Alumni Feature August 2016

There's Gold in Far North Queensland

By Alumni Guest Contributor Elizabeth Smyth

Elizabeth Smyth


Elizabeth is a Varuna Residential Fellow 2016 for her manuscript, ‘Higher Education,’ contemporary fiction set in the tropics. ‘Sundy Bldy Sunday', her memoir piece on the challenges of being a writer from the far north, appeared in Meanjin’s Autumn 2016 issue. Elizabeth’s short fiction was long-listed in this year’s ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. She is appearing at the Cairns Tropical Writers’ Festival in the session entitled, ‘Challenges for Regional Writers,’ 3.30pm Saturday 13 August in the Machans Room.




Cape York The rush is on for far north Queensland’s literary gold. This year’s Cairns Tropical Writers’ Festival, 12-14 August, will gather storytellers from near and far. Local writers Caroline de Costa (Margaret River Press), Robbi Neal (HarperCollins) and Kay Crabbe (Allen & Unwin) all published new work in the past year.

Their books are very different — a crime novel; a memoir of sorts; and historical fiction for 9-13 year olds — but what unites them is a depiction of the entanglement of cultures affecting relationships and the distribution of power in Cape York.


Caroline de Costa Double Madness cover Caroline de Costa is the author of crime novel Double Madness. By day she works as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at James Cook University. Her career in medicine means that her descriptions of a corpse and the process of forensic pathology are grounded in scientific truth. De Costa cannot help but educate as she entertains. Amid the isolation and beauty of Davies Creek National Park, she investigates ‘dripping eye sockets,’ the ‘gaping rictus ‘ of an open mouth and a ‘horribly sweet smell’. This [examination] becomes a layperson’s lesson in adipocere, saponification, putrefaction and hydrolysis, giving her fiction plausibility.

In Double Madness — a story of hidden motives and plenty of action — de Costa never lessens the pace. Along the way she reveals a deep understanding of humanity and the factors that can lead a person to becoming a victim or a perpetrator of crime — or both. De Costa has always been a staunch advocate for women, maintaining a particular interest in the reproductive health of Indigenous and immigrant women. It therefore comes as no surprise that her protagonist in Double Madness is a strong, intelligent Aboriginal woman. Policewoman Cass Diamond, with her gun and ability to overpower thugs, outshines an array of flawed characters in the form of male doctors. Even the murder victim was, in life, a powerful woman. This is de Costa’s way of overturning traditional notions of power and status: in de Costa’s world, now is a great time to be an Indigenous woman.

After Before Time cover But of course there are men and women who reside far from positions of power and privilege, who cannot solve their own problems or always act as positive role models due to the abject circumstances into which they were born. This is where Robbi Neal’s book After Before Time has phenomenal impact. Neal lived for seven years in a remote Aboriginal community of Cape York. There she crafted a book through which the elders of the community could tell stories to a wider audience. Collectively the elders described life before and during the establishment of a mission; the rounding up and relocation of people; and the loss of lives due to violence, alcohol, and illness. As individuals, these elders dealt with non-Indigenous people for most of their lives — constantly defining their place and asserting their ownership of country. So when Neal provided an opportunity for them to teach people from outside the community about their history, from their perspectives, they took it.

After Before Time delivers a powerful insight into a community with a traumatic past and present. Historians like Timothy Bottoms have documented massacres, abuse and neglect of Aboriginal people. Add to this legacy the current deficiencies of government policies on welfare and child protection and their predicament is dire. In After Before Time, readers learn of a child taken from her family without explanation. Neal’s inclusion of that story adds to a growing national awareness of how actions in the name of child protection can hurt Indigenous children to a greater degree than other children, due to the simultaneous separation from community and culture.

Andew Jackomos Andrew Jackomos, the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, recently explained the core of this issue on ABC Radio (The Extra Mile, Background Briefing, 12 July 2016). Evidently stolen generations are still being made. But Neal gives us more than this. She adds a fictional account to the elders’ yarns and through this voice sheds light on the reasons why many people with good intentions often fail to bring about positive change in remote communities. This voice captures the breakwater of cultural conflict in a community that urgently needs communication and understanding. Readers of After Before Time who take the time to reflect on their own reactions – and who respect the challenges faced by the elders, the community, and the writer – will be richly rewarded.

Step back now to 1898 and head further north to the Torres Strait Islands. Here Kay Crabbe brings to life the pearl-shell industry and the exploitation of crews and divers of Torres Strait Island, Malay, Aboriginal and Filipino ancestry. The Pearl-shell Diver is historical fiction written for children aged 9-13, but the story will grip readers of any age.

Pearl-Shell Diver cover Crabbe follows in the footsteps of Thomas Keneally, whose book The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was a part of Australian school curricula for many years. The Pearl-shell Diver joins a range of educational resources available to teachers of the history of the Torres Strait Islands. Respectfully, Crabbe places a Torres Strait Islander at the forefront of her story. This creative decision came after spending 26 years helping primary school students to read. Indigenous students often asked her where to find books about themselves, instead of the stories of white kids in southern landscapes. The requests of these children lured her into the difficult task of sifting through a complex history and making it accessible to young readers.

Teen Reader The Pearl-shell Diver presents a mix of cultures. A Japanese reader told me she was at first angry at how the Japanese character was portrayed, but she also said that the reasons Crabbe gives for his behaviour are true. The book gives voice to Torres Strait Islanders in the same way that modern academics do: through the scattered use of Indigenous language and a deeply-held respect. Read in this spirit, The Pearl-shell Diver will aid essential conversations in the classroom and beyond.

Conspiracy of Silence cover Academic works of the far north also explore history and sociality. In 2015, Timothy Bottoms published a 1.8 kg history titled, Cairns, City of the South Pacific, A History 1770-1995. This monumental work – with virtually every sentence footnoted – gives a wider context to the murders and massacres of Aboriginal people that Bottoms first documented in Conspiracy of Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2013). By rewriting the history of Cairns, Bottoms provides a just account of the cultural conflict at the base of present day antagonism.

Professor Henry Professor Rosita Henry’s territory is an anthropological view of social conflict. Her 2011 ethnographical study of Kuranda (a small town in the rainforest near Cairns) titled Performing Place, Practising Memories: Aboriginal Australians, Hippies and the State reveals how and why Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents worked together, despite their different interests, to challenge commercial development.

Kuranda One Kuranda resident Henry interviewed was Eve Stafford. She was involved in the establishment of the Kuranda amphitheatre and markets in the late 1970s and went on to become engaged in the arts at a national level. She is now a driving force behind the 2016 Tropical Writers Festival.

Under Cover cover Stafford is upfront about her long-term plans to make Cairns the home of ‘the most prominent regional writers’ festival in Queensland,’ and to engage the Asia-Pacific through the Cairns international airport. This year’s program features Magda Szubanski, Stan Grant and Craig Munro.

But true to Stafford’s form, a large part of the program is reserved for local writers. Including visual artists as storytellers, the Tropical Writers’ Festival has it all. So join the rush for literary gold, shed your winter woollies and see you there!


[Footnote: Alumni News Editor Diana Jenkins is gleefully in residence at Varuna as part of her PIP Fellowship and plans to tell all in a future Monthly Feature.]


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New Works by Alumni


When Embers Dance cover

When Embers Dance
by Katherine Seppings
(MPU, November 2015)


When Embers Dance has been called ‘a fearless first collection’ by Sue King-smith who describes the chapbook as ‘an empathetic and hard hitting rendering of life in contemporary Australia. Katherine invites us into a bleak and often speechless world of debilitating drought, bush fires, animal exploitation and family violence. These explorations are interspersed with poems of hope and quiet joy—a bar in Seville where people communicate without words, the birth of faith in a spring garden, poetic musings over coffee and a blank page.’


Read about other Alumni books online at Alumni Books.


Alumni Profiles


Katherine Seppings and Catherine Therese have provided updates to their profiles.

Read other profiles online at Alumni Profiles.


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