TEXT review

Fascination of islands

review by Laurie Hergenhan


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Southerly: Islands and Archipelagos
Volume 72, Number 3
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2012
Pb 239pp AUD26.95


‘This issue of  Southerly is motivated by the both [sic] a deep fascination with real and imaginary islands and by a deep concern for their current challenges.’ Thus the editor of this special issue, Elizabeth McMahon, introduces the subject of this special issue. She continues: ‘Although the allure of islands in the western imaginary is bound up with fantasies of autonom… In the last couple of decades various associations have been formed to foreground the importance of islands and the challenges they face at this juncture of global economic and climate change, and to identify attendant capacities of resilience and creativity’. Australia is ‘comprised of 8,222 islands of divergent cultures and histories … and [they are] at the centre of debates about asylum seekers’ (6). At the time of the writing this review Queensland was commemorating the inauguration of ‘black birding’, the forced conscription of islanders to work on sugar fields as slave labour. This Southerly accordingly contributes to what is a relatively new and interesting field of inquiry.

It is surely true that islands have long attracted the western imagination. Sometimes this fascination may have had a personal stimulus, and McMahon admits hers has, from living in Tasmania, but creative literature, including formative children’s books, has often transported readers to islands. Although these excursions have encouraged ‘fantasies of autonomy’, there have been alternating representations:  the essential isolation of the human condition and the interdependence of humans. Hence such a span as represented by: Donne’s famous ‘no man is an island’, popularised by Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls; Matthew Arnold’s declaration that in the sea of life ‘we mortal millions live alone’; a modern expression of alienation occurs in the poetry of AD Hope, where love draws humans ‘closer and closer apart’, so that in the end ‘the rescue will not take place’ (‘The Wandering Islands’, mentioned in the editorial). The myth of autonomy is strongest in Robinson Crusoe, because of, not despite, its realism. Hope and JM Coetzee have both rewritten this story to show its concealed underbelly.

The lead article is the opening address by Elaine Stratford at the inaugural meeting of the Australian Small Islands Forum, May 2012. Stratford, Head of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, aims to ‘foreground the material conditions of island life because I see more opportunities for more “conversation” across literary theory, and the geopolitics of island enquiry. As physical entities, and for their metaphorical, emblematic, narrative and linguistic power, islands have much to “say” about our past, present conditions and possible trajectories.’ Her chief argument is that islanders know how change challenges the island condition and that it is important to ask questions about islanders’ aspirations for ‘sustainable communities, modern and accessible technologies, services and opportunities’ (13).

Brigid Rooney’s article with flamboyant title, ‘Pathological Geomorphology and the Ecological Sublime’ concerns Andrew McGahan’s novel Wonders of a Godless World (2009), ‘a puzzling work…published at a high point in climate change debate in Australian politics’. In her introduction Rooney comments: ‘In ecocritical studies in Australia and elsewhere, the question of how to write, think and read ‘non-anthropocentrically’ has spurred interest in the workings of the environmental imagination ... (56)’ Rooney’s aim is to ‘consider the questions of genre and setting in [the novel], asking what might be implied by its island topography and what to make of the configuration of its characters. How, and to what end, does Wonders evoke the rhetoric of sublimity? Can the sublime function ecologically? Can a novel be made to work, even temporarily, against is own inherent anthropocentricism?’ (59). Large questions and large language!

Randolph Stow’s novels are probably the most underrated of recent Australian literature and his work is comparable to Patrick White’s in achievement if not in output. His landscapes, his insight into human longings, aspirations and degradations, his poetic language all combine to make his works memorable. Islands feature in an early work To the Islands, based on time he spent at a Western Australian Aboriginal mission but in a symbolic way drawing on indigenous mythology. Visitants, his novel based on his experiences as an Australian patrol officer in the Trobriand Islands, is the best novel I have read about that particular area, and about islands; it is both magical and frightening, indeed scary. In Southerly Fiona Richards writes on Stow perceptively and sensitively, drawing on his papers recently deposited to the Australian National Library. She is original in bringing out his love and knowledge of a range of music and his extensive wanderings, often in extreme landscapes and localities, in Australasia and the United Kingdom, where he later lived as an expatriate.

David Brooks’ ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski amongst the Modernists’ introduces an unexpected perspective, showing the famous anthropologist’s intersections with Australia and the Trobriands, and also bringing in Conradian connections. This piece is fascinating but in the end a bit disappointing for it trails off, recommending the reader to a companion piece in conference papers of a 2008 meeting at Rajasthan University.

Southerly is true to character in including selections of poetry and short fiction, not necessarily about islands, as a variant of its fare; for instance, an attractive poem, ‘Breath Creatures’, by an Australian psychoanalytic therapist, Craig Powell , author of eight books of poetry, and  a short story, ‘Silvereye’ by Angel Rockel, on the Huon valley, near Hobart. A long review of Drusilla Modjeska’s award winning novel, The Mountain, set in New Guinea, makes me wonder why there is not more in the issue — though it is packed — on New Guinea, a fertile field for Australian writers from Errol Flynn to James McAuley, and beyond.

It is good to see Southerly in such a flourishing condition. It is Australia’s oldest twentieth century literary journal, originating from Sydney University, founded in 1939 and still bearing its original logo proudly: a cherub with floating hair lustily blowing out air, an emblem of the refreshing Southerlies that can bring relief in Sydney and New South Wales at the end of hot days.



Laurie Hergenhan has published widely on Australian literature. He was foundation editor of Australian Literary Studies (ALS), 1963-2002. It celebrates its fiftieth year in 2013, and is currently edited by Leigh Dale, University of Wollongong.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste