Books

Sophie Cunningham (ed.)
Fire Flood Plague

This lousy year, while the world has been ravaged, Australia’s remoteness has rendered our experience utterly singular. Fire Flood Plague, brainchild of the Copyright Agency, begins with a bleak time line that gives us ample opportunity to digest the pummelling we’ve been meted: “January 14: With fires raging across NSW and temperatures reaching 49ºC, Premier Gladys Berejiklian declares a state of emergency. Air quality in Melbourne is the worst in the world.” For this anthology, Sophie Cunningham curates a coterie of writers who help to shift the political discourse and emphasise just how rapidly it needs to advance.

Of all the things she had seen coming, Cunningham had not anticipated being unable to drive interstate to be with family. First, it is fire, then road closures, lockdown restrictions and finally border closures. Cunningham articulates a universal fear: “I’m worried it might be years before I can spend time with my family again.”

In a year when many Australians have invested in two types of masks, these 26 essays, first published in Guardian Australia, are a fitting record, documenting a time that has made us scrutinise what we thought of as normal life, and whether we want to revert to it. In “This Place of Sickness”, Billy Griffiths writes of how disease has spread since colonisation. As he draws parallels between then and now, we are left to contemplate what future we have if we don’t properly wrestle with the desecration done by white colonisers, and the colossal impact this has had on Aboriginal people.

Climate scientist Joëlle Gergis reminds us in “The Great Unravelling” that more than three billion animals were incinerated or displaced over the previous summer. It is an incomprehensible number and Gergis, on the environmental front line, admits to feeling overwhelmed, but her advice is to permit ourselves to be moved by our grief, and to take it into our decision-making.

Melanie Cheng tells of hearing from the other side of the world about fellow doctors forced to decide whether to give the last ventilator to a 40-year-old father of one, or a 40-year-old father of two. “Knowledge doesn’t always translate to control,” Cheng notes wisely, but most of us have never had to think in such stark terms before.

Contributors share the ways they work through their despair, but it is a balancing act, and individual essays oscillate between hope and sorrow. Perhaps because we have been glued to the news cycle, the anthology’s personal stories have the biggest impact. Christos Tsiolkas takes himself to task over the air miles he has clocked up. James Bradley writes touchingly of his intimate grief as a son dealing with the death of his mother alongside the larger grief of coping with a dying planet. Omar Sakr knows that afterwards we will return to a flawed system, and poignantly defines how that looks for him: “the precarious life of a working-class poet in a country that hates him, his culture, his communities”.

Jane Rawson’s “Don’t Blink” starts deadpan and self-deprecating, as we have come to expect from her, a leading voice on all things apocalyptic. When the year hit crisis point, Rawson was forced to reconsider the wisdom of her own planning. “Stay light on your feet, valuing people and experiences more than you value property,” she urges us, in a stunning appeal to step forwards and live courageously.

In a roaring cri de coeur for the arts, Alison Croggon – arts editor of this paper – argues we must not return to normal. “If art only reproduces the inequities of wider society, what is it for? It’s just a rich person’s hobby.” John Birmingham, too, is at his eloquent, angry best in “The Year of Lethal Wonders”, in which he reminds us: “Nobody said the end times would be boring.”

Melissa Lucashenko notes that the risk of catching Covid-19 at a demonstration is far lower than the risk posed by the cost of white supremacy. “Nobody is putting millions into a vaccine to beat racism,” she reflects. “Racial capitalism is far too profitable.” Tim Flannery homes in on the federal government’s contrasting responses to the coronavirus and the climate crisis, and asks why we can’t respond to the environmental emergency with requisite speed and force. Tom Griffiths points out that fire experts spent 2019 trying to persuade the PM to hold a bushfire summit. No dice.

“It would take the pandemic,” Kate Cole-Adams observes in a gorgeous reflection on time, “to lead me back to my old friend, and my young self.” Amid rules and curfews reminiscent of childhood, Cole-Adams muses on the particular way that old friends can describe you back to yourself.

In “Black Flowers: Mourning in Ashes”, Kirsten Tranter reflects on the horrors represented by ash. From Sydney in December last year, standing outside as white flakes descend, her memory shifts to September 11, 2001, when she was on Second Avenue in New York’s East Village and “fragments of disaster” fell down. Months later, in California, she is sheltering in place during a Covid-19 lockdown, and it is raining ash again.

Delia Falconer tells of her relief, at first, at having to take a giant pause – “an only child and a writer, I’ve been training for this moment all my life,” she writes with solemn humour in “Living in the Time of Coronavirus”. Lockdown becomes difficult in an apartment with no outside space, and kids doing remote schooling, but locals hop online for advice on where to get nails done, adopt a dog, buy charcuterie.

The irony of the emphasis put on remote schooling during the pandemic is that nothing taught at school has come close to preparing us for this. When people ask if you remember where you were when you realised Covid-19 was a thing, they are asking when you realised it was going to affect you, but in most of our lifetimes, there has been nothing as universal. What happens reading the essays here – each, in their own way, irrefutably moving – is not unlike the slow release of therapy. We may never stop with the 2020 reckoning, but recovery and progress can only begin with the type of deep and broad thinking exhibited here.

Louise Swinn

Vintage, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Sophie Cunningham (ed.), Fire Flood Plague".

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Reviewer: Louise Swinn