Tasmanian Gothic Convict Breaks the Chains
This essay was first published in Mystery Writers Journal, July 2019
In 1955, a high school somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee decided to exchange student essays with a high school in Launceston, Tasmania. I was one of the Tasmanians chosen by my teacher to produce one of the essays. Two things happened:
- a) the teacher said she couldn’t send my essay to Nashville because it dealt with unsuitable material
- b) I had my first and inspiring lesson in how to respond to censorship
So what was that unsuitable material? I had written about the dark history of Tasmania at a time when that history was still supposed to be suppressed. I had told stories of the attempted genocide of the indigenous people of the island by the British, and I had clarified the fact that the place was originally a prison colony. Oh no! What was the child thinking? In her pale blue school dress with white collar and cuffs, her straw hat, white gloves, blonde hair, green eyes, hockey stick and piano lessons? What was all this about native wars and escaped convicts?
It was my material. And of course the whole experience was a magnificent spur to me to write and never stop writing. Get the story out. Since then – well it’s a long time ago, isn’t it – the truths of the history of Tasmania have gradually come into the spotlight. I imagine that today my essay – alas, long lost – would possibly be refused entry in the exchange because it was too much of a cliché.
I left Tasmania when I was twenty-three. But the dye was cast. My imagination was formed in that place at that time. The early history of Tasmania would forever inform the fiction I would write. My work is often described as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ and sometimes ‘Tasmanian Noir’. A clue to this is in the title of one of my books, Cape Grimm. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm meet the dangerous rocky outcrop on the far, far north-west coast of Tasmania. Even when the scene is set far from the island, there will just about always be a character who goes there, or who originates from there. Sometimes I think that’s just lazy, but when I try to change things, they won’t change, and it turns out the character has no alternative but to have the Tasmanian link. Only four of my twelve novels, Unholy Writ; Open For Inspection; Child of the Twilightand Field of Poppiesare crime fiction proper, but all of them, with the exception of Crisis, are explorations of dark and terrible events. I don’t have a detective, or a who-dun-it scenario; I take what is a kind of sideways approach to the whole matter of the horrors of crime.
In my 1990 novel The Bluebird CaféI invented Woodpecker Point, an old mining town on the north west coast of Tasmania, and also a character called Carrillo Mean, grandson of Philosopher Mean. This Carrillo is a shape-shifting Tasmanian who invades or hovers over much of my work. When he isn’t a character in the narrative, he provides an epigraph for the book, a wise saying that originates from his own vast repertoire of writings. He has his own Facebook page, but is rather careless about it and doesn’t often make posts. He really should pay more attention to these things. His most celebrated books are The Mining of Meaningand The Meaning of Mining. Much of his work is published by his own Bedrock Press.
My new novel Field of Poppies, which will be launched at the Terror Australis festival of crime writing in Cygnet, Tasmania in November 2019, has an epigraph from Carrillo: ‘I was sleepwalking through a field of poppies, somewhere in France.’ The novel is set in an old mining town on the mainland of Australia, but yes, there are characters who come from Tasmania. And the plot might as well be Tasmanian Gothic. There is a horrible contemporary crime, in the context of historic crimes, which are gradually uncovered as the new facts come to light. The mining town appears to be a perfect place for professional people to go to for their retirement, while the wider world is mired in wars and famines and terrorism, not to mention the changes to the climate, the catastrophic weather events, and the disappearance of a million species. There are echoes of the Great War of 1914, a war that looms large in the history of Australia. Was it downhill for the planet after that war? The people of the town just go about their lives as if sweetly half asleep, until everything splits apart when one of them disappears overnight.
And in the end, has anything changed in these people? Not much, it seems. Sleepwalking, dancing into the dark, about to be overtaken by a brand new foreign gold-mine in their little old town. Long ago in this place some people got very rich, thousands died from disease and despair. Whatever next? Is nowhere safe?
In the eighteenth century the British imagined they could contain their criminals on the island of Tasmania, could wipe out the indigenous populations, could develop a nice outpost of empire down there at world’s end. Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, as I noted in 1955, when I was accidentally given the freedom to turn the truths of the past into my own brand of Tasmanian Gothic.
Carmel Bird has written twelve novels and eight collections of short fiction. In 2016 she was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award – one of Australia’s most significant prizes. Her interest in indigenous cultures is reflected in the anthology The Stolen Children – Their Stories, which she edited. She has also edited a range of anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction. She now lives in the historic gold-mining town of Castlemaine.