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The City and the Writer: In Hobart, Tasmania with Finegan Kruckemeyer

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Hobart as you feel/see it?

Being a southerly island off a southerly island, the equator is a distant thing and seasons leave their mark here, each with its own mood. As I write this, spring ends, and in the morning, summer begins, so the trees are full, the days long, the people optimistic. Hobart is also a city cascading down a mountain and into a river, and a quick look at each upon waking reveals the day’s sentiments—if kunanyi’s peak is snowcapped or sun-kissed or shrouded in cloud, if the River Derwent is peppered with white sails or blanketed by the Bridgewater Jerry (a bucolic morning fog which winds its way toward the sea), then your day is given all the clues it needs.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Three days into 2013, bushfires swept across the south of the state. My wife and I were in the ocean, alongside thousands of others, when smoke filled the sky and ominous blackened leaves began landing on the water around us. The trauma was captured in many ways, like the photo that travelled the globe of a stoic woman holding her five grandchildren as they sheltered beneath a jetty, the sky fierce red around them. A guy I know lost his mum the week before, and that night lost her house and all its memories as well. One story recounted a family running through the bush toward a dam, the flames giving chase, and every bird and mammal racing alongside them, the fear great enough to unify all species. I find that image surreal.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one unnoticed by most, of Hobart?

I’m only twelve years into a life in this city, so observations are those of the evangelist arrived, as opposed to the native who carries a life’s worth of context—my extraordinaries may become ordinaries with enough time passed. For now, however, there’s much I find magical.

The Derwent Bridge, which spans Hobart’s river spine, was hit by a ship called the Lake Illawarra in 1975. The bridge split (as for many months did the city), lives were lost, the ship sank. And what strikes me in its mythmaking is that the ship remains. Despite the bridge’s resurrection, its near-destroyer rests at its base, each day sailed over by boats, driven above by thousands of cars, rarely thought of.

Another thing (just discussed yesterday with a friend) is the fact that while different suburbs exist in vastly different socioeconomic realms, this city (unlike any other I can think of in Australia) offers an equivalent view regardless of wealth. Usually what’s seen from your window is a commodified thing, but in Hobart the beauteous mountain and river prevail, in many places rendered more appealing the further you go.

Other causes of wonder for me are this island’s extinctions (a tiger that once roamed now spied only in a harrowing looped minute of video at the museum) and its redemptions (a devil long plagued by an alien cancer slowly clawing its numbers back, green shoots viewed on a charred peninsula, the words of an indigenous language reclaimed and spoken aloud once more).

What writers from here should we read?

Shoulds are troublesome things, but this city both grows and welcomes writers well, so there are many to choose from. Some, like Richard Flanagan, began here and went on to win Bookers. Others, like Robert Dessaix, found their way to this city (his Night Letters is truly beautiful). Heather Rose writes enveloping fables; Lian Tanner offers children dystopian fantasies. Josh Santospirito’s graphic novels are, in their form, a new appreciation for me, and in their quality, one thankfully arrived at. Across the island (though still upon it, so hopefully this counts) Rohan Wilson navigates difficult Aboriginal histories masterfully in The Roving Party.

Is there a place here you return to often?

My son Moe is two and given to repetitions, so twice a week we visit the museum—and specifically the stuffed tiger beneath the stairs, the pelican, the Muttaburrasaurus looming large in the courtyard. Then we walk the waterfront, past the fishing boats with craypots piled and the bright orange icebreaker sat idle before returning to Antarctic floes.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

MONA is a labyrinthine art collection, amassed by an eccentric millionaire and accessed by a glass elevator descending deep into the earth. It’s known far and wide now, with many boarding airplanes to see it, but what’s less celebrated is the library attached. Its doors are open to all, and sitting beyond it is a glass pavilion holding just one artwork: Sternenfall (Falling Stars) by Anselm Kiefer. A towering shelf of glass and slate shards, it looks to always be teetering on the brink of collapse, gigantic books fallen and shattered on the ground below.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I think Hartley’s metaphor about the past being a foreign country applies to it being a hidden city as well. The house Essie and I bought was built in 1847, and to look closer is to see the horsehair between the floorboards warding off draught, the handmade nails holding it together. Height charts climb the walls, unknown children growing into unknown adults, and in the garden shed a faded ink reveals varieties of heirloom tomatoes planted that year but lost to us now.

Where does passion live here?

On opposite sides of many issues—Tasmanians have staunch views about forests (logging and conservation both), about borders (welcoming and warding off), about heritage and progress, skyscrapers and empty skylines, north and south, to stay or to go.

What is the title of one of your works about Hobart and what inspired it exactly?

Mountains and harbors have started finding their way into many plays of mine since moving here. A current project is That Waves may Carry Us, and it’s about those who set to sea and the places they wash ashore.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Hobart does an outside exist?”

It does, but at a distance, Tasmania long existing as a geographical extremity. The Australian continent is referred to as The Mainland, a name loaded with a sense of self-articulated, north-facing otherness. As an indigenous land, populations existed here for millennia, sustained by an island remove. As a colonial outpost, it was the furthest point of exile for a prisoner, rendering one truly out of the Empire’s sight and mind. Waters run cold here, distant Antarctic currents eventually arriving at our shores. Cruise ships dock in the harbor, then are gone once more. A literal cable leaves the north of the state and travels beneath the water before reaching a power station on the other side—when it broke last year, things ran slower.

The great psychological trick of all these removes is that Tasmania doesn’t view itself as the outsider, but the rest of the world as such. It is confident in its isolation, it has not asked to be assimilated and now, with the appeal of the aloof school kid who never really cared whether shunned or embraced, the world is regarding it anew.

Finegan Kruckemeyer has had eighty-one commissioned plays performed on five continents and translated into six languages. His work has enjoyed seasons in over 100 international festivals, eight US national tours, six UK national tours, and at the Sydney Opera House (six works), DC’s Kennedy Center for the Arts (three works), New York’s Lincoln Center for the Arts, Dublin’s Abbey Theater, Shanghai’s Malan Flower Theater, and at theaters throughout Germany (where he is represented by Rowohlt). Kruckemeyer has received thirty-six national and international awards over the past thirteen years, including the inaugural Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, the 2015 David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Australian Playwrighting, the 2015 CHASS Future Leader Award, and five Australian Writers Guild Awards. He lives in Tasmania.

Published Apr 3, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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