By Robert KennyNon-fiction University of Western Australia Publishing
Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir
This unusual and erudite book blends the personal, the cultural and the historical, as it delves into the Australian experience of bushfire – past and present.
Author Robert Kenny, an award-winning historian and writer, was one of the many who lost their homes in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. Over two thousand homes were destroyed; 173 people lost their lives. Kenny had a fire plan and was prepared – he thought – but the fire was more ferocious and unpredictable than he could know.
In Gardens of Fire, he goes on a very personal journey to understand the force that has taken so much from him, and that looms large on the Australian cultural landscape. He is highly critical of the official response to Black Saturday, particularly the lack of leadership of state authorities. He concludes that fire is central to what makes us human, using broad-ranging cultural and historical examples to illustrate his vision.
‘Kenny wants to reset something of our relationship to fire,’ writes David Sornig in Melbourne Review, ‘to go beyond the historical and contemporary mythologising that is done about it, and to recognise the very real human agency involved in its making and, afterwards, in the rebuilding of the places we inhabit’.
This is a remarkable and compelling narrative that explores European and Aboriginal mythologies of fire and the pragmatics of the fire of the hearth, alongside contemporary Australian building codes and the community response to Black Saturday.
A brave and honest book, perhaps the finest writing to come out of the catastrophic 2009 Victorian bushfires. A compelling account of his own losses and the emotional and physical experience of bushfire also embraces notions of home, literature and sense of place, and the view of fire in many civilisations through myths, history and environmental assumptions.
Cleverly structured with dual narratives, this is a quiet revelation: a great literary contribution, both personal and analytical, to the works on fire in Australia.
The non-fiction judging panel also wished to commend Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
In October this year, as bushfires raged through NSW, thoughts immediately and expectedly returned to Black Saturday, the Victorian fires of 2009 that eventually proved to be Australia’s most catastrophic, claiming 173 lives and destroying over 2000 homes. Those fires felt pertinent to our collective memory and understanding the new disaster. For the most part, connecting the two catastrophes, however, was done through the safe distance of a TV set. It wasn’t until friends started to talk about packing up house on social media and my parents posted a photograph to their Facebook wall of rising black clouds of smoke in front of the view from their house, that the urgency of the situation became clear. Disasters sometime need a personal note – and narrative – to really come home.
LaTrobe academic Robert Kenny understands as much and makes the Black Saturday fires feel so much closer in his outstanding memoir Gardens of Fire simply by being true to his own character. Kenny can be counted among those who lost their home on Black Saturday, and he details the actual events of this destruction with all the nervous energy and fretting that the reader can imagine personally going through. There are uncanny moments, when the flames feel less pressing than they are: ‘Racous flames eat the innards of the house… I say things to myself like, If I get out of this it will be great after-dinner conversation.’
Gardens of Fire is branded as an ‘Investigative Memoir’, which seems somewhat superfluous. After all, isn’t all memoir, on some level, investigative? The unexamined life is not worth living, but also impossible to write about. The use of the word ‘investigative’ however might be there to signal the creative approach the book. This is not straight autobiography. At least half the book looks at the very concept of fire, and how humans relate to this element of the world with Kenny neatly weaving his academic learning through the more straightforward passages of autobiography. So Gardens of Fire serves both as memoir and a cultural history. Publisher UWA’s commitment to experimental long-form non-fiction paired with their pushing the work of academics into the mainstream should be celebrated, particularly considering Kenny’s book comes a year after Ross Gibson’s excellent 26 Views of the Starburst World.
In May 2009, Melbourne author Arnold Zable ran a series of workshops for survivors of the February fires and the importance of the act of writing to the healing process. It’s Kenny’s intellectual curiosity that seems to be pulling him through the trauma. Kenny walks us through readings of Plato, Jung, Alberto Manguel, Gaston Bachelard, and includes a wonderful assessment of William Strutt’s Black Thursday painting. Kenny is interested in the mythology that surrounds fire, and this is contrasted by the harsh reality of how it touched him.
The effects of these traumas are clear when it comes to Kenny. He is not always so much fun to be around, becoming increasingly bitter throughout the telling of the book. The word ‘heated’ applies; Kenny demonstrates an intense dislike for those who attend community meetings without having lost their homes, and who begin to take ownership over the victim narrative. He decries that much of the relief support material focuses on families, rather than the other groups – namely single men, like Kenny – who may have suffered. Not all of these opinions make sense, but this self-honesty is rarely off-putting, and instead goes a long way to giving the memoir both an edge over the usual sentimental survivor stories and a truer to life account of the myriad of frustrations involved in home loss. That the book ends with much discussion about planning codes and building zones might seem like an anti-climax, but prioritising the mundane might be the point. Fire burns quickly and intensely, but the dutiful ash it leaves behind can hold far more meaning.
Sam Twyford Moore is director of the Emerging Writers Festival.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist