Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2020

Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature, by Chrystopher J Spicer

I don’t read much in the way of Literary Criticism these days, but I’m pleased that this book made its way onto my shelves.

Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature, is fascinating, not least because this study of cyclones in our stories articulates so clearly why Australian literature matters to us so much.

Spicer is a cultural historian, and in his Introduction he explains why the catastrophic storm is more than emblematic of the expulsion from Eden.  Cyclones unbalance the way we relate to our world: we tend to take the place we live in for granted.  We also like to think that life has meaning but a catastrophe upsets that belief.

The ancient Greeks made sense of unpredictability through their belief in fate:

The ancient Greeks believed that the Fates eternally wove the threads of our destiny into the fabric of an ongoing text narrative of life.  If a thread was cut, that only marked the end of one narrative thread, while the fabric of humanity’s narrative continued to be woven.  The death of any individual might affect destiny, but it was not the end of destiny.  Their fate was merely the product of those mechanisms of destiny begun by their ancestors and it would, in turn, be part of the destiny of those in the future.  (p.19)

Perceived like this, catastrophe

… might not be a sign of disorder or that our lives are undergoing a radical reversal: instead, perhaps catastrophe is woven into the tapestry of our fate as part of an ordered universe. Perhaps drastic events can reveal and confirm, through construction rather than destruction, the existence of another, alternative ordering of life. (p.19)

It’s easy for me to acknowledge this from the comparative safety of suburban Melbourne.  Here, although there are an occasional, isolated destructive weather events, large-scale disasters occur beyond the metropolis.   But in Northern Australia along the coast, cyclones have been making landfall for millennia, and our post-settlement history is full of examples of catastrophic storms and floods wreaking total destruction on towns, cities and landscapes.  Our literature reflects that reality.  In trying to make sense of the inexplicable, the literature of trauma derives from the human need to tell and re-tell what happened.

These stories integrate the cyclone as part of the place with which we identify.  Place is part of our sense of identity, physically and mentally and it’s not just scenery, we inhabit it.  Spicer argues that there is a terroir in literature just as there is for wine and cheese.  And I would argue that Australians care about this terroir in story-telling, even if we don’t consciously know it.

Queensland in fiction has been rendered on the one hand as a tropical paradise, and on the other as a hell on earth.  These dualities of light and dark, intense beauty and moody drama find their way into novels, short stories, poetry and memoir, and for Spicer (who is from Queensland) the literature expresses the state’s sense of difference and rejection of cultural uniformity. Thea Astley has this to say:

It is a sense of difference, she argues, that has developed over the years for various reasons, such as ‘the isolation of the place, the monstrous distances, the very genuine suspicions of political neglect. (Being a Queenslander, by Thea Astley, 1976, p 252).  Associated with those factors is a refusal to conform. (p.35)

Spicer says that these differences are not now as pronounced, but argumentatively they are still buried in the Queensland psyche.  

Whereas early Australian literature centred on the bush, because that’s where most people lived and worked, now — according to Philip Drew in The Coast Dwellers (1994) — it is ‘the coast, not the outback that is central to the Australian imagination’.  Tropical coastlines, however, are routinely subject to cyclones.

The cyclones of North Queensland have often been the catalyst for character transformation in our stories, from Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (1973), to the apocalypse and epiphany in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) (which I read before starting this blog but you can read about it here).  While Virginia Woolf evokes place with the gloomy pessimism of English weather, storms in Thea Astley‘s tropical Queensland settings reveal characters trapped within the whirling vortexes of circumstances, teetering on the edges of their own personal cyclones. 

I had already read Vance Palmer’s Cyclone in advance of receiving Cyclone Country, but I put Spicer’s book aside to read Ian Townsend’s The Devil’s Eye from my TBR because I saw that it was listed in the appendix.   There’s another novel in his list that attracts my interest: The Prelude, by Kate Helen Weston, which in 1914 was the earliest known Australian novel featuring a cyclone.  Alas, it looks Very Hard To Get.  (There are also some children’s books featuring cyclones that I’ve read: Nim’s Island (1999) by Wendy Orr; Crocodile Attack (2005) by Justin D’Ath; and Wreck! (1997) by Allan Baillie.  Without the benefit of Spicer’s book, I had stumbled on these titles as resources for a popular Year 5 & 6 unit of work called Extreme Holidays which if you are so minded, you can still find on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog.)

In Chapter Two, ‘The Naming of the Disaster’ Spicer begins with stories of Aboriginal groups that reflect their intimate relationship with weather and seasons, including cyclones. There is also a profile of Clement Wragge (1852-1922) who was the first person to assign names to cyclones so that ‘people who encounter them or suffer by their conditions may, therefore, the more readily associate their experience attaching to any particular storm.  All too soon, however, he had worked his way through the Greek alphabet for cyclones, and the Hebrew alphabet for colder storms from the south.  Before long he was assigning gender, personality and character to cyclones, oblivious to the fact that he was trying to impose order on ‘his’ storms’ as if he owned them.  His system didn’t survive his retirement, but naming persisted and this is because unique characteristics such as moving along a track, and changes in size, shape and wind speed, while still preserving their identity, give cyclones ‘the impression of definite entities’.  

Naming is more than labelling, it an attempt to explain something monstrous that threatens lives and property.  And in fiction, cyclones provide a structure comprising birth, growth, adventure and death, with characters drawn into this vortex.

Ensuing chapters analyse in detail the works I’ve already mentioned and others:

Ch 3: ‘Big Wind, he waiting there’: Vance Palmer’s Cyclones of Apocalypse and Their Power of Revelation;
Ch 4: ‘Touching the edges of cyclones’: Thea Astley’s Cyclones of Revelation;
Ch 5: Threading the Eye of the Cyclone: Elizabeth Hunter’s Epiphany in Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm;
Ch 6: Earth Breathing: Susan Hawthorne’s Cyclone Within;
Ch 7: The Apocalypse and Epiphany of Cyclone in the Land of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. 

I was especially interested in Vance Palmer’s Cyclone and the Astley novels because they are what I have most recently read.  Inevitably there were aspects of these novels such as the symbolism in Cyclone that had escaped me entirely, but since I’m not a scholar, I don’t feel too bad about that!  It was interesting, however, to learn that Palmer had written three short stories that were precursors to the novel… but he had been so affected by the death of a friend in a cyclone in 1934, that it was not until many years later that he could write the character of Randall into the book.  The two Aboriginal characters who sail into the path of the storm were based on Annie and Adelaide Pitt who drowned while trying to swim ashore after a cyclone, and the altercation between the unemployed men and the vigilantes at the showgrounds derives from the real-life ‘Battle of Parramatta Park’ in 1932.  (You can read a police account of this event here but needless to say Palmer with his political sympathies paints a different picture altogether in the novel.)

As Karen Lamb pointed out in her biography Thea Astley Inventing her Own Weather, weather is an oppressive and hostile force in Astley’s fiction. Spicer expands on this with examples of how her characters are brought out of the eye of storms to that very edge.  Symbolic storms enclose and divide them in a universe that makes little sense. For example,

Vinnie Lalor in A Descant for Gossips (1960) shares with Elsie a sense of being on the edge of things and an intense consciousness of self, of being an island in the sea of humanity.  Vinny, Moller and Helen all shelter on this island as a storm of malice, rumour, carelessness and squalor masses around them, encircling them and eventually destroying them. (p.85)

Cyclones make an actual appearance in It’s Raining in Mango (1987); in The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and A Boat Load of Home Folk (1968).  Of these I’ve only read Rainshadowwhere…

…it is the destruction of the Aboriginal mission at Hull River in 1918 by a severe tropical cyclone that precipitates the forced transfer of these people to Doebin Island. [Palm Island]. […] These cyclones are not just catalysts for events but metaphors of the destruction and displacement that typifies the nature of life on an island where physical and psychological discontent and violence become rife. (p.86-7)

Cyclones in Astley’s fiction are within as well as without. 

The chapter about Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is fascinating.  I read it back in 2006, and TBH I didn’t really get on with it very well.  I noted that there were a circularity in the structure but I didn’t connect that to the cyclone from which the prophet Will Phantom emerges, I thought that the swirling tide of words was a discursive style that emulates Indigenous storytelling.  But as Spicer points out, the world created is one of cyclical patterns embodying the cyclonic spiral weather systems of the setting in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The ancestral Rainbow Serpent from the Dreaming is not only associated with water, rain, floods and storm, it also shapes and reshapes the landscape as cyclones do.

These patterns are inherent in the Aboriginal concept of time, which is cyclical rather than linear, spatial rather than temporal (Strange, 1997, p247).  Wright’s concept of time in Carpentaria is a very different concept  to the Western concept of time as linear and chronological because in Aboriginal time, ‘there is no linear procession of generation and events, rather like a recurring cycle of existence’  (p.136)

Spicer acknowledges that this is not an easy novel to approach because its style and its content defy pre-conceptions. (It was reassuring to see that Wright herself agreed that potential readers often find her work challenging.  I was not alone in struggling with it!)  This chapter offers a very detailed and insightful analysis and is one that I will return to when I get round to re-reading Carpentaria.

I’m saving the chapter about The Eye of the Storm because I’m about half way through David Marr’s bio of Patrick White and I want to wait until I’ve read about the genesis of the novel and the influences on PW when he was writing it.  (I skipped the chapter about Susan Hawthorne’s poetry because I do novels here, not poetry.)

A final chapter which draws these threads together is titled: ‘The Word Becomes the Cyclone: Revelations of the Literary Storm’, and there are two appendices of works featuring cyclones, one listing fiction and poetry set in Queensland, and the other listing international novels and poetry. There’s also a bibliography and an index.

Any serious student of Australian literature would find this book very useful indeed!

Author: Chrystopher J Spicer
Title: Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature
Foreword by Stephen Torre
Publisher:  McFarland & Company, North Carolina, 2020
ISBN: 9781476681566, pbk., 202 pages including appendices, a bibliography and an index
Review copy courtesy of the author

Available from Fishpond: Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature and other good bookshops.


Responses

  1. Strangely enough I wrote a post about place and literature over the weekend, which (I can’t be bothered better positioning that which) I will put up in a day or so. The importance of cyclones for Queenslanders and northerners generally hadn’t occurred to me, though I’ve been caught in or near a few, including one on the Gold Coast in 1972 and another in Perth in 1978.

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    • Cyclone Tracy is buried deep within the psyches of our generation, because we were all involved in the relief effort in some way and the shock was enormous. Sophie Cunningham’s book was a vivid reminder of it, but that was NF. I wonder if anyone has written the Cyclone Tracy novel, and if there are any on these themes from NT or WA?

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  2. I have this book too, but won’t get to it until next year I told the author. I’m looking forward to reading it, though I’ve read little of the main books he cites.

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    • I’d offer to lend you Vance Palmer’s but I know what you’ll say… if you haven’t got much time to read his book, you don’t want another one to add to it!
      But you have read Astley, I know that because you contributed to Thea Astley week:)

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      • Thanks very much Lisa, but you’re right. I’d love to say yes but I know where I’m at. As you say I knew I’d read some Astley so felt that would have to do. I have read one Palmer but that was when I was 13, a couple of years ago now!

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  3. I am waiting for the surge of books that will follow the catastrophe around the world that is Covid though I generally think of weather events when I think catastrophe. All events seem to get covered in literature eventually. An interesting book. Nature vrs human caused creates a bit of conversation. 🐧⚘⚘

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    • Ha! I hope they’re not, because TBH I will not be wanting to live through it and then read about it!

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      • It would be the last thing I read too. Lol.

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        • Already I see Twitter adverts for contributions wanted for anthologies, it’s going to be a festival of misery memoirs … because of course people who coped reasonably well and were stoic about it aren’t going to be joining in.
          I have seen social media book-shaming going on, where people who weren’t reading or writing were attacking people who were, because they thought they were thoughtless and unkind and/or ‘privileged’ just for being able to go on with whatever they normally did and tweeting/posting about it.
          When you see ‘I don’t want to hear about #InsertC19CopingStrategy’ on social media, it works just like cancel culture does.

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  4. […] Lisa/ANZLL – Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (here) […]

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  5. […] I’ve never been to Cyclone Country, by Chrystopher J Spicer […]

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  6. […] Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (2020) by Chrystopher J Spicer […]

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