A Tasmanian's tales of history and struggle — from near and far

Miners in Potosi, Bolivia.

Essays From Near & Far
James Dryburgh
Walleah Press, 2014
130 pages, $20

The Tasmanian establishment like to promote the idea that their state is separate to the rest of Australia; that its isolation means things are done differently and that’s just the way it is.

It’s an attitude that keeps newly arrived residents as outsiders and maintains acquiescence to the status quo in politics and business.

James Dryburgh grew up and lives in Tasmania, but in this collection of short essays and interviews he looks outward. He shows how connected his home state is, and always has been, to the rest of the world.

Travelling through South America, he is surprised that the landscape reminds him of home — reflecting the fact the continent was once joined to Australia.

The history of the two are also joined. The city of Ushuaia, in the far south of Argentina, was a penal colony like Tasmania. Dryburgh retells the story of 10 convicts who, in 1834, stole a boat they had been forced to build and sailed all the way from Van Diemen's Land to Chile to escape.

He also sees similarities in the culture and history of indigenous peoples in both places.

Dryburgh's essays are deeply personal, such as when he writes about learning of the death of one of his oldest friends, or being present at the birth of his first child. But they are also deeply political.

In Potosi, Bolivia, he is shocked by the conditions miners live in and work under. He writes: “It is a world where as many as eight million Andean Indians have died since the Spanish discovered its silver in 1545, and where the average life of a miner today, is thirty-eight years of age.”

Volunteering to work with the miners, he climbs down a makeshift wooden ladder and spends a day hauling rubble in heavy carts, his throat caked with dust, as men set off dynamite close by.

He compares it with a mine in Rosebery on Tasmania’s west coast, which by contrast is ruled by safety regulations. On a guided tour — he was not allowed to work — he travels underground in a four-wheel drive. Many of the machines are operated remotely and workers are thankfully not underground when explosions take place.

Dryburgh writes that Potosi “altered my perception of the world. This is a place so fundamentally important in human history that I should have already known about it. But it didn’t feature in my Euro-centric education, despite arguably influencing Europe’s development more than any other city.”

Outsiders have always shaped Tasmania’s history, from white settlement and its impact on Aboriginal peoples, and through later generations of immigrants and refugees.

But Dryburgh is also interested in how places shape people, leading them to struggle for personal freedom or a better world for others.

He returns to the prison theme in an essay about visiting asylum seekers in the Pontville detention centre, built outside Hobart in 2011. And he does so again in an interview with Irish playwright Martin Lynch about his play set in Long Kesh prison in the British-occupied north of Ireland, which housed political prisoners.

Dryburgh has friends from an earlier generation of refugees, who left the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s and settled in Hobart.

Through this connection, he travels to El Salvador and interviews Chico, a left-wing guerilla who was granted asylum in Australia.

With the left-wing FMLN now the ruling party, Chico returned home after 25 years to take part in the struggle to “tackle inequality and help democracy grow”.

Whether or not the reader is familiar with the places Dryburgh covers, his stunning writing and compassionate voice means they will be revealed in a new way.

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