Yes, Australia has a “deep south”, though we may not necessarily call it that. It’s Tasmania, an island hanging off the southeast of mainland Australia. Like Western Australia, it can sometimes feel like another country. You have to go over the sea to it – and when you get there, you sometimes find yourself saying, “In Australia …”. Very embarrassing when you catch yourself doing it, but it does reflect how “different” Tasmania can seem. It can feel a bit English – it’s cooler, greener and more compact. And, because of its relative insularity, there are, I have to say, jokes about the mental acuity of its inhabitants (like those you also hear of about places like Appalachia). Totally unfair of course! Not only does my brother live there, but Tasmania is home to some significant Australian writers, not to mention creators of all persuasions. Peter Sculthorpe, who is arguably our most famous composer, is a Taswegian.
Tasmania has a rather dramatic history, from the early days of white settlement when it was home to some of our worst convict prisons to more recent times when it has been at the centre of some of our most dramatic conflicts over the environment. It is also where one of the worst shooting rampages in the 20th century occurred (in 1996). Add to this the fact that it contains some of Australia’s most beautiful and inaccessible wilderness, and you can see why gothic is part of its literary tradition.
Probably the state’s two most famous writers are Marcus Clarke and Richard Flanagan, and Gothic influences can be found in the writings of both. Marcus Clarke wrote what is probably regarded as the Australian convict novel, (For the term of) His natural life (published in 1874). It tells the story of a young man wrongly transported for murder, and it documents the worst of the convict system. It is an Australian classic – and has been adapted to film and television.
Richard Flanagan is a contemporary writer and environmental activist. Most of his books are set in Tasmania. Gould’s book of fish (2001) is another convict novel and is inspired by convict artist, William Buelow Gould. It’s some years since I read it but I’d recommend it for its evocation of the horrors of colonial Tasmania in a voice you don’t quickly forget. Here he is on George Augustus Robinson (Chief Protector of Aborigines in Tasmania, 1839 to 1849):
Robinson treated the savages as though they were his entourage, & the savages treated him like he was one of the many stray dogs they picked up on their travels. Neither seemed to notice the earth falling away beneath them as a breaking wave.
No indeed… Gould’s main subject, though, is not the plight of “the savages” but his own survival in a world not kind to the poor and powerless:
For as Capois Death said, if shit ever becomes valuable, the poor will be born without arseholes. That was our fate, & I didn’t pretend I could alter it. I only wished to survive as best I could …
It is hard to find excerpts from this wild novel that make sense out of context, but I hope these two will give you a sense of the language and black comic tone. Flanagan’s latest novel Wanting (2008) also deals with Tasmania’s early colonial days and is similarly worth reading.
As with my post on Western Australian writers, I’m not going to give you a long list, so I’ll just mention a few other writers. High on my TBR is Jessie Couvreur (or Tasma). She migrated to Tasmania with her family as a young child in the early 1850s and lived there until her marriage. The book I have is her A Sydney sovereign and other tales (1890), but she also wrote novels. Anyhow, the first story in my book is titled “What an artist discovered in Tasmania” and concerns one Richard (“who is an artist, perhaps, more in sentiment than in execution”) and his trip to Tasmania (from England) to find “the most hardened criminal on earth” to sit for a portrait. When he announces his plan, his sister Polly asks where Tasmania is, and here is the narrator’s response:
Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropoghagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra* bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly for her ignorance. She had been through a course in school geography, and had mastered, you may be sure, the latitude and longitude of Hobart Town, just as she had mastered the latitude and longitude of Acapulca; but somehow the whereabouts of Tasmania had escaped her.
There is a delightful tongue-in-cheek tone to the story of an artist who doesn’t quite find what he went looking for … I must read the rest of the book.
Other writers from Tasmania worth checking out (but they aren’t the only ones) include novelist-essayist Amanda Lohrey, poet Gwen Harwood, and novelist Helen Hodgman (who emigrated from Scotland with her family, when she was a teenager, and some of whose novels are now being re-released by Text Publishing).
How I dreamed of Paradise,
this southern land at the world’s edge,
weeks of blue water separating old from new.
I tasted air in my dreams,
faint hills, mounds of whales;
the beginning of things.
(from Jane, Lady Franklin, by Adrienne Eberhard)
For all its ferocious past, Tasmania is a place many Australians dream of as our little Paradise down south. If you never have a chance to get there, you could do worse than check out some of its writers.
* With apologies to Melburnians. This is Tasma writing, not me!