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Book review: localised and personal but a timely call for a better world

By Natasha Cica - posted Tuesday, 3 June 2003

Pete Hay's latest book Vandiemonian Essays is like one of those boxes full of Tasmanian chocolate truffles on sale for tourists at Hobart airport. Bittersweet, some crumbly round the edges, and you're never sure exactly what you'll find inside when you bite. Plus you really need to pace yourself and allow time to digest.

The human communities inhabited by Hay are also well stocked with these qualities. In his home city of Hobart, surrounding his quiet holiday shack at Rat Bay on Bruny Island, and in the lively trans-national space inhabited by people who share a love for the writing and being of small islands. So Vandiemonian Essays does its intended job, which is to convey something of the unusual state of Tasmanian-ness.

Except Hay doesn't call it Tasmanian-ness. More romantically, he labels it Vandiemonian spirit. In his afterword to Hay's book, fellow Tasmanian Richard Flanagan says this is "the sentiment firing black and convict resistance". Hay himself calls it dissidence, "moving within a subterranean oppositional flow". This, in opposition to a mentality equally rooted in the place that is Tasmania, that of a still-colonialist elite "sustained by a hidebound, mediocre official culture, one characterized by a mentality of cringe, seeing the source of all cultural value and human ingenuity to lie elsewhere, and defining its role as 'agent' to distant economic and social 'betters'".


Unsurprisingly, then, this book doubles as a revolutionary tract against the worst that market-driven globalisation can bring to - and take from - the edge-places of our planet like Tasmania. By day, Hay is an academic at the University of Tasmania, where he teaches mainly in the area of environmental thought. He was also founding convener of the Ecopolitics Association of Australasia, and in 1989-90 advised the Tasmanian Minister for Environment and Planning during the historic Labor-Green Accord government. These serious professional personae inform Vandiemonian Essays, but not so that the reader feels whacked over the head.

Instead, Hay elegantly provokes the reader and makes her think. The essays open small eclectic windows onto Hay's intensely personal and political world. They bend gender, culture, time and place. In one, Hay offers the reader a slice of ANZAC stripped of clattering jingoism: in writing of his father's internment on the Burma Railway, as a member of Sparrow Force, he tells a powerful story about mortality, silence, and the enduring complexity of loving relations between men. In another, he confesses his own biophilia, expressed in an unreasoning and unfashionable love for the squat, cheeky Xanthorreia (grass trees) of Rat Bay.

Another essay talks longingly of cold and abundant Tasmanian water, a description I read with homesick pangs of my own, turning Hay's pages in my heat-bleached backyard in the aftermath of Canberra's January bushfires. Yet another describes the work of Chinese Tasmanian Jane Quon - ecological marine artist, owner and operator of a fishing/diving charter business on the East Coast, and Superfine Merino woolclasser - the granddaughter of "a very strong woman - and she had to be" who was "cut by her family for marrying a 'celestial'".

Vandiemonian Essays is not only provocative, it is timely. As we all sit in the moral shadows of 9/11, the Bali bombing, Woomera, the Iraq war, and who knows what next, Hay's thoughts on the meanings of evil and humanity deserve particular attention.

Hay explores evil through the story of the slaughterous wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia in Western Australia in 1629, intertwining its darkest threads with the (yes, celestial) love poems of thirteenth century Afghan Muslim poet Jelaluddin Rumi. And Hay stares down the myths and monsters of Port Arthur - every Tasmanian's heart of darkness - to pose difficult questions about remembering, denial and violence.

As for humanity, Hay calls bluntly for "a rearguard action [to be] fought for the values of sociality, fellow-feeling, and interpersonal decency and against the callous, dispassionate, greed-applauding propaganda of the market". The style of that call is likely to mean Vandiemonian Essays will never be a bestseller of the blockbusting kind, in our time of disproportionate reward for churning out words more soothing and mincing. But it will also mean this book will attract a band of people - Mainlanders as well as Van Diemonians - fiercely loyal to its message and author. Because Hay's writing is born of the mindset he celebrates - always a bit daggy and peripheral, like a blue singlet at a cocktail party - but sure enough of itself to speak its truth plainly ... and bugger the consequences.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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