Fire and fiction: Reading and learning empathy and connection through bushfire fiction

Fire and fiction: Reading and learning empathy and connection through bushfire fiction

On both sides of the Pacific Ocean, 2020 will be remembered as the year that a new kind of wildfire burned across the pyrophytic landscapes of south-east Australia and the western United States. Twelve months down the line, the figures are still hard to comprehend; Australia’s Black Summer bushfire season killed or displaced more than 3 billion animals, and destroyed over 8 million hectares of native forest. In the Coast Range of Northern California, the August Complex – an amalgamation of 38 forest fires – burned more than four million acres over three months, making it the state’s first ever “gigafire”. Staggering statistics such as these are vital resources for activists fighting to protect and sustain the environment, helping us to educate and politicise the public and place pressure on our national leaders. 

In this article, however, I want to turn away from statistics and focus instead on the role that stories can play in environmental activism around bushfire, or wildfire in the American vernacular. For tens of thousands of years, the act of storytelling has shaped how peoples of this land have understood the natural world and their place within it. These stories are extremely powerful, and shed light on our most basic beliefs about the relationship between nature and culture. When we label our firefighters “heroes”, pin medals to their chests and construct memorials in their honour, we are telling one kind of story about the relationship between humans and wildfire. When we describe wildfire as a “big monster”, as former President Trump did in California last summer, we are telling another. Yet in contrast to these narratives which stress division between humans and their environment, positioning them in conflict with one another, a growing group of authors living in fire-prone regions such as south-east Australia and the western United States are mobilising fiction to reveal how human behaviours are deeply entangled with this natural phenomenon. Over the past decade, as fires in their home regions have burned hotter and longer than ever before, this transnational coalition of writers has produced an explosion of novels and short stories able to change the way we think and talk about living with wildfire in the Anthropocene.

“Wildfire fiction” – a branch of contemporary eco-fiction focussed on the theme of wildfire – challenges mainstream political discourse and social norms around fire in deep and diverse ways. For a start, its authors reject culturally dominant understandings of wildfire management in south-east Australia and the western United States as “men’s business”. Social geographer Christine Eriksen has conducted extensive interviews with indigenous and non-indigenous people living in these regions, and argues that wildfires involve an extension of everyday gender roles that reinforce unequal power relations between men and women. This gendered dynamic extends to the highest levels of power in both Australia and the U.S, with Scott Morrison and Donald Trump’s shared “petro-masculinist” fetish for fossil fuels preventing them from taking meaningful action on wildfires or the human-induced climate change that is making them more destructive. In contrast, women are the clear leaders of contemporary wildfire fiction; writing from two of the world’s most fire-prone regions, where 2020 marked the climax in a decade of worsening fire years, Australian authors Alice Bishop, Eliza Henry-Jones, Mireille Juchau, Alice Robinson, Karenlee Thompson, Alexis Wright and Evie Wyld, and their U.S. counterparts Yxta Maya Murray, Shruti Swamy and Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, are marking out wildfire fiction as a feminist space where voices usually absent from discussions about living with fire are sounding strong.

This women-led movement responds to, and is rooted in, a shared tradition of Indigenous ecological thought in its authors’ home regions. By constructing fictional worlds in which the interconnections between human and non-human agents are radically visible, they echo the relational worldview that is foundational to both Australian and U.S. First Peoples’ cosmologies. Rather than splitting nature from culture, Indigenous cosmology envisions the universe as a complex web of interdependency; as Tyson Yunkaporta writes in Sand Talk, “there is a pattern to the universe and everything in it, and there are knowledge systems and traditions that follow this pattern to maintain balance, to keep the temperature of narcissism in check.” This idea of balance is central to indigenous eco-cultural fire processes, which highlight the interrelated and interdependent aspects of fire that follow the laws of the land. In this model, the landscape expresses its need to burn through signs such as the build-up  of dead plant materials and the decline in resource conditions. Rather than firefighters, people take on the role of environmental stewards who help to maintain ecological balance, “participating” in the processes of the natural world. Failure to fulfil this obligation towards the land results in catastrophic “natural” events; In Yunkaporta’s words, “if you don’t move with the land, the land will move you.” 

Contemporary women’s wildfire fiction contains echoes of this relational vision of the world and humans’ place within it. Perhaps the most striking feature of this corpus is its emphatic assertion of the link between human behaviours and the catastrophic wildfires of today, a challenge to the climate denialism of the governments presiding over its authors’ home regions. Early last year, as the terrifying scale of the Black Summer bushfires became clear, Scott Morrison and his government were quick to label the event as a freakish act of nature: “There is no doubt natural disasters are termed that way because that is what they are,” insisted the Prime Minister on 2 January, “…they wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country and they have for a very long time.” By framing the fires as a havoc-wreaking force, separate from the normally stable life of “our country”, Morrison deliberately separates natural phenomena from human behaviours – and in doing so, absolves himself of any and all responsibility. The authors of women’s wildfire fiction tear apart this constructed divide between nature and culture, exposing the megafires of the late Anthropocene as fundamentally different from the fires that shaped the naturally pyrophytic landscapes of their home regions. Through their novels and short stories, they show how the “havoc” wrought by modern wildfire is tightly entwined with human social structures and practices. 

From their homes in Melbourne and San Francisco, Alice Robinson and Shruti Swamy have linked exploitative land management practices to fast-moving wildfires that threaten human homes. Swamy’s 2020 short story “A House Is A Body” tells the story of an Indian-American mother, recently deserted by her husband, who must evacuate with her sick daughter as a wildfire threatens their house in the California hills. Early in the story, the unnamed mother remembers how the now bare hillside opposite her home was once “green and jewelled with newts bisected with purple and orange, with sideways eyes, cool on the palm, their movements slow with terror.” A bare hillside, fringed by what appears to be an industrial timber plantation, stands in place of this once biodiverse landscape, offering little protection from the fast-approaching fire. Robinson’s 2015 novel Anchor Point explores this process more deeply, tracing the reverberations of a massive land clearing project on one north-east Victorian farm. In their quest to establish a sheep farm, the family at the novel’s centre set out to clear the two hundred acres of wild scrub that surrounds their home. Yet as the farm begins to grow in place of the bush, the land beneath it soon begins to break apart. Robinson paints an evocative portrait of the land’s gradual deterioration, describing how “without roots to sew soil, the fabric of the earth had torn.” Stripped of native trees and seared by drought, the ground quickly becomes “hard as glass”, incapable of absorbing the little rain that falls on the property. When fire breaks out on a nearby farm , the fire front rakes across the bone-dry farm in a matter of minutes. While both Swamy and Robinson’s stories end ambiguously, their authors suggest that both family homes are consumed by flame. As they show, these fires are not natural disasters, but rather natural phenomena made more intense and dangerous by human practices.  

In the spirit of the environmental humanities, women’s wildfire fiction depicts a world in which environmental issues are deeply entangled with human questions of justice, labour and politics. In these stories, environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand. Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum, a collection of short fictions about the impact of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, also explores the real-life surge in domestic violence that occurred in their wake, as Australian men struggled to cope with the disaster that “made it impossible for men to live up to society’s demands of their masculinity.” In her 2020 short story “Paradise”, Yxta Maya Murray, a Pomo-Latina novelist and professor at the Los Angeles Loyola Law School, links historic violence towards California’s indigenous peoples and modern-day racism to the catastrophic fire that erased the town of Paradise in November 2018. Another memorable example of the interconnectedness of environmental and social justice comes from Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point. The land on which Bruce and his daughters Laura and Vik build their sheep farm belongs to an indigenous community that continues to live in the area, trespassers on their own sacred sites. One of their younger members, Joseph, is close friends with elder daughter Laura and passes on his family’s warning that a sheep farm is a “foolish thing to do with that place.” Joseph’s advice, combined with the startling images of the farm’s decay over the following decades, is a reminder of the consequences of our failure to listen to First Nations people’s knowledge of fire ecology. As Robinson suggests, racism continues to act as a barrier to environmental health and justice in this country. 

How might environmental activists in regions like south-eastern Australia and the western United States mobilise fiction in their fight for more just and sustainable practices around wildfire? Many have theorised the link between fiction and politics; some focus on the sharing of information, while others are more interested in the emotional elements of the reading experience. Personally, I’m most excited about the kinds of skills that we use while reading and listening to stories, and how they might facilitate more productive and meaningful political conversations. Stories demand that we exercise skills that are increasingly rare in democratic life, both at home and abroad. They require an open mind; a commitment to following where the facts lead us, and adjusting our perspective on events as new information emerges. In our fast-paced world, it’s one of the last slow activities, requiring us to synthesise vast amounts of information before we arrive at a conclusion. 

Stories also require us to think across different timescales simultaneously, recognising the connections between past, present and future actions. They demand that we think beyond the boundaries of individual lives, recognising how a single action can reverberate across generations, and resist linear, future-oriented conceptions of time that can function as an impediment to intergenerational environmental justice. Finally, reading and listening to stories requires a distinct kind of empathetic reach, as we step into a character’s world and feel the pressures of their own individual circumstances. This experience can facilitate a deeper appreciation of our own unique social position, normally invisible to us. In short, reading fiction requires many of the same skills that enable us to bridge political divides, and have more genuinely democratic conversations about issues of collective importance. 

Whether we like it or not, wildfire has become a political issue at home and abroad. Yet it is also something we must learn to live with in coming decades, regardless of who is in power. It affects all of us, and we should all be part of the conversation. With its diverse cast of writers, contemporary wildfire fiction is a model of the kind of dialogue we need to have if we are to move forward on this issue. One that shows, rather than tells. One that is built on empathy, rather than difference, and situates the decisions we make now in the context of the past and future. One that bridges national boundaries to engage with shared challenges, and learns from the knowledge and wisdom of these countries’ First Peoples. Against a Government of climate arsonists who have demonstrated their contempt for the humanities, women’s wildfire fiction is a promising resource for environmental activism.