Thirty years ago, wanting to probe deeper into the question of what it meant to make home in Tasmania, I enrolled to do my honours year at the University of Tasmania. During a discussion with the secretary of the History Department about my partially formed dissertation ideas, she urged me to read a thesis by a recent graduate whose work had greatly impressed her: one Richard Flanagan. When I read the thesis and the book that came out of it, the result can best be described as a soul shift. It was not so much the information I gained but that Flanagan’s approach to Tasmania’s past released an imaginative flow in my own research, allowing it to slowly metamorphose over fifteen years into my first book, Van Diemen’s Land. I share this anecdote, not just to highlight what was lost when universities sacked most of their administrative staff, but to show how seriously Richard Flanagan has always taken history.
Flanagan never seems to mention his early historical writings (I particularly recommend Parish-Fed Bastards , a powerful treatise on the treatment of the unemployed in Britain during the Depression). Apart from humility, I am not sure why this is so, but assume that Flanagan became increasingly conscious of the limits of the forgone genre, in terms of what he needed to say about how genocide, slavery, love, and belonging resonated across generations in his island home and connected to the vast tapestry of human existence beyond required literary licence, perhaps even a drowning man, to begin to be told. So the past became fiction in many of Flanagan’s formidable tomes, but in doing so never ceased to be history.