A new year usually brings refreshed optimism, talk of resolutions and hopes for the year ahead. We associate Australian summers with beach holidays, eating too much stone fruit and forgetting what day it is in the elastic time between Christmas and new year.
The beginning of 2020 is different. This summer is punctuated by bushfire emergency updates and rising tolls of death and property losses. Scrolling through images on Twitter: a desiccated kangaroo joey pushed up against a wire fence; a koala treading through a landscape of flames; a teenaged firefighter slumped exhausted in a fire truck; people gathered under blood red skies on beaches waiting to take to the ocean.
It is the year of climate catastrophe. We knew it was coming but it still feels like a slap in the face. Australia is the canary in the (literal) coalmine, a wealthy country with an appalling record of extinction and deforestation, one of the highest CO2 emission rates in the world, and an economy heavily reliant on extracting and selling fossil fuels. Two hundred years of colonial land mismanagement and ignoring the knowledge of traditional owners has led us here. The world watches on as our tinder dry continent catches on each falling ember. Celebrities and billionaires wave cash at us. Public fury rises faster than the temperature of the flames as our prime minister missteps and bumbles, too narcissistic to read the mood or to respond with empathy for our grief.
When my flight takes off from Melbourne it is into a smoke-filled sky. From the plane, flying north, plumes rise in thick drifts over the parched landscape of Victoria and New South Wales. After a while, I pull the blind down on the view. Later, as the plane pitches to land in Cairns, my son raises the blind on a dreamscape. Verdant hills rise out of the earth like promises. The sky sings blue and clear. We’re in the same country but we are entering a different world, a place where it rains in heavy torrents, where bright flowers spring from the wide leaves of tropical flora and where the air is thick with humidity instead of smoke. Swathes of swaying, green cane fields follow the road on our drive from Cairns to Palm Cove.
My sons spend all day in the resort pool. In between coercing them to reapply sunscreen, buying ice-creams and swimming, I read Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island. Treloar’s tender novel is about a world also affected by climate catastrophe, but of a different kind, a flooded world sinking into the sea. Wolfe Island is the latest novel in an emerging tradition of Australian women writing cli-fi – climate fiction. Jennifer Mills, Alice Robinson, Jane Rawson and Mireille Juchau have all imagined near-future scenarios of a world irreversibly transformed by climate change. But this blazing summer is a wake-up call. Climate change isn’t a plotline in a piece of speculative fiction. We can’t defer it or deny it any longer.
It is an eerie contrast to read Treloar’s aqueous book in this season of fire, but a parallel resonates. Wolfe Island explores the human response in a post-apocalyptic world, the ways people support each other in times of crisis, and the kindness of strangers. The stories of humanity that arise from disaster, of communities banding together, of neighbours helping neighbours, make the summer of 2020 bittersweet.
I follow the #AuthorsForFireys hashtag on Twitter, an auction to raise money for volunteer firefighters. It is joyous to watch the generous donations of time and goods from the Australian literature community accumulate. It becomes almost impossible to keep track of my bids. I pursue some and let others go. Literature, like many artforms, is woefully underfunded in Australia. The publishing market is small. Few books become bestsellers. It is mostly untenable to try to make a living wage via writing, with an average annual salary of around $13,000. Yet our artists heed the call for help; they sacrifice their own earnings to compensate for years of funding neglect by the government towards fire prevention and recovery.
Despite the buzz of the feelgood stories filtering through social media, I retreat from the endless news cycle to dip back into books. In a recent interview on Radio National, Zadie Smith suggested that it is a radical act to abandon the news stream and read fiction instead. 2020 is a time for radical acts. I read Alice Bishop’s 2019, A Constant Hum, set in the aftermath of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires of 2009. Bishop’s fictionalised account of her community’s response and recovery from those devastating fires is prescient, a decade on.
Can books change peoples’ minds? Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the first pick of the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club. Maybe his book will teach our politicians something about traditional land management, open their eyes a little, influence policy. That’s if Peter Dutton doesn’t build a pyre from Pascoe and his books first.
Perhaps Bishop’s A Constant Hum should be the next book recommended for our federal parliamentarians’ nightstands.
Reading fiction is meant to increase empathy, after all.
Justine Hyde is a writer, critic and librarian who lives in Melbourne. Her writing has been published in all the usual places.