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Bushfire Blues

The publicity circuit for A Constant Hum, my first book, has driven me back to the now yellowing newspaper headlines I gathered – pretty obsessively – in the smoke-blurred months following Black Saturday. ‘Victoria’s Apocalypse’: read the heavy front-page font of The Age, The Herald Sun and the Yarra Valley’s Mountain View. The hunger I had for bushfire media coverage – from the New York Times to the NT News – was ultimately a gathering of proof, for myself mostly, that we’d really found ourselves on the wrong side of the news. Focusing in on the details – ABC images of silver-bagged bodies, the ash of our house in my father’s eyelashes like snow – was the only way I could, at first, make some sort of sense of the fires that killed 180, burnt through 1,100,000 acres, and obliterated 2029 homes.

But this May morning it’s ten years on and I hope A Constant Hum is lighting up a different set of bushfire stories than those found in newspaper headlines. The 47 short stories of the collection track the quieter aftermath of bushfire – what happens to people long after the media disappears. I’m headed to the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Alice Springs to speak about these stories – comforting Melbourne coffee resting in the car console as Dad drives us along the M80 freeway to the airport: Tullamarine. ‘Ready for your author panels, Ali?’ he asks, country accent thick. I can’t answer though; I’m already blocking out potential audience questions, ones about the CFA, MFB, DHS or other acronyms we became too familiar with after Black Saturday. A decade on and some homes are only just starting to be rebuilt, legal cases are still being settled, divorces finalised, new relationships cemented nervously in fresh ‘I love yous’. For some, the smoke hasn’t yet blown.

‘Think I’m ready?’ I answer, taking way too long.

‘You’ll be right’, Dad comforts and I look down at my phone. Freshly single and with my first book, both Tinder and the broader book publicity feedback loop have become ways to measure myself. I trawl them for signs I’m doing okay at life, digital projections of my self-worth, or a lack of it, crystallised in a 4.7-inch screen.

Equipped with the freshly found calm of my early 30s, I do however know that there’s no neat way of measuring something as subjective as how your book – or your body – will make someone else feel. Yet a large socially conditioned part of me still feels pressured to quantify. As Jia Tolentino summarises on the podcast ‘Women Who’:

We love, just in general, to calculate the exact worth of a woman and then also rip it to shreds … our culture still loves to venerate and denigrate women simultaneously – in relation to everything.

Just as I gathered Black Saturday newspapers clippings – reports of charcoal-muzzled horses and triple 000 calls missed – to lace through A Constant Hum, I spend way too much time gathering different kinds of evidence. Each notification – a new match, or a book review – that lights up my phone can sway me. ENFP, 420, MBA, WYSIWYG: thanks to Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, there is a whole new set of acronyms I’ve had to become familiar with. On positive days, I convince myself I’m diving into new research by swiping right on all kinds of potential partners and dates. But the distraction, most of the time, isn’t an inspiration but a stress. The odd combination of self-loathing and self-love (both heightened by constructed self-promotion) is disorienting.

However, some recent app-fuelled moments comfort: an Instagram notification of an unknown reader linking a photo of A Constant Hum laid out alongside a fading waratah stem; the way my last Tinder date – also a relative stranger – held me close through the night, his city apartment lit up in a faux-lavender glow.

‘ … plenty of time to spare’, Dad announces as we pull into the Domestic Departures lane.

‘Thanks Dad’, I say, appreciative of both him and the airport lift. I still guiltily wish my ex-partner was here. The still interwoven places we occupy in each other’s lives now blunted by the new labels we wear: ex- or former partner. The latter – more formal – often smoothed over with a workplace smile. The excitement of first-book publicity, the proper start of a career in the arts, might’ve even been something we would’ve, one day, reminisced. Call me when you land, babe, this last person I loved might’ve said – his familiar Eritrean-Australian accent something like home as he leant in.

‘A fucken real book, Ali!’, Dad says, thankfully interrupting my thoughts. ‘You bloody genius’, he proudly jokes, and in a flicker of remembering we look at each other and I think he might even cry. There it is: that memory of the crackly call I got from him on Black Saturday, a northerly gale muffling the line. There they are: all the calls that didn’t get answered – mothers, children, partners, friends. I think about numbers, again.

‘Yeah ha, who would’ve thought – hey Dad?’ I joke back. Freshly printed, my pre-release copy of A Constant Hum sits on my lap. Its cover is fitting: hope in a blaze of wattle, grey-green leaves, and shadows of bushfire ash.

‘Your work … it resonates so strongly with our festival theme for 2019’, wrote Dani Powell, the Director of the Northern Territory Writers Festival. She copied these into her original email festival invitation:

Lyapirtneme | Returning:

The Arrernte translates as something growing back or appearing again, after an absence. For example, new shoots returning after fire. This can only happen when the roots are still alive, when seeds lie dormant.

The English invites us to think about going back to places, to the past, or something coming back to us. Each speaks of cycles and patterns; both reckon with loss.

‘Remembering can be a radical act’, Powell writes in her Festival introduction. The programming – centred on Arrente voices – highlights the continuing erasure of Indigenous stories and languages by settler narratives. The 2019 Festival also celebrates a return to language, and a hope for change. I think about the people before me who called Christmas Hills home and how their stories have been pushed aside. In the book ‘Living with Fire: people, nature and fire in Steels Creek’, Christmas Hills is recorded as being referred to as Wyenondable in the Woiwurrong language, which translates to ‘Hills of Fire’ in English. Fires, although not ones that flared into storms due to climate change and land mismanagement, have burned through this area before. The story of fire and country, of loss and regrowth is not, at all, my own.

Paul Collis, Kirli Saunders, John Kinsella, Charles Massy, Patricia Ansell Dodds: the 2019 Northern Territory Writers Festival line up is intimidatingly good. I clutch the event brochure as I exit QF796 onto the Alice Springs tarmac – the colours here are so much brighter than the Melbourne cold I’ve just left. An old friend, Kate – autumn-eyed, calm – meets me at the baggage carrousel. We pile into her car, filling each other in on the years of each other’s lives we’ve missed. We talk about A Constant Hum and about her work at Broome’s Magabala Books. We talk about the friends we share who’ve got married, had a baby, left their partners or been themselves left. We talk about how we’ve lost touch but won’t again. ‘Pick you up for tonight’s festival session’, Kate promises, and I step out of her work car and into the heat when we reach the Mercure Hotel.

Lining up behind an elegant woman at reception – her suitcase small and neat – I wonder if she’s a writer who’s used to travel and festivals, printed books, and publicity sheets. I feel an immediate rush of hope, imagining a sustainable creative life. For a moment I imagine quitting my office job with its daily fluorescent overhead lights. There I am, almost, waking up everyday to a regular writing routine. ‘Thank you’, the woman in front of me says, accepting her hotel room keys. Just like my friend Kate, this woman emits a quiet assuredness that I strive for. Later, at a packed-out festival session on a book called False Claims and Colonial Thieves, I learn the woman with the neat suitcase is the Wajarri and Badimaya author Charmaine Papertalk-Green. She’s written a call-back collection of poetry with John Kinsella. Afterwards, I Google a review of their book which concludes with Papertalk-Green’s words:

‘To move forward / is the only space.’

My hotel room features wallpaper printed with life-size camels. I take a photo of the novelty décor for Instagram, then send it to some of the phone numbers I’ve saved from Tinder: to Dave, to Li, to Dev. I put my phone down. I pick it up again.

‘Hotel room to yourself?’ Tinder Dave immediately replies.

‘Does that mean I’ve made it?’ I answer before making a joke about how the bathroom that smells like cigarettes, sausage rolls, and bleach. I mention the pile of books I’ve carried across the country: fellow festival guest Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance, a proof copy of Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August, the latest Lindsay Magazine.

‘Bookish type hey?’ Tinder Dave answers. ‘I like my girls with a decent brain.’

‘What are you reading?’ I write back without thinking.

‘Jordan Peterson’, he replies. Then: ‘Wish I was there to show you what else I like.’

Increasingly desensitised to messages like this, but still disappointed, I close Tinder and place A Constant Hum on the bedside table. As an object, the book seems too small for all the smoke-stained hours, the ashy weeks, the months, and the years that are only now beginning to clear.

Sunday’s schedule at the festival is backdropped by rust-coloured ridges and endless sky, Bunnings-tarp blue. I share a panel – Rebuilding from the Broken – with Barkindji teacher, poet, and novelist Paul Collis. With a title that spans so much, the event takes place in a fittingly huge cream tarp tent, set up in the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens. Festival guests use strands of eucalypt to brush the flies from their faces. While waiting, I look down at my festival guide and read the panel’s description text:

… A young man fresh out of prison, ready for payback, returns to his grandmother’s country; a community devastated by fire tries to grapple with profound loss. Writers reflect on regrowth, renewal and carrying on … In the face of destruction, loss and despair, what sustains us?

Bush pigeons, the kind with little head tufts, strut between the growing audience as the pre-panel anxiety makes my skin glitter with sweat. A festival sound technician leans in in to adjust my microphone as Paul Collis – in blue jeans and a button-up shirt – walks on stage to introduce himself and to also sit down. His presence is comforting, firm, kind. Together we look out at the audience again, some faces familiar and others new. There are all kinds of people, from all kinds of country. The pigeons, still, too.

‘Righto’, Paul says, ‘Let’s get started’.

Paul speaks about the inter-generational trauma continuously inflicted by colonisation, about Australia’s systematic and continuing erasure of Indigenous cultures. He talks about the main character of his book Dancing Home. At question time a woman in a straw hat raises her blue-veined hand. ‘How does writing help you heal?’ she asks nervously, her deep voice cutting through the sudden quiet.

‘Aren’t we all still br/br/br/broken?’ Paul answers. ‘That’s a post-modern poem right there for you’, he adds. The audience is silent – though a few members smile, understanding quietly, from their white plastic chairs.

Writing this essay, I’m halfway through Leslie Jamison’s essay ‘Big Smoke’. Looking back on a Las Vegas weekend – and a brief relationship contained under rhinestone light – she writes:

I wondered if I was built exclusively to fall in love. I worried, sometimes, that I was built more to fall in love than to be in love. But didn’t everyone worry about that? But you couldn’t think your way past it. You had to keep falling in love, over and over again, and hope that it stuck once, to prove it could.

This is what writing is like, too. Having the 47 short stories of A Constant Hum typeset, designed, bound, and distributed has been surreal – a dream even – but not as fulfilling as the daily work of writing. Leaving my publisher’s office with the first copy of Hum in my hands didn’t give me the electric thrill I’d hoped for. We always talk about the difficulty of writing – the summer-desk back-of-thigh sweat, the frustrated tears – but what about the love of the unknown? The romance in the hope that the hours, the weeks, and the years of the project would somehow, somewhere, stick? Maybe the comfort, for me, has always been in reaching toward the next publication, the next email of interest, the next shortlist. Now the ‘nexts’ are bigger: the next book, the next review, the next sales sheet.

‘Buying your book for my mother’, a denim-clad Alice Springs woman with white, teal-tipped hair abruptly says. ‘Ta for the talk.’ Paul and I are at the Red Kangaroo Bookshop pop-up, after the panel. He has a queue of about twelve festival guests lining up for him – all waiting patiently and obviously in awe. The peacock-haired woman steps closer to me and, when she speaks, her silver-grey fillings gleam. ‘My mum, she was about 12 in 1939 – Black Friday – never spoke about it though.’

‘Oh really,’ I say, trying to think of what to write as I sign her copy of A Constant Hum. It’s probably only the third one I’ve signed and I’m nervous; I don’t really know what I’m supposed to write. Do I ask for her name? Do I just write mine? Does my handwriting look ok?

‘During Black Saturday’, the woman continues, ‘we couldn’t pull Mum away from the tele – she’d barely eat. She watched the news about the fire, quietly, for weeks’.

‘Oh’, I say, ‘I’m so sorry’.

‘The cover is nice’, the woman continues.

‘Thank you’, I say.

‘No, thank you’, she says.

For your mum, I write.

Back at the Mercure – t-shirt on, eyeliner off – I go to the mini bar for a beer and a Cherry Ripe. I turn on the TV: Scott Morrison is about to win the 2019 election. Adani is about to be given the green light. Soon there will be more fires, human-fuelled and flickering – wild – across the news. Miracle Morrison election win, Vote against the climate: the election coverage makes me think of the Black Saturday headlines again, about the newspapers I stored, shoved in a giant blue IKEA bag, while writing Hum.

I look out the hotel window, at two kids – in Nike tees and faded caps – riding their BMXs across the terracotta earth. I go from feeling alive and free and semi-successful to feeling a chalky loneliness, bone-deep and blue. I think of Solnit and ‘The Blue of Distance’:

… but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into sky, is a deeper, dreamier melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.

Whatsapp: Nothing. I open Tinder, then Bumble, then Twitter, then Goodreads, and Hinge. I open Gmail and then Instagram, then Facebook. I put my phone down. I pick it up again. There are politicians pretending to drink beer on the news.

Sometimes, lonely for my last relationship, as I was in the Mercure that day, I find comfort in rereading A Constant Hum’s acknowledgements section: in the Tigrinya words yfetwekaye and yekenyeley (I love you and thank you). Those two words are a love letter, of sorts, to my ex-partner in his first language which I had – embarrassingly – been taking way too long to learn. During the final editing stage of Hum I knew were breaking up but didn’t dare take out those lines of dedication. He had been beside me for the last three years of writing the book: over 1,000 nights. We’d travelled to see his family in Addis Ababa, in Texas, in Indiana. We’d shared everything but a home. I remember his words one ordinary Sunday morning: ‘Ali, I just can’t do this anymore.’

Writing, for me, has always been to hold on.

The festival over, Dad picks me up from the arrivals lane. Melbourne is comfortingly overcast and the bright white of his car is softened by Christmas Hills dust, not ash.

‘Thanks for coming all this way.’

‘Of course, Ali’, he replies, grabbing my suitcase and leaning in for a quick hug. ‘D’ya sell any books?’

‘Yeah’, I answer, getting in the passenger seat, ‘a few but didn’t count’. Feeling freshly hopeful from the festival, the need for reassurance has faded. A different, calmer, blue sets in. I know it’ll be unlikely that I stop checking Goodreads reviews daily. I know I’ll keep swiping for love and comfort, recognition and connection: with little luck. I also know – though – that the yellowing piles of newspapers I kept from Black Saturday are going; it’s time to start working on something new.

‘Night Ali’, Dad says, dropping me off just before 7 pm. ‘Love ya.’ I watch the taillights of my parents’ car drive off down Normanby Road, back towards the still recovering bush of Christmas Hills. My cotton bag is tinted with rusty dust and my phone lights up, a melancholy glow. I cross the street and unlock my door – cold May air filling the near-empty city apartment I have been learning to call home.

It’s calming to see the courtyard garden; I’d told myself that this year – the first living on my own – would be the one I taught myself to make things grow. Each plant I keep alive longer than a few weeks gives me a different kind comfort – success I can measure in new leaves and shoots. Fittingly named Bush Inferno, my favourite Kangaroo Paw plant, is lit up ahead of me – amber-yellow and still going strong. Lyapirtneme | Returning – maybe things can recover and regrow. I think about my book again, about the constant hum of it all: a harsh white light, a low warm glow.

Works Cited
Christine Hansen and Tom Griffiths, Living with Fire: people, nature and fire in Steels Creek (Clayton: CSIRO Publishing, 2013)
Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves (Broome: Magabala Books, 2019)
Paul Collis, Dancing Home (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017)
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006)
Leslie Jamieson, Make them Scream, Make them Burn (London: Granta Books, 2019)
Josephine Rowe, Here Until August (Melbourne: Black Inc. 2019)
Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance, (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing 2015)
Otegha Uwagba, Women Who (Podcast)

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.