Works from another world
Deep South: Stories from Tasmania
Edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood Text Publishing, 330pp, $29.99 ASMANIA is another country, a lush, sometimes foreboding island with a people fiercely protective of its history, culture and creativity.’’ So says the promotional material for Deep South, an anthology of 24 stories about the island state from the 19th century to the present, edited by Hobart-based writers Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood, who teach at the University of Tasmania. This collection attempts to capture the richness of Tasmania’s folklore and early in its pages it becomes evident the island is not just another country but occasionally another world.
Almost immediately, there’s a distinct sense of the alien, but also something familiar. Repeating motifs and discrete conventions have made the Tasmanian story its own subgenre: the brutal beauty and unyielding nature of its landscape; its storied colonial history as our second-oldest penal settlement; and a certain set of personal peculiarities that mainlanders are only too keen to ascribe to their Tasmanian counterparts.
Of course, similar aphorisms could be applied to the wider canon of Australian fiction, where numerous critics have ventured that pastoral and historical are favoured heavily over the more contemporary interiorising of modern existence. Deep South could be said to reflect ongoing questions about Australian fiction: Are the most treasured vignettes of Australian life disproportionately represented by colonial or historical fiction? What are we to make of the static binary between rural and urban experience? Thankfully, stylish, assured writing provides some inoculation against the hazards of cliches and unhelpful distinctions. Although this collection’s strong focus on historical narratives is a bit predictable, there’s no doubt it offers readers a glimpse into the imagery and symbolism that has come to shape how outsiders perceive the island.
James Leakey’s dissertation on the Tasmanian devil pulses with anecdotes about an ‘‘ impartial monster’’ and his ritualistic hunt for prey: ‘‘ a feeble squeal, an unconscious struggle, and all is hushed except the muffled crepitation of bones smashed up and swallowed with the flesh that covers them’’.
Perhaps more than any other state or territory, Tasmania’s past casts an ineluctable pall over its present. The persistence of memory is inescapable. Tasmania’s penal history has spurred a narrative that is punctuated by bloody conflict. Even the sea is ‘‘ beating with violence’’ in Marcus Clarke’s The Seizure of the Cyprus (1870), one of many stories here that gleefully detail the uprisings between convicts and law enforcement.
Tasmania’s unrelenting terrain and hidden histories provide apt metaphorical fodder for disquisitions on the navigation of more emotional territory. The ‘‘ Island of the Dead’’ is how Theresa Tasmania describes Tasmania in 1869 in The Model Dream, which encapsulates at once the eerie beauty — and terror — of being sentenced to a life in the ‘‘ hopeless environs’’ of Port Arthur.
Indeed, this sense of oppressive containment and isolation is a catalyst for several stories in this anthology. In Adrienne Eberhard’s Orange Bathers (2001), an 11-year-old girl longs for adulthood (in particular, the curves of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret) and adventures beyond the placidness of Roaring Beach. The coastline offers a similar host of promises — as well as limitations — in Rohan Wilson’s The Needle in the Shoe, a story that follows the ruminations of an author on his past ‘‘ loves, heartbreaks and mistakes’’, where irrevocable choices and aborted opportunities have come to define his life.
This dolefulness is also present in Philomena van Rijswijk’s Faith, Hope and Charity (2002), the title of which refers to three islands in Port Esperance. Van Rijswijk is not afraid to name-drop more recognisable Tasmanian symbols (Cascade beer, Waterloo Creek) for good measure in her tender tale about a man haunted by an adolescent lie he told his mentally disabled sister.
The impact of white settlement on the indigenous population is another prominent theme. James McQueen’s Death of a Ladies Man (1985) is confronting for its use of racist vernacular yet also sentimental in its tale of a family coping and triumphing over racial prejudice. The opening story, Black Crows: An Episode of ‘ Old Van Diemen’ (A. Werner, 1886), relays the savagery of Tasmania’s colonial history without mercy.
It is important to note the editors have selected works only from authors who were born in Tasmania or spent a significant amount of time living there. And it shows: there’s a topographical intimacy that inflects the collection’s overarching tone, solidifying its coherency. While it occasionally can be frustrating to see the contemporary notion of Tasmanian fiction still tied to the apron strings of history, it’s a history that, when vividly rendered, remains fascinating.