Heartbreaking & necessary: Fire anthology review

Last month I had the great fortune to be part of a launch of this profound anthology hosted by Eltham Bookshop and the Eltham Library. The event was well attended, booked out, standing room only in fact. Five of the seven Victorian authors included in the anthology were in attendance, three of us gave readings. The readings held the audience  in thrall.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

Part of the magic of the kind of work presented in this anthology is voice. Each piece presented is unique, whether it be poetry, short story, photography or an artwork. Within each piece is a clearly articulated voice, carrying it’s own weight and tone, conveying it’s own message. A new voice emerged with each reading from Fire. As each author’s voice resonated around the room the scent of smoke seemed to manifest and emotion ran high. Each of us felt and heard the experience of waiting, of fearing, of deciding, descend upon us with every uttered word. Eyes were damp, hearts were blown open and we were reminded, again, of our human frailty.

The work contained in Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, is not confined simply to the human experience of bushfire, although that is a prevailing theme. The voices within this anthology speak of interactions with fire in the present and past. David Milroy’s Warlardu and Karla imbues a contemporary man’s grief with a beautiful, ancient Aboriginal myth of love, Cassandra Atherton’s Raining Blood and Money… gives a bone-chilling account of the 1911 Shirtwaist fire in the US, Brooke Dunnell explores the devastating consequences of our contact with fire in The Pressure Suit.

Images are striking, even heart-stopping at times. John Gollings’ aerial photo of Kinglake after Black Saturday shows ‘red strokes…the residual ash from burnt out and fallen limbs and trunks of particular genus of pine tree whose ash is red/orange’. It is beautiful, stark and tragic.

Poetry touches places other forms can’t. Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s Coming Down to Earth reflects on the sense of esoteric pointlessness of choosing new bathroom fittings. Miriam Wei Wei Lo uses words like lassoes and whips in her shimmering poem, Playing with Fire, drawing the reader in then shocking them back out again.

Fire is not a book to be consumed all at once. It’s chocolate is way to dark for that. It’s best read in small bites, followed by time for digestion and reflection. It is an important piece of work, reminding us that we live in a dangerous time in our history and we are less in control of our surroundings than we believe ourselves to be.

My own copy has become quite dog-eared, it’s been carted around so often from place to place, which is why I recommend it.

Purchase Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images from Margaret River Press or your local indie bookshop.

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Fire: an anthology

We live about 30km from Kinglake, one of the places most severely affected by the Black Saturday bushfires. Even without the firestorm that occurred that day, I will always remember it. My small family went for a walk early in the morning for a coffee at the BEST cafe (Were St Cafe Montmorency for those who want to know) in the NE city suburbs and came home at 9.30am already sweltering, sweat pooling in places I didn’t know had sweat glands.

We spent the day inside, dipping in and out of a cool bath, icecream container sized blocks of ice in front of fans. Our air conditioner had packed up a few days before and there was zero chance of getting it fixed anytime soon. Victoria was in the grip a 40 degree heatwave that was melting our pink Southern skins.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

As we withdrew behind heavy curtains, 774 ABC radio became our only link to the outside world. We listened anxiously as the radio announcers voices became more and more concerned, a sense of urgency and suppressed panic in every word. Weekday announcers appeared as ABC switched into emergency broadcast mode.

At about 4pm we heard an urgent ember warning for nearby Hurstbridge. Too close for comfort. My partner and I exchanged worried looks. Surely it wouldn’t reach here, into the outer suburbs? Little did we know that at that moment a horror akin to war was unfolding in nearby Kinglake. People were dying, watching their houses explode into flames, fleeing, all of them desperately underprepared for what they were facing.

In the aftermath we, like so many others, remained glued to the radio, desperate for news of friends and relatives who lived in fire affected areas, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Every morning we turned the radio on to hear that the death toll has risen overnight. It went of for days and we, along with the rest of the nation, reeled in the face of the overwhelming destruction and devastating loss.

About 3 days after we had learned that our beloved Marysville and Kinglake had been razed to the ground, I was listening to Jon Faine who was broadcasting from the Whittlesea recovery centre. He took a call from an older woman who was believed to be missing. She had managed to escape Marysville to find shelter with her sister in Alexandra, leaving behind her home, her pets and her husband, who had refused to leave. It was a memorable conversation for many reasons, not least of which was when she was listing her potential losses her husband came last. Faine’s response was sensitive and appropriate, but I could tell that he was as surprised by the turn of the conversation as I was.

This lady, in her 70’s, couldn’t drive. She made a decision to leave and did so on foot, not knowing if she would survive. It later emerged that her husband of over 50 years, Marysville’s oldest and longest resident, had indeed perished trying to defend his property. I was struck by the power of this story. What does it take to decide to leave your life long partner and home in the hope you will live rather than die?

As the days and weeks passed I heard similar stories over and again. Many couples were torn apart, both at the time of the fire and afterwards, by the decision to stay or leave. I returned to Faine’s conversation with this lady many times (it was loaded on the ABC’s bushfire community website) and my wondering coalesced into a short story, which won the 2011 Southern Cross Literary Award and is now published in this anthology entitled Fire.

Fire is a collection of short stories, essays, poems and images that explore our complex and evolving relationship to fire.

I’m excited about this publication not just because my story is included in it, but because it is timely and necessary. Fire is a poignant reflection on our future as a nation as we face the effects of climate change. These frightening events are now happening with alarming frequency and we must accept that they are to be expected in our future climate landscape. Our weather has changed. Every year, from one end of the country to the other, Australian summers are bringing more frequent, more severe fire (and flood) events . If we are to cope with these dangerous events in the future, we must find a way comprehending them, of coming to terms with how they affect us personally, socially, economically and environmentally.

Fire serves this purpose. And I’m proud as punch to be part of it.

Fire is available from Margaret River Press and through Eltham Bookshop

Being a female writer in Australia is a tough gig. Tougher if you’re Aboriginal. That’s why when I joined the 2012 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, I made sure I included Aboriginal writers in my list. It wasn’t hard, there are plenty on my shelves and it gave me the push I needed to read them sooner rather than later. I’m yet to finish the challenge with my review summary (it’s been a busy couple of months with upcoming work to be published in 2013), but I will get to it – eventually. In the meantime I thought I’d share this. It’s an informed wrap up of how diversity was reflected in the 2012 challenge, with Aboriginal writing front and centre (where it should be). Even if you’re not particularly interested in the wrap up per se – the links to reviews of Aboriginal writers and Aboriginal writing are worthy of a good look.
With thanks to Jessica White (http://www.jessicawhite.com.au) for reference to two of my reviews.

Repost: Office Christmas Committee

Because it’s nearly Christmas. Because this was one of my most popular posts. Because I don’t have time to do anything new. Because, at this time of year, we all need a good laugh… 

 

It’s 2 weeks before Christmas and all across the city,

Office Christmas committee’s are getting quite shitty

Why? Come on, you KNOW why. It’s THAT time of year isn’t it? Let me share something with you – I have 3 business rules I apply to every single job I’ve had – and I NEVER break them. They are:

  1. Never make a meeting for 9am Monday morning.
  2. Never make a meeting for 4pm Friday afternoon.
  3. Never, under any circumstances, even if you’re begged, or threatened with the sack, volunteer to go on the Office Christmas Committee.

Office Christmas committees. A unique conglomerate made up of enthusiastic and hopeful volunteers who’ve only been on the floor for maybe 6 weeks. In the weeks before Christmas they gather together to come up with 2010’s Divisional/Unit/Team Christmas function. They throw around inspired ideas – Kris Kringle with the boss dressed up as Santa, rude food platters, 100 Things You Can Do With Tinsel Competition – trying to stumble upon the kind of unforgettable festive occasion their colleagues will be gossiping about well into the New Year.

‘How was that Christmas party last year?’

‘Awesome. Best I’ve ever been too.’

‘And the boss in that Santa suit…?’

‘HAW HAW HAW!’

These are the sounds of mirth Office Christmas Committee’s long to hear. They want THEIR NAMES hovering reverently on the lips of their peers – ‘true party champions – these guys could organise a party in Vic Pol’s OPC.’

YEAH, RIGHT! You and I both know (don’t we?) that what begins with hope, love and poor taste, rapidly deteriorates into bickering, disgruntlement(?) and clashes of festive philosophies?

Firstly there is the question of cost – (assuming you don’t work in a self-serving, for-profit corporate giant that buys your soul every Christmas with lobster banquets and John Farnham serenades) – the first major hurdle every Office Christmas Committee (OCC) must clear without knocking the Christmas cheer out of their colleagues. If the function is too cheap, those with more refined tastes will be dubious as to its quality – if it’s too expensive, it will isolate those on budgets or maintaining extreme social lives.

Then there is the question of what type of function: picnic in the park (‘But what if it’s too hot? What if it’s too cold? What about ants? And mosquitoes? What about hygiene, the food will go off in the sun? Can we drink? We’ll lose people!’ or ‘Great! I can nick off early.’); evening cocktails and dancing (‘I’ll have to find a baby sitter.’ ‘I can’t stay late, Tracey gets annoyed if I stay out too late.’ ‘Can we bring our partners?’ ‘Oh, God, can you believe it, why would anyone want to bring their partner to a work Christmas party?’); a long lunch at a local pub (‘BOR-ING! Why can’t we all go out and get drunk, dance like maniacs and pash each other?’ ‘That’s civilised, then I don’t have to watch X get pissed and crack on to the Managers assistant.’); in-office catering (‘That’s nice – I can get straight back to my desk afterwards.’ ‘Is it from that lovely little café down the road? Woolies? WHAT?’ ‘Jesus – don’t we even get unchained from the office at Christmas time?’).

By the time the OCC has suffered the arguments about cost and type of function they’ve then got to face the question of food – Finger food, a la carte meal, set menu, snacks, catered, bring a plate, so many options it’ll make your singing Santa spin. Spare a thought for your OCC who must cater for those who won’t eat much and don’t want to pay extra to cater for those who wish to GORGE themselves like – dogs. And these days it’s further complicated by ‘special dietary needs’. Lactose free, gluten free, meat free, crustacean free, dairy free, fat free, nut free, no preservatives or artificial colourings and definitely NO MAYONNAISE (because these days EVERYBODY hates mayonnaise – right?) By the time you’ve catered for all the ‘frees’ everyone will be eating carrot sticks and rice crackers and drinking still mineral water – truly celebratory fare.

Kris Kringle? (‘I loathe getting a stupid box of penis shaped pasta,’ or ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got these incredible raspberry flavoured edible g-string undies I want to give Madge! She’ll die!’)

Santa? (‘God, how OLD do they think we are?’ to ‘I can’t wait to see what the boss says when I sit on his knee and tell him I want a raise for Christmas – haw haw haw!’)

And let’s not even go down the track of – ‘But I don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m a practising {insert a non-Christian religion}’ or ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m an over-educated, left wing, environmental killjoy who doesn’t want to support the terrible carbon imprint and corporate commercial exploitation created by Westernised version of christmas}.

{Ooooooh. That was dangerous – wasn’t it? J}

So, this Christmas, spare some heart, spare some pity, spare some Christmas spirit for your beleaguered, battle weary, fed-up-to-the-gills-with-you-lot Office Christmas Committee. After all, they are doing their best and they are only trying to please YOU.

My Hundred Glorious Phrases – review My Hundred Lovers

I love Susan Johnson. Sorry, I haven’t started batting for the other team. Let me qualify. I love Susan Johnson’s writing.

It took three library borrows to find the time to read this book and now that I have it’s on my list of books to own. I consumed My Hundred Lovers with a passion I usually reserve for expensive wine. Aside from the delicious poetry of her writing, Johnson had a way of delivering this story that made it read like a degustation menu. Each chapter was served like a delectable morsel with its own particular flavour within a broader and very satisfying narrative.

The premise of the story is a woman turning 50 reflecting back over her experiences of love, or what she thought was love, throughout her life. While the work is rich with eroticism, it’s no romance. This is an exploration of what it feels like when love, and it’s elusive sisters, beauty and sensuality, come to visit.

Johnson’s mastery of erotic language transforms ordinary things – grass, sunshine, a bridge – into living entities, imbuing them with a soul and memory of their own. Each chapter describes an experience of love, often erotic love, of men, women, buildings, history, family, words, bodies, cities, wine, cigarettes and her son. The story of a woman’s ordinary life unfolds in the context of extraordinary history – from the 1960’s to present day – placing her ancestral history within the bigger political and social movements of each decade.

Interwoven in the narrative a kernels of life truths that rang so true I copied many of them down:
‘I was born preferring death to surrender.’
‘…love was supposed to mean desiring the happiness of the lover as much as one desired it for oneself…let the lover be himself or herself, unopposed!’
‘Love lives in the body and when love dies the body is the first to know.’

There was more to my love of this book than just the writing. I related to the story being told through the experiences of the protagonist on a very personal level. It was one of those reading experiences littered with ‘ah-huh’ moments. I felt Johnson was able to beautifully articulate the impulsive confusion of desire that ignites most love affairs – especially the bad ones. The sense many of us get at a certain age that we a ‘destined to live out life within the poor confines of unwitting compulsions.’ And the point (which I am quickly approaching) when we realise we must live with the consequences of these compulsive decisions, the poor choices of lovers in whatever form they came, and the inevitable truth that the heat of youth is cooling in our veins.

The ending seemed particularly poignant to me. She (the protagonist) identifies that her true love has always been romantic love, and that it will ever be unrequited because it ‘naturally and properly never gave me what it promised’. Given much of the content of my own work focuses on unrequited love, this admission resonated strongly with me. Our obsession with romantic love, our unending belief in soulmates and love at first sight, renders us children in the face of real love. While we believe in such fantasies we keep ourselves forever in desire (a not unpleasant place to be for some) and never able to recognise the very ordinary nature of love when it comes our way.

My Hundred Lovers has to be my favourite book for this year. In the words of Molly Meldrum, do yourself a favour.

Adopt-a-madness

We’re going to adopt a dog. A Greyhound to be exact. I can’t tell you why. It’s not like we need another animal to look after. Bear, our Border Collie-Samoyd cross, has only been part of our family for 3 months and in that time he has re-landscaped the back yard, escaped five times, chewed up innumerable toys and destroyed our TV watching pleasure by destroying the remote.

We’ve spent hundreds of dollars dog proofing the back yard and buying dog toys we hope will distract him from our personal belongings – all to no avail. He’s so emotionally needy he can’t last five minutes without asking for a pat. He’s got so much fur he doesn’t mind one bit shedding it in a fine layer all over the floor, the furniture, us. And I won’t even get started on how pissed off the cat is with us for bringing him into her life.

So what better remedy to our canine ills than bringing another lost mouth into the household?

You’re right. We’re mad. We’ve been deliberating for a while whether a companion would solve Bear’s emotional issues, deciding over and again that two dogs would be too much work. Until Wednesday. I came home to a message from the good folk at the Greyhound Adoption Program.
‘we have a lovely 2&1/2 year old girl – great with kids and cats – for adoption. If you’re interested you can see her on the website, her name is Belle.’

Belle. If her name had been Rosie or Hercules or Bumfluff I would have deleted the message without a second thought. But Belle – the same as my recently acquired pen-name -It seemed like a sign. Not that I’m particularly superstitious, but I am a big fan of synchronicity. And this little coincidence followed a discussion on the glories of Greyhounds with a colleague the very same morning. it seemed like it was ‘meant to be’.

So here we are, 9.30am Saturday morning, hurtling to Seymour with Bear whining in the back and Miss 8 nagging ‘pleeeeeze can we get her’ – to meet Belle the greyhound – the new member of our mad family. With a little bit of luck she’ll be sane – but I doubt it.

Gay game of hide ‘n’ seek

The Australian gay marriage debate has all but disappeared from mainstream media in the last week or so, in spite of it taking up exorbitant amounts of air time in previous months. I listened to the constant tooing and froing of the debate with increasing consternation. Living in a democratic society is a privilege too many of us take for granted. In Australia each of us are invested with the freedom to express our views and have a say in the governance of our nation. It is an honour and yet we often struggle to do this responsibly and manage to make a complete mess of very simple issues.

I cannot comprehend why we needed to waste so much time nationally arguing about something that has no impact on any of the big ticket issues affecting us all. Gay marriage does not threaten Australia’s security, or economy, or trade, or education outcomes, or health outcomes, or employment or any other relevant issue you care to name. Why are we as a nation even bothering to argue about it? It’s as silly as arguing about whether interracial marriage should be allowed, or whether older people should marry younger people. The proposition that legalising gay marriage requires broad community discussion is comprehensively ridiculous.

And yet, here we are, still without any legal recognition of the thousands of well established, long standing gay relationships in our community. It shouldn’t surprise me. It’s a national game of hide and seek with reality that has been part of our culture for a long time. In spite of evidence to the contrary we like to pretend that things we are not culturally comfortable with simply don’t exist. We go out of our way to invalidate them by dismissing them from view. Just look at our track record on Aboriginal affairs, immigration and gender equality.

I tried (really, I did) to understand the arguments the ‘against gay marriage’ lobby were putting into the public sphere, but the more I read/heard the less fundamental logic or reason I saw. What I did see was a bunch of largely heterosexual men (and some heterosexual women) asserting their personal views and sense of entitlement in telling others in the community how they should live, based on their own blatant, and usually unacknowledged, prejudice.

When the votes for the gay marriage bills were announced I was astonished. Who are these people, in our parliaments and in our community, who think they have the right to dictate, on behalf of all of us, which kind of relationships are recognised as valid and which are not? What saddened me most was that these people were in the majority. Is this the country I live in? Really?

I know how much lobbying went on prior to those parliamentary votes. The homosexual community and their many supporters worked hard to get the support of their various representatives in government. They were let down by the democratic process because the people who have the most say are not gay and cannot understand someone who is. And the saddest thing is, the rest of us were let down too. Our parliamentary process has returned us to a state of wilful blindness, where the only truly valid, culturally accepted relationship is the one that occurs between a man and a woman.

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