‘I’m from Tasmania, which is an island on the periphery of Australia, and Australia is an island on the periphery of the world.’
The author Richard Flanagan is in Beijing talking to a room full of Australians. Roughly one hundred of them, mostly white, have crowded in to The Bookworm, a bookshop familiar to anyone in Beijing’s small English-language literary scene. Near the front is an enthusiastic Chinese fan, but the rest are members of Beijing’s Australian expat community. They know where Tasmania is, and they know, keenly, that Australia is at the edge of everything else.
Australians in Beijing live in the centre of the capital of a country that calls itself the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo, or中国). It is a country that for much of its history quite literally took itself to be the centre of the world. When Matteo Ricci’s 1602 map of the world first appeared in China, there was outrage. One Chinese scholar observed:
Lately Matteo Ricci utilized some false teachings to fool people… He puts [China] not in the centre but slightly to the West and inclined to the north. This is altogether far from the truth, for China should be in the centre of the world.1
This way of thinking is totally foreign to Australia—if China’s founding thought is one of centrality, Australia’s is one of periphery. To be Australian anywhere overseas is to have chosen to move from the periphery towards the centre.
Though he lives on Tasmania’s main island, Flanagan mostly writes on Bruny Island, just off the coast of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. That is: when he wants to work, Flanagan retreats from an island off the coast of Australia, itself an island on the edge of the world, to a third island, so that he can be alone. Bruny is one of those ‘best kept secrets’ that features prominently in Tasmania’s tourist literature. Getting there requires a ferry ride, and once you’re there, there’s little to do except to be outside and graze on the local produce. It’s a place that prompts mainland visitors to turn to their spouses and ask, ‘what if we ran a dairy farm?’ as they board the Sunday evening flight out of Hobart. The island is a rare example of reality rising to meet Australia’s idealised self-conception: distant, pastoral, idyllic.
All of this is important as to how Flanagan is understood as a writer. In a video for the New Yorker called ‘Flanagan’s Island’, the author, barefoot and trousers rolled, strolls on an empty Bruny beach before settling into his writing shack. There is footage of water and eucalypts and a snorkel. On the windowsill are bird nests he found outside. ‘More than mere biographical detail,’ writes Amelia Lester of Flanagan’s relationship with Tasmania, ‘this remote island and its troubled, often violent history is one of his obsessions.’ The video extends the claim even further: Flanagan is made to embody his island home. Like Tasmania, Flanagan is rugged and quiet; his words are sparse and dramatic. Assuming the pose of a bemused tour guide, Flanagan simultaneously observes and participates in the video’s creation of his identity. One wonders what is happening off-screen. Who is holding the camera? Has someone told him where to stand?
In 1950, A. A. Philips published a seminal essay in Meanjin, in which he accused Australians of evincing a ‘Cultural Cringe’, an inferiority complex that manifests in endless comparison to other cultures. Australians were especially vulnerable to the complex because they could claim neither a separate language nor a sufficiently distinctive cultural tradition from the ‘intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture’. We had become self-conscious and uncertain, and unable to stop unfavourably comparing ourselves to the centres of Western culture. Australian writers and artists have been running from the diagnosis ever since.
This helps, in part, to explain Flanagan’s appeal. To be in a room with Flanagan is to realize, quickly, that he seems immune from the insecurities described by Philips. In The Cultural Cringe, Philips imagines that ‘certain type of Australian intellectual’ known for sidling up to Englishmen and saying, ‘I, of course, am not like these other crude Australians…I should be spiritually more at home in Oxford or Bloomsbury’. But Flanagan is clearly allergic to sycophancy. He would never be caught asking, ‘what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?’
Even at readings overseas, Flanagan discusses Australian local politics and refuses to give up his Australian slang. In fact, he is so deeply of Australia that he is puzzled by others’ interest in where he is from. He makes out that he is blind to, or refuses to admit, that there might be something distinct about his home. ‘I think too much is made of place and environment,’ he says at one point in Flanagan’s Island, a film explicitly about place and environment, ‘it’s just where I live.’ The pose amounts to a kind of romantic parochialism. But it is a parochialism earned in equal measure by a proximity to the sublime and rejection of the Cultural Cringe. At the Bookworm, Flanagan bristles at the attention to his island home. ‘No one would ask Phillip Roth about New Jersey’, he claims, but it’s clear the audience is unconvinced. In the front row, a middle-aged white Australian can just be heard: ‘Sure they would.’
In recent years, an Australian identity that embraces its peripherality has become popular and internationally marketable. Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film, Australia, with its tale of cattle roving and war, released to greater enthusiasm overseas than in Australia. Oprah Winfrey declared that ‘it is a spectacle and the scenery is so gorgeous you can barely stand it’. The film’s strategy is to exploit the exoticism of a distant land, and its approach is literal; the Outback cattle station, in which much of the drama is set, is named ‘Faraway Downs’. This exotification is also reflected in the recent profiles of the novelist and Nobel Prize contender, Gerald Murnane. Mark Binelli’s piece in the New York Times begins with a description of the rural town where Murnane lives. ‘About five hours from Melbourne by car,’ Binelli writes of Goroke, Victoria, ‘the town has the feel of an evacuation nearly complete.’ The remoteness of Australia, about which most Australians are ambivalent, is to the outside world its allure and magic.
For critics like Binelli, Murnane’s legitimacy is drawn as much from his peripherality as his genius. These are supposed to be mutually complementing elements in Murnane’s work. The tension between Flanagan’s insouciance about his peripherality (‘it’s just where I live’) and his clear awareness of it is explained by Australia’s growing ability to turn the Cultural Cringe in its favour. The world considers Australia remote and unknowable. Australians build an identity around that expectation and, unwittingly or not, partake in a cultural economy that trades off these reputations and associations. When it suits his audience, Flanagan is willing to go along with it.
An Australian literary identity built on the peripherality of the country is one that is fashioned out of comparison: further away, more secluded, less adulterated. It is less an escape from the Cultural Cringe than an evolved manifestation of it. If the cringing intellectuals of 1950 vocalized their insecurities, their counterparts in 2018 have silently internalized them.
The audience in Beijing forgives Flanagan all of this. It does not much matter whether Flanagan evinces parochialism or the Cultural Cringe. These concerns are no match for the uniquely Australian nostalgia that Flanagan summons. He is so much of what these expatriate Australians want their country to be—rough, authentic, connected to the earth, but also peripheral, ruminating, and alone. And from afar, or at least here in Beijing, that mode of being Australian feels increasingly mythic and decreasingly real. At The Bookworm, Flanagan reflects back to his audience both what we want and what we have lost. We are no longer peripheral, no longer alone. Nostalgia, after all, is a cousin of mourning.
When Flanagan quotes continental writers, which he does regularly and with ease, his accent rides rough-shod over the pronunciation of their names. He knows this, and his audience know he knows it, and they know he doesn’t care.2 But when we put our own questions to him, our internationalised accents sound unrecognisably delicate. Flanagan sounds like the only Australian in the room.
Bo Seo is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University and a graduate of Harvard University. He is Korean and Australian.
Alistair Kitchen is a writer and photographer based in Beijing. He has degrees in philosophy and literature from the University of Sydney and is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University.
- Wei Chün, On Ricci’s Fallacies to Deceive the World (Li shuo huang-t’ang huo-shih p’ien), quoted in: George H. C. Wong, ‘China’s Opposition to Western Science during Late Ming and Early Ch’ing’, Isis, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Mar., 1963), pp. 29-49 (44)
- When asked about literature-in-the-time-of-Trump, Flanagan remembers Kafka’s diary: ‘August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.’