Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Balfour Correspondent by James Dryburgh - review

In many places across our island there are towns and camps and dwellings that have sunk back into the earth, there are hut depressions and extant chimneys and, in some places arches that stand amongst newer saplings of eucalypts. There are middens and daffodils, patches of naked ladies and arum lilies, and there are gravestones that have been swallowed by bush and eroded by waves.

Balfour is one of those places, now almost folded completely back into the damp bush from whence it rose, another lost, another vanished mining town in the northwest of the state. It is also one that we can celebrate again, or at least get a sense of what it was like, with the publication of this beautiful new book, The Balfour Correspondent by James Dryburgh.

Dryburgh, who is best known for his informed and well written, often political essays ‘found’ Sylvia McArthur in her letters to The Weekly Courier, which she wrote early last century. She wrote six letters, and then she died a few days after her 15th birthday, most likely of typhoid. She was buried in Balfour, where her grave still stands amongst the encroaching bush today.
Even in her scant correspondence we can read her vivacious, genuinely friendly and curious spirit. The structure of the book is primarily a correspondence between then and now, with Dryburgh writing back through the ages, addressing Sylvia and her long lost town. Sylvia was 14 when she moved with her family to Balfour, her first letter describes the lengthy and convoluted journey her family made to get to Balfour, which is described as “new, wet, rude and remote,” by Dryburgh.

Sylvia, like many people of her day (early in the 1900s) read the children’s pages, or the ‘Young Folks’ pages of Launceston’s Weekly Courier, and indeed she wrote in to the paper becoming known as the eponymous Balfour correspondent, just as other children around the nascent state did. She recounted in a lovely unassuming manner her daily life in the town, her trip down the mine her father worked in, her naughty little brother and even, delightfully, what books she was reading.

The book design is also gorgeous. A slim red hardcover, with a painting of a young girl by Barbie Kjar on the cover, which revealed itself to be eerily reminiscent of Sylvia herself, but only after completion of the painting, and a photo of the girl herself was unearthed. The hardcover adds a fine heft to the beauty of this publication, as do the inclusion of maps from the time, and some lovely line drawings by Rachel Tribout. The book even contains photographs of Sylvia that she has written about her in correspondence.

Despite the fact that it is made clear from the outset that Sylvia died young, I was still crying by the end. There is something delicate and simple about the premise of the book, and it is a reminder of our impermanence. Dryburgh handles her life with sensitivity and I recalled the line from Blake “to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower,” in so far as the simple correspondence between a man in 2017, and a girl who died in 1912 has afforded us a greater insight into the human condition.

This is a book that is published by the Bob Brown Foundation, and all profits are returned to the foundation. As Bob writes in his introduction “His (Dryburgh’s) empathy for the beauty and tragedy of Sylvia’s life is her redemption”. It is true, it is her redemption, and our gain. I challenge anyone to not be moved by this exquisite tome.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A short piece on publishing in Tasmania

A long time ago I picked up a copy of Christopher Koch’s award winning novel The Doubleman from my parent’s shelves. It was the first time I had read about Tasmania in a book for adults, and it shifted everything for me. The place became imbued with more magic, more story and more depth, it allowed me to better understand the community I had grown up in. It didn’t stop me fleeing the island at the age of 18 though, for what I thought would be juicier territories. They were juicy, though I’m glad, that when I crawled home with a broken heart, for what I thought would be a mere pit stop, I stayed.
Christopher Koch is heir to a long line of writers hailing from Tasmania. In fact, the longest in Australia. Henry Savery, a fascinating character transported to Van Diemen’s Land for forgery, wrote the first novel in the federation. Quintus Servinton is a rather stodgy, thinly veiled autobiographic work. The first novel written by a woman in Australia, Mary Grimstone’s Woman’s Love also was penned here. There are 40 000 years of stories that precede them; stories of our first inhabitants, written in stone, in country, in memory and in voice.
Tasmanian writing was not prolific in the early twentieth century, and as the state headed towards an economic downturn and only 50% literacy, a shocking figure that is true still today, many voices became disenfranchised and lost.
Publishers seemed to disappear too, but with the inception of Island magazine in 1979 (formerly The Tasmanian Review), the importance of local story, local content and local publishing became valued again. Island mainly published local work for local readers. Over the next three decades the purview of the magazine changed, but the value of publishing local work meant that a new generation of Tasmanian writers, many of whom are now recognized internationally (think Amanda Lohrey, Richard Flanagan, Peter Conrad, Carmel Bird, James Boyce, Pete Hay) had an outlet for their words and stories.
The arrival of Mona changed so much; including the way we see ourselves. Creatives, who have always existed on this island were all of a sudden in an international spotlight, and for many Tasmanian writers, came the realization that their work sat comfortably alongside its national and international partners.
‘Slush’ is the unfortunate term for unsolicited submissions sent to a publishing house. About five years ago I was wading through slush for Island on a flight home to Hobart on an autumn afternoon. It was a luminous afternoon, one where I could see the late afternoon light illuminating the Hazards. I was nonplussed; some stories were good, some mediocre, many bad. I read a story from a chap in London who had been emailing me for some time. It was so good I grasped the stranger next to me and gushed and blathered about this exceptional story. It was written by Tadgh Muller, of South London, formerly of Tasmania, son of Mrs Muller, who my mother taught with at a local school. That information came later. We began a correspondence and before we knew it, Transportation Press and a collaboration between Tasmanian writers and London writers was beginning, our first publication, Island and Cities, launched to a crowd of hundreds in Tasmania and a new publishing house, with a clear bias towards Tasmanian writing, with international collaborations was born.
Transportation Press published the next international collaboration, The Third Script, with exemplary short stories from Tasmania, alongside work from the UK, and writers from the cradle of civilization, from a literary culture thousands of years old, Iran. We are now placing ourselves firmly in an international space with our first competition, Smoke, a microfiction competition and are planning our third anthology, working with writers from Iran, Tasmania and the world’s biggest market for English language books, India. It’s an incredibly exhilarating space, a slow burn and an opportunity for Tasmanian writing to be shared around the world. It also gives Tasmanian writers the opportunity for creative partnerships around the world. Entries for Smoke close on April 30.
The ability to tell your story is crucial to an awareness of self and of community. To read stories is to foster empathy and understanding, to be entertained, transformed and transported. In a state that is finally, deservingly in the international spotlight, yet also a state with a two tiered economy and the shocking figure of 50% functional literacy, to have our stories told and the written word celebrated for all its glorious power is crucial.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: Seven Stories and Australia Day

These two books capture a profound diversity in contemporary Australian short story writing.
Seven Stories is a collection of new short stories from seven Tasmanian writers, published by the elusive Dewhurst Jennings Institute. The stories in Australia Day, by Melanie Cheng speak of a middle Australia told through slow burn suburban tales, an examination of some quiet lives in contemporary Melbourne. The Seven Stories, by contrast are set around the world, the seven writers similar only by dint of being Tasmanian.
The stories included in Seven Stories vary distinctly in voice and style and they roam widely. Some are experimental, some blunt, some beautiful. This is writing from a vastly different island than the one Peter Conrad fled with such critical alacrity in 1968 and this collection celebrates a strong and active writing community. This is modern Tasmania, there are no hackneyed representations of the deepest wilderness, no fetishisation of the wild gothic island. These have long been traits in work coming from Tasmania, with the landscape as a character itself. Next to the realism of Cheng’s dusty suburbs, Seven Stories is effulgent. It also contains some of the most exhilarating voices in contemporary literature in Australia. Without exception these stories transcend the fads and fashions of Australian literature, which, from an island perspective can seem like a banal Sydney-Melbourne banter. Seven Stories houses the genius brigade of writing in Tasmania.
Cheng, on the other hand, offers up the unrelenting burbs. She cracks open the characters of people living undramatic lives. She teases out the ramifications and ripples emanating from all sizes of decisions. It is Cheng’s attention to detail that carry these stories, along with the occasional fine turn of phrase, robust dialogue and reasonably developed characters. While Seven Stories has a lushness, this collection is all suburban aridity.

Australia Day contains some marvelous dexterity with language and a deft use of description – the unease felt about “wads of dollars pressed deep into waiting palms,” or “Celtic skin-papery stiff destined to sprout cancers like tiny horns,” or the expression, “the computer expires with a melodious sigh,” are perfect. The very human manifestation of grief in the story Things That Grow is delicately drawn. It’s about a recently bereaved widow who discovers herself pregnant and it is a visceral description of the experience of loss. The character has withdrawn from the world, from her family, she is carrying the feeling that death often brings to the living; one of purposelessness.

Cheng’s realism and straightforward prose also reveal the ugliness and crassness of Australian behaviour, and so much of what the expression ‘Australia Day’ increasingly, and ironically, connotes- a racism. Racism shoots through these stories casually and sharply. In the eponymous story, Australia Day, like a dog snarling in the background, racism hovers throughout. The new boyfriend, who is Chinese, taken to the family farm in the conservative rural hinterland. It is a not a subtle account, and the small minded values couched in a rough humour and gruff fa├žades are a familiar presence in many Australian towns.

Muse, which was included in Earthly Delights, Griffith Review’s Novella Project IV, is the best story in the collection. It is a gentle depiction of aging, and loss, the latter a recurring theme. These characters are wonderfully human, and the story beautifully carved, it is also a gentle depiction of a sweet sexual reawakening of an old man. It is also considerably longer than the others, and has more satisfying character development.
The subject matter and styles included in Seven Stories vary wildly. The Shy Birds by Emma L Waters exhibits an acute suspenseful realism in which she takes the reader alongside a couple walking on an East Coast beach. They meet an old fellow who offers to show them a nest, a beautiful nest. Is he genuinely friendly, or malevolent? The tension ebbs and flows with a perfect foreshadowing from the sound of gunshots (unrelated), and the nervous “pip-pipping” of the black and white birds.

Susie Greenhill was awarded the 2016 Richell Prize for her manuscript, The Clinking. She is back with her delicate prose, this time in a story that speaks of love and loss in a European war zone. If that seems like too big a theme for a short story, Greenhill’s increasingly deft hands handle these big subjects confidently and with beautiful use of language, especially when describing the sea and water ways. The Chaos of Life Beyond Death in the Outback by Adam Ouston is a rambunctious and exhilarating story of a man hitchhiking in the Outback, picked up by a zombie film making crew, who he eventually murders. Both Tasmanian stories, with nary a mention of horizontal scrub.

Also included is Michael Blake’s ‘Donny and Bucket on the Treeless Plain’ which completes the anthology. It is about two teenage boys making the break from their home town Ceduna, making a run for it. It is a liminal story, one that does not cover a journey, but a decision. Completing the seven are Ruairi Murphy, Robbie Arnott, who won the Scribe Non Fiction Prize 2014 and Ben Walter, an increasingly recognised writer of poetry and prose, as well as the editor of this collection, and the brains behind the Dewhurst Jennings Institute. The institute consisted of occasional gatherings of writers to share ideas. Invitations were by postcard only.
Different parts of the short story spectrum are represented by these two collections. Cheng’s Australia Day, with its clear, sometimes crystalline prose offers up the mundane and the middlebrow, which is not always a bad thing. The stories are tightly constructed with the company of some well drawn characters, but they are all in the same key.
Seven Stories, was called by Richard Flanagan at the recent Tasmanian launch “a significant book in Tasmanian letters”. This understates the importance of these writers in the national short story conversation. At least three of these writers have novels with major Australian publishers. This is a pivotal moment in Tasmanian letters.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Open Letter to the Tasmanian Premier; Reconciling takayna

The Honourable Will Hodgman
Hon Will Hodgman,
Premier of Tasmania and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs,
Parliament House,
Hobart 7000.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       9 August 2017
Dear Premier,

We the undersigned are Tasmanian writers, historians and publishers, with works drawing on Tasmania’s past, present and sense of place.

As non-Aboriginal people, we unconditionally support steps to progress reconciliation with Aboriginal Tasmania. While some of us have direct ancestral links to figures and families involved in the colonisation of Tasmania, we all feel the heavy weight of this history, how it was told and its ongoing impact on a proud and independent people.

Tasmania’s Aboriginal people, the Palawa, have lived here since time began. Their culture, community and connection to Country lives on despite the dispossession and injustice inflicted.

Injustice continues to this day, making the task of reconciliation multi-layered and urgent. Reconciliation is more than atonement for the past. Reconciliation requires action, equality, respect, celebration and support for Aboriginal people and their heritage, today.

Reconciliation requires leadership.

Reconciliation requires good faith.

Premier, the takayna/Tarkine is Aboriginal land. It displays some of the most powerful and precious sites of Aboriginal heritage significance and is an Aboriginal cultural landscape, a direct link to Palawa ancestors. This tangible link to one of the planet’s most ancient cultures merits a formalised level of official recognition and Aboriginal involvement, far beyond that which currently applies. Land justice is central to reconciliation.

Your intention to expand 4WD access across the takayna Aboriginal cultural landscape is entirely inconsistent with a good faith attempt to progress reconciliation.

It will be impossible for you to move beyond statements of intent, whilst the Government you lead continues to impose one culture over another, remains deaf to the wishes of the Aboriginal community and pushes for increased vehicle access across a sacred land.

In the interests of reconciliation, unity, equality and respect, we urge you to withdraw your plan to expand 4WD access on the takayna coast. In its place, take steps to properly protect this landscape through collaboration, cooperation and land justice.

By doing so, you will create a platform of trust and credibility upon which to build the reconciliation all Tasmanians want you to achieve.

Yours sincerely,

Pete Hay
Rachel Edwards
James Boyce
Lyndall Ryan
Heather Rose
Don Knowler
Henry Reynolds
Bob Brown AM
Bert Spinks
Clive Tilsley
Hamish Maxwell-Stewart
Alison Alexander
Nick Brodie
Kristyn Harman
Jesse Shipway
Danielle Wood
Susie Greenhill
Geoff Law AM
James Dryburgh
Katherine Scholes
Stephenie Cahalan
Amanda Lohrey
Andrew Lohrey
Lindsay Tuffin
Rachel Leary
Chris Champion
Lucinda Sharp
Jamie Kirkpatrick AM
John Biggs
Rees Campbell
Ralph Wessman
Adam Ouston
Rohan Wilson
Scott Millwood
Tim Thorne
Gina Mercer
Sarah Day
Rachael Treasure

Paige Turner November

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