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Review, 'Island Magazine # 69'

The comment in the ‘Little Magazines’ section of The Weekend Australian March 15-16, 1997 praises Island for its "strong regional flavour…" (Review page 8). What is meant by this exactly? Why is anything from Sydney or Melbourne less regional or more universal than something from Perth or Hobart? Because of population size, or how nationally and internationally well known the place is? Reading the summer issue of Island magazine you encounter preoccupations that are at once universal and regional.

Greg Lehman’s piece on the Palawa experience of death, ‘Life’s Quiet Companion’, reminds us that for Aboriginal Tasmanians the 1996 massacre at Port Arthur was "…more than an instance of tragedy…". The media sentimentality that claimed Tasmania lost its innocence in April 1996 ignored the fact that for the Palawa people "…it was a reminder of our own experience."

Victoria Hammond’s essay ‘Aperture to the Infinite’ invites us to entertain concepts of time, space, transcendence, infinity and eternity as she contemplates David Stephenson’s photographs Stars and Cupolas. As a commentator on art she writes in a way that is intellectual and stimulating while avoiding the use of trendy, incomprehensible art-speak.

While we’re on the subject of time and space my favourite poem in this issue is ‘Probability’ by Jeff Guess, about a dog reputedly killed by a piece of rock that fell from Mars in 1911. ‘Letter from the Island’ by Ian Templeman, the runner-up in the Gwen Harwood Memorial Poetry prize, is a contemplation of the past and the effects of landscape on the psyche. ‘Family Spectacle’ by Adrian Caesar is a cleverly caustic comment on Christmas family get-togethers. Mary Jenkins’ poem ‘Testament’ is a re-telling of the Jesus and Mary story around the time of the crucifixion. "My story you can believe./I was there./It was horrible." Her final two lines illustrate the poem’s tone: "No-one knows what happened to the girl./But that’s the way of the world." The poem ‘Cretiniser’ by roger mcdonald (sic) is dedicated to the memory of Fred Hollows. The other poems aptly complete this eclectic collection of concerns.

Kristen Williamson’s ‘Brothers to Us’ is a moving extract from her soon-to-be published biography of the South African Watson brothers. If South African politics interest you this introductory piece on the story of one family’s struggle against apartheid is likely to have you looking for the book in the shops when it is published next month.

Stella Kent discusses the complexities in dealing with historical truth in the context of writing plays. "The historical play is a duplicitous creature…", she writes. In writing about James McAuley she asks what truths and insights can be gleaned from the various stories told by those who knew him. Or from his poetry and private writings? Who was his audience? How to present truth when human truths are inconsistent and contradictory? She concludes that "…the human mind has its own convictions."

The fiction in this issue includes two short stories which explore family dynamics: ‘Sisters’ by Carol Patterson and ‘About the Heart’ by Amanda Lohrey. Sasha Soldatow’s story, curiously titled the unreadable *****, is about a man exploring the effects of cancer on his body and his sense of self. In 'A Gap in the Field’ by Kate Constable, the central character reflects on the death of a significant other – was he friend, lover or acquaintance? Was his death suicide or accidental? For pace and vividness I like Geoff Dean’s ‘Under the Mountain’ which presents the world as revealed to a small child by his mother and older brothers. A good example, if you like, of the universal in the regional.

In this issue of Island you can also read an interview with Ron Brooks the successful book illustrator, as well as a review of Beyond the Divide: An Interdisciplinary Arts Journal.

So again I ask my original question: what is meant exactly be describing a publication, or a work of art for that matter, as regional? It seems very much to depend on the context. Too often it is used with condescension. Big cities are regions also. In discussing the current round of arts funding cuts, the Island editorial makes the point that "…these are as yet unarticulated disputes about intellectual and literary fashion." Perhaps this is the crux of the matter.