Artist Profile: Renee Pettitt-Schipp
Content warning: Detention, Suicide, Violence, Death
Renee Pettitt-Schipp always wanted to be a writer. But, as a little kid, she dreamed of writing a novel – not the incredibly powerful poetry she has now become known for.
While Renee’s mother would sometimes quote Keats while doing chores around the house, poetry was never really a part of her early life. She began to see poetry as a way of coming to terms with the difficulties of being human when she was a teenager. Discovering she could transform her dark thoughts and negative experiences into beautiful lines of poetry was freeing. Expressing herself in this way helped her to process and stay connected with the world during difficult times and this coping mechanism has continued throughout her life.
Image: Renee Pettitt-Schipp. Photo by Dan Avila.
Choosing to study literature at University, Renee moved from her home in the Perth Hills, nestled amongst the beautiful jarrah-marri forest of the Darling Ranges, to Fremantle. Here, she continued to dream about writing her novel. After giving birth to her daughter, however, her plans were put on hold as she started her career in teaching. Renee found herself turning back to poetry to stay sane, needing to keep her creative process alive. While she knew she wouldn’t be able to sit down and write that novel just yet, she could start – one poem at a time.
While teaching at a Primary School in Perth, Renee was drawn to the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. She became intrigued by the kids playing outside her window who seemed to come from all over the world. Every one of them was so different, and it was amazing to watch them interact and play together. She decided to train in English as a Second Language and soon began teaching migrant and refugee children in Fremantle.
In 2009, however, Renee says she began to see the changing attitudes of the Government towards asylum seekers and wondered if she could be of more help to children seeking asylum. So, she applied for a job on Christmas Island.
Renee can draw a line in the sand between her life before moving to Christmas Island, and her life after. In fact, she can narrow it down to one specific conversation where an asylum seeker spoke with her about a massacre of women and children he had witnessed before arriving. These are the kinds of conversations Renee says you can never unknow.
While speaking with asylum seekers, Renee began to feel she had a responsibility to share their stories and make them visible. In her eyes, everything the government had been doing for the last 10 years towards asylum seekers had been to dehumanise them. Renee wanted to change that and re-humanise them to her readers.
Image: Renee Pettitt-Schipp at Soon Tien Kong Chinese temple, Christmas Island. Photo by Janelle Sewell.
While living on Christmas Island, Renee states there was an unwritten rule: Do not ask questions. Go with the flow, accept the status quo. The rule remains a relic of island life after World War II, when Christmas Island was out of mind and out of sight on the periphery of the nation, while the British Phosphate Commission exploited the local Malay and Chinese populations to supply cheap phosphate for Australian farmers.
When Renee began to push back against that rule, she began to feel ostracised by the people around her. It was painful but, ultimately, she thought it was more important to stay. She didn’t need to be popular to support the people who needed it most, and she soon made friends with many of the people seeking asylum.
“I think I was traumatised by the time I left Christmas Island. I was teaching kids, just eight and nine years old. I would watch those kids come off the boat, and they were so happy and full of life and joy. They wanted to play and sing songs. But then, over months, I would watch them lose that ability to play. They would sometimes even lose the will to eat. It was devastating, and I was powerless to do anything.
I had a friend, an asylum seeker, and I would take him out once a month from the high security detention facility. When my dad got cancer, I couldn’t take him out anymore because I was just trying to cope with what was happening in my own life. During that time, he attempted suicide by drinking cleaning fluids. There’s a poem in the collection called Parting Glass, and it’s about him.”
Living on the tiny land mass of West Island, on the atoll of the Cocos (Keeling Islands), Renee met some amazing women who have since become lifelong friends, and life became very different to the one she had left behind on Christmas Island. On Cocos she could spend her time going out on the boat, stand-up paddle boarding, and surfing with her new friends. There was barely an internet connection, a much smaller population, and very few distractions. For the first time in her adult life, Renee finally felt like there was time for everything.
Image: Renee enjoying Cocos Island. Photo courtesy of Renee Pettitt-Schipp.
While on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Renee began to piece together her thoughts in response to having witnessed the detention system on the Islands. Her debut poetry collection ‘The Sky Runs Right Through Us’ was published in 2018 and won the WA Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Writer.
The first print run sold out, as did her book launch. Then, they had to hire an Amphitheatre for the launch, which also sold out. It wasn’t until Renee was standing in front of 140 people in an Amphitheatre did she realise – her little kid dream had finally come true.
Renee recalls sitting at her desk while she was writing, wondering if anyone would ever read her work. She recounts one particularly powerful story that she says kept her going during those times.
“There was this one little boy that had a huge impact on me. By the time he had left, he had been in detention for 11 months. If asylum seekers knew how long they were going to be in detention, if they knew there was an end date, that would be much more bearable. Every week someone leaves the island and there was no logic to it. Someone could arrive in a week, be processed, and be taken off, but every week, it wasn’t him. For 11 months his friends would come and go while he stayed. He was the saddest little boy. In the end, he couldn’t play with the other boys, and would stand with his head down and hands by his side while we sang songs in a circle together. He had fled to our country for safety, and we had instead stolen his childhood.
When it was finally his time to leave, I gave him this teddy bear I knew he loved. When I gave it to him, his eyes lit up. I had never seen him come so alive. He had this bear… and then his face just fell. In that moment I realised, I could give him the bear to play with, but he couldn’t play with it anymore. He did get his asylum; he did get his refugee status and he now lives somewhere in Australia… But in my memory, he will stay that little boy who could not play with his friends in the playground. I worry for what that means for the rest of his life. It’s pointless.”
Image: Renee Pettitt-Schipp at Fitzgerald River National Park. Photo by Ashley Schipp.
Following this, Renee began to expand into prose and completed the writing of her second book during her PhD. She revisited the island in 2016 to come to terms with her own experiences and take a deeper look at some of the things that had happened while she was there in 2011. What she uncovered during this research was more confronting than she could have imagined – especially once she started looking into the Christmas Island boat tragedy.
While completing her PhD, Renee moved to Denmark. While she had been living in Fremantle since moving back to Perth, enjoying going to galleries, grabbing coffees, and attending writing groups, she began to miss the quieter life and the wilder spaces.
Living in Denmark during this time had its upsides; she was able to get a lot of writing done while working in relative isolation on a bush block. But it also had its downsides. What Renee was researching, reading, and writing about was quite harrowing. It became overwhelming quickly, and she was mostly forced to sit alone with it.
With such a connected community, Renee found people were supportive of her work as a writer. She has been able to collaborate and connect with a wide variety of other artists in a way she feels she would not have in Perth. Her poetry has gone to places where poetry doesn’t normally go, into art galleries, films, albums, and songs, allowing a whole new audience to access her work.
Image: Renee Pettitt-Schipp. Photo by Payam Parishanzadeh.
Since becoming a successful recipient of a Regional Arts Fellowship, Renee has been working on a collection of poetry about the Great Southern and its biodiversity and complex colonial history. Working in consultation with Elders, like Lynette Knapp, she has been learning in depth about the rocks, plants and animals that make the Great Southern their home.
“Being an emerging writer was like pushing a rock up a mountain, just trying to get some momentum. Trying to get your work accepted, and getting critical feedback, was so hard and felt so painful. I found every rejection a bit shameful. But then, somewhere along the line, things started to change. Part of what started the change, was that I started to collect all my rejection letters as a point of pride. Like, this is how hard I’m working, this is how much I want this. Since then, I feel like the doors have been flung open for me. I do work hard, but there are so many people supporting me. I just have this momentum now.”
If the topics in this article have raised concerns for you or someone you know, support is available:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636