blackbirds don't mate with starlings

Janaka Malwatta

blackbirds don't mate with starlings
University of Queensland Press
30 August 2022

blackbirds don’t mate with starlings

Janaka Malwatta

This is a work of activism, fury and hope. Its urgent and purposeful poems contribute to the dismantling of racism, raging against its machinery. It combines performance poetry with poetries of witness and memory, recounting personal experiences of racism as well as historic injustices.

The coherence of this collection comes from the incandescent rage that burns from the first poem to the last. Yet there is a measure of compassion here, a compassion that is able to register contradiction and complexity without passing judgement. Ultimately this superb collection directs its imagining towards a just future for the next generation.


This fascinating collection of poetry showcases Janaka Malwatta’s incredible skill as a poet. Born in Sri Lanka, Malwatta has lived in both England and Australia. His poetry hasbeen published in several literary journals and this is his first full-length collection. He has spent time as a spoken-word poet, performing his poetry out loud, which adds life to his written work. I found myself often reading the poems aloud to myself.

Both lyrical and blunt, and at times tender, Blackbirds Don’t Mate with Starlings came out of the global response to George Floyd’s murder. The collection deals with Australia’s prevalent casual racism in a manner that is both thoughtful and urgent. The poems traverse the past, present and future, calling out Australia’s colonial history. Repeated throughout the collection is a reminder that this colonial past is still very much present in our day-to-day life. Malwatta presents this through fragments of overheard conversations, and stories of often forgotten history.

Malwatta’s style could be encapsulated in the poem ‘I am/am I’, which explores his identities as Sri Lankan, British and Australian through rhyme. ‘I am/am I’ is concise, encapsulating the question – not Malwatta’s question, rather the questions other Australians ask him – which are you? The poem’s rhythm draws together the apparent contradiction of these multiple identities; they exist together in tension and not. Poems such as ‘swastika’ continue this tension, discussing how the meaning of this symbol was colonised. What was to Buddhists, Hindus and Jains a revered symbol is reappropriated as a hate symbol. Malwatta addresses this head-on in a manner that is brilliantly confronting. Overall, whether you think you’d love it or hate it, I would recommend this collection to everybody.

Stephanie King is a bookseller at Readings Emporium.

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