Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Telling Stories about Australia

I've been reading reports about the bushfires in Victoria (Australia) and, among the many other thoughts I had in response to them, I wondered to what extent Australia is, in my mind, populated by the characters from the romances I've read. Juliet Flesch, in her From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels, wrote that
The global reach of Australia's romance novels means that [...] what they tell readers about Australian life and customs, and the ethical positions they express, are as important as how well they describe the physical environment. (294)
They [...] speak with a voice that is distinctively Australian. [...] Some are both subtle and humorous; in general they endorse qualities of openness, inclusion, egalitarianism, community spirit and self-reliance. These qualities are not gendered and women as well as men in these novels possess them. The picture of Australian society which emerges is idealised - though in fairness it is perhaps unrealistic to expect greater complexity of viewpoint in work the length of a novella. (296)
Idealised or not, I can't help but think of heroes and heroines such as those created by Marion Lennox and Ann Charlton, who have faced drought and bushfires in the outback. And one thing is certain: there definitely has been a demonstration of "community spirit" in Australia's response to this tragedy:
The Red Cross and Salvation Army have both launched public appeal, and say they have been overwhelmed by the response from around the country.

Salvation Army spokeswoman Pat Daley says would-be donors need to be patient, as phone lines have been jammed with offers of help.

"We're being inundated and we're just asking people to be patient," she said.

"We are very, very gratified and pleased at the response - not only us, but the other agencies and the government response to the special appeal that's been set up," she said. (Radio Australia News)
There are still more stories to be told and read. Kat at the (mainly) Australian romance blog Book Thingo has a poignant post up about the bushfires. She discusses the importance of storytelling:
Just this morning, I was listening to news reports of the devastation that has occurred and may possibly continue. One of the segments was an interview with a psychologist on how to help survivors cope with their loss. One of the suggestions was to just let people tell their stories, because that the act of articulating their experiences helps in some way to make sense of and deal with it. And it was obvious from seeing news footage that in fact many people are just looking for some human contact and to be able to express to another person what they went through.

As a reader and a lover of stories, this really resonated with me. Even though I read mostly fiction, to me the act of storytelling is, at its core, a way for the author to express and explore and expose to me essential truths about human existence and human life. Storytelling is an essential part of how I make sense of my world (as you’d know if you’ve ever had to endure a dinner conversation with me), but receiving stories is how I connect with other people and make sense of things beyond myself.
Edited to add:

A recent news item from Australia seems to prove the point about the power of storytelling and also demonstrates people's need for happy stories, including romances. Media sites from around the world (including some in Spain, the US, Canada and the UK) have been reporting on a "love story" between two koalas:

A love story between two badly burned koalas rescued from Australia's deadliest bushfires has provided some heart-warming relief after days of devastation and the loss of over 180 lives.

The story of Sam and her new boyfriend Bob emerged after volunteer firefighter Dave Tree used a mobile phone to film the rescue of the bewildered female.

She was found cowering in a burned out forest at Mirboo North, 90 miles southeast of Melbourne. [...] it was after reaching a wildlife shelter that Sam met and befriended Bob, who was saved by wildlife workers on Friday, two days before Sam. [...]

Tree, a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority Victoria, has visited Sam since her rescue and was delighted to see she had found a boyfriend in Bob.

'They've really taken a shine to each other as they are both burnt and share the same burnt smell,' he said.

'My heart goes out to the people in these fires and this was so innocent so people have used this to distract them from all the sad stuff that has gone on.

'It gives people a bit of hope.' (from the report on the Daily Mail's website)

  • Flesch, Juliet. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels. Fremantle, Western Australia: Curtin University Books, 2004.


  1. Unfortunately, the media's copping a bit of criticism for being too intrusive when trying to use personal stories from fire victims. On the other hand, I've also read articles about people who sought reporters out so they can tell their stories. I think for some it can be partly about honouring courage and those who didn't survive, and ensuring that they're remembered. One of my favourites is the one from a guy who stayed to protect his home. At one point, he ran out water and was left with beer, and he said something to the effect: I didn't know whether to throw it on the fire or drink it and kiss my arse goodbye.

  2. That was me posting. A baby sat on the keyboard and pre-empted me. :-)

  3. Talpianna's had cats on her keyboard, you've got a baby on the keyboard, and all I have is bits of fluff in my keyboard!

    I think the media should definitely be careful not to take advantage of people's grief and intrude, thus making it worse, but I can imagine there's a tricky line for them to walk.

    Because different people (a) have had different experiences depending on how directly they were affected by the events being reported and (b) react emotionally in different ways anyway, even to the same event, it's likely that whatever the media do will upset someone, either for being too explicit/giving too many details, or for not giving enough. I'm fairly sure there have been similar discussions about photographs: what's just too gruesome/upsetting to publish, and how do you find a balance between trying not to upset people and sanitising things to the extent that the public are misled and/or the event is glossed over?