Works from an­other world

Deep South: Sto­ries from Tas­ma­nia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gillian Terzis Gillian Terzis

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.

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