northern Queensland, for example, is hit almost annually by cyclones. Census results show that internal migration to Queensland is at an all-time low as a direct result of the end of the mining boom. Queensland farmers are still dealing with ongoing drought conditions — yes, the drought that’s been running since 2013 — and rural Queensland has the highest youth unemployment rate in the country. Despite all of this, family, friends, and total strangers are content living there. ‘Wouldn’t move to the big smoke if you paid me,’ my dad said.

Despite their contentment, my parents didn’t fight against me leaving home (too much). When asked why, though interviewed separately, both phrased this the same way: bigger and better things. When pushed, they quickly articulated that they didn’t mean literally — the choices I had made were no ‘better’, no more valid than, say, my brothers’. We are all looking for self-fulfilment, and they are lucky enough to have found it already. I am looking for it in other things (that I may be looking for a long time remains unspoken). When asked why, then, they phrased it that way, my mum was at a loss. It was Dad, good old country-grown Dad, who laughed and said, ‘It’s just small-town talk, Ellie.’

Ellie Kaddatz is a third-year creative writing student. She writes about nature, magic, and the delicate balance of relationships, and dabbles in collage and digital art. She likes to drink too much tea and has way too many feelings.