Review: Regional Writing

Press Room contributor Bri Lee reviews Saturday’s Regional Writing panel with Tamsin Janu, Erin Handley, Nicholas Couldwell, and Jonno Revanche

The regional writing panel began with Erin Handley asking each writer to explain how their work was shaped by where they lived. Nicholas Couldwell is based in Byron Bay and explained how the neighbourhood and community he lived in informed his writing. He described the ocean as a “mythological thing” we need to live, and so for him it feels only natural to write about it.

Jonno Ravnanche is Adelaide-based but also spent a lot of time growing up in a remote area between Victoria and New South Wales. “It made me really focus on my relationships… and the location shaped my values.” Jonno spoked eloquently about the darker sides of suburban life in Adelaide, explaining how it was unique and central to a lot of their work.

Tamsin Janu is a youth worker in a couple of tiny communities in the Northern Territory. While she didn’t move there for her writing, she spoke about the effect being in the area had. An absence of social-calendar distractions, long walks down red dirt roads, and working with indigenous children all contribute to her practice. Her first book was about a little girl in Ghana and Tamsin wrote it after working there for three months. Erin asked her, rather gently, if she found it problematic to write about the experiences of other (non-white) people and Tamsin responded well, explaining that she tries to write exactly what she’s seen, rather than taking liberties with other people’s stories.

One of the most interesting topics that came up was raised by Jonno, after Erin asked the panel what they thought about Sydney and Melbourne always being considered the writing hubs of Australia. Jonno expressed the frustration that most of the voices being published and nabbing awards are distinctly Melbourne. What the panel went on to consider, was whether or not there was a subconscious process whereby the gatekeepers of journals, publishing, and awards had come to associate the Melbourne voice with quality. Rather than it being a deliberate decision to support Melbourne writers, actually these gatekeepers could no longer identify quality work in voices and styles they weren’t used to seeing and hearing – therefore limiting the opportunities and acclaim for regional writers. Jonno remarked that feeling the pressure to conform to that voice, which is mistaken as being a level of quality rather than just one possible style, made it hard to just focus on the craft. Nicholas said he felt the opposite sometimes happened to him, where he felt like he was sometimes given publishing opportunities because people knew he was from Byron and that there was therefore something inherently different and unique about his writing.

A discussion followed about the role of universities in major cities, and the brain drain regional communities can struggle with as the young people leave for education. All the writers mentioned that being in a regional area, often enjoying physically larger spaces like the beach or the bush, allows the mind to breathe in a special way that has a positive effect on their writing.