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Sunday 9 November 2014

Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize. But What Does that Mean for Tasmanian Writing?

In beginning this blog post, I hope that you will forgive me yet another entry that discusses children’s literature only circuitously. It is, I hope, another digression that is not wholly out of place, and I know that some excellent recommendations from our experts to get your Christmas shopping in full swing are no doubt on their way! But there has been some excellent news in Tasmanian writing recently—news that I think has much broader significance than in the sphere of adult literature alone—and I think it is important and wise that we recognise and celebrate it.
Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan, with his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, has won the Man Booker Prize for 2014. The Booker is one of the world’s premier literary awards, and many would argue that it is the prize of most significance, surpassing even the Pulitzer in its scope and worth. For the adults among us, allow me to offer a sincere and glowing recommendation for Narrow Road. It’s not an easy read--in the sense that is harrowing and upsetting, rather than difficult to comprehend—but it is startling, beautiful, and easily Flanagan’s best work to date (this accolade alone in my mind should be praise enough to make it worth picking up). I have been surprised by the number of people I have come across who have told me that they are utterly delighted by Flanagan’s win, but haven’t yet read the book. My advice would be to take the Booker acknowledgment seriously. This is seriously special reading.

Now that we’ve discussed that, however, I’d like to think about what this means more broadly, by tying it in with my recent experience assisting students with their English Writing folios at a pre-tertiary level. Firstly, the good news: there are still great writers in our schools, producing work that can make you laugh and cry, and leaves you in no doubt that the future will produce more wonderful stories. There is a problem I continue to notice in schools, though, and which I expanded upon in a recent post on my own blog at
http://www.lyndonriggall.com, called “The United States of Story.” That problem is this: through media saturation, students have come to believe that the realm of narrative—the place where stories take place, always—is America. Hordes of students who have never been there can be caught placing even the most generic school scene in the middle of New York rather than in the schools they have actually grown up in.
The CBCA in its role as champions of locally produced children’s literature, has fought hard for years against the notion that good stories come from and represent a place that is not, and cannot be, Australia. It is part of what makes writers like Flanagan so unique and special; their stories capture the spirit of places where they live—wild landscapes that are not literary clichĂ©s. But still, we continue having to fight the Hollywood-ising of stories. It’s not a new problem, and it’s not going to go away in a hurry while these are the narratives that spew out of our televisions and cinema screens on a daily basis.

There is an exciting edge to all of this, however, and that is this: Richard Flanagan winning the Man Booker prize proves that Tasmanian literature has worldwide significance. Books like The Narrow Road to the Deep North inform our culture at a state and national level, certainly, but it is when they are recognised on the world stage like this that we should be really excited. Our students and our writers need to ditch sanitised and empty depictions of the United States—not because stories set in America cannot be valuable or beautiful, as they certainly can and are—but because we need Tasmanian stories.

When students look at me skeptically as I try to explain this to them, wondering why on earth anyone outside of here would have any interest in our tiny little island, I will tell them about a little boy from Longford, and how he made it big, telling Tasmanian stories to the world.
Lyndon Riggall

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