Richard Flanagan and the Global Literary Map

flanagan world map

Ben Walter reflects on Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize win and whether this accolade will have a ripple affect on Tasmanian literary shores.

Here is what I knew about Tasmanian literature in the mid-90s. I knew that there was a literary magazine, Island, which my mother and step-father occasionally bought; these sat around the shelves – old, large-format Cassandra Pybus issues with writers’ faces and their leather jackets posing from the covers.

I remember reading what remains my favourite Tasmanian short story, The Sarsparilla Heights Writers’ Group Biennial Short Story Competition: Reading the Honourable Mention, by Pete Hay, and also a poem by Tara Kurrajong, who I later met very briefly through outdoor education circles at Rosny College. While walking up the side of Lake St. Clair, I remember her being surprised when I mentioned that I’d liked her piece. On the Austlit database, I notice that both these works were in the same issue, number 70, published in Autumn 1997. For me, this must have been a tipping point of sorts.

I remember that in the previous year, or perhaps the one before it, I’d chosen to do a study on Richard Flanagan for a high school English class. There wasn’t a lot to study at that time. Death of a River Guide had been published, and Richard was kind enough to do a short phone interview where I offered unwieldy questions and hopelessly tried to record his responses with a rubbish tape recorder placed against the old-fashioned dial-up phone downstairs.

I remember the invitation to the launch of Death of a River Guide sitting on my mother’s fridge in 1994.

There has been a lot of talk about how Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize win will raise the profile of Tasmanian writing internationally. Senator Christine Milne, quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, stated that “Richard…has now put us firmly on the global literary map.[1]

It’s been an oft-repeated sentiment, as though there actually was a global literary map.

And it might be a little bit true. But I believe it is looking at the matter in a wrong-headed, brand-centric way. Certainly, the win puts Flanagan’s writing on the world stage – deservedly – but most readers are content with a representative exotic from any particular region. They follow writers, not regions. Perhaps you’ve read and loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Are there other Columbian novelists you’ve hunted down as a consequence of reading him?

As Tasmanians, we can be so obsessed with how others see us that we don’t take the time to reflect on how something like this might influence the way we see ourselves – one of the many reasons we might require a greater appreciation of our writers.

Perhaps the true significance of Flanagan’s win is how it can continue to make literature a reality, a live issue and a real option for young Tasmanian writers – just as it did for me twenty years ago – as well as the spectrum of Tasmanian readers. It puts literature on the front page.

Responding to 936 ABC Hobart’s question on Facebook in the wake of the win, “Who is your favourite Tasmanian author?”, one poster responded “I didnt realise we had more than one author” [sic]. Not everyone has issues of Island Magazine sitting around the house – almost nobody does. The Tasmanian literary community is fragmented and barely functional, connecting with a tiny fraction of the population.

But there will be a lot of copies of The Narrow Road to the Deep North resting on proud shelves. And it is much more important to celebrate what these novels will do for the ideas and aspirations of our developing writers, our thinkers, our historians and journalists and our scientists, than what a champagne flute on the other side of the world thinks of our distant and remote island.

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/booker-winner-richard-flanagan-flogs-opinions-as-well-as-books-20141016-117awb.html

You can read, Fall on Us, by Ben Walter in the upcoming publication from Transportation Press, Islands and Cities. For updates on the release subscribe to our newsletter.