Q & A with Rowena Lennox, author of Dingo Bold

Rowena Lennox has worked as a book editor for many years and is an adjunct research fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. She has published essays, fiction, memoir and poems. Her first book, Fighting Spirit of East Timor, won a New South Wales Premier’s History Award. Her second book, Dingo Bold, was published in January 2021.

A photo of Rowena Lennox standing in front of a metal door and holding a copy of her book Dingo Bold.

Your book opens with a very intriguing, very moving account of your meeting with “Bold”, a young dingo you met on a K’gari (Fraser Island) beach. (Readers can find an extract here.) What did you know about dingoes before that trip? What had sparked your interest in them? Did your encounter with Bold change how you thought about dingoes, or what questions you wanted to ask about them?

Before I met Bold or started writing about dingoes, I was interested in my dog Zefa’s perceptions and consciousness. She was a kelpie cattle dog who was a much-loved and really co-operative member of our family. Writing about dingoes was a way of thinking about Zefa’s family history.

By the time I met Bold on the beach on K’gari I knew dingoes were considered pests across much of Australia and I knew about the campaigns to eradicate them. Over the years I’d had some fleeting encounters with dingoes when I was camping – hearing them howl at night, lying in a tent and watching a dingo walk by. I’d grown up with the Azaria Chamberlain case – and the jokes, which, with hindsight, were so insensitive to what the Chamberlain family were going through. There were probably several reasons for the jokes and the public vilification of Lindy Chamberlain (including a misogynistic and bigoted legal profession and media), but I also think the jokes were a mechanism for people to try and deal with something that was truly mysterious and awe-full. Making jokes might have been a way of trying to take control and put some distance between ourselves and our ignorance – about this country and its inhabitants, including Aboriginal people and their knowledge of dingoes.

Two dogs, Rowena and her brother sitting in a boat.
Rowena and her brother Bruce with Possum (and possibly Beau) in a canoe, c. 1977.

When I was growing up my family had blue cattle dogs, who are related to dingoes. At that time cattle dogs had a bit of a reputation for being vicious but we didn’t think our dogs were vicious – to us they were loyal and affectionate. They were individuals, intelligent with different interests – one could jump unbelievable heights, another liked nuzzling the sweet flesh off watermelon rinds. Our dog Possum gave birth to a couple of litters of pups when I was about 11 or 12. Around that time I read a book written by Frank Dalby Davison in the 1940s called Dusty, about a dingo-kelpie cross. Early in the story Dusty’s dingo mother and all his siblings are killed by a man. I found that scene incredibly sad, and, looking back now, I was outraged by this terrible one-sided violence. The woman who bred Possum also bred dingoes, which was a daring and unconventional thing to do in the 1970s on the outskirts of Sydney because dingoes were classified as a noxious animal in NSW then and you couldn’t keep one as a pet (that legislation has since changed in NSW). So dingoes were enigmatic, and also illicit. I think one of the things about them that appeals to some people and appalls others is how they are impervious to human control.

Rowena and dingo Bold facing each other on the beach.

Meeting Bold.

I was excited and scared when I met Bold on the beach. The fear was a really involuntary, primal feeling, partly related, probably, to the sense of control humans are used to having. Bold had so much agency. He decided to approach me; he decided when to leave. He was clearly young, only 10 months old, but I could see his jaws were big and powerful. Our encounter was uneventful but it did complicate the situation for me. How would you visit K’gari with young children? How could rangers keep dingoes away from people? How do you ‘manage’ people and dingoes?

The year 2020 was difficult for K’gari, with catastrophic bushfires as well as the pandemic. What are the biggest challenges facing dingoes and their human supporters in 2021?

Yes, catastrophic fires burnt the northern half of K’gari from mid October to mid December 2020. Now the challenge for dingoes, and other animals and plants on the island, is to survive. Animals that escaped the fires – it’s much harder to escape on a long, narrow island like K’gari – face possible injuries and hunger. Now only 50 per cent of the island provides habitat and food for all the surviving animals – including invertebrates and herbivorous insects as well as larger animals such as echidnas, wallabies and dingoes.

The immediate challenge for the Queensland government’s review of the effectiveness of preparedness activities and the response to the fire, due by 31 March 2021, is to provide answers about the failure to contain the fire, which was only extinguished with the help of rain. Accommodation providers welcomed the quick reopening of the island to tourists, and tourism bodies and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service claimed that the island would bounce back, that it was already starting to regenerate and that its main drawcards (Lake McKenzie and Central Station) had not been affected, but the island’s ecology has been devastated by the fires.

So the ongoing challenge is to assess priorities for K’gari, which is many things: a unique island with a World Heritage listing because of the geological and biological processes that take place there, a tourist resort, a home to dingoes and other animals, and the traditional country of the Butchulla Aboriginal people. What are the limits for industries such as tourism? Can we humans think non-anthropocentrically about the places we share with other animals and plants? How do we enact Butchulla Law, which says ‘what’s good for the land comes first’?

The way the presence and actions of humans are affecting plants’ and animals’ habitats in a negative way on K’gari is a microcosm of what is happening across Australia and worldwide. No one wants to hear it, or think about it, but 2020 is a harbinger of the new normal: catastrophic wildfires (and other severe weather) and the spread of zoonotic diseases, which may be more contagious and lethal than Covid-19. The challenges that K’gari faces are also global and national challenges. So US President Joe Biden’s Executive Order Tackling the Climate Crisis, is a positive move. He has put environmental justice and protection of the environment, including conservation of lands, waters and biodiversity, at the centre of his administration’s policy agenda. The goal is to conserve at least 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030.

In Australia, Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act recommends that a new set of national environmental standards should be adopted and implemented to overcome the failures of the current piecemeal approach to environmental protections. Under the current EPBC Act, Samuel found, Australia’s animals, plants and habitats are in unsustainable decline. But I doubt his recommendation to set up an Office of Compliance and Enforcement, which would have ‘regulatory powers and tools’, within the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment will result in good outcomes for Australia’s animals, plants and biodiversity. Australia is a world leader in land clearing, and the majority of it has been cleared for agriculture. Habitat loss and land clearing are the biggest threats to threatened species. Though I despair at politicians’ failure to put a stop to Australia’s terrible environmental degradation and tackle the climate catastrophe, we must keep putting pressure on parliamentarians to legislate responsibly for this country and future generations.

While the challenges on K’gari are global and national, the island is also unique. In addition to Queensland state legislation, which classifies dingoes in most of the state as pests, the dingoes on K’gari fall under the jurisdiction of the Fraser Island Dingo Conservation and Risk Management Strategy (FIDCRMS). This strategy aims to be scientific but a couple of the prominent architects of the plan, who continue to advise the island’s managers, gained their expertise as dingo eradicators whose research is driven by agricultural interests. Although the most recent review of the FIDCRMS in 2012 did not recommend any major changes, dingo supporters managed to convince authorities to restrict the practice of ear tagging to dingoes who are over 10 kg in weight. All these steps toward more humane relations with dingoes are important. Public calls for accountability, openness and policy honesty around dingoes are vital.

Your book weaves together extensive research with personal experiences and memoir. It’s a delicate balance to get right but when it works (as it does in your book) it gives the reader a wonderful combination of first-person insight and a broader historical view. Did you set out knowing how to strike this balance, or does the right mix emerge as you write?

Cover of Dingo Bold

When I’m reading non-fiction, I often find myself sitting up and taking more interest when I hit the first ‘I’ – as though a piece starts there, now the writer has some skin in the game. When I was writing Dingo Bold the balance between first-person insight and a broader historical view emerged slowly through drafting and redrafting and cutting and redrafting. I wrote this book as part of a doctorate of creative arts and I was really lucky to have Debra Adelaide as my main supervisor. While I was following my interests down another rabbit-hole or into bigger picture history or reflections on science, she would ask, ‘What’s the story you are telling? What’s the emotional truth of this piece of writing?’ If the material I had included was not part of the story it either had to go (and so far I’ve never regretted anything I’ve cut) or be reworked so it was part of the story – even if its relationship to the whole emerges later in the narrative. But the writing process itself involved my fanatically following the threads of historical events and scientific arguments and then asking myself, what’s important here? Where is the emotional energy? And, why is that important to me?

You are an experienced editor as well as an author. Do you think having been an editor affects how you approach writing a book? Do you edit as you write, or do you write first and edit later?

I do both, that is, edit as I write and write and come back and edit later. Allowing some time, some breathing space, between drafts really helps me to see how a thread might develop and how one thing relates to another. Sometimes being an editor can be a distraction because you can always be rephrasing things in an effort to make the writing more succinct or more elegant, or whatever it is you’re going for, and sometimes you’re better off to just get it down and by getting it down you’re working out what you think. Although I do believe that form and content are in some ways inseparable. When I take off my editor’s hat (it comes off pretty easily in the right context), I enjoy writing for myself, without consequences or expectations, or the notion of an audience. I write longhand in my diary, I scribble notes – these forms feel more unmediated. On the whole, though, I value my editing experience because it’s given me the opportunity to read lots of texts and to learn how to articulate my responses to them. These skills have been really useful in research and non-fiction writing because I’m articulating responses not just to texts but to interviews, events, animals, landscapes, and so on.

We have loved seeing Dingo Bold travelling around Australia and the world via your Instagram account (@rowena.lennox). Do you have any social media tips for writers? Do you think social media is changing how we find and engage with books?

I’m glad you’ve enjoyed seeing Dingo Bold’s travels. I still have so much to learn regarding social media! My social media tip for writers (of my generation) is to ask the younger people in your life for ideas about content and how to put it out there. Social media is great, and it does change how we find and engage with books, because you’re not bound by national borders or the tyranny of distance. I can be in touch instantaneously with friends who don’t live in Australia or in Sydney. I can find out about amazing books, and read online reviews, essays and stories from all sorts of places. I find out about things on social media that I wouldn’t know about otherwise. So far my social media strategy for Dingo Bold is to enjoy posting and to keep it simple so that I can keep on posting.

How has the pandemic affected your researching and writing life? What are you looking forward to in 2021?

I miss going places to research. I miss live events. I find it hard to concentrate on Zoom – my diary turns into a miasma. Luckily I can still read and write, when I can concentrate. I’m grateful for the companionship of my family (though that mightn’t always be evident to them). Our dog Zefa died just after Christmas 2019 so 2020 was dog-less, which was a very strange way to be. I’m looking forward to a puppy coming into our lives at some stage. Looking forward to continuing to talk about Dingo Bold with anyone who will listen. Looking forward to working on my next book ...

Photo of the heads of Rowena and her white dog, Zefa, facing the viewer.
Rowena and Zefa.

What have you read and loved recently (or not so recently)? For readers looking for their next book, what would you recommend?

I’m so glad you asked because I want to tell everyone about a novel by Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018, called Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, which is  – despite the title – a funny book with a brilliant narratorial voice. For something shorter by her, she’s got an excellent essay in a recent Paris Review, ‘Eccentricity as Feminism’.

Barry Lopez’s magisterial book Of Wolves and Men was a big inspiration for me when I started researching dingoes. Lopez died on Christmas Day 2020. I recommend also his beautiful essay ‘Apologia’, about animals killed on the road.

Laura Jean McKay’s novel The Animals in that Country, which recently won the 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, is, presciently, about a pandemic and one of its main characters is a dingo called Sue. It had me dreaming about dingoes.