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Moving in quarantine

Art in the time of coronavirus, 17 April 2020

IT’S WHEN I look through the window that I realise I’m 900 kilometres away from my family, from Dharug country where I have lived my whole life until now. There’s a different bird-sound at dusk here and I’m learning to accustom myself to that. The streets of my new suburb are lined with silver gums and red blossoms that even if not burnt would have long since fallen from the branch in Sydney. Everything is moving in a different step than I’m used to. Yesterday I bumped into a friend on the street and my instinct to reach forward and hug her stuttered in my body. Above the desk I salvaged from the council clean-up is a list of grants, competitions, emergency funding opportunities to apply for. We’re down to the last few drops of the tiny bottle of hand sanitizer we dug out of a mouldy toiletry bag when all this started. I write to the murmur of rolling news coverage, to politicians assuring and organisations advising.

My partner, puppy and I moved from inner-western Sydney to inner-northern Melbourne in late February, when the looming threat of COVID-19’s impact still seemed a paranoid suggestion. In two weeks, our new workplace had self-elected to work from home. Our home was still a shell I didn’t know, a red-brick townhouse with a broken back fence and a balcony where we could watch the blue silhouette of the city on the horizon. We hadn’t unpacked. I didn’t even have a desk to work at yet.

Between the boxes, the new job and toilet-training Dingo the dog, there was no time to explore nearby bars, restaurants or cafés before their windows filled with signs announcing closure. We’d been looking forward to the richness of Melbourne’s literary culture, to the readings and launches and workshops and talks. We wanted to take the dog camping and catch up with old friends. Soon the emails began: we deeply regret to announce –, with great sadness we must postpone –, we look forward to working with you next year –. In a week my book tour was gone. By the fortnight’s end, over half my income. Everyone signed off with keep safe. When we last saw our families, we promised we’d be back for Easter. I left furniture and pot plants and warm clothing for Dad to drive down over the school holidays, and Mum’s been buying up my favourite tea that I can’t source in Melbourne. I’ve lived here for six weeks and I’ve only seen the supermarkets. If there’s something different about this city during crisis, I don’t know it well enough to say.

This year, the crisis that began for this land over two centuries ago has clawed its way to the surface of the national psyche. The consequences of invasion, dispossession, resource exploitation and the interruption of care for country continue to devastate Indigenous peoples such as myself. But this year it feels like I’ve been watching it from the periphery.

I was on a research visit to England when the worst of the fires hit. We climbed into hotel beds on cold winter nights as the heat rose through the day back home. We would wake to notifications of each day’s carnage; we caught glimpses of footage from hotel reception TVs, heard death tolls read over taxi radios. My family group-chat listed the roads that were closed each day, shared screenshots of the Fires Near Me app as if we all didn’t always have it open, as if by sharing news we already knew, we might be able to help. I called a sistergirl on the south coast who told me the phone was too hot to hold against her face. There was no recovery time before the masks left over from the smog and smoke were repurposed for the virus.

Now, at the stillness of my desk in this new home that sucks up what remains of my income in rent, so far from my immune-compromised parents who wait for their targeted Aboriginal-over-fifties flu vaccine to arrive at their local medical centre, I’m reading poetry and statistics. The poet and essayist Claudia Rankine writes, ‘What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half / concerns you. It’s not yours. Not yours only.’ The United Nations University predicts that the number of people living in poverty could increase by 580 million globally as the impact of COVID-19 worsens.

I’m one of an as-yet-undocumented number of artists and organisations in Australia who have been financially devastated by this crisis. Festivals, launches, exhibitions and panels cancelled, funding reallocated across sectors, coverage focused on crisis response. Data from Macquarie University research in 2015 calculated that the average income practising authors derived from their work is around $12,900 in Australia, with most writers working across multiple income sources in an array of freelance, sessional and part-time work to supplement this. With an expected 11 per cent unemployment rate by June, many of these jobs will be lost too. Many already underfunded arts bodies have rushed to provide emergency grants to cover as many of these losses as possible, such as the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency. Small organisations are struggling to shift to online events and catalogues. Everyone is trying to create art to fill the deafening silence of quarantine. Every announcement reads: we’re all in this together.

In December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government’s Department of Communication and the Arts would be absorbed into the new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. In January, Australian authors organised a campaign that raised half a million dollars for bushfire relief. Actors, musicians, comedians and artists co-ordinated millions of dollars of donations while our government fumbled with the aftermath of underfunded essential services and the ever-increasing realities of climate change. Now, many of those artists are being encouraged to access their own scant superannuation to survive this latest crisis.

The irony of the arts supporting government services – while providing resources to ease the silence of social isolation, while struggling with drastically depleting funding – is obvious, as is the solution. Again and again the labour of arts workers and organisations is disregarded, as if creative energy isn’t itself energy. Energy that needs nourishment, support, stability and encouragement. Every day in this isolation I receive half a dozen new pitches from writers seeking to document this crisis. We’ll never be able to publish enough voices. We’ll never be able to pay enough to ease this strain. In the smoke-heavy air of last year, Jonathan Dunk and I wrote our first statement as the new editors of Overland: what we cannot change, we will witness, critique and remember.

There is so much work here to do.

Today I’m writing poetry and funding acquittals at a wobbly desk I found on the side of the road in a suburb I only know through solitary walks with my dog. She likes it here. It’s not as hot as our home in Sydney was over the summer. There are plenty of young magpies for her to terrorise, and no more flaming leaves falling from the sky. She sleeps on the armchair beside me when I work, and has no idea that one day, when all of this is over, I’m supposed to go to work someplace and leave her to play in the garden that we’re growing for her. I don’t know how long the desk will last, how we’ll afford this house. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months and years.

The best we can do is to plant seeds and write in hope.

17 April 2020


This is the third in an occasional COVID-19 chronicle series, to be published as part of Griffith Review's Friday Great Reads.

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