Fear & Fury: Kate Mildenhall’s The Mother Fault

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This essay was originally created as an author study for a university assessment in April 2021. My task was to take a contemporary Australian author and write a short essay on the influence an aspect of the author’s life had on a book and/or its composition.

In early 2017, Australian author and mother of two Kate Mildenhall watched the news with increasing frustration and despair. To Mildenhall, her exasperation with our political leaders in Canberra stemmed from their inaction on the climate crisis, the apathy from the public around the expanding police and surveillance powers of the Australian Border Force, and its continued commitment to turn people seeking asylum away from our borders. Her frustration turned to fury at the cognitive dissonance around the climate and refugee crisis, from both the government and the Australian public. As a mother, Mildenhall had a growing fear of the future of her country with what looked like an increasingly authoritarian government and a lack of empathy from its citizens towards vulnerable asylum seekers. Motivated by this anxiety, anger and frustration, Mildenhall put pen to paper and began to write The Mother Fault

Released in 2020, The Mother Fault is the result of Mildenhall’s probe into her own fears and anxieties as a parent, and a critique of contemporary and political issues like the climate crisis, government surveillance and overreach. Devastated and despairing at the state of the world, as she explored writing the book she realised this was her way of grappling with the burning questions she had around these issues. Along with the personal catharsis the act of writing this book had for Mildenhall, she also felt it was important for writers and artists to put this emotion into their work, to be imagining possible futures and the solutions to escape them.

When I began writing The Mother Fault, I was furious at the constant news and commentary I was watching of our government, turning away people who were coming here to seek safety… I became really interested in borders; how states refuse entry to people who are seeking safety, and that’s where the ideas for the story began… I also became interested in how governments policed those borders and how they police and govern in general, and I went on to look at authoritarian states, how surveillance is used as a weapon against civilians and all the problems that stem from those ideas too.

Kate Mildenhall, Book Face Author Q & A

The Mother Fault is a dystopian thriller set in a near-future Australia. The landscape is ravaged by climate change, with many coastal areas uninhabitable due to rising ocean levels, and the land is irreparably damaged, barren and dry from drought and fracking. Citizens are microchipped from birth and under constant surveillance from The Department, who also relocate ‘citizens in need’ to gated communities known as ‘BestLife’. The story follows Mim, a mother of two who is struggling with the everyday banalities of stay-at-home parenting when she finds out her husband Ben has gone missing from a mine site in Indonesia. The Department should be able to track him through OMNI, a universal tracking system connected with the implanted microchips, designed to keep its citizens ‘safe’. But Ben can’t be tracked and when Mim starts asking questions around his disappearance, The Department threatens her. Mim soon realises she needs to escape the watchful eye of The Department and search for her husband herself in order to save her family. 

Image of the cover of The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall
The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall

A future where citizens are under constant surveillance and where your safety is determined by your level of compliance with an increasingly totalitarian government is something that stirs fear and fury within us all. Combined with the impending realities of a world impacted by anthropogenic climate change, there is little room to doubt that this can cause most people anxiety if they think about it too deeply. Parents particularly are cognisant of these issues as they evoke anxiety around not only their individual safety, but the prospect of raising and protecting their children in a society that seems to be destabilising socially, politically and environmentally. As a parent, Mildenhall brought this perspective to her writing through the character of Mim. Throughout the book she delved deep into the fears and insecurities that many people face as parents; are they up to the task? How do they keep their loved ones safe and protected from danger? What do they want their legacy as a parent to be for their children to remember? 

Writing Mim for The Mother Fault was an intensely personal experience for Mildenhall. Her own fears around a world devastated by climate change heavily influenced the thoughts and actions Mim takes throughout the book. In a podcast interview with Astrid Edwards from The Garrett, Mildenhall is asked how this influence took hold in the character development of Mim.

One of the things that pushed me forward when I started writing was that I was wondering, as we do, well what would I do in that situation? What would I do if I had to leave with my kids in the middle of the night? What would I be prepared to do? And so, the whole time, as I prepared to write, that was the series of questions that was going through my mind. And it made sense that she was a mum. It made sense that she had kind of lost her sense of self and her prior self, because I was riding with two young kids.

Kate Mildenhall, The Garrett

Just like Mim, Mildenhall became increasingly conscious of the impact political and social issues like government overreach, surveillance and the climate crisis had in her own daughter’s lives. Writing the narrative for The Mother Fault was one thing – the choices that one woman makes to preserve her family and ensure their safety in a politically and environmentally dangerous world – but these issues are inherently a collective predicament. 

In her research for The Mother Fault, Mildenhall read The Great Derangement by acclaimed Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh. In it, Ghosh argues that future generations will think we are deranged; how else could we explain our unimaginable failure to address the climate crisis? Ghosh predicts that future citizens of a world transformed by global warming will look back at our time and see that ‘most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight’ (Ghosh, 2016). Indeed, when the subject of the climate crisis occurs, it is commonly in relation to nonfiction. Fiction that deals with climate change is often, at the mere mention of the subject, enough to consign a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. The virtue of applying literary—and more broadly humanistic—voices to the issue of climate change and other social and political issues is in part, the fundamental pluralism of such voices (Moore & Slovic, 2014).

Fiction writers like Mildenhall, adding to the chorus of diverse responses to the climate crisis through their creative work, help to bring the issue out of the realm of science fiction and onto the table as a real, time-dependant problem that we need to solve urgently. In an interview with Australian bookstore Book Face, Mildenhall agrees. ‘It really is our responsibility as writers and as artists to be addressing the climate crisis in our work,’ she says, ‘I don’t think I could have written a contemporary or near-future book without addressing the climate crisis’. 

In writing a story born from feelings of anxiety, fear, and fury, it is a somewhat surprising response from Mildenhall when asked what message she would like to leave her readers with when they finish The Mother Fault – a message of hope.

Hope. I hope they leave with the image of a strong woman and mother who is flawed and exhausted and doesn’t know if she’s done a good job but hopes she’s come to an end knowing she’s done everything in her power for the people that she loves.

Kate Mildenhall, Book Face Author Q & A

The political, social, and environmental issues that Mildenhall critiques in The Mother Fault are wide-ranging, and the solutions feel like an insurmountable task to the individual, but Mildenhall’s message through her creative work is an important one; it is through our individual actions and drive to do everything we can for the people we love that builds a future world that we can collectively survive, and thrive, in.

References

Clayton, S. (2020, August). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Volume 74.

Ghosh, A. (2016). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago Press.

Moore, K. D., & Slovic, S. (2014). A Call to Writers. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Volume 21(1), 5-8. 

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