I love thinking about place in literature, so I was intrigued when Chrystopher Spicer, cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at North Queensland’s James Cook University, offered me his book Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature for review. Unfortunately, I’ve taken a while to get to it.
Place can be a contentious issue for readers, and I’ve become embroiled in many discussions over the years on the topic. However, this is not going to be one of those, not because I have nothing more to say, but because Spicer’s book looks at place from a different angle. His focus is, obviously, cyclones, and was inspired by the fact that he lives in northern Queensland, a tropical region known for its often highly destructive cyclones. Despite this, people stay. How do they incorporate their experience into their sense of place, and, more significantly, into their understanding of who they are personally and as a community? Cyclones bring chaos and destruction, but, paradoxically, they are also part of the fabric of place they destroy.
It is in this context that cyclones (and similar “nature catastrophes”) can be catalysts for literature. It specifically was for Susan Hawthorne’s eco-poetry collection Earth’s breath. Spicer wanted to explore whether such literature provides “a means by which individuals and societies can cope with and integrate these events into their lives, culture and place” and how weather catastrophes like cyclones “speak of our relationships with place and the people in it”. Concluding his introduction, he identifies his objectives as
to explore how we integrate a violent, chaotic, and destructive weather feature into our culture through the use of storytelling and structure. At the same time, I hope to convey a sense of the connectivity and commonality of people search for meaning amid the meaninglessness of chaos and catastrophe.
“in with through” (Hawthorne)
Spicer explores all this through eight chapters. The first two and the last are devoted to general discussion about cyclones, cyclones and place, and cyclones in literature. In these chapters in particular, Spice draws on academics, critics, and other writers to provide a theoretical underpinning to his argument. The fundamental point is that stories shape the places in which we live and that in the same process people and place are mapped by those stories. He adopts the word “terroir”, traditionally used to describe wine regions, arguing that it encompasses both the tangible habitat and the spiritual sense that is imbued in that habitat from living within it. Weather, he argues, is inseparable from the physical and experiential aspects of the landscape. As poet Susan Hawthorne writes:
I am in with through the cyclone
which is inside with through me
The book’s other five chapters explore his ideas through specific works set in or around Queensland and its cyclonic environment: Vance Palmer’s Cyclone (Lisa’s review), Thea Astley’s A boatload of home folk (with references to other works including The multiple effects of rainshadow which I’ve reviewed), Patrick White’s The eye of the storm (Lisa’s review), Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath, and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post).
Storms and cyclones have, of course, featured in literature as long as people have been telling stories, and Spicer provides many examples. Their “propensity to be intense life-changing personal experiences” naturally leads to their use in literature, often as metaphor for “epiphany and revelatory apocalypse”. I’m sure all of us have examples from our reading. For me, Shakespeare stands out.
The five authors Spicer explores use cyclones in different ways, but there are recurring ideas. Epiphany, revelation, with a corresponding opportunity to change or start afresh, underpin the stories. Serpents and similar monsters feature frequently, whether it’s Palmer’s Leviathan, or Hawthorne’s ouroboros, or Wright’s Rainbow Serpent. I’m simplifying here but, essentially, their role varies from being the monster that embodies and explains the chaos to something that is more organically part of the process of chaos and renewal. Somewhat related to this, but separate too, is a cyclical view of nature and thus life. This idea is particularly developed by Hawthorne and Wright, in whose works the apocalyptic event contains the cycle of beginning and end, of life and death and life again.
For White, the image or metaphor is a little different again, but also related, with his using the spiral and the mandala or circle. For his protagonist, it’s in the “eye” of the storm, or the “still point” of the spiralling word, that revelation is found, and epiphany achieved. Astley, too, suggests Spicer, sees us as all being “part of a swirling, spiralling, cyclonic universe”. However, instead of going into the eye, her characters try to escape the cyclone, something which Astley herself said, “is not possible”. The main Astley book that Spicer explores, A boatload of home folk, has been criticised as awful, unlikeable, but Spicer disagrees, arguing that, ultimately, Astley, like the other writers, “uses the elemental cyclone as a trope of apocalypse that is both an instrument of destruction and a catalyst of revelation.” It is what the cyclone draws out of the despair in the novel’s characters that is significant.
In the end, there are two main ideas I took from this book. One is that cyclone literature helps us to understand the event, to incorporate the resultant chaos into our lives, and thus, to “integrate nature catastrophes” into our sense of place, or terroir. While Spicer’s focus is cyclones, he also mentions “nature catastrophes”. Consequently, I’d argue that his argument holds for places which frequently experience other such catastrophes, like bushfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and recurring long droughts. People who live in places frequented by such catastrophic events, and who choose to remain in those places, must surely “integrate” the experience in some way into their identity as a person of that place, and into their understanding of how to live in that place. Spicer’s discussion of Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath addresses this idea in depth.
The other idea relates more generally to how writers use cyclones/storms to explores broader ideas. In a way, this extends beyond Spicer’s specific goals regarding place. Whether or not writers are inspired by actual cyclonic events or purely imagined ones, in real or imagined places, they can and do use cyclones to explore spiritual and/or psychological upheavals in their characters’ lives. Spicer’s selections are all Queensland-related, so place is quintessential to the stories, but his analysis shows that cyclones in literature also transcend place to encompass something more universally human.
In the final section of his book, “The Cyclone as Universal Trope”, Spicer writes that –
Such events and the stories of them can challenge previous human experience, thereby providing opportunity to move forward and rebuild, opportunity for the emergence of the new.
– with “the new” embodying both the tangible and the intangible aspects of our lives.
Spicer’s book is well-researched and thorough in its analysis, and is supported by an excellent bibliography and index. I found it fascinating. It’s not for everyone. However, it makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the tropes of Australian literature, including reminding us that it’s not all about “the bush”.
Lisa also reviewed this book.
Chrystopher J. Spicer
Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020
Review copy courtesy of the author