AT THE END of the first day of spring, the clear sky is dotted with as many stars as the city’s faux dark lets through. The blue, red and yellow lights of skyscrapers, far enough away to be decorative, flicker in the night. The Brisbane River gives an illusion of solidity beneath its polished surface. Two willie wagtails pass calls around the reach; a boobook owl sits in a branch overhead as a fruit bat lands in a tall, straight palm and pulls its leaves towards the ground.
The air holds equal parts of the fragrances of jasmine and freshly watered grass. Beneath the birds’ calls comes the thicker pulse of a striped marsh frog’s pok-pok staccato.
This moment, the turn of the season, is loaded with a mythological freight of rebirth, a primeval resurrection. On this night, in this year, that sense of rebirth, of potential, feels like it’s worth bottling.
ON THE WALL above my desk is taped a bookmark with all four covers of Griffith Review for 2020, from the ominous black telephone of Anne Wallace’s Chain of Command through to Louise Zhang’s Slosh Samples #2, the cover image for this edition. Throughout this strange year, I’ve looked each day at the lolly-coloured contents of Zhang’s carefully capped glass bottles, a smorgasbord of marbled made-up mixtures in all their neon, candy-coloured brilliance. They’ve been a thing to work towards through days that sometimes drag and sometimes hurtle; a marker in a year that has to turn. Perhaps no other year has been so comprehensively wished away as this one: bushfires, droughts, storms, floods, even waves of locusts – and then the virus came.
Now, in the colours and textures held by each small apothecary bottle, I imagine aliquots of the different stories offered up by this collection: tiny tastes of invitation and accommodation; an apportioned catalogue of kindnesses, blindnesses, hope.
THE BRIGHT CORE of these story samples would hold the four winning entries from this year’s Novella Project VIII, each with its own elegant explorations of distinct generosities. Claire G Coleman’s law-enforcement agent polices a future pandemic – with a scepticism about kindness in all forms. Kate Veitch sends a daughter home after the death of her father to navigate his home and memories, and discover her own. Rhianna Boyle time-travels to an earlier global epidemic and a group determined to honour their own version of its story. And Mikele Prestia plumbs the gifts and assaults of families – shared moments, shared illusions and shared loss. Thanks to the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund for supporting the Novella Project, and to this year’s judges, three fine novella writers themselves: Angela Meyer, Mirandi Riwoe and Holden Sheppard. Thanks, too, to the winners, and to all the entrants, for their words.
Three more vials would hold specimens of works supported by this year’s Griffith Review Queensland Writing Fellowships, thanks to Arts Queensland – each open-hearted in its own way. Linda Neil reframes her experience of Parkinson’s disease with a kind of applied inspiration. Allanah Hunt lays the generosities of children’s friendships against the bias of adult assumptions in one late-1960s country town. And Kristina Olsson expands a personal exploration of belonging to one place and time to encompass the broadest sweeps of geological time and a broader shape for Australia’s narrative as a settler-colonial nation.
There are different invitations, too, in a powerful new essay by Thomas Mayor and new short fiction by Adam Thompson. Thompson’s ‘Sonny’ previews an exciting new voice in Australian writing – and publication of his first short story collection in early 2021 – while Mayor describes eighteen months travelling with the canvas that holds the Uluru Statement from the Heart, some of the powerful conversations sparked on that journey and the possibilities to enable profound change.
In the third row of Zhang’s bottles sits one striped with two greens – like the environmental essence of an arresting personal essay by Joëlle Gergis, one of 230 lead authors at work on the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.[i] This report depends, Gergis says, on the extreme altruism of hundreds of scientists from all over the world who each give their time to marshal information about how the planet is faring and what is coming next. Her essay will link to a new online series, The Elemental Summer, that tracks the climate emergency through land, water, air and fire with writers including James Bradley, Nicole Hasham and Zoë Loh. Thanks to the McLean Foundation for its generous support of this initiative.
And dotted throughout the bottles is the luminous brilliance of new work by poets including Tony Birch, Zenobia Frost and Geoff Page, and an exciting collaboration by Eileen Chong and Lisa Gorton – a subset of the record number of poetry submissions for this book.
THIS EDITION OF Griffith Review was called ‘Generosities of Spirit’ as a kind of optimistic catch-all title with which to complete a year. It was conceived with no premonition of the particular year it would bookend, nor the world in which it would be published. The abecedarium of abstract nouns in play during 2020’s isolations and lockdowns could run from altruism all the way to the Polish Z·al, presciently flagged by Natasha Cica last February in Griffith Review 67: Matters of Trust as ‘the melancholy felt at an irretrievable loss’. Among these, the idea of generosity has achieved a different currency. From the first days of COVID-19’s assaults and restrictions there have been complementary reports of assistance offered, food delivered, errands run, contacts initiated, connections made. People have reached out using everything from the newest technologies to handwritten notes taped to lampposts.
More than a decade ago, the American essayist Rebecca Solnit made a study of disaster and generosity, finding that ‘in disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous and deeply creative in rescuing each other, creating the conditions for success of survival’.[ii] In the desire for those connections, for that community, she found the realisation, too, of ‘a sense of belonging, a sense of agency, a sense of power’.
At this end of this year, these feel like things to remember and to celebrate. Like the sensation of potential on the first night of spring, or of generosity in its many manifestations, they’re things worth sampling and scooping into bottles. There’s a bright beauty in them, and a kind of gift.
1 September 2020