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.

Found: a New Year’s resolution

For four years I’ve been attending writing classes, workshops and programs. Without exception the majority of people attending these creative hothouses have been women – by a large margin too. I’d say the ratio would be 80:20 in women’s favour, and that could be being generous.

Women obviously love to write. And many of them are extremely good at it. Yet the statistics show that success in the literary world in terms of the big prizes and publication (other than the romance genre where woman absolutely dominate) remains the dominion of men.

Why?

Complex question. The announcement the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist (all written by men) brought about a storm of comment and number crunching to ascertain the extent of gender bias in the literary world. The results were undeniable. Women writers are grossly underrepresented when it comes to being published or winning prizes. The fact is it’s a common trend within the arts in general. Blokes are apparently more creative than women.

What a load of bollocks!
Women are creative by their very nature. We are the ones who incubate and give birth to life itself – the most creative act of all. Wouldn’t you think a creature capable of this incredible feat of creativity would be able to translate that creative capacity into art? And wouldn’t you think that they’d be capable of it in a way their counterparts (men) could never imagine? Of course they are.

We tend to forget how deep the roots of patriarchy go. Our institutions, our values, our aspirations, our beliefs, our rules, the way we live have all developed over centuries through a masculine lens. Inherently masculine values underpin our very notions of a literary competition. That it is possible to value one creative work more highly than all others is, in its very essence, a masculine concept.

In a feminine construct we simply wouldn’t think like that. Feminine thinking tends toward the circular, the embracing of many to create a whole. It works on the basis of collaboration and connection, being able to see the differing value in a number of like things (for example our children – they are all different and we value each of them equally. Would we dream of awarding a prize to the ‘Best Child’ every year?)

The fact that our world has been shaped by masculine principles automatically makes artistic success for women more difficult. The subjective values that are imposed by judges when reviewing competition entries (both consciously and unconsciously) have already been tainted by the patriarchal view – regardless of the gender of the judge.

Nonetheless, women continue to advocate for a shift toward a more balanced representation of women in the literary world. As a result Sophie Cunningham has gathered a group of women to form a new major literary prize for women – (The Stella) – and I’m joining a challenge to promote the movement toward valuing female Australian writers.

The challenge is to commit to reading and reviewing Australian women writers in 2012. It’s primarily set up for people who are involved with social media, however I think if you are a reader rather a writer, it’s a worthy challenge to join for next year.


I’m going for the Miles challenge – read 6 books, review 3. I’m not a big fan of genre, but I might dip my toe in for the sake of the challenge. I’m thinking that the previous Miles Franklin lists might be a good place to start – although my over flowing bookshelves have plenty of delicious fodder for me to choose from. Nikki Gemmel, Paddy O’Reilly and Tobsha Learner are all on the list already. Happy to take suggestions from anyone who can suggest an Australian woman writer they loved. Add their name to the comments string on this post and I will add her to my list.