In conversation with Tess Lea

Tess Lea


An interview with Tess Lea, author of 'Darwin', the final book in the acclaimed city series.

What led you to write Darwin?

I was on the other side of the world when Phillipa McGuinness from NewSouth contacted me, a born-and-bred Darwinite, seeking suggestions for fiction writers who could do justice to Darwin. The City series is Pip’s brainchild. She wanted a series on the capitals (and the centre) of Australia, which brought them to life, from different writers’ perspectives.

The book appeared to me so forcefully. I said to Pip that if she was prepared to consider someone with a non-fiction background, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring. I would start with the roar of Cyclone Tracy and end with the roar of fighter jets, figurative bookends for a piece on the Darwin that Australians don’t know but should.

What have you discovered to be the most surprising aspects of Darwin for those unfamiliar with the city?

Without doubt it’s Darwin’s role in the shifting geopolitics of the region. The militarisation of the north, including of Darwin, under everyone’s noses, is surprisingly unknown to most Australians. There is next to no comment. To borrow from WEH Stanner, who famously complained of the great Australian silence about the dispossession of Indigenous people, there is a silence about the new ‘Cold War’ brewing in the Asia–Pacific–Oceanic region and Darwin’s place in it.

How did the writing of this book change your perceptions of your hometown?

I have long known of the distinction that is made between old-timers and everyone else. The cut-off varies. It used to be that if you experienced Cyclone Tracy in 1974, you were a local. But doing this book I realised that the growing number of people passing through as fly-in, fly-out workers or for two-year contracts, living in the mushrooming high-rise complexes or buying McMansions off the plan, not only form the majority but are the key influencers of what makes for ‘localness’. The brevity of their stay is irrelevant in terms of their capacity to influence what Darwin is.

This insight allowed me to look at Darwin with a stranger’s eyes and to take in what I, as a local, had been conditioned not to notice.

What is the most important aspect to consider when one writes about place?

A place like Darwin – all places really – is never one story but many. The challenge is to find ways to narrate these multiple points of view without being too academic, or conversely, too light. Darwin is a place of primal forces. Its electrical storms obliterate normal functions. Televisions can’t be heard over their fury. Cyclones have torn the city apart three times in the town’s short history. The immersion in and battle with these forces gives the town its distinction. So capturing the sensory dimensions of a place that looks like any other but feels so unique is especially critical.

Striking the balance between shades of light and dark in a place with the rich, cruel, loving, funny and foolish character of Darwin is also an important consideration. I did not want to add to the many boosterish travelogues available about the place. Darwin teems with airbrushed catalogues and glossy magazines boasting of its (artificially cultivated) tropical character, Asian feel, dry season festivals and successful entrepreneurs. Darwinites are sensitive to ‘down south’ insults – but writers need to notice the muddy ground that patriotic flags sprout from too.  Still, I also wanted to show what Darwin’s deep attractions are – why it is a place that grabs one’s soul and hugs tight.

Darwin is out now from NewSouth.