The Cherry Picker’s Daughter by Kerry Reed-Gilbert

‘I am the cherry picker’s daughter.’

Kerry Reed-Gilbert (24 October 1956 – 13 July 2019) was a Wiradjuri poet, elder, author and educator.  She was a champion of up-and-coming Indigenous writers and an Aboriginal rights activist.  She died the day after she’d provided the final corrections and amendments to the manuscript of ‘The Cherry Picker’s Daughter’.

‘The Cherry Picker’s Daughter’ is Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s memoir of childhood.  Of growing up Aboriginal on the fringes of towns in regional New South Wales.  Of fear. Of prejudice.  Of disadvantage.

‘Everything we do is about avoiding the attention of the white people and, ultimately, the welfare, at all costs.  It’s not safe to ask white people for anything.’

Her father’s sister, Aunty Joyce Hutchings, raised her and her brother Kevin after her father was imprisoned for murdering her mother.  Aunty Joyce Hutchings, whom Kerry called Mummy, sounds like an exceptional woman.  Looking after her own children as well as others.  Working hard to keep them all fed and clothed.  It is Aunty Joyce Hutchings who is the cherry picker.

‘Picking can be really hard work and we have to work harder than the white people, too.  They get more money for a pound of cherries than we do.  We only get ten cents a pound while they get twenty cents.’

Racism, persecution and poverty are all part of this story.  I find it difficult to read: Kerry Reed-Gilbert, dead at 62.  Born in the same year as me, but in vastly different circumstances. I read of how the family has to camp in various places when the river level rises, and they can’t get to their home.  And then that home is lost.

‘I wonder why life has to be so bad to us that it wants to cause us all this misery.  Our house burns down, my father’s locked in a bad place and I don’t know why.’

I read about the racism experienced by Kerry Reed-Gilbert and her family, the double standards applied, the constant fear of ‘the welfare’ coming and taking children away.  I read about exceptional women who do their best to keep families together, and of the later (and different) struggles as families fracture.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert was a teacher and advocate.  She was also the co-founder and inaugural chairperson of the First Nations Australian Writers Network (FNAWN).  Her memoir is important: both a reminder to all of us of the continuing struggles faced by so many Indigenous peoples; and a tribute to an exceptional woman.

‘This book is to say thank you to my mother, Mummy, who took us home.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith