The following lecture was delivered as the Second McDermott Lecture at the University of Barcelona, December, 2001. It’s now December 2018. Long live the Sniffer Dog.
CLIMBING THE HILLS OF NOWHERE
– Growing up as a Writer in Tasmania –
At the tiny airport in my hometown of Launceston in Tasmania are large posters on which there is a picture of a rather appealing beagle. Underneath the picture are the words:
“Beware the Tasmanian Sniffer Dog.”
In the present climate of airport security, the poster takes on a newer and larger significance than it used to have. It was always very serious, but actually bore no reference to weapons or drugs. I will read you the rest of the information on the poster.
‘Tasmania has earned a reputation as one of the most hospitable places on earth. However there are certain visitors that we do not welcome to this state.
And these visitors – in the form of pests and diseases – could be your travelling companions.
To keep out these unwelcome guests, Tasmania has some of the world’s most stringent quarantine regulations. Please help us to retain Tasmania’s disease-free status by ensuring that you are not carrying any of the following items:
Fresh fruit or vegetables
Plants or plant parts
Anything carrying soil
If you pass the barrier checkpoint with any of these items our trained sniffer dogs will detect them and you will be find a hundred dollars on the spot.’
So Tasmania is an island where agriculture is protected from the infections of the outside world. Tasmanians are proud of the clean air, clean water, good fishing, great cheeses, wilderness forests – the general purity and even innocence of their small and beautiful world.
I was born in Tasmania and I lived there for the first twenty-three years of my life. Naturally enough, in the material of those years, in that place, at that time, can be perceived the foundations of the writer of fiction which I have become.
Tasmania is an island about the size of Ireland. It suffers – if that’s the word – from many of the things that islands all over the world can suffer from – and these things I will discuss as I proceed. It is located off the south eastern tip of Australia, and if you keep going south from Tasmania you come to the Antarctic. It is the smallest Australian state by far, much much smaller than the others. It is generally treated by Australians from other parts of the country with a mixture of contempt and envy – emotions which translate into various forms of humour which is repetitive and predictable. The island is envied for its physical beauty, and reviled for its history – and because it is small, and because it is different. Tasmanians themselves see the island as bearing the shape of a heart; other Australians usually see it as a tuft of female pubic hair, or a pellet of excrement. Because the outline of the map of Australia is easier to draw without including the island of Tasmania, Tasmania is frequently left off the map.
Yet people from other parts of Australia love to come to Tasmania for holidays, and it has always been a very popular destination for honeymoons. Right now there is a trend towards seeing it as a place to which to retire at the end of a working life. There is a sense in which it is seen as Paradise – for the mountains and beaches and rivers and forests and farms and orchards are beautiful and bountiful, and visitors are welcomed and celebrated. Although sometimes you can hear Tasmanians say, expressing an ambivalence – well, they like tourism, but it’s a pity the tourists have to make so much mess and clog up the roads.
The island is separated from the Australian mainland by a piece of water 200 miles wide. This water is called Bass Strait, and it is one of the most treacherous bits of ocean in the world. The Roaring Forties blow in, with nothing to stop them between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Tasmania. In Bass Strait the winds meet 126 little islands, and the waters are full of strange channels, so that the bottom of the Strait is covered in the wrecks of ships. To cross Bass Strait by boat is thrilling and dangerous, and even when you cross it by air, I believe you may occasionally be conscious that you are not flying over ordinary water. It is, or at least I should say it has always been to me, not only a physical barrier between Australia and Tasmania, but also a powerful emotional barrier, and I think it works that way for many Tasmanians.
When I was a child living there, the mainland of Australia was usually referred to as ‘over the other side’. To cross Bass Strait was therefore linguistically and emotionally aligned with the journey from life on earth to life beyond the grave. Over the other side is always a better place, a desirable place, and yet the journey is unknown, and so it is, to a certain extent, to be contemplated with caution and fear. As a child I had a great interest in and awe of the other side.
I believe that Tasmania became cut off from the mainland about twelve thousand years ago. A race of aboriginal people was then isolated on the island, and remained undisturbed by visitors until European explorers began to arrive, the first one recorded being Abel Janzen Tasman, who came in 1642. To me the date 1642 marks somehow the beginning of modern Tasmanian time – if you like – the dawn of European influence on Tasmania. Naturally to a Spaniard the date has an utterly different resonance. It falls during the reign of Philip the Fourth – and recorded Spanish history had already been going on for a very long time, so that 1642 is no big deal to a Spaniard. To a Tasmanian it is huge. Notice that it is not the date of a great battle – a great victory or a terrible defeat – but the date of a kind of small revelation – the revealing of the very existence of the place to European sensibility. Tasman named the island after Van Diemen, a high official in the Dutch East India Company, and so it became known as Van Diemen’s Land. That naming was to become so significant, and the name would resonate with a terrible darkness and horror.
The Empire of Britain expanded to occupy the part of New South Wales which is now Sydney in 1788. I use the term ‘occupy’ for the time being, but I will later elaborate and my language will change – you will find I refer not to ‘occupation’ but to ‘invasion’. In 1803 the Colony in New South Wales sent people south to occupy (or invade) Van Diemen’s Land. The main idea was to stop the French from claiming the land – perhaps that’s a sentiment you can sympathise with. The colonisation by the British of what I will call for convenience Australia was effected by military personnel, convicted criminals, and later by people called ‘free settlers’. The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was, the way I read it, tragic in the extreme. It quickly became, in its remoteness not only from Britain, but also from New South Wales, the location for the most difficult convicted criminals from those places, and also from Norfolk Island. Because Van Diemen’s Land was an island, it seemed to be an ideal place to abandon unwanted members of society, and to establish some kind of ownership of the land, and later to develop and use the territory.
Van Diemen’s Land was an alien place where plants and animals were strange, where the landscape itself spoke of despair, with the great unwelcoming cliffs and the dark mysterious forests. In the early years of the colony everybody nearly starved, and escapees from the prisons established a class of bandits known as bushrangers. (The most celebrated man in Australian history is probably Ned Kelly, a bushranger operating on the Australian mainland.) There was also violent conflict between the British and the Indigenous people whose land had in fact been stolen. What developed is described as Tasmania’s Black War – which was at its most intense in 1824. At one point the settlers and the military formed a human chain, a line of people across the island, moving from north to south in an attempt to round up the Indigenous people like animals. In the end they captured only two people. The next tactic was to persuade (a verb which bears examination) the Indigenous people to go, all of them, to a small island in Bass Strait, leaving Van Diemen’s Land free for the British, leaving behind their ancestral Aboriginal places, their traditional lives. The place they went to was called Flinders Island. The result of all this was a kind of concentration camp on Flinders Island where most of the inmates died – it is often said, generally, of the loss of spirit, of a broken heart. There were official attempts to educate and assimilate the Indigenous people on Flinders Island, but these were generally dismal and insensitive. The white people of Van Dienen’s Land raped women, killed them, and killed the men and the children, brought disease, and then corralled the survivors until they died. From that time, the time of the perceived Flinders Island solution to the perceived problem of the Indigenous people – Van Diemen’s Land began to prosper, with free settlers using convicts as slave labour to construct roads and buildings. The society of Van Diemen’s Land was brutal and violent and convulsive. Transportation of convicted criminals from Britain came to an end in 1853. (If you would like to read about these things in detail I recommend The Fatal Shoreby Robert Hughes.)
And as for the Aboriginal people of Van Diemen’s Land – until very recently they were written up in the history books as having died out completely – the last man being William Lanne who died in 1869, the last woman being Trucanini who died in 1876. The language of this discourse is still developing, and I have seen it move in my lifetime from the sad story of the lost tribes of Aborigines to the narrative of colonial massacre and a more or less successful attempt at genocide. The genocide was almost successful, but in fact there are now many Tasmanians alive today whose ancestors were Indigenous, and those people identify themselves as Aboriginal Tasmanians. I must stress that this latter fact does not mean that the campaign against the Tasmanians was not a campaign of genocide. It was genocide. The race that wasis in fact no more. The blood of the Tasmanians is mixed with the blood of other races now, but it has not disappeared. I should point out that the thylacine, a kind of native tiger, along with other animals and plants, was killed off deliberately by the Europeans.
There remains a clear desire in many parts of Australian society to view the extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines as a fact. And there is also a desire to view the extinction of one of the Tasmanian animals, the thylacine or tiger, as a fable. Truth be told – the Aborigines are notextinct; the thylacines areextinct. People long to discover a living thylacine in Tasmania, and there are sometimes strange reports of sightings, but no real evidence. With a certain perverseness people long for the invisible thylacine and refuse to see the Aborigines before their eyes.
Eleanor Dark was a novelist who wrote The Timeless Land(1941). Writing within the discourse of the prevailing Australian attitude to the fate of Indigenous people, she wrote
‘The Aboriginal race is nearly gone.’
The dark and violent events of the Tasmanian penal colony, and the saga of the defeat and murder of the Aborigines, sat very very uneasily on the conscience of a society which was cultivating a respectable face. Ashamed, deeply troubled, morally corrupted by their own actions in the recent past, the people of Van Diemen’s Land set about burying the past. In 1853, when the transportation of convicts from England ended, the island was re-named – called Tasmania after the Dutch sailor who came to it – ‘discovered’ it as history books used to say – in 1642. This re-naming was an attempt to cleanse the past, to obliterate from memory the horror and the tragedy and the violent grotesquerie of recent life, to go forward with a false confidence based on some kind of fictional innocence. Many official records of the convict and Aboriginal past were officially destroyed, and families with blood ties to convicts and Aborigines re-wrote the family history to exclude the shameful ancestors. If your grandfather was a horse-thief from Ireland, and a bushranger in Van Diemen’s Land, and your grandmother was an Aboriginal woman, then chances were your grandfather raped your grandmother and was not joined to her in holy wedlock. Your family history was stained with shame. But you were now a respectable farmer who read the lesson in church every Sunday and so you certainly didn’t need those ancestors. You were constructing your dream of paradise in a little paradise island far far from the real centres of power and civilisation and as far as possible from some sort of recorded truth.
In an early history of Tasmania (published in 1852 ) John West described the island:
Its general character is mountainous, with numerous beautiful valleys, rendered fertile by numberless streams descending from the hills, and watering, in their course to the sea, large tracts of country. The south-western coast, washed by the Southern Ocean, is high and cold, but the climate of the northern and inland districts is one of the finest in the temperate zone, and produces in abundance and variety all the fruits which are found under the same latitude in Europe.
He was describing that paradise to which I referred earlier. And there grew up a perception that Tasmania and Paradise had much in common. There was even a suggestion sometimes that Tasmania was in fact the true location of the Garden of Eden. This would make the ancestors not criminals and blacks but, presumably Adam and Eve – somehow or other. From being the hell on earth of Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania was to become that Garden of Eden. Somehow. At the expense of truth, and at the expense of a strange and complex and unconscious and on-going un-ease in the spirits of the people.
When I was at school we were taught that if we could sail the island just a few degrees to the north, it really would be the Garden of Eden. If only. Magic Realism wasn’t far away from the classrooms of my childhood. For one thing there had been that swift obliteration of the history of convicts and Aborigines, giving rise to the common invention of fictions. Once I was invited to write an essay about my own country – it was supposed to be submitted to a school magazine in the US. My choice of topic for my essay was Tasmania’s blood-stained past. My teacher forbade me to send the essay to America since it was not expressing the official narrative line. Censorship is sometimes a marvellous spur to interest and creativity – perhaps the killing of my essay played a part in my desire to write fiction.
The Tasmanian countryside is different from that of most of mainland Australia. There is a poem which all Australian children, including Tasmanian children, used to learn by heart throughout most of the twentieth century. It described Australia as a wide brown land – a sunburnt country. We learnt the poem dutifully, but it does not describe Tasmania – remember that Tasmania is off the map anyway, is too small and insignificant to figure in the larger picture. Perhaps it’s like – I suppose if you were describing Spain you wouldn’t really stop every time to take, say, Los Canarias into account. I believe that on weather maps they show up as being much closer to the Spanish mainland than they are. That might not be a fair analogy – I don’t know. I do know that Tasmania is to Australia rather like what Newfoundland is to Canada. Anyway, Tasmanians traditionally identified their countryside as being different, as being as a little piece of rural England. They planted hawthorn hedges and English trees, and they built elegant little imitations of the English churches and the Georgian houses of eighteenth century England – and then they built Victorian and Edwardian houses as well. I don’t know how much these architectural terms will mean to you – just believe me when I tell you that the public buildings, farmhouses, houses of the rich, and cottages of the poor – as well as the parks and gardens in Tasmania often resemble charming toy replicas of English places. The indigenous plants were for a long long time considered to be inferior to European plants. It is a great climate for growing apples and cherries and roses.
I have ever so briefly described the history of my native land. I must now enter the scene myself and reflect on how I might have interacted with it to develop a passionate interest in – not only the place itself, but in the writing of a body of fiction which frequently locates itself in my imaginative reconstruction of the place, and which demonstrates I think, somehow, in its tone and position, some of the influences I have described.
I was born into a world in crisis, at the beginning of the Second World War. I have often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a woman bearing a child at that time. But although I know the people had only newspapers, radio newsreels, and letters to supply information, I can’t really envisage how informed they would feel, or how they would really feel. I somehow remember the radio was always on. Today people are drenched in information so that I imagine a pregnant woman must be daily bombarded with deep fears and uncertainties. Of course nature does insulate pregnant women in many ways, but I think the situations and conflicts in the world today, full as it is of news, must surely impact deeply and dramatically on the sensibilities and systems of all people, even pregnant women. There was less choice in the developed world in the forties – about having a baby – than there is now. So a woman of today in Australia can (theoretically) make more decisions about having a baby or not having a baby. But I have always wondered how my mother felt about bringing me into the world just then. Perhaps what I am really saying is that I have always been conscious of a personal, a deep and personal, temporal connection to the war. It was a turning point in the century (from my perspective) and I materialised at that turning point. Of course everyone sees their own birth as significant – and you bet it is – but anyhow, I have for some reason always been fascinated by and fixated on the war. (Along with millions of other people, I know – but I am trying to get to the colour of the influences on my own fiction here, and this feeling about the war was one of those.) My father was making optical equipment, and didn’t go to war, but much of life was dominated by the war, of course. There were men and women in uniform, and life was ruled by the disciplines of food rationing and blackouts. It sounds almost surreal – more magic realism perhaps – to describe the effects of war on Tasmania in the forties, when I think of all I have read and seen of the realities of the war as it was fought, and of the ravages of war on other countries. But we lived in the fearand shadow of war. To a child in Tasmania in the early forties, the war was an ordinary fact of life. Everywhere I looked, it seems, people were knitting balaclavas and rolling bandages to send to the troops. We were prepared in case there was an invasion by the Japanese, and so we had a fantastic air-raid shelter under the garden, and personal gas-masks which we also used as play-things. I regret very much that there are not photographs of me and my sisters as small girls in floral dresses running under the apple trees wearing our gas-masks. We had large toy wooden guns called ak-ak guns made by my father. Our attempts at art were filled with drawings and paintings of the enemy – known as Japs and Germans – they both had helmets and huge bared teeth – the Japs were small people with oriental eyes.
So my first five years were lived in the demi-paradise of Tasmania, to the distant sounds of a distant conflict. My world was coloured by the war, but not quite touched by it. I had male cousins who were in the navy, and they all came home, handsome and amazing in their uniforms, alive, experienced, different, changed. Exciting. And then it seems, in my memory, that the war receded, and as it did fascinating strangers began to arrive in Tasmania, un-English people from places like Holland and Italy. One time I was given two Dutch girls to look after at school, and that was so interesting and exciting. From this distance, from memory, I sense that the stability and prosperity which gradually came at the end of the war fell upon the world I knew like some kind of blessing.
But let’s say now that I have arrived at the age of eight, with the war a fading memory. By the age of eight I am conscious that Tasmania is dead weird – I know that I am living in a place that they don’t put on the map. And I feel that this is destabilising, that the place where I live does not exist in the same way that other places exist. England exists. France exists. America exists. At eight I have never been to England, and yet I know that it is real because everything points to its reality. I can’t explain it to myself, and yet I feel that I am nowhere, and I sometimes find this puzzling, sometimes find it uncomfortable, but I also find it very, very thrilling, like a fantastic secret. I wasa sort of weird child, I think. I believe that all this – all that I have so far explored about the place, and my position in the place – has resolved itself – if that’s the word – into the making of fiction.
At the age of eight I am conscious – and I still can’t really explain how or why this is so – conscious that there are terrible secrets somewhere just below the surface of this place where I live, that the surface is somehow constructed of lies and half-truths. I am there but I am nowhere. The far interior of mainland Australia is known as the Never-Never – Tasmania could be – still could be – the Nowhere-Nowhere.
The history I learnt at school was the history of England. I have still, in fact, a copy of my history book. It is Book Four in a series –The Tasmanian History Readers. It is in the Royal School Series, and it is published by the Education Department of Tasmania. In the back of the book is a Summary of History With Dates. The events listed in the summary are ‘Death of Elizabeth and accession of James the First. The date is 1603. You will recall that Tasmania was discovered (as we say) in 1642. So we were already forty years short in this history book, if you were looking at it from the perspective of a Tasmanian child. We were not being written out of the history books – we had not yet gotten into the game.
So, I am eight – I am a bright and inquisitive and active child with many interests and skills, but I am also creepily determined to walk back into the darkness of the terrible shadows I half sense in the streets and stones and waters around me. There are signs, and pieces of evidence of strange unspoken events – bricks marked by the broad arrow of the convict builders, a few places with the musical names of Aborigines or bushrangers – just stories with no connection with the present, or even with the realities of the history I learn. The history book I mentioned has a section of poems for readers to learn, and they have in them such lines as ‘So far I live to the northward, No man lives north of me, To the east are the wild mountain chains, To the westward all is sea.’ Well the last bit was right. I am not meaning to suggest that everything a child is told must feed in to a sense of personal nationalism, but in my case there was no official acknowledgment of even the reality of my own country. Australia did not come into the story in those days (it is different now) and if Australia didn’t figure in the history of the British, then Tasmania did not even figure in the story of Australia. So to me there was a sense that I was living and breathing in a place which for some reason did not really exist. You may think that all of this is being explored and explained in hindsight, that it is fanciful nonsense. Some of it must be the explanation of hindsight, but I do in fact recall much of this from childhood, much of the feeling, the suspicion, the sense of dislocation. I knew I was living in a haunted land, a land very recently haunted, a land where everybody seemed to deny the existence of the ghosts, and even to deny the reality of the real in a strange deference to the mainland of Australia, and the great and beautiful homeland of Great Britain, and also of Ireland.
As a child I had two ongoing projects which went against the grain of normal everyday life. One was seeking information about what happened to the Tasmanian Aborigines, and the other was to find out everything I could about the convict past of Van Diemen’s Land. I do believe that these interests were related to my feeling that Tasmania itself was a kind of myth. I used to – well I still do – collect references to Tasmania in unexpected places – passing references in literature for instance – like in Nabokov or Virginia Woolf. It is often used as a kind of amusing reference to somewhere a bit exotic, a bit funny, a long way away, of no real significance. Of course these references didn’t re-assure me of the firm existence of Tasmania – they just added to the air of weird quaint unreality. The most recent one of these I found was in the New Yorker (in 2001), in a short story: A man in Denver, Colorado, ‘considered selling the factory, removing himself to Tasmania or Kuala Lumpur.’
It is probably much too simple to explain it all like that. And please remember that I am exploring all this only for the purpose of examining some of the springs of my own identification as a writer of fiction, as a writer born at a certain time in a certain place, writing in a certain way. Writers are sometimes quite interested in visiting Tasmania nowadays, and even in the past writers such as Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Agatha Christie – they visited the island and wrote a little about it. But my imagination constantly returns to the feeling I had that I was a girl in the middle of a lovely hidden nowhere which was whispering with horrible horrible secrets.
I believe that the apparent problematic nature, and even non-existence of my early home, had a significant effect on the way I looked at the world, and had the effect of shaping my desire to write, and on shaping the nature of the writing. The first years of my life were spent walking on the pathways of this non-existent island, climbing the hills of nowhere, swimming in a sea which washed onto the shores of nothing.
I remember something I used to do some days when I came home from school, and as I reflect on the idea of living in nowhere-land, this action of mine, I realise, could be linked, maybe, to my experience of the nothing of nowhere. Instead of entering the house in the normal way, which was to walk down a wide driveway on the right and go round to the back door, I would approach the left side of the house. The sinister side? The strip of land between the house and the fence is too narrow to get the sun. There is a raised garden bed filled with greenery that can survive in shade. At either end of the pathway is a tall green fence and gate, both made from slim slats of timber crossing each other to form lace-work. The whole area is therefore enclosed – by the house, the side fence, the two gates. The light was always different between the gates. It was a world of its own, an enclosure, a sacred space.
I get to the first gate, put down my school case, undo the bolt on the gate, pick up my case, go through the gate, close the gate behind me. I am in. I take as long as possible to walk the short distance from one gate to the other, to go the length of the house. I feel nothing, think nothing, am nothing. I am nowhere. I cease to exist, I merge with the nothingness, I drift. I am somehow obedient to a higher force. I am permitted to sit down on the edge of the flower-bed, but only in order to stare at the flowers and leaves, to sniff them, and taste them. I am not permitted to read or to draw. I may not doanything that is not connected with the place itself. I may only be.
There was no act of imagination. It was more an act of ssnegation, an exercise in disappearing. Having disappeared, I possessed the place, possessed myself, was possessed by the place. It is hard to describe what I was doing, because the act itself was against words and images. Perhaps it was something like meditation or hypnosis, but I don’t like to say so because these words give a false impression. There was a feeling of going in, being trapped, fulfilling the requirements of nothingness, giving in to nowhere. Then getting out. I knew I would emerge, would take up the real world again, be a schoolgirl with hat and gloves. I would go into the house, open the case, get out my books and pencils.
But in the time between the lattice gates I was gone, I was nowhere, I was not. The place had no name, no language, no essential characteristics. It was a piece of time and place sliced off for me where nothing happened. I did not feel safe there, it was not a refuge, it was a trap, a zone to be negotiated, navigated, where internal rules must be obeyed. It was tense and dangerous.
Go slow, said the rules, take as long as possible.
I now realise I was creating a split in my real world, trying to find a way out of reality, a way that was not dreams and imaginings. I think this desire for getting into nothingness between the gates is probably linked to my desire to write fiction. And is also linked to the fact that I found myself to be in Tasmania. I am not even sure how it is linked to these matters, but I see the person who went into the special slice of nowhere after school as being closely related to the person who now writes stories. When you write fiction you go somewhere – but you know it is really nowhere.
Some of the narratives of my fiction are supposed to be located in Tasmania, and I believe that all of them are affected in some way be the tales I have told you of my early perceptions. If I have time to read you a little, I will read to you a section from my novel The Bluebird Café. (page 148) This novel is set in Tasmania. I think the narrative bears out much of what I have just said. The central problem of the narrative is the disappearance from her bedroom in the middle of the night of a small girl. This is a very recognisable Australian narrative. White Australians, the descendants of the ones who colonised or invaded the land only two hundred years ago, have a deep terror that the weird wild inhospitable land itself is going to snatch their children and swallow them up, or that a stranger or a wild animal will take them and kill them and eat them. Australian literature and art frequently returns to the location of this fear. In writing fiction I am in part giving a geography to the Hills of Nowhere.