30 April 2013

At some point we all agreed to stop ignoring Tasmania. I’m not sure when it happened, but it did. It’s never been somewhere we could go without, really–cover it up on a map and the mainland just looks naked, like Australia left the house in a hurry and forgot to wear pants. Until recently, it was somewhere my grandparents went on holiday. It was a little too expensive to catch the Spirit across the strait to visit what I was pretty sure was an island with a Cadbury Factory and a lot of space to go bushwalking.

Lately Tasmania seems the place to go, and not just because it’s close. Tasmania, as Island Magazine’s website declares, is “buzzing” right now.

Island isn’t new to the literary scene in Tasmania. Having put out their first edition in 1979 as an outlet for the island’s writers, they can claim to have known about Tasmania’s magical ability to foster awesome creativity for over thirty years. Even so, the publication admits there’s something different going on.

So where is the buzz coming from? The ‘big island’ or the ‘little island’? Us or them?

“I think that what’s happened now is just a spotlight…there’s this sense of momentum, a sense of excitement,” Island co-editor Rachel Edwards says, “Because of the energy that’s pouring in, I suppose it’s giving us more energy to keep creating.”

There is little doubt that the spotlight is partly what Rachel calls ‘the MONAeffect’.

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened in January 2011. Filled with a truly strange $100 million collection of art and antiquities, the new attraction in Hobart draws a crowd different to my grandma. Between July 2011 and June 2012 Tourism Tasmania’s Tasmanian Visitor Survey listedMONA as a key attraction. In that year, 25 percent of all visitors to Tasmania said they went to MONA on their trip, and that MONA visitors stayed on average for ten nights in Tasmania.

While MONA itself isn’t responsible for a surge in creativity in the Tasmanian writing community, the museum has drawn attention to Tasmania’s art community, and, according to Rachel, prompted everyone to pull their socks up.

“A cultural renaissance is happening down here, so what it’s meant for us is it’s opening up new audiences, a greater diversity of people pitching us stories and also people in the mainland are now a lot more aware of the artistic ability [in Tasmania].”

The editors of Island aren’t alone in feeling there’s something different about Tassie at the moment. The Griffith Review chose their latest edition, ‘Tasmania–The Tipping Point?’, to “explore the island in depth”.

“The edition was in ‘gestation’, for want of a better word, for quite some time.” explains Deputy Editor Nicholas Bray. He says that the idea for a Tasmania themed issue was first floated in 2008 by Natasha Circa, Director of the University of Tasmania’s Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society. It wasn’t until the beginning of last year that Circa and Griffith Review editor Julianne Schultz decided the time was right.

Despite this they were “warned off a Tasmanian edition by many people in the publishing industry. They were convinced it would not sell on the mainland.” Bray says sales of the edition have shown mainland Australia was very interested Tasmania (and, as the editions editorial suggests, by extension issues of the ‘big island’). “It’s good to be able to prove naysayers wrong.”

Is it Tasmania’s ‘Island-ness’ that makes it the sort of place where creativity ferments? Rachel Edwards doesn’t think that’s it.

“I think that being on an island creates a sense of isolation just as much as living in Perth or living in Broome would,” she explains, when we talk about what makes the writing community there distinct from other states. While she concedes that there is a “romance that goes with the notion of island” she doesn’t think the “island-ness” itself imbues the writing community there with the compelling talent now so popular on mainland Australia.

Island or not, Tasmania is still a community of just over 512, 000 people. That’s an eighth of Melbourne, on the whole island. It’s no wonder when I ask Rachel which writers we should be watching that her list is full of excitable first hand knowledge of the writers she gets to work with.

Ben Walter, whose manuscript of poetry, Lurching, was recently shortlisted for the Tasmanian Literary Award is first on her list. We should also keep an eye on work by Adam Ouston, who is “writing energetic, lyrical, not necessarily narrative-based fiction” and Sophie Greenhill’s short fiction.

“I’m really excited about this lyricism that’s coming through in young Tasmanian fiction writing,” Rachel adds. Whether it’s the isolation, the ‘island-ness’ or the MONA crowd that’s causing all the attention to turn southward, Tasmania seems to be coping very well with the spotlight.

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