Readings Prize spotlight: Q&A with Alice Bishop

A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Here, we chat with Bishop about how and why she chose to write about the long aftermath of Black Saturday.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction! Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Thank you. I feel very lucky to be on this list.

A Constant Hum is a collection of short fiction about the lingering aftermath of Black Saturday. Most Victorians, if not Australians, remember what they were doing that oven-hot weekend – now known as Australia’s worst recorded natural disaster. The collection tracks the 10 years out from the bushfires – giving space to women’s stories of strength during bushfire, kid’s stories, and more nuanced men’s stories too.

Having lived through the fires myself, – I wanted A Constant Hum to light up the softer stories of bushfire aftermath: the daily reminders that things in the area are forever changed. Women’s stories too often fall by the wayside, and I hope A Constant Hum shows the strength of people like my mum after Black Saturday. These are the stories I didn’t see so much, reflected in the news.

This collection is deeply personal. Was drawing on your own family’s experiences in Black Saturday a therapeutic, cathartic experience, or was it hard to use your own family’s trauma on the page? Did stories of friends and neighbours find life in the pages of A Constant Hum?

I really wanted A Constant Hum to show – to others and even to myself, I guess – that there’s no one way to process something as big as natural disaster of that scale: no neat answer. Some people needed to go home, although it had irrevocably changed, and others needed to find a new home: in the city or even interstate. And that’s ok. Each story in A Constant Hum is based on something I’ve either experienced or heard, by talking to people or through reports: online and in newspapers from the immediate aftermath.

Overall though, writing and researching A Constant Hum was a huge comfort as it made me feel less engulfed by my own story, my own longing for home and for the bush that had become unrecognizable overnight. I also wanted write about that constant drone of patriarchal pressures so many women and girls have to learn somehow to live alongside, about how even in extreme events women are sometimes confined by that pressure – that we’re still living in a very unequal world. In a way – natural disasters can really highlight this.

This collection is a beautifully balanced, delicately wrought exploration of the aftershocks of trauma, coping with grief, and terrible loss. How did you balance the near-constant dive into such emotional subject matter with managing your everyday life?

Thank you so much.

Writing the collection over the last decade since the fires, my own family’s experience informed a lot of the stories about rebuilding after disaster. I found comfort in that – in showing that the difficulties don’t necessarily disappear once media interest has.

Sometimes diving into accounts of the people who lost mothers, fathers, kids, partners and friends to Black Saturday was difficult (180 people died in the fires) but not, of course, as shattering as actually living that experience. Coming so close to that, I do feel a bit guilty for surviving sometimes. That was something to work through, for my mum especially – I think – too.

It sounds so obvious too, but sleep and eating well and walking: just looking after yourself is so essential. I didn’t for a long time and my work really suffered—along with everything else. I think the myth of the starving / financially unstable artist is a really dangerous one, especially for young women.

Overall though, writing A Constant Hum has actually been a really bolstering process over the last decade. It’s been a privilege and a joy. Lots of things haven’t been so steady in my life, but the book has been something I could always rely on – the work has been a comforting through-line for so much. It’s helped me appreciate the smaller things, to take notice again, during blurrier times.

The places that we grow up in get under our skin; the landscapes become part of us. Our connections to our home are so poignant that the loss of that connection can be as deep as a death. That displacement can be related to many other themes and narratives, such as the refugee crisis, the horrors endured by Indigenous Australians, among others. Did you draw on these themes and narratives at all?

That’s so true; I feel like the bush of Christmas Hills, both before and after fire, is a big part of who I am today. It was a really big moment in my life, coming over the ridge – the Sunday after Black Saturday – to find nothing left. I think, that day, I realised everything is so fleeting and that, maybe, it’s a good thing to recognise that. I also felt more obsessed with the need to see the bush start to grow back. To see the first green shoots, and to write about that – again, to notice the smaller things in which you can find meaning.

As a white Australian, though, I’ll never have the level of connection to country as Indigenous Australians have had – for tens of thousands of years. Losing your home and land and having your culture consumed by colonisation would be a much more difficult and drawn-out loss – especially as it’s a disaster, unlike most bushfire, that’s human driven.

Linking in with the refugee crisis, too, I hope A Constant Hum shows that natural disasters have long-term effects: something essential to keep in mind. As the climate emergency is beginning to destroy people’s lives all over the world, more and more people will be displaced. Australians too. I’m embarrassed by our country’s cruel refugee policies – neglecting people who just want to find safety, to get on with their lives.

My family had life-saving privileges after Black Saturday. We had insurance, along with community and government support. Without this, we would likely still be adrift. There are people – millions of people, just like you and me – fleeing natural disasters like Black Saturday all over the world as we speak, without these things.

Many of the stories in A Constant Hum all found life in other publications first – at what point did you realise you were writing a collection?

Publications like Meanjin, Voiceworks and so many others gave me confidence to tackle something longer. There was, of course, a lot of rejection along the way – there always is – but having those benchmarks to work towards was a real driver.

Overall though, I realised A Constant Hum might really be becoming something when the beginning of the manuscript was commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – way back in 2015. It took many more years of work, but I think that was the point I knew I wanted to work towards a book.

Have you heard from friends, neighbours and fellow survivors of the fires since publication? How has the book been received by the community?

The reception for A Constant Hum, so far, has been beyond anything I could have hoped for really. Readers – from all over Australia – seem to connect with specific details, or images that remind them of their own experiences of the time. I’ve been able to listen to some really moving stories of heartbreak, strength and loss too, from people who have connected with the book. That’s been the most encouraging thing – and worth more than anything.

What was the last book that you read and loved? And what are you reading at the moment?

I read a proof copy of Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August. The cover itself is enough to fall in love with. Rowe’s one of those writers that I’ll start reading and then have to close the book to recover after each short story, often thinking: How the hell did she just do that.

Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella’s False Claims and Colonial Thieves are also beside my bed. I was lucky to see Papertalk Green and Kinsella up at Lyapirtneme - Returning – the NT Writers’ Festival – back in May. It was such a respectfully and beautifully curated event. Papertalk Green’s latest, Nganajungu Yagu – based on letters written to her mum – is high on my to-read list too.

I’m also looking forward to reading anything Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes next too. I’m sadly almost through all her YouTube interviews, so I really counting on her next book being out soon.

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