Resisting Productionist Timescapes by Making Better Futures in the Present: Care for Country in Western Sydney Literatures


Greater Western Sydney is unceded Aboriginal land, Country reciprocally caring and cared for by Darug, Dharawal and Gundungurra Peoples over tens of thousands of years. The region is currently home for more than 2.5 million people, with significant further population increase anticipated, facilitated by administrative documents such as the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan. This pervasive desire for ongoing sprawling development is supported by ‘antiecological’ thinking creating ‘productionist timescapes’. This desire conflicts with the fact that Greater Western Sydney is a diverse place that is cared for by and cares for many: a beautiful and diverse Country, described by Western sciences as Cumberland Plain woodland, a natural world home for myriad non-human beings. This article reads a variety of contemporary literary texts, considering their differing attitudes to and representation of Care for Country. It identifies a continuum of placemaking practices on unceded Land, from the proprietorial, through varying visions for intercultural futures, to those committed to #landback. A commitment to intercultural practices of Care for Country is discernible, creating more just and equitable futures in the present. This article traces Western Sydney literature’s thinking on the entanglement and intra-action of human and more-than-human worlds. It concludes by observing this intra-action in practice.

Greater Western Sydney is unceded Aboriginal land, Country reciprocally caring and cared for by Darug, Dharawal and Gundungurra Peoples over tens of thousands of years.1 British colonisation of the Australian continent sought to disrupt the intra-acting and reciprocal care human and more-than-human worlds provided each other and to replace it with human-centred extractive attitudes and practices. The driver of this imperial worldview is a still-enduring terra nullius attitude, which presumes that worlds or cultures or stories don’t exist in Greater Western Sydney (cf. Ford and Clemens).2 Greater Western Sydney is, of course, full of worlds and cultures and stories: the enduring and preceding sovereignty of Aboriginal Nations, a beautiful and diverse Country, described by Western sciences as Cumberland Plain woodland, a natural world home for myriad non-human beings (French et al. 120–29). Greater Western Sydney is currently home for more than 2.5 million people, with significant further population increase anticipated. It is a diverse place that is cared for by and cares for many: home for the largest number of First Nations people in Australia, home for most new migrants to Australia, and home for relatively more disadvantaged people than elsewhere in Sydney and Australia (Informed Decisions).

Despite a contemporary context, as cultural studies scholar Ien Ang writes, where an ‘epochal sense of crisis’ reigns (599), in Greater Western Sydney, ‘antiecological’ thinking supports a pervasive desire for sprawling and ongoing development, along with the associated dominance of ‘productionist timescapes’ (de la Bellacasa 126, 209). Underpinned by capitalism’s desire for unimpeded and accelerating growth, productionist timescapes imagine and create futures where human economies and communities expand more and more quickly, disregarding resource limitations and using any available means to ensure increasing and uninterrupted growth. These timescapes are characterised by their teleological linearity, in contrast to the immanent nature of Indigenous Australian temporalities (Muecke 3–55). This productionism facilitates the ongoing spread of so-called ‘sustainable development’, the consequences of which include the wholesale destruction of natural worlds and their conversion to human-dominated places. Such productionism and its temporality, identified by many but creatively critiqued by feminist science and technology studies scholar Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, is derived from contemporary industrial agriculture and now informs centralised planning for housing, commercial and civic development in Greater Western Sydney and beyond (172–77). Productionism reflects widespread and ongoing efforts to ‘speed and up standardize production’; a flow on effect in the late 20th century to the present being that ‘[t]he entire relationship between people, food systems and the planet has been restructured’ (Lang 88). Administrative productionism in Greater Western Sydney realises the continual and expanding destruction of Cumberland Plain woodland for housing and other development.

Greater Western Sydney has recently experienced extensive bushfire and flood disasters, which have exacerbated feelings of vulnerability to the climate emergency and its current and future impacts (Steffen and Bradshaw 8; Haynes et al. 152–67; Zhang et al. 1–20; Santamouris et al. 1–21). This experience of disaster and increasing vulnerability has led, arguably, to the very significant contribution of Western Sydney communities to advocacy for climate justice. Most prominent here is the Western Sydney community of youth activists contributing to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), a national organisation that in the past decade has seen the internal establishment and increasingly separate operation of First Nations-led Seed Mob as well as AYCC’s People of Colour Climate Network. Advances towards multispecies climate justice continue across Greater Sydney (see Tschakert et al; Tschakert 277–96). This justice-led activism conflicts with New South Wales and Australian federal government policy, which largely prioritise ongoing development, especially for housing, with more-than-human worlds deprioritised. A reductive but insightful indication of the dominating attitude is former New South Wales state premier Dominic Perrottet’s 2022 statement when discussing plans to raise the Warragamba dam wall. (Warragamba is Sydney’s major drinking water source.) Perrottet isolated environmental concerns as a federal responsibility, with his state government’s obligation, rather, for ‘people before plants’ (Rose and Cox). A conservative politician and previous member for the flood-vulnerable Western Sydney electorates of Castle Hill and Hawkesbury, Perrottet makes a more hopeful contribution at the end of this article.

In recent years, the New South Wales Government has developed a number of productionist strategies to continue to manage the development of Greater Western Sydney in a centralised fashion, the most significant of which are the Western Parkland City Blueprint (Western Parkland City Authority), the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan (Transport for New South Wales) and the recent Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan, for the years 2022 to 2056. These plans all also articulate with the very large development underway that will produce Western Sydney International Airport at Badgerys Creek. The Department of Planning and Environment’s Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan (the Plan) ostensibly seeks to care for the remaining areas of endangered Cumberland Plain woodland in Greater Western Sydney, of which only 6% remains from an estimated 107,000 hectares pre-colonisation (French et al. 120). While the Plan acknowledges the severely threatened status of Cumberland Plain woodland, it advances a mode of conservation that enables further destruction of this natural world. The historical, current and planned destruction of the interconnected worlds that this threatened ecology shelters and is provides a contemporary indication of this enduring terra nullius attitude, which perceives a vibrant and diverse place as a nullity.

The Plan’s contemporary political expediency is justified by its intervention into Sydney’s housing crisis (see Bangura and Lee 295–313); the Minister’s foreword proudly notes the Plan’s ‘support [for] the delivery of around 73,000 homes planned for the Western Parkland City’ (Department of Planning and Environment Plan 1). The housing crisis is a significant and acknowledged challenge, but it is necessary to consider how the housing crisis intersects with other contemporary crises, including the human impacts of the climate crisis, which will see already-vulnerable Western Sydney increasingly impacted by global warming (Bubathi et al.); the impact on non-human beings and worlds is also being clearly observed (Hoffman et al. 6–8). The contemporary manifestation of these crises should be understood, also, as relating to or being the consequences of broader crises playing out over hundreds of years, including the violences of colonisation, patriarchy, racism and capitalism (see Yusoff; Moreton-Robinson The White Possessive, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman; Mbembe). The point here is not to diminish in any way the significance of the contemporary moment but rather to observe that disruption and destruction of Country is not an issue that has appeared in recent years; rather, it is the consequence of violence that has been ongoing in Greater Western Sydney for almost 250 years.

This article reads a variety of contemporary literary texts written in and representing Greater Western Sydney, considering their differing attitudes to and representation of practices of Care for Country. In doing so, it identifies a continuum of differing attitudes in contemporary Greater Western Sydney to placemaking on unceded Land, from the proprietorial, through varying visions for intercultural futures, to those committed to #landback, the return of stolen land to Aboriginal people and nations. For many texts, a commitment is discernible to the development of intercultural Care for Country as an aid to creating more just and equitable futures in the present. The intercultural care represented in Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef (2019), Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children (2020) and Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney (2017) facilitates reflection on Greater Western Sydney’s past, so as to create better futures in the present. These fictional examples do not supersede the activism and care that happens in Greater Western Sydney. Rather, they offer the means of thinking through various possibilities for different relations with the multispecies worlds of the Western Sydney region in an era of productionism. These intercultural practices of Care for Country advance efforts to realise a larger social change where human perception and action realises an ‘ethico-political reconfiguration of ecological relations’ in Greater Western Sydney (de la Bellacasa 125–26). This article traces Kassab’s, Pham’s and Berry’s thinking on the entanglement and intra-action of human and more-than-human worlds in Greater Western Sydney. It concludes by observing this intra-action in practice (see Barad).

Care and Care for Country

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s critique of productionist timescapes is premised on an ‘ethico-political reconfiguration of ecological relations’, to be achieved by ‘decentering unilinear anthropocentric temporalities in order to make time for a multiplicity of others’ (214). This is a call for climate justice that acknowledges the diversity of knowledges in the world. Despite this, de la Bellacasa’s call to action is largely conceived of within knowledge systems of the Global North. Similar calls resonate on the Australian continent, developing place-specific approaches to these issues. Scholars and thinkers advocate an intercultural approach to disrupt ‘cultural imperialism, patriarchal relations and suppression of Indigenous worldviews’ (Arabena 1). Mykaela Saunders, a ‘Koori/Goori and Lebanese writer, teacher and community researcher … of Dharug descent’ (‘Mykaela Saunders’) advocates an intercultural approach, writing of the ‘brilliance of [First Nations] cultural science’ where ‘the land is the law’ while noting that ‘[a]ll peoples were land based, once’ (‘The Land is the Law’ 30, 23). The point here is not to advocate a return to Indigenous stewardship of Country and, in doing so, to inadvertently reiterate a view of First Nations cultures in Australia and elsewhere as belonging to the past. As Saunders writes, outlining First Nations resistance to linear ‘Western Colonial Time’, ‘Aboriginal cultures are often represented in terms of ancientness, but we look as far into the future as we do into the past. Aboriginal Law encodes the regeneration of resources so that future descendants may enjoy life’s bounty as much as our ancestors did’ (‘Everywhen’ 118, 120).

Dharug traditional owner and custodian Jo Anne Rey makes a similar statement of collective intercultural responsibility in the face of the climate and extinction crises:

When Dharug Ngurra (Dharug Country) is the majority of cosmopolitan Sydney, … pressures on ecological systems demand our attention as we witness places, presences and ecological processes being dangerously undermined. Recognizing reciprocity as an overriding moral human imperative to care for Country, so that sustainable futures foster continuing presences, is no longer only an Aboriginal custodial obligation. In the Anthropocene, and with devastating climate crises across the globe, all humanity is called to address this imperative. (10)

This intercultural care will aid the spread of a holistic regard for Country, where humans act as part of an interrelated network with all other beings, rather than as agents of extraction and destruction. This is a movement towards mutual obligation underpinned by the current predicament of all living beings: that we ‘exist in a web of living co-vulnerabilities’ (de la Bellacasa 148, 145). Palyku thinker and writer Ambelin Kwaymullina, in cautiously relating care and Care for Country, similarly emphasises the relation between rights and responsibilities: ‘Core to Indigenous notions of sovereignty is that any right to territory is intertwined with a responsibility to care for it’ (‘You are on Indigenous Land’ 198). de le Bellacasa’s Matters of Care shows that care is a concept that – in encompassing material practices, affective commitments and speculative imaginings – cannot be disarticulated from the practical, and that these practicalities are largely conceived in or constituted by a dominant gender politics that continues to undermine and diminish the significance of caring. The consequence of this is that care and Care for Country are often viewed – socially, politically – as subordinate to other types of action. The climate emergency is showing us how wrong this view is.

Working against local and global systems of disregard, de la Bellacasa adapts anthropocentric definitions of care, emphasising care as knowledge and as craft that relates human and more-than-human worlds. Care as a knowledge is generative, a ‘living terrain that seems to need to be constantly reclaimed from idealized meanings’ (de la Bellacasa 8). As a practice, it is also about awareness and relation beyond the human: ‘making time for care time appears as a disruption of anthropocentered temporalities’ (de la Bellacasa 23). This care crafts presents and futures determined by human and more-than-human agents. As Céline Granjou and Juan Francisco Salazar note, crafting futures where humans and more-than-humans intra-act ‘requires the destabilization of Western conceptualizations of progress-oriented time and techno-scientific innovations’, manifesting here as productionism (242).

In de la Bellacasa’s search for care practices that are ‘transformative alternatives that nurture hopeful thriving for all beings’, she hits upon care for soil as a paradigmatic example (167). Care for soil resists the productionist ethos of the capitalist present. de la Bellacasa builds a vision of care established upon knowing and caring for the voluminous life and liveliness of soil, which we are all – non-human and human beings alike – reliant upon. A consequence of this knowledge and care requires acknowledgment that soil does not operate at human timescales and may well be ambivalent to human temporalities. Rather, the task is ‘making time for soil-specific temporalities’ (de la Bellacasa 172). Further, the care humans might provide for soil does not necessarily generate a reciprocal response of care from soil to humans. Care is not an entrepreneurial trade, nor a one-way exchange. Soil exemplifies complexity, meaning that human care and the reciprocity it produces is ‘asymmetric and multilateral, collectively shared’ (de la Bellacasa 192).

Care practices developed in the literary texts this article reads cohere around knowledges (of place, of culture) and acknowledge the diverse temporalities of the region (seasons, memories, social and environmental change). In Cooee Mittigar: A Story on Darug Songlines, Darug custodians Jasmine Seymour’s and Leanne Mulgo Watson’s storytelling is premised upon communicating their cultural knowledge of Darug Country’s seasonal rhythms. Their Darug song moves through Darug seasons, emphasising Darug cycles of replenishment and rejuvenation rather than the restless change of productionism or the linearity of western time. Cooee Mittigar is narrated by ‘Mulgo Black Swan’, who invites the reader to walk alongside her and listen to her song: ‘Yana [walk] with me and listen to the yabun [song] that beats with my bootboot [heart]’ (Seymour and Watson 5). Cooee Mittigar concludes with renewal: Mulgo tells the reader ‘it is my time and the songlines will begin again’ (39). She rests, making her ‘nest ready for my new mudjin [family]’ (39). Like Mikaela Saunders’s reminder of First Nations’ future-mindedness, Darug temporality is not experienced as atemporal cycles of undifferentiated continuity. Rather, Cooee Mittigar asserts Darug temporality as involving regular, repeated change, existing within and alongside the cultural continuity of Country and story. Imposing productionist timescapes on Darug Country involves the intentional overlooking of its songs and culture.

de la Bellacasa’s conception of care, of course, bears relation to practices of Care for Country developed and refined over tens of thousands of years by the First Nations of the Australian continent. In her most recent novel, Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright insists that Care for Country is an inescapable duty that reminds carers of their intra-acting yet subordinate relation to Country. In a defining moment, Wright’s 2023 novel Praiseworthy sets out an explanation of Country’s agency, its power and more-than-human capacity to endure in the face of destruction. Wright’s novel tells of the ancient-ness of this knowledge, which is ‘exactly like what the old law people had always said would happen if you look after country, country will look after you’ (714). In fact, the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan also makes reference to the entangled reciprocity of Care in its Acknowledgement of Country: ‘Aboriginal peoples maintain a strong belief that if we care for Country, it will care for us’ (i). This human subordination to Country reminds us that the care in Care for Country is not proprietorial; Praiseworthy inverts the qualified language and cliché of traditional owners, referring, rather, to ‘traditional lands that had owned the people of its story since times ancient’ (712). In doing so, Praiseworthy reminds its reader that, unlike the Plan, First Nations’ unceded sovereignty and claims for #landback are not focused on transferring ownership of Country from one entity to another, but instead seek to craft caring, reciprocal relationships between human and more-than-human worlds.

It is important to acknowledge that some view Care for Country as a mode of living exclusive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. Jessica K. Weir et al.’s The Benefits of Caring for Country, for instance, describes Care for Country as a culturally specific practice currently carried out in a present-day ‘intercultural context’ (4). This intercultural context might be further complicated by reflecting on the agency of the diverse beings subsumed within the concept of Country. As Deborah Bird Rose reflects, for instance, Country has agency and knowledge, just like humans do (Country of the Heart 35). Similarly, Darug Ngurra et al. invite readers to ‘yanama budyari gumada … “walk with good spirit”’. Uncle Lex Dadd offers this ‘Darug principle’ for ‘how it embodies and invites new ways of thinking and practising intercultural caring-as-Country’ (280). Some of these authors have previously opted to adapt ‘Care for Country’, questioning the human-centredness of the ‘Caring for Country’ phrase. They emphasise, rather, the agency of Country, which ‘shapes and constitutes [humans] as they shape and constitute Country’ (Bawaka Country et al. ‘Towards an Ontology’ 186). Rather than ‘Care for Country’, Bawaka Country et al. propose ‘Care as Country’ instead.

Care as Country acknowledges that Country is all things in all times: ‘Country is multi-dimensional: it consists of people, animals, plants, Dreamings, the dead and the yet to be born, underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, surface water and air’ (Rose ‘Country and the Gift’ 34). In contrast to the Plan’s productionism, where Country is a resource to be managed, Care as Country presumes rather that humans are inextricably part of Country, that we are intertwined and intra-acting. As Bawaka Country et al. write: ‘Humans are inseparable from Country …We conceptualise this relational inseparability as co-becoming. Co-becoming encompasses the way in which everything comes into being in relationship with everything else’ (‘Singing Up Sovereignties’ 19). This illustrates the limitations of the Plan, which applies infinite expectations to finite entities and disregards human entanglement in Country.

‘A magic pudding for the settlers to eat, and eat, and eat’: Productionist Timescapes and the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan

In contrast to both place-specific practices and land-based knowledges regarding the conservation and care of natural worlds, the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan is predicated on an alien productionism, allied with a significant amnesia about the region’s past. In this sense, the Plan opts for exploitation of the Cumberland Plain rather than care for it and is continuous with previous colonial and settler colonial practices of co-option and domination in Greater Western Sydney and the Australian continent. The Plan thus seeks to enforce productionism on Greater Western Sydney Country, rejecting Care as Country and the intra-action of human and more-than-human worlds.

The Plan is characterised by its amnesia, which manifests both in its occasional misrepresentation of the history of ‘development’ in Greater Western Sydney, as well as its productionist commitment to offset practices, where the destruction of natural worlds is justified by ensuring another area is set aside to ‘offset’ the destruction. This amnesia is most egregious when, in describing the Cumberland Plain woodland’s present state, the Plan ambiguously identifies the commencement of natural world degradation as taking place from 1750 onwards, rather than the accurate date of 1788 when British colonisation of the Sydney region commenced: ‘Some 13% of the pre-1750 extent of native vegetation remains in good condition’ (Department of Planning and Environment Plan 10). The use of 1750 rather than 1788 obfuscates responsibility for this destruction, implicitly seeking to disconnect destruction of Cumberland Plain woodland in the past from that which the Plan endorses in the present and future. Elsewhere, the Plan is similarly creative in its temporality. This is especially the case in its relative deprioritisation of conservation and restoration of natural worlds and its endorsement of ecosystem ‘reconstruction’ practices instead, where ‘over-cleared vegetation types’ will be recreated in places where the natural world has been severely degraded or entirely transformed (Department of Planning and Environment Plan 47). While the Plan insists upon the viability of this approach, ecological experts have voiced their concerns about its feasibility (see Cox ‘Almost Certain to Fail’).

The Plan’s productionism is most transparent in its operationalisation of biodiversity offsets for planned developments, forging an ‘offset time’ for the region’s present and future. In its offset practices, the Plan disregards the past, including previous conservation actions taken by the New South Wales government and its departments, where particular parcels of land were reserved to secure and support biodiversity in already under-pressure natural worlds. Some of these locations, especially in Sydney’s south-west, have been re-used in the current Plan, offsetting new development and serving as biodiversity offsets for a second time. Community response to this offset time and the Plan’s amnesia has been significant, and the recently elected New South Wales Labor state government has paused some aspects of the Plan as they investigate these issues (Cox ‘Just a Disgrace’, ‘NSW Labor Vows’; Maddison).

While the amnesiac Plan enforces eurocentric linear time on Greater Western Sydney, there are beings that it cannot overlook. The most significant of these is the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, whose cute and cuddly affective power means it haunts the Plan, a more-than-human observer in an otherwise human-dominated narrative. Koalas existed across Greater Western Sydney prior to colonisation, with habitat destruction for ongoing development precipitating large population decreases. A significant koala population endures in south-west Sydney but is threatened by development enabled in the Plan (Lunney et al. 339–70). Community outcry during the Plan’s formal consultation process was strategically focused on potential impact on koala populations and prompted changes between the draft plan and its final version (Save Sydney’s Koalas; Department of Planning and Environment ‘Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan’). Despite these changes, the Plan’s perspective on the relation between human and natural worlds, as exemplified by the koala, continues to favour productionism and short-circuit the intra-action of human and more-than-human worlds. The koala’s presence in the Plan is cosmetic, one non-human species better protected as a trade-off for expanding development.

The ‘Minister’s foreword’, for instance, positively recounts the Plan’s ‘priority actions’ to protect koala populations, while overlooking the 20-year timeframe the Plan itself allocates to finalising protection of Greater Western Sydney koalas (Department of Planning and Environment Plan 1; see Environmental Defender’s Office). Writer Evelyn Araluen, ‘[b]orn and raised on Dharug Country … a descendent of the Bundjalung Nation’ in ‘The Ghost Gum Sequence’ (from Dropbear, a collection that, in reanimating figures like the dropbear and May Gibbs’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, critiques the ongoing dominance of eurocentric and racist narratives imposed upon sovereign Aboriginal Country and People) satirises this productionism and its incapacity to observe the entangled intra-action of human and natural worlds:

Why don’t they build something there? a sunset profile picture asks on the community Facebook group where grumpy home owners gather to buy and sell and complain. There’s nothing in the field but a tree. (5)

Araluen’s text reflects on her cultural and family experiences in Greater Western Sydney, where the Plan facilitates developments on floodplains and beyond: ‘I’ve seen South Creek swell this plain they’re cutting up for lines of neat houses all along this way’ (4), where beings and spirits ‘watch tree turn to town, and hiss and shudder as we pass the earthmovers stacked at the post-Maccas merge’ (5). As Araluen makes clear, this is not a contemporary event alone, but one that is continuous with the initial practices of settlement:

The Cumberland Plains of Blacktown and the Hawkesbury are drenched in a history of settler violence and forgetting that goes unspoken when we squabble over heritage. … Here was to be known as the breadbasket of the colony. A magic pudding for the settlers to eat, and eat, and eat. (6)

In this incisive way, Araluen resists the productionism of the Plan and of colonisation, whose rapacious destruction cannot be excused by its cosmetic care for one cute and cuddly being.

The House of Youssef, The Coconut Children and Mirror Sydney each reflect on the histories and futures of Greater Western Sydney from settler perspectives. In doing so, they give voice to diverse experiences of and attitudes towards ongoing productionist development in the region. Whether presenting the peoples and cultures of Greater Western Sydney as subject to this development or as resistant to it, each text imagines practices of care that foster intercultural Care for Country. Each text also represents the intra-action of human and more-than-human worlds, fostering resistance, in varying ways, to the productionist timescapes that are imposed upon Greater Western Sydney by the Plan.

An antipodean refraction of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney wanders across Sydney’s broad extent. Berry’s book, made up of personal accounts of Sydney places past and present, is built upon the belief that Sydney is not best understood by ‘its most commonly celebrated’ eastern coastal features, its ‘natural beauty, the harbour and beaches’, but rather in its ‘undercurrents and weird places’, where Sydney is a city of ‘suburban mythologies and unusual details’ (3). Mirror Sydney thus perceives ‘Western Sydney’ attitudinally as much as it does physically. In this sense, Mirror Sydney acknowledges the city’s spirit, working within and against the restless, diffuse energy of ‘possibility’ and centralised development to which Greater Western Sydney is subject. Mirror Sydney looks to and documents the actual stories and cultures that make up the region’s pasts, presents and futures.

These pasts and presents manifest in Mirror Sydney’s documenting of ‘ruins and recent pasts’ (61). Opposing the amnesia of productionist time, Berry writes: ‘[c]ities are cyclical, founded on change and shaped by complex networks of forces. Go beyond the surface of any place, even the most weed-choked vacant lot or the blandest structure, and there are events and meanings that animate it’ (63). Mirror Sydney ultimately shows the agency of these places. Its cyclic time, and the significance of place it reiterates, is symbolised in Mirror Sydney by Parramatta Road to which it regularly returns. Mirror Sydney describes Parramatta Road as a colonial conglomeration of ‘Aboriginal tracks’ that linked the first British settlement at Circular Quay and the first British farms at Rose Hill and the road that links and symbolically delineates Eastern Sydney and Western Sydney (67). As Mykaela Saunders puts it elsewhere, Parramatta Road is subject to the same imposition of colonial time and pressures for ongoing development as Greater Western Sydney; Parramatta Road is ‘an ancient Koori road that has been colonised by concrete and dense traffic’ (Saunders ‘A Road Warrior’). In the present, Parramatta Road has become a place to avoid due to the inescapable accretion of development. This productionism is exemplified in Mirror Sydney’s present by the New South Wales and Commonwealth government road development WestConnex, which has made Parramatta Road ‘a place to move through rather than end up in, to view with frustration through a car window as the traffic crawls’ (67). Despite these frustrations, Mirror Sydney imbues Parramatta Road with essence and importance others overlook, emphasising its continuity across time and its intercultural endurance, belied by the restless cosmetic change that overlays it.

Both The House of Youssef and The Coconut Children are set in the west and south-west of Sydney, on and near Cabrogal Country. Both novels are concerned with the lives of families in the suburbs: in The Coconut Children, Sonny and Vincent, teenagers navigating a path between disenchantment and innocence, learn and adapt their parents’ cultural practices as a method for regarding and caring for natural worlds. Whereas in Pham’s novel, care for natural worlds is a significant part of the narrative, this is decidedly less so in Kassab’s text, where the families that populate the narrative are considerably more reliant upon the productionist timescapes of ceaseless development. This is not to say, however, that Care for Country is not conceived of in The House of Youssef; rather, the text shows how ongoing development pervades some of the social, economic and cultural frameworks of life in Greater Western Sydney. The contradictory view – of regard and care for natural worlds – appears irregularly but is not less significant because of this.

Differences in form and genre between these two texts are significant. Both texts tell stories of migrant communities that, having escaped conflict in Vietnam and Lebanon respectively, endure stigmatisation and precarity in Greater Western Sydney. In The Coconut Children, this is accomplished within a largely conventional novel form, drawing together the generic expectations of the romance and the coming-of-age story. The House of Youssef, contrastingly, while presented by its publisher as a ‘collection of short stories’, exhibits considerable formal dexterity within the text’s four sections (Giramondo Publishing). The first two sections, perceptively described by Keyvan Allahyari as ‘micro-fictions’ (‘Forming Fatigue’) are very short texts that move from a diffuse attention across the community in section one to turning specific attention to ‘the Youssef family’ in section two (Kassab 110). The final two sections are described in publisher Giramondo’s marketing copy as ‘soliloquies’ and reveal the inner workings of the Youssef family’s heads, Sumaya and Najeeb (Giramondo Publishing). These ‘soliloquies’ dramatise the balance required in parenting between care for the realities of the present and desires for the future. While both texts focus on families and their changing circumstances, with children growing to adulthood the most active of characters, the orientation of the two is divergent. The Coconut Children is characterised by a hopeful futurity, where violence and dispossession are largely identified in the past and present. While futurity remains a predominant focus in The House of Youssef, Kassab’s text largely presents a pessimistic futurity that is regularly under threat, with violence and dispossession looming for its characters in the present and future.

The House of Youssef includes telling acknowledgement of the vitality of worlds other than the human. In ‘Hold True, Son’, schoolboy Jamal works on a Greater Western Sydney building site during his summer school holidays, the micro-fiction positioning this character as subjected by the region’s productionist economies. Already surprised by the physical challenge of the work and the impact of the summer heat on his body, Jamal intuits the impact the development has on natural worlds too:

There was one tree left standing on the [building] site. According to Billy, the old house used to have jacaranda trees. Now all that was left was this native tree no one knew the name of. (Kassab 34)

This paragraph affords the reader’s reflection on how housing development continues to impinge upon the natural worlds of the Cumberland Plain. Aside from Billy, Jamal’s fellow workers are ambivalent to the delights and importance of these suburban worlds that exceed the human (cf. Darug Ngurra et al. 279–83). Here, The House of Youssef also makes an ironic critique of local government policy, which sometimes facilitates the destruction of ‘non-native trees’ like the South American–origin jacaranda in the passage above, while more stringently insisting upon the retention of ‘native’ plants that, in Jamal’s case, ‘no one knows the name of’.

Kassab directs the reader’s attention here to the current social and administrative fervour for ‘native’ plants, which illustrates settler colonialism’s contribution to the cultural politics of plants on the Australian continent. This ‘anti-colonial dynamic’ is explained by ecofeminist Val Plumwood as an unreflective desire for reversal as Australia pursues a post-colonial national culture (‘Decolonising’). Plumwood imagines the ‘logic’ of this view: ‘[n]ative plants were devalued, exotics overvalued, so we’ll banish the hated exotics entirely from our gardens, and have nothing but indigenous flora’ (‘Decolonising’). Literary studies scholar Kylie Mirmohamadi has also analysed the changing cultural politics of Australian development, tracing evolving settler preferences from European plants to ‘natives’; notwithstanding that ‘native’, as it is commonly used, does not refer to a species endemic to a particular place or region but rather to a species’ widespread distribution in the present moment and consequential iconicity (well represented in a common suburban ‘native’ such as Greater Western Sydney’s ubiquitous Weeping Bottlebrush [Melaleuca viminalis]) (91–92; and on the ubiquity of the Weeping Bottlebrush see Penrith City Council). Although the Weeping Bottlebrush is endemic to Greater Western Sydney, it has now been so hybridised and so regularly planted in the region that it has become a dominating feature of the Greater Western Sydney suburbs. That Jamal, Billy and the others working on this particular building site do not know the name of ‘native trees’ is not a judgement on them, but rather indicates their social and cultural disconnection from the authorities that determine what natural worlds are endorsed in productionist Greater Western Sydney. This disconnection is all the more confronting, however, given that The House of Youssef shows that the human communities it describes are culturally and economically reliant upon the physical labour that underpins the ongoing productionist transformation of the region.3

While in The House of Youssef, natural worlds are largely subordinated to human worlds, in The Coconut Children, the two are thoroughly entangled and intra-act. Vincent, recently released from juvenile detention, walks the streets of Cabramatta, and the natural world responds:

Cabramatta welcomed her son back with quiet rejoice. The sidewalk trees, which usually surrendered themselves under the battlements of dusty brown apartment buildings, seemed to straighten their spines. Further up the street, front yards spilled with offerings to him. (Pham 2)

At this early stage of the novel, Vincent does not perceive the natural world’s response to him, but other characters, Sonny especially, are more aware of the intra-action of natural and human worlds. Most of the time, she does this observation while on the trampoline in her home’s backyard, embedded in a recognisably Sydney suburban imaginary:

Spotting a pair of rainbow lorikeets in the grevillea hedge next door, she straightened her back and began to jump again … Nestled in whorls of narrow leaves, the two birds drank from the pink flowers, their beaks dipping in and out of the pockets of nectar. After exhausting their syrup supply, they flew away and swooped across the sky, against the backdrop of beaming sunlight. The birds appeared so purposeful that they sometimes fooled her into thinking that sunsets relied on them; that they had to undo the hem of the horizon for evening to come. (23)

Sonny here reveals a capacity to see the intra-action of more-than-human and human worlds. As with Vincent’s effect on the ‘sidewalk trees’, The Coconut Children here reiterates the interdependence of human and more-than-human worlds in the novel’s representation of a close-to-contemporary Greater Western Sydney.

Interestingly, at the emotional high point of the text, during Sonny’s and Vincent’s romantically conceived date to Northern Sydney’s Lane Cove River National Park, they are both alienated from the natural world and unhappy. They take a ‘pleasure boat’ out onto a lake; while Vincent continues to encourage Sonny to see something she cannot, Sonny is increasingly unhappy:

They faced each other as they rowed up the river, but she did not look at him. He only saw the bridge of her nose, her eyebrow’s abrupt ending, half of her melancholic smile. The happiness of this place was beginning to depress her. (269)

Both realise that a purportedly ‘natural’ environment like this National Park, where the intra-action of human and natural worlds is suborned to human ‘management’ of nature, is not what they are seeking. Rather, they seek the embrace of enmeshed cultural and natural worlds. It is only when Vincent offers Sonny freesias from his pocket that he had previously picked along the train line near their homes that the pair can begin to relax. In this moment, their romance blossoms. Instead of Lane Cove, Vincent offers Sonny something from Greater Western Sydney, from their home:

Their petals were more than a little bruised, but this only made their sweetness melt more easily into the midday air. Sonny looked at the tiny grazes on his arms and instantly understood.

Vince broke a flower from the stem, twisted it between his fingers and placed it behind his ear. Like the bee does to the bloom, she gave him back to himself in a form that was easier to love. (273)

With the more-than-human and human worlds aligned, a section break intervenes. Sonny and Vince are back home, now happy in their love. Their return to Cabramatta – where their familiar cultural and natural environments co-exist – symbolises ongoing cycles; of the seasons (the novel takes place over one year and four seasons) and of family (Sonny and Vince are married in the future described in the next chapter).

It is important also to observe that Sonny and Vincent do not always have the ability to perceive the intra-action of natural and human worlds. Reflecting the novel’s young adult–inflected bildungsroman genre, this is something, rather, that the pair learn through action, in learning-as-doing gardening. Neither Sonny nor Vincent are likely gardeners, and yet gardening is a care they cultivate together, and in doing so, both characters learn to better understand their families and the relationships, human and more-than-human, to which they are obliged. For both Sonny and Vincent, gardening is a means for them to participate in their Vietnamese culture on Western Sydney Country, building an intercultural understanding of worlds and making better futures.

Due to his vulnerable family circumstances, Vincent, who experiences interconnected trauma and disadvantage, takes the lead in what become shared gardening exploits. He is motivated by immediate needs, to care for his young sister and mother. He decides to re-establish the family’s backyard garden; his materials are the current ‘piles of dirt’ that litter the backyard, and memory (218):

Hadn’t his family once grown cumquats in their garden? If not, why did he know that their juice could be used to make a tangy nước chấm…Hadn’t someone told him the cumquat was the only citrus with a peel sweeter than its own flesh? Someone must have been Sonny. (145)

For Vincent, the personal desire to provide care for his family provides impetus to establish social and cultural connections as well. He goes to Sonny’s father for advice: ‘While he and her father spoke, Sonny picked up pieces like “top soil” and “spring-flowering bulbs” and “free horse manure outside the racecourse in Warwick Farm”’ (254). Importantly, Vincent is not only being provided with information; he is also being inducted to culturally specific practices of care that he has previously missed out on due to his disrupted family circumstances and his time in juvenile detention.

Sonny, in contrast, has benefited from being introduced and guided in these care practices since childhood. While Vincent’s shadowy memory of Sonny’s knowledge of cumquats and nước chấm reflects a lost childhood that he cannot really return to, Sonny remains, for the most part, a child and within the supportive care of her family. Although Sonny’s experience is different to Vincent’s, she also needs to be supported as she learns care and culture:

[Sonny’s father] walked around the garden and told her all about the things he’d planted – how much sun they needed, how much water, when the fruit would come and how often. Her father had toiled all those Sunday mornings for this. The tangle of choko vines and bitter melon dangling from the arbour. Three dragon fruit trees standing tall and wild. The gracious lemon tree. The tough, prickly snarls of lemongrass. The plot of cooking herbs, only some of which she knew the name of. (69–70)

Sonny and Vincent both learn a culturally specific mode of care, which they then adapt to the Country on which they live. This care is a learned practice, one that requires commitment, time and an understanding of the distributed agency at play in gardening. It also disrupts Anglo-dominated settler ideals of what gardening is and should be. In setting out her perceptions of these ideals, Plumwood reiterates the current dominance of ‘reversal’, where contemporary gardening practices (and engagement with natural worlds) are a simplistic about-face rejection of previously eurocentric gardening practices and gardens. Rather, Plumwood argues, gardeners on the Australian continent should develop an ‘ethics of place’, fostering ‘adaptive’ gardening practices and gardens that admit of cultural diversity in the way that previous gardening practices (and gardens) didn’t always do (‘Decolonising’). These practices need to be aligned with ongoing resistance to the privatising logics where gardening is a corollary of settler land ownership. While Vincent’s and Sonny’s gardening accords with Plumwood’s endorsement of culturally diverse gardening practices, the gardening they do, however, remains firmly ensconced within settler ‘ownership’ of Country and does not imagine #landback futures.

In a similar vein, much of The House of Youssef revolves around the efforts of a small group of families to create and maintain cultural sustenance and continuity in what they perceive as a hostile Sydney. Especially in the ‘soliloquies’ of the matriarch and patriarch, Sumaya and Najeeb, their reflections focus on their efforts to provide physical and cultural continuity for their children and future generations. For both Sumaya and Najeeb, their aspirations are represented in their regular reference to the metaphor of securing ‘a future’ for their children, which is their totalising focus. This futurity they seek to create is care for children and care for culture, a futurity that is an inextricable part of the ongoing productionist development of Greater Western Sydney and has an inadvertent but pervasively destructive nature.

The care that both Sumaya and Najeeb describe is powerful. This is Najeeb reflecting on how he perceives place differently to his children:

I try to tell them how I feel in my heart and they say it is just a place. Is their country just a place? It is where they belong. It is the place they will always return. It is not just a place. It is friends and family, it is a life, it is a future. (Kassab 206)

Similarly, for Sumaya, the perception of place and its significance reflects not only culture and family, but the different relation to place her generation and her children’s generation has:

There is a question I would ask of myself: is life better there or here? Over here, there are the friends like family, there is money and health, there is a future for our children. There, we have our parents and everyone around. Um Khaled said it is better over there but I would say it is better here. (256)

This care for family and care for culture is amazingly, inspiringly, strong; but many care practices, as de la Bellacasa usefully reiterates, also have their limitations (1–12). There are three limitations to the parent’s care included in Kassab’s text. First, following the reflections above, their care is predicated on human worlds and their domination of natural worlds. Second, the futurity they imagine and protect is never really accessible. This futurity is not connected to the present; opportunity and change are always deferred, reflecting a linear temporality that is allied to the productionism de la Bellacasa critiques. Third, and devastatingly for the parents, it is almost entirely rejected by the future generation, their children, whom it is intended to support. Their response is ambivalence and especially disinterest in the sensitivity to place that preoccupies their parents: ‘My children say it is all dirt. The dirt here is like the dirt there’ (Kassab 215).

Resisting linearity, The House of Youssef begins with the Youssefs’ demise. The family is represented by their suburban house, which is knocked down after their deaths and will be redeveloped for another family to occupy: ‘There’s a hole where the house used to be … It is good they knocked it down and took out the foundations too. It is a hole now but soon they will make it flat and put in concrete and then it will be something new’ (109–10). The subsequent three sections of The House of Youssef document the harrowing dissolution of the Youssefs and the future that Najeeb and Sumaya imagine for their children, Abdullah and Mayada. Abdullah dies in a car accident, and Mayada experiences a breakdown and entirely removes herself from the family. Najeeb and Sumaya remain in the aftermath of their tragedy, but both also die, one after another. When it is only Sumaya left, Kassab offers the reader a poignant scene. It is two weeks after Najeeb’s death, and Sumaya is alone and full of grief. One of Abdullah’s friends, Jamal – who might be the same Jamal who attended to the devastation of natural worlds accompanying housing development – comes to visit Sumaya and pay his respects. They sit, often in silence, in the backyard, while the natural world carries on around them:

The birds bathed in the bowl of water, they ate from the seedbox near the clothesline. He watched them, she did too. The birds, usually rosellas but lorikeets came by too, swaggered, cooed, they crab-walked along the line, and she would think, lucky were those who believed in rebirth, who could return as a bird once they were done with this human thing. (186)

This scene reiterates, in a bittersweet way, the entanglement of natural and human worlds that Najeeb’s and Sumaya’s futurity overlooked. In a tableau that affectionately represents the Greater Western Sydney suburban imaginary shared by The House of Youssef and The Coconut Children, Sumaya shows an awareness of the interrelation of human and natural worlds that the novel has not previously revealed. This inter-world awareness is reflected in the suggestion of kinship between birds and humans, but also in smaller details not previously used, like the backyard’s seedbox, revealing the human and more-than-human companionship that populates all lives, even if it is sometimes overlooked. While Sumaya’s conclusion is ambivalent (it is by no means certain that she herself believes in rebirth), this is a rare moment in The House of Youssef where the pervasive desire for familial futurity is disrupted, and it is significant that this is disrupted by the meaning the character perceives in more-than-human worlds.

This silent exchange continues:

Between them lay the mountain’s silence, as her mother, rest her soul, used to call it. The mountain stood before every man, it will stand after we are all gone. It is silent forever. It has its secrets but its silences keeps them all alike safe, buried where the hands of men will not reach them.

She wipes her eyes and puts her tissue in her lap. He says nothing, just drinks his tea. (187)

This moment breaks through the otherwise repetitious insistence upon cultural continuity without cultural expression that is experienced by Sumaya’s and Najeeb’s children in The House of Youssef. Sumaya is allowed a moment of personal expression that puts her family’s calamities into an alternate but not absolving context. This moment may indeed represent Sumaya’s realisation of the exemplary power of the care her family has performed, as well as its limitations.

Because Mirror Sydney blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and because the narration of the text is at a diegetic remove from the events, artefacts and places it describes, Berry’s text is able to move within past, present and future in ways that The House of Youssef and The Coconut Children cannot. Mirror Sydney is established upon a caring practice that remembers past and present Sydneys simultaneously. The text, which was a much-loved blog and podcast before its book-version publication, resists the productionist temporality of ongoing development by dedicating itself to knowing and caring for the city’s cycles and its presents and pasts in the face of rapid change. While reiterating her perception of vibrant cycles of time in Greater Sydney, Berry is concerned these cycles are being degraded, the present holding less assertively onto the past than previously. In the mid-2010s, Berry writes of ‘swathes of cleared land’ along Parramatta Road, part of the ongoing WestConnex development. These gaps, Berry writes:

[I]ndicate that something has been removed, but what exactly used to be there can be hard to remember even a few weeks afterwards. Here the recent past exists as a sense of absence … Of all the levels of time perceptible in the city these recent pasts are the most impermanent, readily subject to erasure. Their traces can exist one day only to vanish the next. (64–65)

Mirror Sydney enables a powerful new cycle of memory and reflection. Its memories of Parramatta Road elucidate some of the questions about place-making and care that this article discusses. In a time of ‘cultural imperialism, patriarchal relations and suppression of Indigenous worldviews’, texts like The Coconut Children, The House of Youssef and Mirror Sydney offer models for thinking through and doing intercultural Care for Country. In a place where ‘antiecological timescapes’ manifest, Care as Country intervenes in an otherwise hegemonic and pervasive development temporality that is currently let loose in the Cumberland Plain (de la Bellacasa 215).

In the preface, Berry argues that Mirror Sydney’s major focus is not memorials, but memories. Commencing with a personal memory of a ‘mirrored Sydney’ encountered in the 1970s, Berry insists that ‘[c]ities are made up of histories and memories as much as they are made up of their physical environments’ (4): ‘Recording the city in this way [prioritising its “histories and memories”] is to contemplate and care for its histories, its inhabitants, its ecology and its future’ (11). Sydney is an idea, Country with its own agency:

Sydney is a recent invention. The city was built on Aboriginal land, and the stories of the Sydney clans carry its first and abiding identities. These weave through in traces and embedded knowledge. In the centre of the harbour where the water is deepest is the island Me-mil, a name meaning ‘eye’. From here the harbour can be seen in all directions. The British renamed it Goat Island and used it as a gunpowder store and for other functional purposes, but its identity as the harbour’s eye has persisted. By thinking of the harbour as an animate, watching entity, another Sydney comes into being, one connected to this land’s oldest stories. (4)

Beginning with Sydney’s ‘first and abiding identities’ and the ‘embedded knowledge’ that comes with this, it is necessary, then, to conceive of Sydney and Greater Western Sydney both as places where care for these identities and respect for the embedded knowledge manifests. Patently, care for Me-mil has not always been available to it and colonisation has wrought traumatic change. However, former New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet (of the ‘people before plants’ pronouncement) announced in 2022 that Me-Mel Goat Island would be returned to Aboriginal ownership and management. The New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment provided an update on this #landback process recently, with remediation and conservation currently underway over three years with a $43 million budget (Department of Planning and Environment ‘Me-Mel (Goat Island)’). It is surprising, perhaps, to conclude with Dominic Perrottet as a caring actor in Sydney, but these actions are important. The preceding and enduring knowledges embedded in Country surely seem to have acted upon the former premier in this particular case.


  1. I acknowledge Wangal and Darug Country where I live and work as a settler on unceded land. The Darug, Dharawal and Gundungurra Peoples have told and continue to tell stories of the Country now called Greater Western Sydney; story and song are integral to the Country that is the Greater Western Sydney region.

    I emphasise Darug, Dharawal and Gundungurra story and song to reiterate that Care for Country is not only a practice of relation but also a practice of meaning making. First Nations story and song describe the reciprocal care human and more-than-human beings provide for each other in this place. Just like uncared-for Country is ‘wild’ (‘degraded’ in a European lexicon [Rose ‘Exploring’ 386]), so too is unstoried Country ‘wild’. Darug, Dharawal and Gundungurra stories and song perform Care for Country, and this care endures.

  2. I am consistently motivated by the scholarship and creative reflections of Ambelin Kwaymullina, who offers a manifesto of intercultural reflection and action for settlers in Living on Stolen Land. Scholarship on the consequences of colonisation’s violent imposition of European perceptions on colonised lands and peoples is voluminous. Some important texts I acknowledge are: on place, Benterrak et al., Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology; on time, Nanni, The Colonisation of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in the British Empire; on eurocentrism, Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.

  3. Ghassan Hage’s White Nation shows the origins and ongoing allegiances of some Australian environmentalisms to fantasies of whiteness, while also showing how those fantasies subject the majority (193–96.)

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Built environment - Literary portrayal, Environmental conservation, Place & identity, Evelyn Araluen, Indigenous Knowledges, Care for Country.

Cite as: Gourley, James. ‘Resisting Productionist Timescapes by Making Better Futures in the Present: Care for Country in Western Sydney Literatures.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.584f29ecce.

  • James Gourley — James Gourley is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University.