Reportage

My Queensland - Writers trails

Google ‘hidden Queensland' and you find tourism operators trade on the presumption that the state isn't an obvious destination by touting hidden ‘oases', hidden valleys and secluded tropical beaches. It's as if it is still one of Australia's best-kept secrets, despite having been the nation's premier holiday resort for decades.

This rather apologetic attitude to cultural tourism can be related to Queensland's historical ambivalence with regards to its separation from other states and territories. And writers too have had a love-hate relationship with the state – for there's a long tradition of Queensland writers either leaving in order to make their voices heard, or staying put and celebrating their decision, but sometimes as if it's an artistic trial by fire to be endured.

Many of the most esteemed Australian literary creators have drawn their inspiration from this state's unique blend of conservatism and radicalism, and its inspiring and often indelible landscape. When I left Brisbane to live in central Queensland, I found that here too was a deep vein of writing by well-known and lesser-known Queensland writers who have celebrated their connections to this place.

The settlement of Port Curtis was in 1846 the site chosen as the capital of the proposed Colony of North Australia and later touted as a possible capital of Queensland, an honour which instead went to Brisbane in 1859. The history the city of Gladstone shares with its neighbouring shires of Calliope and Miriam Vale (now all part of the new Gladstone Regional Council) is a rich one. Val Vallis's postwar Songs of the East Coast is the best-known paean to its landscape, celebrated in the state's award for unpublished poetry named for him.

But Central Queensland's hidden literature is just as interesting. Examples include the poetry of Robert Alexander Fairly (RAF) (1853-1899), who was published in The Bulletin with Banjo and Henry, and died here – if he'd lived longer he might be better recognised; and Rosa Praed's unique record of a colonial wife's experience on Curtis Island in the 1870s in My Australian Girlhood: Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life (T. Fisher Unwin, 1902), has been justly celebrated by various scholars including Colin Roderick, who wrote a biography about her In Mortal Bondage (Angus & Robertson, 1948), and of course the Indigenous history is as rich here as it is in other parts of Queensland, and was documented by non-Indigenous writers such as Archibald Meston in his ‘A Christmas Tragedy', a shocking account of an encounter between local Aboriginals and white settlers published in The Queenslander in 1900.

Early British travellers such as Anthony Trollope and H.M. Vaughan wrote about the place, too. And eighty-four year old Brisbane writer George Watt's poignant semi-autobiographical novel Bahra Bay (Pascoe Publishing, 1992) about growing up on Rodd's Bay Station and in Mt Larcom before World War II is another well-kept secret. Trawling through old copies of the Gladstone Observer and Port Curtis Advertiser yielded some wartime memories in poetry, and oral history provided comments on the post World War II influx of Russian emigrants.

Lesley Synge recorded the 1960s industrial transformation of Gladstone in her prose poem, ‘When the Americans Came to Town', and Rob Morris wrote nostalgic reminiscences in his elegiac tribute to his grandparents in ‘Coming Home'. Bindi Waugh provided an Indigenous perspective on the raising of the Awoonga Dam wall in ‘As the Eagle Soars'. And Mark Svendsen, Jena Woodhouse and esteemed Queensland poet John Blight paid tribute to their old mate or mentor Val Vallis's memories of growing up here, in works that included Blight's poem ‘Kookaburra Shells' (rare, tiny shells shaped like the bird, which symbolise the treasures to be unearthed). In short, I discovered many hidden trails in writings focused on a place and landscape which is different from anywhere else.

Travelling to the Gold Coast to teach an annual creative writing course at Griffith University, the airport bus pulled into Hope Island. This manufactured environment is utterly alien to my memories of Gold Coast holidays spent in an old timber beach house, roaming the Northcliffe dunes and visiting places with names like Cabarita, Kirra and Coolangatta, and utterly similar to the golf courses and gated communities everywhere. Its barren and anonymous beauty recalled Matthew Condon's The Ancient Guild of Tycoons(UQP, 1994), in which he presciently described an island off the coast of Queensland being bulldozed and re-sculptured out of landfill to create the ‘perfect' resort. This grim black satire reflected some of the events then taking place but could not have imagined the creeping suburbia now consuming the old tropical hinterland.

Lately I've been working on a proposal for a cultural tourism concept which would celebrate the landmark contributions of Australian writers in making us aware of the power of place. All over the country there are sites which might be honoured with ‘markers' of our writers' contributions. Queensland has thrown up so many writers of distinction that it's impossible to mention them all.

Alexis Wright, the 2007 Miles Franklin Award-winning author of Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006), is one of many exceptional writers whose works derive from regional pockets of Queensland. A member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, her sprawling novel sings to her people's country in a surreal and epic way. This sentiment is echoed by Wright in an interview with Jane Sullivan entitled ‘The Call of the Claypans' (Sydney Morning Herald [Online], September 9, 2006). ‘This country and its seasons of heat, rain and mud could pull at my conscience ... It could make me travel long distances just to be there. I always feel it calling.'

Oodgeroo's work is also imbued with place, as is Peter Carey's His Illegal Self (Yandina); Andrew McGahan'sThe White Earth (Dalby); Ian Townsend's Affection (Townsville); Vivienne Cleven's Bitin' Back (Surat); Karen Foxlee's Anatomy of Wings (Mt Isa); Thea Astley's Hunting the Wild Pineapple (North Queensland); Jay Verney's Percussion (Rockhampton); Mark Svendsen's Snigger James on Grey (Emu Park); Herb Wharton'sYumba Days (Cunnamulla); Kerry McGinnis's Pieces of Blue (Gulf Country Queensland) and Matthew Condon's A Night at the Pink Poodle (Gold Coast). Other regional writings include those of David Rowbotham (Darling Downs); Jaya Savige (Bribie Island); Judith Wright (Mt Tamborine); Tom Shapcott (Ipswich); and David Malouf, Janette Turner Hospital, Rodney Hall, James Moloney, Gwen Harwood, Ross Clark, Venero Armanno, Nick Earls, Gary Crew, Sam Wagan Watson and many others whose works have been set in and inspired by Brisbane.

As John Blight wrote in his poem, ‘they'll show you kookaburra shells at Gladstone,' for this is what our writers do. They show us our places. They delve into this hidden Queensland. They exhort us to stay away from Sanctuary Cove, and to explore the Yumba or Wild Cattle Island instead.  ♦

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