Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from ACT Lit-blogger Emma Gibson

With the ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future program in its closing months, I thought it would be lovely for you to hear directly from Emma and Angharad via a guest post, and they both agreed. First up is Emma  – and she chose to write about …

The great Australian writer you’ve (possibly) never heard of: Randolph Stow and Tourmaline

The sun is close here. If you look at Tourmaline, shade your eyes. It is a town of corrugated iron, and in the heat the corrugations shimmer and twine, strangely immaterial. This is hard to watch, and the glare of the stony ground is cruel.  The road ends here. – The Law, Tourmaline

Randolph Stow, TourmalineI was returning to Australia after two years of self-imposed exile when I first stumbled upon Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline.

It was July and I was spending a month writing poetry at an artist residency in Cadiz, Spain, an ancient city the shape of a fist that juts out into the Atlantic. I had chosen the location because it was almost as close to the antipodes as I could get – the actual antipodean point to Canberra is in the ocean – and because I’d spent my last two summers in Scotland or Iceland and wanted a taste of warmth before returning to Australia in August. I had forgotten heat. I was to discover that I did not miss it.

I did miss Australia, as reading Tourmaline made me realise. I read it twice in that month, hiding away from the afternoon sun, because the images it conjured up were so strong, even though it was not a part of Australia I knew.

Far from civilisation, the town of Tourmaline was once a prosperous gold mining settlement in Western Australia, where its potential for riches saw it imagined as having streets pathed with the very gold taken from the earth. It was, as Gabrielle Carey describes in her introduction to the new edition of the novel, ‘a colonisers fantasy’ until the gold was exhausted, and so too the water.

The book is narrated by the Law, the ageing sheriff of the town who lives in the crumbling gaol tower and fears his irrelevance. Now, he is little more than a bystander, who has appointed himself as the memory keeper for the town. It is his testament we read, although it may not be reliable, as his recollections are tinted by nostalgia, memories of rains that the younger generation have never known.

I have seen rain in Tourmaline. Can you believe that? How can you? You have not seen that green, that green like burning, that covers all the stones on the red earth, and glows, gently, upward, till the grey-green leaves of the myall are drab no longer, but green as the grass, washed in reflected light.

Stow writes in his author’s note that the novel is to be imagined as taking place in the future.

Something has happened in the outside world, something that has changed civilisation forever. The town’s war memorial plays host to an annual event that bears resemblance to an ANZAC day service, where the Law delivers the same sermon each year. Outside, where “wild beasts are loose upon the world”, Tourmaline has been forgotten in its isolation, thought long-buried by the drifting red sands that claimed the nearby settlement of Lacey’s Find. No one comes to Tourmaline, and no one in recent memory has left; those who did leave never returned. The exception is the monthly supply truck, and its arrivals are a town event.

Among those assembled for the truck one month are town publican Kestrel, Deborah, his young Aboriginal de facto, Deborah’s adopted parents, Mary and Tom, who run the town’s only store and Byrne, the acne-scarred drunk troubadour and Kestrel’s cousin. As well as the supplies, they are delivered a near-dead man, found fifty miles down the road. Deborah, Mary and Byrne nurse the man back to health. When the stranger recovers, he introduces himself as Michael Random and claims to be a diviner. In his promise of water and gold for the town, he becomes a messiah for the people of Tourmaline – but is Random’s promise of salvation as much of a mirage as water in the desert?

Tourmaline was Randolph Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1963. Stow was a prodigious writer. By the time he was 30, he has published two poetry collections and five novels, as well as working at an Aboriginal community in the Kimberly, as an assistant anthropologist on the Trobriand Islands, and stints as an academic.

But it’s likely that Randolph Stow is the great Australian writer you’ve never heard of. I had never heard of Stow until I found Tourmaline, and as I raved about it to friends over the ensuing months, they hadn’t either, except for one who recalled reading The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea as a student in Geraldton, where the book is set. I became obsessed with learning more about the man and his life.

Stow won the Patrick White Award and the Miles Franklin Award, as well as a fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts (which he later terminated in a letter to Gough Whitlam). He was a contemporary of Patrick White’s and mates with Sidney Nolan, who designed some of the covers for his books.

Yet he is described as ‘the least visible figure of that great twentieth-century triumvirate of Australian novelists whose other members are Patrick White and Christina Stead’.

I wonder why this is. While it’s likely more complex, there are two reason I can see. One is that his work could be considered difficult. While others were writing social realism, Stow was instead interested in the symbolic, drawing on Taoism spiritualism in Tourmaline, which has been described as an ecological allegory. Patrick White himself professed that Tourmaline had “Come to grief in a lush labyrinth of poetic prose.” (Quoted by Bruce Bennet in Westerly 55:2, p. 152).

The other is that Stow himself was elusive. Always a solitary figure who had struggled with mental health issues and alcohol, he spent long periods travelling in the 1960s and then settled in England. Perhaps, in this exile to the home of his ancestors, was a reflection of a theme apparent in his work, of the tension around colonial identity and the impact of European settlement on Indigenous Australians.

After leaving Australia, Stow published few books, and over time, disappeared from our literary consciousness. When Stow died in 2010, most of his books were out of print in Australia – a forgotten relic like Tourmaline, perhaps, already thought long buried. But unlike his narrator in the novel, Stow need not fear lapsing into irrelevance. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in his novels and poetry.

In 2015, Text republished five of Stow’s novels as part of its Text Classics series. Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, was published in 2014 and Suzanne Falkiner’s comprehensive biography, Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow, followed in 2016.

I hope then, that Stow’s work will find new readers.


About Emma Gibson

Emma is a writer and performance-maker here in Canberra. She’s particularly interested in writing about place (which of course appeals to me), and is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.

Emma has written plays, some performed locally, such as Johnny Castellano is mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), and Widowbird (The Street Theatre), and others performed internationally, including War Stories (24:7 Festival, Re:Play, Greater Manchester Fringe, Buxton Fringe), and Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London).

Emma also writes prose, and has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond ReviewSeizure, and Iceview. She has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in Iceland, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival.

Her posts for the ACT Lit-bloggers program can be found here on the Capital Letters blog.

Thanks, Emma, for this first piece on Stow in my blog. I appreciate it! And now, Emma and I would love to hear what you know or love about Randolph Stow …

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from ACT Lit-blogger Emma Gibson

  1. It’s years since I’ve read any Stow and I’d never really considered him ‘up there’ with White and Stead – I’ll have to think about it. As for rain, most of WA gets rain sooner or later even if only as cyclones cross the state from north-west to south-east.

      • White is a natural comparison with Stow, and White is a hard writer to be compared against! With that said I have to confess that I have tried and failed to read Voss twice now, whereas Tourmaline just washed over me. I do think that the circumstances in which we read books can colour our experience of them… But I think I was drawn to the lyricism in Stow’s writing.

        • Thanks Emma. Of course, I would argue that I fell in love with Voss – my first White – for the lyricism of his writing, though it’s a while since I’ve read it! I think you are right that the circumstances have a big impact on how we experience books. I’m certainly aware of books that I thought I’d like but didn’t and believe that the timing was wrong. (Not all books of course. Some I know I’d go back to and feel just the same!)

          I really will have to read Tourmaline!

  2. Well, having always felt a bit guilty about not understanding the religious and symbolic elements in Tourmaline, I am rather pleased to find that Patrick White could see problems with the book too.
    To the Islands was the first Stow that I read, and I loved it, and I loved Merry-go-round in the Sea too. I’ve got another one of his on the TBR that I’m gunna read one day!
    BTW isn’t there a new bio of Stow, not long released?

  3. When Penguin books decided Australia needed their own series of Penguin books they developed a short series. I have found the highest number to be 27 at this point. I am always looking for the AU series. I have them in my vintage Penguin collection. They picked one book of plays, one of poetry, a few novels etc. That then became the Australian Penguin series and on the spine they put AU in front of the number of the series. Tourmaline is the novel they chose, AU15. You can see the full list of Penguins, well almost in my Penguin book lists on my blog. I believe the set was put together in the 1960s. Would need to check that.

  4. I loved The Merry-Go- Round in the Sea, It was the first Stow book I read. I read the other books but did not enjoy them as much. I have read his biography by Suzanne Falkiner and found that most interesting. However, I don’t see Stow in the same light as Patrick White, . As he spent so much time in England, and there wasn’t any publicity for his writings, that is why Australians aren’t aware of him. I never heard of him at school, and I don’t recall why I read The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea.

    • Interesting Meg. I feel I’ve always known of him, but for To the islands which I think is the one often studied. I didn’t hear of The Merry-go-round in the sea until pretty recently. But I think you’re right, going to England probably helped put him out of mind.

  5. Great post Emma. It’s amazing how even people who grow up in East coast cities in Australia still strongly connect with that agrarian identity of the dusty red outback, corrugated iron and the solitary windmill. I always found while travelling that Australians became even more ‘Australian’. I’ll have to give this one a read. My dad bought me a piece of Tourmaline while travelling in Turkey a while ago. It’s a beautiful, opaque black stone. I’d love to find out more about the town behind the name.

    • Thanks Angharad. Love your comments on East coast and travelling Australians. And the tourmaline. I’ve never seen any, as far as I recollect. How lovely to have a piece. As for the book. Yes, I must read it too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s