Writing North Queensland

This week, two of my new stories set in North Queensland were published. ‘Bulldozer’ appears in the Spineless Wonders Michael McGirr Selects series and ‘Burning the Green’ in issue 11 of Tincture journal. These stories represent the beginnings of my engagement with the North Queensland landscape, which began even more I moved up here in 2013, when I first read Thea Astley’s Hunting the Wild Pineapple and It’s Raining in Mango.  Time, then, to reflect on how the landscape has shaped my writing.

In Astley’s vision of the North, the tropical landscape is a lush, obscene, almost sexual being. For example, in ‘Ladies Need Only Apply’ (from Hunting the Wild Pineapple), the female protagonist is lured and then strangely entrapped by the extreme landscape and the masculine figure that survives on its fringes. When I visited Paronella Park, which inspired ‘Bulldozer’, Astley influenced my experience of the place.

The Kiosk Paronella Park Innisfail c 1935

Image: Kiosk at Paronella Park, circa. 1935, from State Library of Queensland

The night after visiting Paronella Park, I dreamt of a table riddled with insects, and of the tennis courts. Paronella Park is an impressive series of stone buildings next to a waterfall in the middle of the rainforest near Cairns, Far North Queensland. In the 1930s, Spanish migrant Jose Paronella built the castle-like park, including a cinema, a dance hall with a mirrorball, tennis courts, and pleasure grounds. The park stayed open until the 1950s, when ‘Bulldozer’ is set. After Jose died, his family couldn’t maintain the place. The buildings were left to the rainforest, fire and cyclone. Later it re-opened as a tourist attraction and inspired the Studio Ghibli animation Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

In ‘Bulldozer’, I imagine the forest surrounding the park in this way:

Eunice puts her foot into a hole and falls down amongst the fronds and strips of paperbark, the curled fern stems. She sees the creek in front of her and half-slides, half-falls into the water, thinking it will be easier going. Her boots fill. The water is shallow, hot and soupy. The rocks are slippery with moss. She picks her way over them, feet heavy.

A snub-nosed turtle extends its neck from the water, prehistoric, watching her. She throws a rock and it ducks back under the water. She imagines it treading the current towards her, its neck snaking round her ankle. The forest seems empty beyond the creek— all the creatures cluster around this twisting rope of water, teeming at her body, her feet and knees submerged.

The forest has already healed the path she made in it.

Here, like Astley’s landscape, the tropical rainforest is more than just alive; it has agency. The turtle becomes a human-animal, both ancient and anthropomorphic. This vision reflects Eunice’s view of the forest. In this scene, she attempts to escape an emotionally abusive relationship with the man she has just married. For me, the tropical landscape becomes a space to explore women’s sexuality. In playing with the stereotypical image of the forest as a chaotic place, I engage with my own fear that sexuality that does not conform to the ‘norm’ is frightening and stems from an unknowable and out-of-control unconscious. Yet, this sexuality can also be a source of nourishment and life, reflected in the imagery of the water that draws the animals to it. At the same time, the narrator feels  entrapped by the forest that has already covered over her tracks. This echoes the kind of entrapment that she feels trying to fit in with expectations of women to get married. In this moment, the landscape reflects her ambivalence, confusion and fear in a liminal and dream-like space. As it does my own.

In the original version of the story, I offered Eunice no hope, but in the version that was successfully published, she takes action to establish a safe space outside of the confines of marriage (whether successfully or not the reader doesn’t know). She turns away from her husband’s bulldozer on the side of the road—which destroys the forest—at the same time she realises she can control it. Here, the human presence is shown as both destructive and enlightening. I had to experience this journey myself to write the story.

Feel the burn Kalen Grondin

Image: Cane fire by Kalen Grondin

In ‘Burning the Green’, the image of fire and death dominates the landscape, rather than the lush rainforest. In the story, I imply that the unnamed man’s sexuality, and Maud’s exclusion of him as a result, leads him to walk into the burning cane fires. Like Eunice, Maud is struggling with repressive, judgmental attitudes she has internalised about her own sexuality. These beliefs mean she cannot connect through touch with her husband and child. Although she does nothing explicit, her silence contributes to the unnamed man’s decision to walk into the fire. The visually striking quality of the act of burning the sugarcane doubles as a representation of the deep pain and destructive qualities of repressive attitudes.

Reflecting on these two stories, I can see that the tropical landscape is working its way into my bones, into my unconscious, where deep-seated fears and desire resides. Astley was here before me, but the path is not marked and I’m in the thick of it. The history of this place, and its sheer aliveness, has pulled me in.

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