Kate Mildenhall’s third novel, The Hummingbird Effect, is a sprawling and ambitious book that spans 1933 all the way to 2181 and includes – amongst other hot topics such as climate change and artificial intelligence – trade unionism!
Kate herself is a former teacher, and both her parents were teachers and active union members. “I remember marching as a kid alongside them during the Kennett years,” Kate says, “and the ideology of unions and why they were important was something my sister and I learnt early. Specifically, that one should never cross a picket line or be a scab!”
When she first started teaching, Kate believed “it was a no-brainer to become a union member, and I clearly remember the pride (and anger!) when I first went out on strike.” Kate was part of the 2008 strike for better wages that saw 25,000 AEU members stop work to join the strike.
Because the Angliss Meatworks in Footscray feature heavily in The Hummingbird Effect, Kate did a great deal of research into the factory’s history. “I was immediately drawn to the stories of the ‘failed’ strike by the slaughtermen against the introduction of the chain system of slaughtering in 1933.”
She was struck by the fact that she knew – through movies and books – about the history of the coalminers’ strikes in Thatcher’s Britain, but very little about the history of unionism in Australia. “I went back to ‘strike fiction’ books such as Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up and Jean Devanny’s Sugar Heaven, and decided I wanted to write my own.”
“I was inspired, however, by the stories of the women who have (often quietly and without recognition) always stood with unions and striking workers through their cooking, support and strength.”
Kate explains that the women working at Angliss Meatworks were not allowed to join the strike and were in fact discouraged from joining the union altogether. “I was inspired, however, by the stories of the women who have (often quietly and without recognition) always stood with unions and striking workers through their cooking, support and strength,” Kate says.
“The rise of union activity – especially in Amazon warehouses – was inspiring for the sections of the novel set in the future. Of course, health worker unions have always been predominantly made up of women, and this also played a role in the 2020 narrative about a resident in aged care during lockdowns, and the workers who care for her.”
The book is dedicated to Kate’s grandmother who she was very close to, and who she spoke lovingly about at the book’s launch. “Grandmama grew up in Northcote with her mum, two older sisters and her aunt who came to live with them after my grandmother’s father was killed in a tram accident when she was only 18 months old.
“She grew up in a household of women and that has always stuck with me. With my grandfather, she raised six kids. My mum is the eldest and I’m the eldest grandchild and our connection was always very close.
“She knew I was writing the book, and we’d talk for hours about growing up in the 30s, what she wore, the layout of their house on Mitchell Street, what they ate for dinner. Grandmama died last year, at 91, after a short illness, and we were privileged to care for her at her home until she died. Our fears about her health during Covid times were, in part, what inspired much of Hilda’s story in the novel,” Kate says, adding: “I miss her so much.”
“Curiosity, an openness to play and a belief in radical imagination – even in the face of great challenges such as those we have ahead of us – are what inspires me.”
The novel’s title comes from writer Steven Johnson’s concept of the hummingbird effect in his book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. He defines it as: ‘an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field that ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether’.
“This concept spoke directly to the idea of cause and effect in machination in factories, changes in work and society and technology and the climate crisis, and when I came across it during the writing process, I knew it was at the heart of what I wanted to explore and connect,” Kate says.
She wrote an AI chatbot into the book and explains that she is excited about the potential of AI “to help humanity innovate, solve problems and present new ways of looking at some of the enormous challenges we face.”
But, as a writer, she is also deeply concerned about the inherent bias of many large language models like ChatGPT; worried, too, about “their reliance on scraped data that is taken without acknowledgment or compensation for its creators, and I support the Australian Society of Authors and similar orgs who are working hard to make the owners of these companies more accountable, and for legislation to address these issues.”
Kate says that as a parent and teacher, she is approaching the use of AI in the same way she first approached Wikipedia: “Encouraging my kids to think critically about the information being presented to them, to question the source, to understand the way the technology works, who owns it and where it has come from,” Kate says.
“I continue to try to keep an open curiosity about the advancements in machine learning and read widely on the potential consequences, knowing that AI is not going away and that our work now is to understand how we work together to ensure it is as ethical and equitable as possible.”
She has enormous faith in the human race, in our capacity to create and think originally. “I think working with (and raising) kids helps keep this faith. Curiosity, an openness to play and a belief in radical imagination – even in the face of great challenges such as those we have ahead of us – are what inspires me.”
“I applaud the teachers who are still in the gig and fervently hope conditions improve, so that more people are attracted to the profession.”
With writer Katherine Collette, Kate co-hosts The First Time Podcast. She is currently working on her fourth novel as well as undertaking a PhD in creative practice at RMIT University. An English literature teacher by training, Kate has taught in schools and at RMIT, and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders in Cambodia. She no longer works in schools.
“I miss the kids (and colleagues) very much. I’ve always loved observing students having lightbulb moments and having a crack at new things. I loved introducing books and poems and ideas to kids and miss, so much, seeing kids experience success in all the very different ways they can.
“Now, when I’m teaching writing students, I love it when they walk away from sessions feeling like they can do the thing they are dreaming of. Empowering students to have a crack – that’s what I think I love the most.”
We talk about what non-teachers often get wrong about teaching and teachers. “That you do it for the holidays!” Kate laughs. “I always knew teachers worked hard; I grew up with Mum’s marking strewn across the kitchen table and the long days and hours both my parents put into the profession.
“Since I’ve left the classroom, I think teaching has only become more challenging: the expectations on teachers, the admin, the filling up of days with emails and paperwork so that there is less and less time for teachers to do what they do best – connect with kids and make a real difference in their lives. I applaud the teachers who are still in the gig and fervently hope conditions improve, so that more people are attracted to the profession.”
As anyone who has seen Kate’s Instagram will see, she is an avid reader. We talk about her favourite depictions of teachers and of unions in literature. “It’s hard to go past Dead Poet’s Society and Billy Elliot as two of my most beloved depictions of teachers and unionism in film.
“I’ve recently read the Booker prize-nominated How to Build a Boat by Irish author Elaine Feeney, which is an extraordinary novel of the influence of great teachers, even within challenging school environments. Highly recommend.”