Conversations: an interview with Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan
Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan share similar outlooks, readily apparent from their conversation which returns continually to questions of history and literature. Tasmanian history and literature, preferably.
Flanagan: "I’ve always had this sense of the seventies being the age of great dreams ... great nationalist dreams. Is that right Hazy? Things are much smaller now aren’t they?"
Hay: "Whitlam has been belittled by history and that’s unfortunate because Whitlam symbolised huge aspirations. Aspirations that were nationalist and cultural.... What I worry about is history ignoring the symbolic significance of Whitlam. He lacked tactical sense - otherwise the Hawke, Keating regime would have been put in place a decade earlier, with more humane and economically sound principles. But he inspired people. Look at Christine Milne and Michael Field. Christine will describe herself as a Whitlam-ite. She was inspired by Whitlam, he was a hero of hers, Whitlam was the person who set her off on her own personal political track. Talk to Michael Field and you get the same conversation. Yet you come to Tasmania and find Michael Field and Christine Milne are so far apart in ideological terms that never the twain shall meet."
Hay: "And as for you and me, we’re the Pariah Dog Party."
Flanagan: "Watermelon Greens, Hazy."
Hay: "Watermelon Greens mate."
Flanagan: Green on the outside, red on the inside."
Hay: "The difficulty is, as my wife who is pretty astute has pointed out, watermelons are mushy and soft and insubstantial...."
Flanagan: "Did she say that?"
Hay: "Yeah. She wasn’t saying that this was a problem with you Richard, she says it’s a problem with the metaphor...."
Flanagan’s attachment to his island is passionately felt, enabling him to see possibilities for Tasmanian literature where others find little reason for expectation. He describes Death of a River Guide as an attempt to depict the Tasmanian experience with honesty and love. The challenge for Tasmanian writers, he says, is to create a specifically Tasmanian literature and to stop thinking of it as being part of a regional culture.
Just what is "the Tasmanian experience"?
Hay: "I’m going to butt in before Richard says anything. Every Tasmanian sees Tasmania a bit differently, but, coalescing around it, is - I think - a Tasmanian story all the variations of which have a lot of things in common. One of the things that strikes me, for an island that’s only had white people living in it for less than two hundred years, is that we’ve established something of a body of mythology. Myth’s a really inteesting thing. A two-edged sword. It is something dangerous which stops you from seeing things as they really are. But a people can’t live without myth. Myth is what you use to construct your social identity. What Richard did in his novel, for the first time in Tasmania, was to say unambiguously, without any sort of preciousness, here are the streams that feed into a Tasmanian identity. Richard has, it seems to me, tapped into this rich vein of mythic commonality."
Flanagan: "I don’t privilege my feelings about Tasmania over anybody else’s, that’s the personal part of my response. I think my book’s only remarkable in one way, which is that the stories told in it are simply the stories I grew up with. I’ve always thought there’s this enormous well of sub-conscious experience in Tasmania, going back generations and generations, and that if you could simply tap into it - and honour it - you could write something that would at least resonate with other people."
Flanagan: "People ask me what my influences are, yes I read a lot, but the older I get the more I think my influences were just that folk oral culture. The interesting thing about the Tasmanian world is that we were denied any artistic voice except football. We weren’t allowed literature, we weren’t allowed art, we weren’t allowed music. Or history. There was the sense that Tasmania wasn’t a fit subject for literature. The first edition of Christopher Koch’s first book, Boys in the Island, doesn’t even name Tasmania. Doesn’t name Hobart. Obviously you know straight away where you are when you’re reading it if you’re from Tasmania, but you wouldn’t if you read it in Dubbo, or Bremen, or Boston. Joyce didn’t feel that sense of awkwardness about calling Dublin, Dublin, Dickens calling London, London, Kafka calling Prague, Prague. It wasn’t a problem. But it was for us. It was like people were mute to their own world. You couldn’t even give it a name. It wasn’t until Koch revised the book considerably in the seventies that he used the names Tasmania and Hobart. It seems to me that it was only from the 1970’s onwards, which corresponds with the sort of political awakening of the island which has very much to do with the environmental politics of the era, that finally things began to change."
Flanagan: "Having said that; I don’t expect much from my writing, I think fiction essentially is a journey into your own heart and soul, you just try to get as close to it as you can and hope that it will mean something to other people. But you never know."
Hay: "You know I’m increasingly thinking that to write Tasmania is to write an anti-Australian literature. There are good reasons for that. The Australian landscape icons for example, the bare brown land and wide open plains of Dorothea Mackellar , they are irrelevant to me. New Zealand poetry speaks to me more than does Australian poetry, because I share the same sort of landscape icons, the plunging, uneven landscape that I’m accustomed to in Tasmania, the forests and ravines and canyons and mountains. That landscape seems to generate a poetry with a lot more passion than the desiccated dry-as-dust understated poetry that mainland Australia generates. So I keep looking across the Tasman for poetic inspiration."
Hay: "I’m trying to construct an ideology of landscape. A dissident ideology of Australian landscape. I’m a poet of place, but because I live in Tasmania, because the Tasmanian place is so dramatically different from the accepted version of what place is in Australia, that becomes ideologically dissident."
Earlier this century, a colourful Hobart character by the name of Ma Dwyer ran a rough and tumble pub on the city’s waterfront.
Flanagan: "I’ve always felt Hobart was a hard sort of town till the fifties and sixties. Did you have a sense of it Hazy?"
Hay: "Yes indeed. I want to write a play about Ma Dwyer. She’s the last sort of gasp of the old rumbustious anything-is-possible-in-this-place including a random-violence-on-a-major-scale-type dark side Hobart."
Flanagan: "Yeah it is isn’t it, it’s the last gasp of the Van Demonian spirit. Michael Roe wrote an interesting essay, the thrust of which I took to be that there’s essentially a division in Tasmania between Van Demonians and Tasmanians. Tasmanians were the great middle class reformers who wanted to present the island as other than it was, something that was clean and without the convict taint, that wasn’t the Isle of Sodom, where the Black Wars hadn’t taken place.... Essentially they were great liars. The Van Demonians were the convicts and the emancipists, the no-hopers, the shysters trying to whip ‘em up for their own ends ... and they’re the truth about Tasmania. That’s who we are. Hazy and I have always identified ourselves as Van Demonians rather than Tasmanians. See the very name Tasmania was a bloody lie, a name visited upon us by ..."
Hay: "A sanitising name."
Flanagan: "... by something like the Confederation of Tasmanian Industry, there’s the corollary.
Hay: "A whitewashing name."
Flanagan. "This is a separate country. I don’t think Aborigines have any trouble in seeing Australia as composed of a series of different countries, yet there’s a constant attempt on the part of mainland Australia, most particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, to homogenise the Australian experience into one. But we are a different and separate country."
Hay: "I wouldn’t for a moment say I want us to be a separate country politically."
Flanagan: "No no, this is no argument for secession.... I’ll tell you what this place has, and what mainland Australia doesn’t have - what most of the modern world no longer has - it’s got memory. Memory going right back. Here, you’ll be told the history of people around you, of everybody you meet, going back generations. You know where they come from. You understand them because of it. But it’s much more subtle than that, it’s to do with the use of words and accents. Regional accents here are stronger.... "
Hay: "We’re now getting both class and regional variations in Australian speech - which is a great thing. The north west coast of Tasmania has a most pronounced accent. Once you get in the backblocks behind Ulverstone and burnie - no, backblocks is a derogatory word - in the hinterland behind the major population centres on the north west coast.... "
Flanagan: " ‘Backblocks’ is a good word, it’s where the convicts lived. Arthur brought in his regulations because he wanted to clear the convicts off, it was the sea where the bushrangers swam, the backblocks."
Hay: "That’s the word he used, is it?"
Flanagan: "It was in common use in the 1820’s, I think it’s an honourable word."
Hay: "Alright, the backblocks behind Burnie and Ulverstone are where I think you’ll find the most pronounced regional variations on Australian English. Not necessarily in terms of expressions used, I’m talking about accent. Intonation, not slang. We’re reaching the stage now where we are breaking down into distinct versions of Australian English around the country."
Hay: "But that strong regional cultural identity isn’t true only of language, for instance it’s true of cooking too. The north-west coast of Tasmania has preserved traditional ways of cooking nineteenth Century English food much more comprehensively than they’ve managed to do in England. Because my Mum’s got bad arthritis I couldn’t actually get her to show me how to cook, so I said to Mum, go through your recipes and I’ll write ‘em down. I’ve done that. I’ve gone back through them all, tried and tested them. And ... I went back to England - not to London, but to rural England, provincial England - no-one could cook like that. The north-west coast of Tasmania as far as I was concerned, preserved traditional English cooking - John Bull heart-of-oak cooking - better than the English did. And I’m proud to have said I copied out Mum’s recipes, because - though there might be a heart attack around every corner - in a cultural sense that’s preserved more than the bloody English have ever managed to do."
The annnouncement of The Hand That Signed The Paper as this year’s winner of the Miles Franklin Award was followed by confusion over the identity of its author, and - in an unrelated incident - claims of plagiarism of the work of author Brian Matthews. Readers reacted to The Hand that Signed the Paper in various ways, but what most angers Pete Hay is not so much the book itself but the defences given it which argued essentially that it is a) independent of and b) superior to what happens in the real world. Flanagan too is angry at what he views as the "arrogance" of the book’s defence by certain sections of the literary establishment.
Flanagan: "You have all these people claiming to be au fait with the latest intellectual fashions when in essence they’ve retreated to a purely 19th Century position of art-for-art’s sake. But people know that art doesn’t exist for art’s sake, art has consequences and words have consequences, words have power - which is something the literary establishment doesn’t itself believe. They don’t believe words matter, they don’t believe words have any real power, they just see them as a neglected backyard of culture that they can use to establish their own empires. Beyond that they have no need."
The only good thing to have come out of the fracas, says Hay, is that it’s brought people out of the woodwork and focussed attention on the nature of the Australian literary establishment.
Hay: "One of the things that is corrupt about the way the Demidenko book was promoted is that it was promoted over and over again by exactly the same people. Gatekeepers sitting in strategic positions that enabled them to give it not only one kick along but so many kicks along that it couldn’t help but be the flavour of the month. Jill Kitson sat on the Vogel committee that gave it the Vogel, she sat on the Miles Franklin committee that gave it the Miles Franklin, I mean you can track the chains of patronage that create overnight these massive reputations, by the way that certain influential people, what I call gatekeepers, pick writers up and run with them. How can that be right? Having sat on a panel that had given Darville her first gong, it seems to me that the appropriate thing would be for Jill Kitson to disqualify herself from any subsequent panel that book’s a candidate for. What I took away from this episode is an utter contempt for the absolute political, moral and artistic bankruptcy of Australian literary politics. But I knew that was how it was anyway! In a sense I was pleased because it was all put out on public display."
Critics and reviewers offer various interpretations of THTSTP. Some see it as simply focussing on Ukrainian suffering and argue that criticism should be directed specifically at the writing rather than at the book’s failure to posit itself within a broader and more historically accurate context. Flanagan disagrees.
Flanagan: "Because it explains Ukrainian suffering in terms of Jewish oppression - that’s the problem with that argument. There is no doubt that in any war there is huge suffering, by everybody. But to focus on the suffering alone is to empty that subject entirely of its political and historical content, when the fact is, some people are aggressors in wars, some people aren’t. There must be some understanding of responsibility, of blame - to simply focus on the suffering and not focus on the broader context of what causes suffering is to make everybody a victim. In a novel like that, if you want to draw so strongly on historical events, you have a responsibility to try to establish some overall context for it, to balance it."
Flanagan: "You see, I think that book was written with an agenda in mind. Two agendas in mind. In think it consciously knew what it was setting out to do in presenting the anti-Semitic viewpoint. I really do. And I think it intuitively understood something about the Australian literary establishment, that in Australia they would fall for the almost pornographic frisson of the book that spoke of one of the central experiences of the twentieth Century which these people felt unable to comment upon themselves. I think it is the last of the cultural cringe, the idea that the Holocaust, the European War, it’s all something from which we are divorced - and simply by the sheer violent power of the prose she was able to batter them into losing their judgement."
Flanagan: "The problem isn’t that it’s a bad book, because there are bad books being written all the time. And it’s not that the book was published: I don’t think anyone’s arguing against its publication. The problem is that it was given so much attention, that it was presented to Australia as being the great work of Australian fiction. And one that spoke to the heart of our multicultural experience. Whereas in fact it undermined all the notions of tolerance that multiculturalism is about, it was saying essentially that underneath it all the Ukrainians were barbarians. And it expounded the point of view, this awful view of the world, that brutality begets brutality."
Flanagan: "It was sold to the Australian public as having a moral basis. The Miles Franklin judges talked about its redemptive power, discussed it in moral and historical terms, called it a book which brought into Australian culture a first hand account of this particular event. But it doesn’t stand up as history whatsoever, and it doesn’t stand up as morality. Now, a work doesn’t have to have a historical base nor does it have to have a moral base to be good literature, but, if it pretends to those things, which I think this book does - it certainly pretends to be historical truth - and is found wanting in it, then there is a profound problem in it as writing. As literature. I think there is a great dilemma there."
Flanagan: "And saying Shakespeare draws on historical documents and totally bastardises them misses the point too, because he was basically tomb robbing fairly empty accounts in the first place. It’s a different thing altogether to take the great morality play of our century and pretend to this position."
Flanagan: "The other arguments made about Demidenko, the post-modern position that there’s only text and the author’s irrelevant ... well I think sometimes that’s true. Take a writer like Italo Calvino. What you need know about him is irrelevant. You can read his books and derive a great pleasure from them without needing to know what he was like personally. But if you take his compatriot Primo Levi , who was a concentration camp survivor and whose works to my mind represent some of the best writings of the last thirty or forty years: who he was, and his history, is critical to his works. Because, if it suddenly came out in the press tomorrow that Primo Levi hadn’t been in Auschwitz, then all his work no longer has any basis. It just wouldn’t stand up because the identification of the man and his history and his writing is complete. In the same way Demidenko tried to identify her writing with who she was in a way that was total and complete. The point about the separation of text and author is that sometimes it doesn’t matter. But sometimes it matters entirely. And it mattered entirely with Demidenko. Because the moral touchstone of the book - even if you disagreed with it profoundly, the history, morality and so on - was that here is the voice of authentic experience. That was the underlying argument as to why it must be treated with some seriousness. But there was no such moral touchstone."
Though wary of discussing his personal involvement in the issue - wary of being accused of "sour grapes" - Flanagan has this to say of his reaction.
Flanagan: "The Demidenko episode affected me in a way literary things don’t normally do. Usually I feel quite distant from them. I was depressed, and couldn’t understand why until I finally recognised: I was ashamed."
Flanagan: "I’ve always felt that writing had honour, because you aspired - even if you failed - to the writing of fundamental truths about the human condition. What was unleashed by the Demidenko book were these contrary notions, that writing is theft, that writing is lying. That’s one of the negative things that Australians have taken from the whole controversy. I’ve had it slung in my face a dozen times: writers are liars, what do you expect?"
Flanagan: "Writers aren’t liars. In the latest Garcia Marquez novel there is a passage where the Marquiz says of his daughter that she lies all the time, and comments to the physician ‘perhaps she’ll be a great poet when she grows up’. The physician ponders this, before disagreeing, saying no, lying is not an attribute of the arts - the aim of poetry is to achieve a transparency between the poet’s words and the soul. Well I believe that’s what writing is. And I believe that what Demidenko did was give great heart to those people likely to be entirely cynical about what writing both can and should be. She took away our honour."
That’s my response. Is that a foolish response?"
Hay: "No no no."
Hay and Flanagan have been closely involved with Island magazine in the past, both having served on the Island Board, whilst Hay has also been an associate editor. With Island currently under the editorship of Rodney Croome the pair hold high hopes for its future.
When asked their opinions of other literary journals around the country, they toss forward the names Eureka Street, Quadrant and Australian Book Review as magazines they respect.
Flanagan: "Eureka Street has been a huge success story because it uses short thoughtful articles by interesting people on good subjects, and has a bloody fine editor. And Australian Book Review actually debates literary issues in a way that’s readable and intelligible."
Hay: "I’ve never bought Quadrant and will continue not to buy it because of its history, but I still think it’s one of the best magazines around at the moment. Robert Manne is an ideological conservative, everything I’m not, but in a sense what Manne’s doing is not establishment. His personal politics are establishment but his cultural politics aren’t, and I often find myself in agreement with him."
Flanagan: "Well basically - and bloody hell, I hate to say this too - it’s a magazine with integrity."
Hay: "I’ve never submitted anything to Quadrant because it’s a prisoner of its history. But Manne I’ve got a huge amount of time for. If he walked through the door now mate, we’d all get on famously with him. He’s an interesting and independent thinker. But because Quadrant is the magazine that for two decades was funded by the CIA, I can’t submit material to it."
Flanagan: "I would never ever buy a Quadrant, I mean I’m totally in accordance with you Hazy, and it saddens me because essentially what it points to is the fact that there is a much more robust right-wing cultural tradition in this country, of integrity, of independence, than there is a left-wing tradition."
Hay: "Couldn’t agree more."
Hay: There’s nothing coherent on this tape...."
Flanagan: "Neither enlightening nor interesting."
Hay: "No, that’s not quite true. You said some great things about Demidenko, best things I’ve heard said about Demidenko...."
Flanagan: "I won the Victorian Premier’s Prize Hazy."
Hay: "You did?"
Flanagan: "It’s secret, till ... October twentieth."
Hay: "That’s great, fantastic ... you beauty ... "
Flanagan: "It’s a pisser isn’t it?"
Hay: "Oh, we’ve got weeks to hold our breath."
Flanagan: "Yeah, I’m sorry, you’ve been sworn to bloody secrecy."
Hay: "Won’t say a thing. Ah that’s wonderful. Beyond all belief."
Flanagan: "From Victorians too."
Hay: "Yeah, well Sydney is so imperialistic that in a sense even Victorians are victims. Ah, that’s great, I could just bawl!"
[Conversation recorded 29th September 1995, and appeared in Famous Reporter 12, December 1995).
Other interviews with Pete Hay
OTHER WRITING BY PETE HAY