Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Writing about Tasmania: a mythology of place
I consider myself in many ways a Tasmanian author, though I no longer live there, and have spent most of my adult life in Melbourne. When I began writing Undine it was never really a conscious decision to set it there. For me Tasmania simply is the landscape of childhood and adolescent experience. Being born on an island furnishes you with a life long metaphor for identity. You belong to the part as significantly as you belong to the whole. One the one hand, you occupy a space that is partial and fragmented and incomplete, the child always reaching for the mother figure of the mainland. On the other hand you dwell in a microcosm, an intensely charged small space that mirrors in miniature the cultural and social experience of the larger, more diluted land mass with it's sparsely spread out population (I remember hearing that new products were often tested in Tasmania because of the comparatively containable test ground). You are forgotten (left off the map, untoured by rock groups, unrepresented in national sports competitions or cultural events). You are mysterious, you are Other, you are lost in time and space, you are outside culture. You are a little bit savage, a little bit wild. Where the houses are, the bush still grows, fires come, there's snow.

As I wrote about Tasmania, about Hobart, I found myself changing the landscape, creating a mythical place, that looked, sounded and behaved like Hobart, but if you went to Hobart tomorrow and tried to navigate its streets through reading Undine, you could easily find yourself making a left turn and suddenly you're lost. There's no Camelot Drive (loosely based on Liverpool Crescent) or house on the steps, though there is a set of concrete steps that runs up to Liverool Crescent from (I think) McKellar Street. This is the general territory where I picture Trout and Undine's house. In my mind I can walk between these houses, I know every step, every nuance of the landscape. I can also walk the floorplan of Undine's house or the Montmorency's. In fact, I have lived inside Undine's house now longer than I occupied any one address in my adult life. I know where they are, what they look like...but they don't exist. Undine's house certainly wouldn't reside between city councils. Nor would her high school have students from year 7 to year 12 - particularly when her high school (some might recognise it) is Taroona High - my own. Or at least, if you drew a map of Undine's Hobart and overlaid it on a real map of Hobart, they are situated in the same space. (In Hobart state schools, year 11 and 12 are sensibly taught at a separate instituion that is in many ways more like university than high school and provides an excellent grounding for tertiary study.)

in part this mythology was necessary to open up the world, to create a sense of possibility, to create room for the fantastic elements, to give magic a space to grow. But it was also about giving my characters a space to grow that wasn't overshadowed by my own experience of the landscape.

Rise is about alternate worlds, places that look much like our own world but with subtle, yet psychologically consequential differences. In some ways the Undine trilogy is set in my own alternate world, it exists a mere half step away; the geometry of the map, which resonates with familiarity, is a geometry of dreams, of half-remembering, of deliberate not-remembering. Is Undine autobiographical? I don't mean it to be, but yes, it is, in what I do write about and what I deliberately do not. Some of Undine's experiences are my experiences. In fact all of the characters are part-me and all of them contain echoes of people I have known. But more significantly, you will find shadows of me in the spaces, in the changes between the real world and the imagined, this is also where you will find a story of me, of what I DON'T want you to see. The space between Undine's world and mine has texture and fibre - it is the same texture, the same grain as paper, as strong, as sturdy as paper, as tearable, as vulnerable, as alterable.

The autobiography starts before the novel starts, on the dedication page. You will see me there, not the author but the other me, who lives here, in my life. "For Martin & Frederique with love".

All writing comes from within, all writing comes from that space, that island space, that is part me and part the landscape of my childhood - the remembered home to which we spend our lives trying to return. I wonder if childhood is the only time in our lives when home is a stable concept (or for me it was anyway, the fixed suburban Australian iconology of Home saturates my childhood memory: lawns, sprinklers, trees, tupperware, hills hoists, school sports carnivals, huntsman spiders, bunk beds, spaghetti bolognese).

So I am at least in part a Tasmanian writer living in Melbourne. Islanded from the island. The island within islanded too, like a chain of islands, or like a Russian doll, islands inside islands, where the biggest doll fits inside the smallest one.

Bookshops I have loved:
Hobart Bookshop
Sandy Bay Newsagency and Bookshop
And RIP Greensleeves


  1. I really like that analogy of a Russian doll. Now I live in England, I still feel Tassie very much at the core of my being, just like that Russian doll. I find the sense of place so weird in England. I thought that sense of distance (you know having to take a packed lunch for the two hour trip to Launceston from Hobart) was a uniquely Tasmanian thing, but it's just the same here. I found at first the distances so small, yet now London feels a world away from Manchester.

    As your sister, and I wonder how other siblings of great writers feel, I kind of get the sense when I read Undine and Breathe that I am sneaking into your bedroom unannounced and looking in your drawers and your diary....it's weird because our childhood where Undine had her birthplace is so much shared and then so much not.

  2. That's really interesting, Kylie - both that we come from different landscapes though our childhoods occupied the same terrain (very precisely) and also your comment about reading my novels feeling like an invasion of my personal space. I do know what you mean though. You never said anything about the dedication in Breathe by the way - did you see it?

  3. I did see the dedication, I cried and showed Col! I was really touched by it and quite suprised!

  4. Dad credits you with teaching me how to read. And remember that vegetable game we used to play? Where you would be the farmer and I would be the vegetable you planted and then when you went to sleep I would run away and hide...I know you played that past forebearance.

  5. I forgot all about that veggie game!!! Much more exciting than barbie dolls!

  6. Anonymous11:45 AM

    I was born before the Barbie era. Never did care for dolls though the main Christmas present was usually a bride or baby doll. My mother never gave up on trying to encourage maternal interests. One year I remember trying to decapitate the newest doll with the boy next door's tomahawk. That was what I really wanted for Xmas. Needless to say I didn't get one and mum patched the doll as best she could.

    I'm fascinated with your blog Penni
    My love to the new niece


  7. Having known you as a Teen, and not as the adult you are now, I agree with Kylie, it's like looking back thru a mirror at a slice of the past that has always been a very special time for me. When I read Undine, it was like being transported back 18 yrs. It bought back many memories!! (And yes, most of them good!)lol.. poor Phillip, I still write to him occasionally! So to you Ms Penni, congratulations and thank you for a lifetime of memories that will always be with me.