Monday musings on Australian literature: Bushfire fiction

Karenlee Thompson, Flame tipLast week I reviewed Karenlee Thompson’s short story collection, Flame tip, which was inspired by (if “inspired” is quite the right word here) the horrendous Tasmanian bushfires of 1967. Lisa at ANZLitlovers had also reviewed this book, and in discussion on her post we discussed the apparent dearth of books on a topic so critical in Australian life. I thought the topic warranted a Monday Musings. Maybe readers here will come up with some more titles that we haven’t thought of!

In 2015, researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Grace Moore wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Bushfires are burning bright in Australian letters and life”. She starts by noting that

Historically, bushfires have played an important role in Australian literature, adding a touch of exoticism in fiction written for readers back in Europe, while also offering insights into the dangers faced by settler communities.

She says that novelists and short story writers from as early as the 1850s referred to fires, often using them as “a melodramatic device to resolve romance plots.” A “heroic rescue from swirling flames (themselves an outlet for the smouldering passions of the protagonists)” would be used to bring together “characters whose marriage would have been considered unsuitable ‘back home’ on the other side of the world.” She names Ellen Clacy as one such writer – though her best known book, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852–1853, is a non-fiction account of the goldfields. I couldn’t find an example online of the sort of story Moore describes.

However, by the 1880s, she writes, “as settlers became better acquainted with the devastation that fire could cause in the outback, bushfire narratives became bleaker and more menacing”. Instead of settlers successfully defending their homes, stories started to describe “suicides, traumatic flashbacks and apocalyptic visions” (like J.S. Borlase’s Twelve miles broad1885) or “devastating environmental impact” (such as H. Hudson’s story, The phantom herd, 1907).

Canberra fires, 2003, taken from opposite our house

In another article Moore is quoted as saying, that in the 20th century fire became “increasingly tied to the nation and resistance”. When fire threatens people’s property, or towns or lives, she said, “it is like a micro war on Australian soil, one that acts as a call to arms for members of the community to fight for their own and their neighbours’ safety”.

Moore had (or has), in fact, been researching fires for some time, and was involved, back in 2013, in a two-day conference held by the Centre, called “Fire stories”. One of the papers was by John Schauble titled “Lost in the flames? The missing great Australian bushfire novel”. The abstract for the paper says:

Bushfire might have been expected to produce a great Australian storyteller, but curiously it has not. While this quintessentially Australian disaster looms large in the popular imagination, bushfires are largely absent from the nation’s fictional narrative. Fire finds expression in the visual arts, poetry and particularly in children’s literature, but novels and even short fiction in which bushfire is central to the narrative are a rarity. Even cataclysmic events such as Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday – that triggered a flurry of other literary activity – have largely failed to ignite the imagination of fiction writers. Fiction has largely been eclipsed by factual accounts, while other forms of literary expression of fire have flourished. A strong tradition of juvenile literature has not translated into adult genres.

Interesting, eh? Why is this?

Now, I hadn’t heard of Schauble before – he’s a CFA volunteer  advisor to Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner – but he’s been interested in this topic for sometime. Back in 2002, he wrote an article for The Age on our relationship to bushfires, and said something similar to what he said in 2013:

Despite the great tragedies of fire in the Australian bush, just a handful of novels use bushfire as the central theme. A few poignant short stories – Henry Lawson’s The Fire at Ross’s Farm, John Morrison’s The Children, and Robert Drewe’s Radiant Heat – are noteworthy, along with the occasional poem.

Curiously, bushfires have been seen as been as more suitably the stuff of children’s literature. A succession of well-known children’s authors – Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, Mavis Thorpe Clarke, Alan Aldous and Roger Vaughan-Carr – have used bushfire as the theme of at least one work.

He said more, including quoting loved Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig, but you can read the article yourself if you are interested.

Peter Temple, Truth

My point is that it is into this environment that Karenlee Thompson’s collection has been released. I can point to other recent books I’ve read which mention fire – including Gillian Mears’ Foal’s bread (my review), Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point (my review), Peter Temple’s Truth (my review), and Jane Rawson’s dystopian novel A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review). None of these revolve around fire, but in a couple fire is significant.

Anchor Point is one of these, containing a major fire partway through the novel. It starts:

Laura looked where he pointed. A line of crimson flames was rising over the crest of a distant hill. Burning storeys high, licking the sky, starving. More than spot fires, the land was alight.

This is followed by several pages of terror. Then, when it’s over:

How depressing it was to live for months in a singular palette: grey, charcoal, black. It was strange to consider what had gone up in smoke and what had survived. There seemed no logic to it …

And fire comes to the city at the end – because Anchor Point is, among other things, a cli-fi novel.

So, things are changing. Just this year, Eliza Henry-Jones published her second novel Ache (see Lisa’s review). This novel’s subject matter is the impact of bushfire on individuals and communities. Lisa tells us that Henry-Jones wrote her Honours thesis on “the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction”. Lisa has reviewed a couple of other books in which fires feature significantly: Roger McDonald’s 1996 book about an arsonist, The Slap (Lisa’s review), Amanda Lohrey’s 2009 novella Vertigo (Lisa’s review), and Lexi Landsman’s 2016 novel The ties that bind (Lisa’s review).

Things, in other words, seem to be changing. I wonder why now? We have always had  devastating fires in this country, but is climate change increasing their frequency and therefore bringing the issue once again to the fore? I haven’t read these recent novels, so I can’t really comment on what approach they are taking to exploring fires in Australia. Are they focusing, for example, on grief and trauma, or community and nationhood, or environmental politics and climate change?  Or, is there no observable trend in this contemporary writing?

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? If you’re not Australian, do you have any comments about your country’s literature relating to – hmm – disasters that are common to your shores?

Karenlee Thompson, Flame tip: Short fictions (#BookReview)

Karenlee Thompson, Flame tipShort story anthologies usually have some sort of organising principle – a theme, perhaps, such as Australian love stories, or a prize, such as the Margaret River Short Story Competition – but single author collections tend to be looser. Not so Karenlee Thompson’s Flame tip which she describes as containing “creative writing pieces that weave in and around the Tasmanian bushfires of 1967”. These fires, she writes, “left 62 people dead, 900 injured and over 7,000 homeless in a single day”.

With subject matter like this, you might think Flame tip would be distressing to read – and there is that. But Thompson manages to vary the tone enough, by injecting the occasional bit of humour and satire for example, to lighten the melancholy of the heavier stories. This humour, in fact, starts with David Walsh’s idiosyncratic (we would expect no less) introduction. He tells us he remembers the day – 7 February – because it was his first day of school, and his Mum forgot to pick him up. She “forgot” because she was fighting a fire on their back fence, but Walsh wonders whether this was a “viable excuse” or whether she chose to “triage the back fence over her weird and difficult son”. Whatever the reason, Walsh’s family lost neither home nor persons – unlike some of the characters in Thompson’s book.

So now, the book. Karenlee says in her introduction that it’s a collection to be “dipped into at random” and that her aim is “to present the truth ‘under the mask of fiction’ (to borrow from Gao Xingjian), revealing nuances of character and place, as well as repercussions that are often difficult to expose through nonfiction”. This is exactly what she achieves. Some of the stories are told from the point of view of people who experienced the day – who lost loved ones or property – and some are told by later generations. Sometimes the impact of the fires is direct and obvious, such as the wife who lost the love of her life (“Like a wall”), while elsewhere it is far less direct, such as the fickle lover in “Love, what is thy name?” whose grandparents lost their home in the fires.

Many of the stories of loss – the loss of a husband, parent or friend – are the sorts of stories you’d expect. I don’t mean by that, however, that they’re clichéd or uninteresting, but just that in such a collection you’d expect such stories of loss. Thompson ensures her stories are interesting by personalising the loss, and by creating “real” characters rather than the heroes and saints you tend to get in the media. An example is the betrayed wife in “A bird in the oven” who was 12 years old when she lost her mother in the fire and who took “a long time growing up”. Another is “The keeper of the satchel”, a man more damaged by his mother’s lack of love than by her death.

There are positive stories too, such as the young girl in “Jack Frost” who finds love. And there are surprising stories. One is “Medusa One Snake”, about how a family of birds manipulates fire to locate prey (the fleeing animals, “a mobile smorgasbord”). Another is “Degustation” about a woman on a date with the perfectly-named Augustus from a family which “had bought up all the available charred and rubble-ridden farms in the district, after the fire had rendered the singed locals almost comatose with shock”. There’s always someone ready to make a buck out of other people’s pain!

The issue of form … short fictions

The book is subtitled “short fictions”, and Thompson describes it as a collection of “creative writing pieces”. In other words, the term “short stories” isn’t used. There are “traditional” short stories here, but the collection also includes other “pieces”. There’s the shape poem “Flame”, an epistolary story (“Love, what is thy name”), and the piece titled “Lost” which riffs on lost-and-found ads. In it Margaret Groombell writes:


A life

Including: four-bedroom weatherboard home with indoor amenities, a much loved border collie answering to the name of Richie, a sense of security, linen and cutlery, a priceless hand-painted jardinière, stamp collection gathered and assembled over three generations, pink shower cap studded with daisies, deck of hand-painted burlesque playing cards, a position of some standing in the community, 2 striped deck chairs …

And so on. The random ordering of “items” here – “a sense of security” next to “linen and cutlery” – beautifully conveys the dislocation, the disorder, that such loss generates.

Another piece, “Annabelle, just looking”, plays with the idea of personal ads, but it’s an extended ad in which 72-year-old Annabelle explains her needs and why she’s where she is. She describes herself. She’s “never considered Botox or any of that other rubbish”, she says:

My forehead, therefore, is less like a flat screen TV and more like a topographical map. Life has surprised me, frightened me, delighted me – it’s all there in plain sight, writ large for the world to see.

Her demands aren’t many, but she hates “open fires”.

My final example is the short two-pager, “Cross stitch”, about Nettie who’s lost everything, but is surrounded by the macrame and aprons

made with altruistic fervour, no doubt, by women and girls who wanted to give her something to help her settle into a tiny house that had nothing from her life before.

I love the way Thompson, in piece after piece, breaks down popular notions about fires and their aftermath, and shows us the more likely reality.

So far, I’ve focused on the bushfire theme, but one of the lovely things about this collection is how Thompson interweaves other ideas into it. In “Like a wall” and “Jack Frost” she tackles racism and community prejudices. And in “Degustation” she satirises fine dining – degustation menus in particular – as well as the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the wealthy. It’s a delightful, funny story. Indeed, Thompson’s writing overall has a light touch, with a keen eye for the absurd.

Flame tip is a serious collection about a serious subject, and it could so easily have become heavy. However, by varying form, voice and tone, Thompson has produced a book that not only sustains our interest but that, despite its subject matter, is enjoyable to read. And that’s no mean feat.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book

aww2017 badgeKarenlee Thompson
Flame tip: Short fictions
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 978 1 925272 73 4

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)