Q&A with Sophie Cunningham

Belle Place interviews Sophie Cunningham about her new work of non-fiction.

This year marks 40 years since Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve – what is your motivation for wanting to write this book now?

I have always been fascinated by Cyclone Tracy – it had a big impact on me as a child. But, as I write in the book, my biggest motivation was the fact that the human race is transforming the land, the seas and the weather. In a country that tends to extremes of drought, flood and bushfire, we are now facing a world where there will be more calamities more often and larger numbers of us will be affected. So I wanted to analyse just one such calamity, and consider how it changed a town, and a nation. I was also interested in the impact such an event has for people over the decades. However, the fact that my book is coming out in time for the fortieth anniversary is a coincidence really (or a reflection of how many years it took me to write!).

The narrative in Warning moves from a gripping account of the days before the cyclone hit, to the wild times that ensued – in both the personal and political spheres. You meet with Malcolm Fraser and write in your book that he helped you attain a ‘sense of the times and the differences between Canberra’s perspective on Tracy, and the perspectives of those who’d been through it’. Can you tell us a little about this?

The year after Cyclone Tracy, 1975, was an extraordinary one in modern Australia’s political life. 1975 was the year of the Racial Discrimination Act. It was the year the Aboriginal Land (NT) Bill was introduced into Parliament. It was International Women’s Year. Gay rights were finally on the agenda and homosexuality was legalised in South Australia. The death penalty was abolished in Victoria. Legal Aid was introduced. Advance Australia Fair became the default national anthem. The British honours system was replaced by the Australian one. No-fault divorce was introduced. So, the main question I asked of Malcolm Fraser was whether Cyclone Tracy had acted as a catalyst for political events during the mid-70s. His answer, in short, was that it had not. Not everyone agrees with him – those interested in the introduction of self government to the Northern Territory in 1978 think what followed Cyclone Tracy had a lot to do with the fact the NT became more independent. It could also be argued that the devastation caused by Tracy made Land Rights issues more acute. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was proclaimed in January 1977.

Given the natural disaster occurred four decades ago, how did you go about finding your eyewitness accounts and collecting archival materials? Were those you interviewed, people who had experienced the devastation of Cyclone Tracy first hand, open or reluctant to sharing their story, 40 years on?

The Northern Territory Archives Service is an amazing institution. Over the years, hundreds of oral histories have been taken, covering everything from the bombing of Darwin in World War II; the experiences of the Chinese population – many of the first migrants to the area were Chinese; and, significantly, the experiences of the Stolen Generation. Those archives formed the basis of my research. Can I just pause here to say that archives, and our access to them, are incredibly important, and many significant libraries and collections are struggling to manage with both funding and staffing cuts? I also did my own interviews, but, with some exceptions, it was hard for people to be articulate about something that happened to them 40 years ago, especially given how traumatic the whole thing was. And, sadly, many of the main players have died, or are extremely old and weren’t up to being interviewed. The people I did speak to weren’t reluctant at all, but nor did they enjoy talking about it. However, it is absolutely a fact that many people are not interested in talking publicly about their experiences – I touch on that in the book.

Your book shares portrayals of an Indigenous experience of Cyclone Tracy, a side of the story not often included in official accounts of this natural disaster. How did this come to form part of your narrative?

This was one of my motivations for writing the book in the first place. I had read quite a lot about the cyclone and there was very little reference to the experiences of Indigenous people during and after the cyclone, despite the fact there is a large Aboriginal population in Darwin, and the Northern Territory. Weather is an important part of Indigenous culture, so it’s a subject on which the Larrakia (and other Indigenous communities) have strong views on. I am also interested in the fact that disasters quite often show up fault lines in a society. Making Indigenous people invisible is one example of that.

The evacuation of the women out of Darwin on the grounds they would get in the way after Cyclone Tracy was another. Eruptions of racism towards the Greek community of Darwin yet another. Political tensions between the federal government and the territory also came to the fore.

Can you tell us about any narrative non-fiction titles you used as reference or influential sources for this project?

I had no particular book in mind, other than, in a superficial way, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, which I read many years ago. I didn’t read creative non-fiction titles on incidents like, say, Hurricane Katrina, because perversely I can find reading other good books somewhat debilitating. That said, I was inspired early on by Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland. And when I was making the finishing touches to the final draft I did read Darwin by Tess Lea. That is an excellent book.

Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy is available now, in-store and online.

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Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy

Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy

Sophie Cunningham

$32.99Buy now

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