Hobart. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Hobart is the capital of Tasmania. It was founded in 1804 as a British penal colony. We’ve come here to learn about Australia’s convict past. Secretly, my plan is to catch a glimpse of the stars.

One such star is David Walsh, founder of the Museum of Old and New Art that lies a ferry ride away from Hobart. Our AirBNB host tells us that Walsh frequents the Pigeon Hole, a coffee bar down the street. Alas, no sightings of Walsh in Hobart.

The other star I seek is Richard Flanagan. According to the British Council, Flanagan “has single-handedly given voice to Tasmania.” According to my Tasssie friend Emanda, Flanagan attends all the writer events on the island.

But we have chosen the month of February to spend in Australia, the height of their summer holiday. There are no writer events to be found. I must make do with the artifacts that inspire Flanagan’s work.

A local boy

Flanagan was born in Tasmania, less than a mile from the plantation where his convict ancestor was put to work. He has lived all his life on the island. The island’s concerns are his concerns.

The “convict stain” is one of them. In the Allport Museum in Hobart, I see the sketchbook that inspired Flanagan to write Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish. The novel is set in a penal station on the rough western edge of Tasmania, far from the civilized world of Hobart.

The irony was that on a continent itself entirely a prison, there had to be places of secondary and even tertiary punishment short of death. In Van Diemen’s Land, the place of penultimate punishment this side of the gallows was terrible Macquarie Harbor, an awesome place on the island’s wild, wet west coast.

Thomas Keneally, “Rogues’ Continent” in The New York Times, 25 Jan 1987

Into the wild

Macquarie Harbour perches at the edge of a forested area. In Gould’s day, a convict might hope to escape into its vastness. There the convict would meet the aborigine.

My island’s founding stigmata has a second wound: the near successful genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. To this day most Tasmanians are the descendants of the survivors of this twin trauma.

Richard Flanagan, “Against the Literature of Silence” from his 2021 PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, published by LitHub, 12 July 2021
Death of a River Guide by Richard    Flanagan
Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan

In modern-day Hobart, it’s hard to imagine the violent clashes between the colonists and the aborigines. For that, I need to turn to Flanagan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide. Aljaz Cosini is the product of rape by his convict ancestor of his aboriginal great grandmother. Cosini embodies Tasmania’s twin trauma.

Cosini’s job is to take tourists on white water rafts down the Franklin River. From Hobart, we cannot reach the Franklin River. The entire southwestern corner of Tasmania has become the preserve of conservation areas and national parks. We need a river guide to take us in.

Writing in a post-truth world

First Person is a novel based on Flanagan’s experience, 30 years prior, as a ghostwriter. John Friedrich, Australian’s greatest conman, shot himself 3 weeks into the project. Flanagan made up the rest.

To be frank, it’s not much of a book, or as much of a book as someone who has never written a book can write in six weeks about their subject when their subject kills himself before saying what his life was.
Still, I gained a lot from it, not least the money, which was good, if only, as the old joke goes, for financial reasons. With the $10,000, I was able to stop labouring for six months and finish my first novel, Death of a River Guide.

Richard Flanagan, “Which lie did I tell?” in The Guardian, 11/12 Nov 2017
Hobart Botanical Garden
Kangaroo paws in the Hobart Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Flanagan is obsessed with truth about Tasmanian’s past and Australia’s future. About the writer’s willingness to say the unsayable when the state or popular opinion tells the writer to shut up.

I never did catch a glimpse of Flanagan in Hobart. I did hear his speech last May for the PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. It was almost as good as seeing him in person on the streets of Hobart.

We all write in the nightmare of the dark. We cannot escape our tribal impulse, our desire to conform—for their sources lie as deep in our hearts as love and goodness, perhaps even deeper. But a novel, when it succeeds, takes the writer beyond their own history and character, escapes the shackles of their politics and opinions, and in the alchemy of story makes of the writer’s soul that which joins one human being with all.

Richard Flanagan, “Against the Literature of Silence”