Deborah Biancotti has written a gorgeous essay about how creepy, horrific, threatening and generally unfriendly she finds the Australian landscape. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, undercutting and at the same time contributing to a couple of centuries of problematic attempts by writers and artists to describe, capture and define something that is pretty damn alien.
I remember hearing a story of a “genius” English painter who came out to Australia to capture the landscape, only to discover that we had the wrong kind of green. Not in paint, you understand. The trees were the wrong kind of green. Traditionally, most 19th century Australian painters approached our landscape as if it was – well, England, only without the hedgehogs.
I’m sure every country and culture has an idealised literary tradition to rail against. (Have you read a Beatrix Potter lately? Jemima Puddleduck, for example, rivals Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a place on the list of “books that make you want to kill yourself.”) But there’s something about Australia – the combination of fear and dread and danger and shame… the fact that even someone my age was so swamped with British culture that I have struggled to understand or appreciate any of the Great Australian Authors.
I live in Tasmania, which is completely unlike most of the rest of Australia. The thing, though, about Australia, is that just about everywhere is unlike most of the rest of Australia. The idea of some kind of collective identity seems strange. I remember when I and the other ROR writers were putting our series bible and pitch for the Lost Shimmaron series – we all lived in different parts of Australia, but we needed a town to base all the stories in. For the sake of appealing to as wide a range of Australian kids as possible, we needed somewhere generic, but you know, there is no generic Australian town, or generic Australian experience. There’s a big difference between living in Queensland, or New South Wales, or Tasmania, and that’s even before you get to the great divide between the eastern and western states.
Everything about living in and with the Australian landscape is a struggle. Just about every English or imported plant is now classified as a weed. Something like the blackberry, which is innocuous in its home country (cold winters kill plants. our winters just don’t get cold enough, even in Tasmania) can be a deadly, choking hazard in Australia.
(I really like blackberry jam.)
It’s become fashionable and I’m sure, environmentally necessary, to hack out and get rid of many plantations of ‘introduced’ species. But the thing about English plants, for example, is that they make great fire breaks. Eucalypts burn.
(I’d rather sit under a willow tree than a gum tree any day of the week)
When I first started writing imaginary landscapes, I felt very much as if the English landscape was the default for fantasy. I’d read far more Arthur Ransome, CS Lewis and E. Nesbit novels in my childhood than Ethel Turner.
(I’ve still never read a novel by Ethel Turner. Would you pick up a novel called “Seven Little Australians”? Sounds vile. I quite like Nan Chauncy, though.)
It was a big deal for me to introduce Australian (or at least, Tasmanian) elements into my fantasy. I got more and more comfortable with it, through stories like “Delta Void and the Unicorn Soup,” or “The Bluebell Vengeance.” It was particularly hard, I think, because I was mostly writing comedy, and the Australian landscape has always been better at grim, dangerous, angry and lost than, you know, funny. Finally, with “Siren Beat,” I threw myself wholeheartedly into it, constructing an urban fantasy world that felt to me as familiar as it did weird. Not coincidentally, it’s also one of the darker pieces I’ve ever written. Meanwhile, I’m working on my “writing actual non-fantasy set in Tasmania” fear, with a novel set in an imaginary North West Coast town that feels more real to me than Penguin or Boat Harbour. I wrote it in collaboration with Kaia, who has never set foot in Australia.
(Yes, we really have a town called Penguin)
Like Deb, I feel pretty estranged from the Australian landscape, for many reasons. I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to live anywhere else, though. And writing about it is, however problematic, never boring. Endless possibilities, right here in this one country. The weather is changing. We’re running out of water. It’s getting a bit scary over here. And yet, there’s a comfort in that Australia was never really a comfortable place to live.
Deb said it better. Go read her essay. And while you’re at it, buy her book. If you’re at all interested in the very problematic question of what an Australian writer is, this is a very good place to start.