Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2020

2020 Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival: Fire & Climate, with Tony Birch, Alice Bishop, Tom Griffiths & Michael Cathcart

The first session at the YVWritersFest featured authors I’ve reviewed on this blog: Indigenous author Tony Birch, and  ANU historian Tom Griffiths, and Alice Bishop, whose debut collection of short fiction, A Constant Hum, features stories of bushfire aftermath.

Michael Cathcart began by reminding us that the place he’s in, nearly fell to the Black Saturday bushfires, but at the last moment the wind shifted and it destroyed Marysville instead, with a loss of 39 lives.  He introduced Alice Bishop by asking her about her experience when her house was lost to the fire, which was the trigger for her book. She made the point that the effects last for many years, not just concluding neatly on a first anniversary.  Her own experience makes her memories vivid, and she wanted to depict the little details, and also the emotional experience of almost losing her life.

Tony Birch visited the area with a friend who had just lost his home in the fires, and he told the story of how they could find in the ashes was the shape of a book from his friend’s book collection, but if you picked the book up, it disintegrated in his hands.  He went home and looked at his own book collection and tried to imagine how he would feel about losing it.  So while the human losses are catastrophic, the loss of treasured personal possessions is also intensely painful.

Interlude while I go and get the dog to stop her from barking…

Tom Griffiths is an historian bringing a long-term view together with the present.  He talked about how the ancient trees were here vestiges of pre-European settlement, but, sorry. I missed some of what he said.

Alice Bishop talked about how the little moments help to make sense of bigger events.  Many beautiful stories, as well as horrific ones come out of bushfire.  Cathcart says that she doesn’t take sides in her work, except that she’s on the side of humanity and she includes all kinds of perspectives in the collection.  He asked her to read a little from her book, and she chose a story called ‘Salt Water’.

Tony Birch, now professor of writing at Melbourne, talked about how stories need to be written by people who’ve experienced fire, and how he’s noticed with COVID_19 that headlines are more alarmist (even in the quality media) than the content.  A narrow approach to these stories does everyone a disservice, but a program like Four Corners showed people dissecting their experience in a meaningful way.  Tony is interested in what news *is*, and thinks we focus on sensation and we’re obsessed with ‘visual news’ which distorts what we learn from it.  IN his opinion, the proliferation of media we have now has not improved its quality and he’s been watching it for a long time.

Cathcart asked Tom Griffiths how to reconcile the surge of public sympathy and political pressure to restore things, with the need for cultural adaptation to what’s happening.  Griffiths has great respect for people like Alice and Tony capturing what happened, and his visit as an historian to these areas was to listen and collaborate.  (They were the only ones not in hi-vis vests).  He was interested to learn about people thought they might reinvent their lives, and how might they adapt.  He was asked by an audience member how he thought this event might be viewed in history: he thinks it will be seen as unprecedented, and although the history of one disastrous fire after another is embedded in the consciousness of people who live in places like the Yarra Valley, but what was different was that the catastrophe went for days and days and seemed never to end, and that we know it will happen again.

And yet, Cathcart says, people seem not to learn.  The enquiries find someone to blame and make recommendations, but nothing really changes.  Griffith says we have to adapt, we have to grasp that we will lose material things, and we need to understand that we can still have our communities and the value of the the connections they bring.

Cathcart then asked Tony Birch about the contentious issue of Indigenous fire practice, and how we can get a sense of what it is. For him, the issue is how can we use it now.  We need to see how it is used in different ways in different places, and to see how in a changed environment a collaborative effort might work best.  It needs to be practical, and on the ground, and forward-looking, respecting both science and Indigenous knowledge.  Looking at it as a solution as a national strategy is not going to work.

Cathcart asked, should we be building in fire-prone areas?  Is it like building on a flood-plain?   Alice thought this is often a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t keep account of different socio-economic needs and people’s needs to live in certain types of places.  It is a difficult question to be faced with after the fires: someone once asked her her mother about how she must have known their house was in a fire-prone area.  Cathcart quoted a fire captain who’d said if you live in the forest, you have to accept that your house may burn, and be prepared for it.  Alice countered that by saying that people should not be judgemental about it.

Cathcart asked, do stories about fire point to a lesson about living differently?  Tony Birch thinks so, but whether anything comes of that is another matter, and he is discouraged by political responses and the pressure of short-term solutions in a democratic society.  We need to find ways to act in a communal way, and act together.   Griffith feels more optimistic (when he’s with like-minded people) because of the school climate strikes because we need radical political change.  He’s pessimistic about federal politics.  [Aren’t we all?]  Alice and Tony feel that the power of fiction to raise awareness is really important, but it’s important to read across a range of genres [and so do I].

PS This piece is not proofread, please let me know in comments about whatever I need to amend.



  1. […] it’s a simplistic response. Somehow, I don’t know if Tom Griffiths would agree. Again, Lisa on her blog has done a much better job of this than […]


  2. I like the way that Cathcart describes Bishop’s work as her not taking sides in it, that she takes the side of humanity. This often leads to unlikeable characters and unsympathetic (but realistic) narrators, but that process is one of the reasons I love to read fiction, how close you can get to inhabiting a point of view very different from your own. It’s fortunate that you are able to attend this event remotely; it’s so interesting to see how the literary community is responding to “flatten the curve”, comprised of many individuals who spend more time alone than the average! :)


    • You make a good point. I often see, at sites like Goodreads (even though I have a very carefully curated feed) that readers complain about characters not being relatable. And I think, that’s really a comment about the reader. It means they’ve never encountered a person like that character, so they don’t believe that such a person could exist and they then criticise the author for that.
      It’s bizarre really, because in our media soaked world, there is a constant stream of stuff about the weird and wonderful people on the planet.
      The Yarra Valley people were extraordinarily nimble in the way that they got this together. I am so pleased that it seems to have succeeded because it looks like another small regional festival that I can add to my calendar. (I have more or less given up on the big ones, though Melbourne has a new festival director this year who may be able to restore its credibility…we’ll have to wait and see.


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