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
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
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