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.

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

The one that won

My 1978 win in the senior section of the Benalla Bookweek Short Story competition doesn’t amount to much now. After all, I was only 13 years old. I had been writing stories for a long time (since about eight), so I fancied myself something of an expert on the craft by then. My prize, ‘The Plum Rain Scroll’ by Ruth Manley, still sits on my bookshelf, a proud reminder that somebody thought my writing was worthy of an accolade, however humble.

The story was an emotionally moving tale about a survivor of a horrific plane crash. At thirteen, having always lived in central Victoria, I’d hardly ever set eyes on a plane, much less flown in one – so I was hardly intimate with my subject matter. Nonetheless I used my overactive imagination to write a highly dramatic story, full of tension and pathos, as only a girl of thirteen could.

I remember well the small ceremony at school, the school principal bestowing me my prize amid the absolute disinterest of the rest of the school. The hours I’d spent buried in books and the ‘other world’ of words crystallised then into something akin to love.

The real clincher was seeing my own words published in the local paper, the Benalla Ensign. That did it for me. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write. I wanted to write stories that people loved to read. Ever since I’ve hungered for more of that glory, longing to relive the moment of pride when I saw my story in print.

As the years passed, circumstances and excuses left me scribbling, indulgent and alone, my creations sitting dormant in a box that I dragged through two decades and more than twenty homes across Victoria. Occasionally a story escaped from the box and made it into an envelope to a publisher. Polite rejections, however encouraging, were taken as an indication that I had no talent, so I turned my attentions to getting by and let the passion simmer down deep, hoping it might burn itself out.

Of course it didn’t. True love rarely does.

Four years ago I started writing again – seriously.I took classes, joined a writers group, wrote, tore my hair out, wept, sneered at the crap I wrote yesterday, wrote some more, was overcome by a sentence that seemed to have come from God, submitted, failed, got drunk and despondent, persisted, wrote some more, grew a thicker skin, took some more classes, submitted, got shortlisted, failed, wrung my hands, revised, edited, submitted, failed, laughed it off, edited some more, got critiqued, rewrote, submitted, got shortlisted again and – BINGO. I finally clocked the coveted prize.

Two days ago I found myself standing in front of a small gathering of writers in Ballarat accepting the first prize for the Southern Cross Literary Award. The judge, Paddy O’Reilly, was generous with her comments and told me that, notwithstanding a couple of minor editorial misdemeanours, it was the imagery I used in the story that had got it over the line.

And, believe me, I know how difficult it is to get over that line! The literary talent out there sets the bar unimaginably high.

The morning of the presentation it struck that my winning story (Cool change) was also a survival story. A bushfire survival story. Again, I’ve no personal experience of the subject, but Kinglake is not far from my home and I was as moved as everyone else by the stories coming from there and Marysville and Callignee. The story itself was inspired by an interview I heard with Jon Faine on ABC 774 radio with a woman in her seventies who had walked away from her husband and home on Black Saturday because she couldn’t drive and her husband refused to leave. An enormously powerful example of the heartbreaking choices many people were forced to make on that terrible day.

I hope the story stands as a tribute to those people and the courage they showed in making those incredibly difficult choices.

I have fulfilled my dream – I have claimed a significant prize for my story and will sometime next year (hopefully) see it in print for others to read. Thirty three years and countless hours of writing later, I finally wrote the one that won.