Introduction

Escape rooms

Birds, breakouts and bell jars

THE RAINBOW LORIKEET – a fledgling, brilliant green with texta-colour highlights – stumbled around like a person too long at a party. It tripped on the roots of the fig tree it should have been in, not under. It swayed as it hopped and landed, hopped and landed on the grassy, uneven ground.

Might have fallen out of its nest, we suggested, a group of masked non-ornithologists on a concrete path on a Monday afternoon. Might be the winds that go through Brisbane every August – even when the Royal Queensland Show, through which they usually blow hard to distribute the latest flu germs, has been cancelled by another virus. 

Might have been pushed, said a man with a pram that held two toddlers, as though he’d had experience of siblings doing just that. 

I walked the minute home, found a box and a tea towel, and walked back to the park. Set the box down and stepped forward to scoop up the bird. Who hopped away – but towards the open box. I stepped forward; the bird hopped forward. I stepped forward...the bird hopped straight into the box.

And we all stood there for a moment, talking about the surprise of the bird’s co-operation, the privilege – the pleasure – of being part of a rescue. We talked about serendipity and unexpected outcomes. As if these were things we wanted to hold on to for a little longer.

Lucky escape, said one man. Falling out of a tree. Lucky to get away with that.

Be a great story to tell your dad, said a woman to the four-year-old hanging onto her hand.

I walked the feathery care package two blocks up the road to the vet.

 

ESCAPE OF SOME sort is a key aspect of many stories, as part of a character’s quest, their redress, their transcendence or evolution. Perhaps a hankering for escape – of any kind – is about as universal a thing as there is, albeit formed by the different causes and conditions that might generate it: curiosity or circumstance, inequity or incarceration, discovery or disillusion, a lack of agency or a surfeit of disaster. 

The four editions of Griffith Review in 2021 set out to navigate sustainability through different prisms. And as they did – through resources, through mental health and mental illness, through ideas of utopia, with the pandemic’s unfolding story refracted in each one – something came sharply into focus: the need to tilt that word, sustainability, away from a sense of continuation, keeping going, towards necessary ideas of adaptation, evolution and change. 

In its own way, Griffith Review keeps evolving. For the past seven years, this November edition has featured the winners of the Novella Project among a larger selection of work – a different mix to our other three topic- or ­question-orientated collections. This year, we’re excited to host a different kind of space for different voices. 

At the beginning of 2021, we invited Australia’s emerging writers to send in their best stories, fiction or non-fiction. We invited three judges – Rachel Bin Salleh from Magabala, Aviva Tuffield from UQP and Robert Watkins from Ultimo Press – to step with us into the many worlds and words of those submissions, and we were delighted by what we found: more than three hundred entries, many of which deserved publication.

The winning four were narrowed down to ‘Americano Sal’ by Declan Fry, ‘Emily Presents’ by Alison Gibbs, ‘The Menaced Assassin’ by Vijay Khurana and ‘Camelopard’ by Andrew Roff. Together, this quartet reveals misplaced and displaced lives and loves; intersections between spectacle and mortality; revelations of the impossibility of escape – or deceit – in a hyper-connected world. Their rich mix of voices, styles and concerns moves from Fry’s Hemingway-esque narrator to Roff’s surreal uber-mascot, from the Frankensteinian resurrection of a long-dead literary megastar to the riskier celebrity of a posting and performative age.

Thanks to everyone who entered this competition, to our three judges, and to the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund for supporting this next chapter of Griffith Review’s long history of nurturing and supporting emerging writers. 

These pieces join the others in Griffith Review 74: Escape Routes to create an atlas of experience – the experience of children, caretakers, tourists, mermaids, immigrants, astronauts, optimists, mourners, brothers, artists and more. These characters dig their fingers deep into the earth, dive deep into the ocean, stretch their gaze beyond the sky. They bear witness; they remember; they rescue and reinvent. They attempt to transcend who and how they are. They fail. They succeed.

 

MONTHS AGO, WHEN this edition’s ambit was coming into focus, the end of this year was a far-off time of pure potential. Surely we’d be heading for a calmer, safer summer after the conflagrations of 2019–20 and every pandemic disruption that had come in their wake? We’d be vaccinated. We’d be travelling. We’d be reconnecting. We’d be understanding exactly what kinds of revolutions and changes had been made possible in the rupture of those many viral months. Having been blasted out of the retrospective safety and normality of 2019, we’d have reached a point of re-entry, ready to see what the next new normal would look like.

Wishful thinking.

Because here we are, walking towards another summer season of notional celebration, notional recreation, with close to 15 million Australians still caught and confined by a pandemic many of its governments still seem unprepared for – despite the adaptations and efforts of so many on so many frontlines across the past year and a half. Here we are, in a world with natural – and unnatural – disasters coming on thick and fast. Covid, new strains of Covid, and long Covid. Afghanistan. Fires from North America to Turkey, Italy and Greece; more than 190 fires in north-east Siberia alone, burning across a total area that exceeded every other firefront on the Earth’s face last August, combined. Here we are, the phrase ‘getaway’ still so often loaded with a sense of survival rather than any of those other meanings – like diversion or evasion, like transcendence or relief.

Here we are, still looking to make sense of this still unfolding change. In mid-winter of this year, two men achieved the greatest of commercial escapes via the first two private missions into space – Richard Branson’s Unity on 11 July, Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard just nine days’ later. A pandemic creates a different kind of meaning for that idea of ‘flight’. 

On the ground, people look for other escapes, other meanings. Someone (living an unlocked life) tells me about a trip to an escape room – the relief of solving its puzzle, achieving freedom. Another (in locked-down living) describes a grand eighteenth-century painting, Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Candle-lit spectators in a room watch a bird inside a bell jar as the air is sucked out of its glass dome. It’s where they live, this person tells me – and it’s the inside of the bell jar they mean, not in the ­audience’s well-ventilated room, looking on with curiosity, but no concern. 

Kathrin Longhurst’s astronaut, on the cover of this edition, adjusts the encasing dome of her glass-fronted helmet. It’s its own bell jar, in a way, feeding in fresh air, keeping her safe – the opposite of those eighteenth-century life-depriving experiments where smart new airpumps sucked creatures’ lives away. Perhaps the new normal is a world that holds both options in play simultaneously; where what’s isolating and what’s protective is harder to delineate; where the idea of ‘getting away’ recognises the loaded ambivalence of that phrase. 

Which stories of escape will travel in that kind of atmosphere? 

 

A CARDBOARD BOX is safer than the vacuum of a bell jar. A week after I delivered the lorikeet in its makeshift refuge to the vet, I called in to get an update. Yes, said the receptionist, the lorikeet had just been released back into its landscape. A happy ending, she said, her patterned mask hiding her smile. A lucky escape.

The following morning there were three lorikeets outside my kitchen window, trapezing from grevilleas and feasting on their blooms. I told myself this was the family whose fledgling we’d rescued – reunited, reconciled, safe and sound. I watched them for a long while – the brilliance of their movement and their being, the random coincidence of them being where I was. 

A moment of bright and optimistic hopefulness – even if confected – to hold against the fact we’ll never know precisely what might come next.

8 September 2021

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