The Beautiful, Unknowable North

First published in The Adelaide Review January 2010

Nicolas Rothwell’s writings exploring northern Australia – Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Another Country and The Red Highway – place him, thematically and stylistically, in a unique position amongst Australian writers. Now publishing a volume of essays, Journeys to the Interior, he talks with Luke Stegemann from his home in Darwin about finding a language to write this still largely unknown world.

Rothwell’s work exemplifies an alternative tradition he sees coming more into its own in Australian writing – that of “mazy, reduplicative” works that, far from being bound by the conventional strictures of the novel, fan out like desert creeks along multiple paths of drama, enquiry and observation, imbued with a consciousness of place, not afraid to repeat, to double back, to leap across barriers of logic. So dense are the imaginative and physical worlds that Rothwell has travelled through – worlds of pink, red rock, desert grass and awesome cloudstream, of places bearing lines of human creativity traced millennia deep; worlds of sinuous dreams and febrile visions – that it becomes difficult at times to know the line separating fact and fiction. The line is, in any case, either always shifting or simply illusory in Rothwell’s work, and nowhere more so than in the beautiful, unknowable north.
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Travels in the Northern Realm

By Nicolas Rothwell. First published in The Monthly July 2008

I would like to spread before you a world of rhythm and light; a world of beauty and fear; of rushing water and slow-burning dry-season fires: it is a realm where lightning strikes for nights on end, where clouds form ranks and phalanxes that stretch for hundreds of kilometres across flat plains, where rivers rush down bare savannah watercourses and enliven the dead earth. Here, in far northern Australia, that separate kingdom that reaches from the tip of the Western Australian coastline at Exmouth all the way across the Top End and the Gulf country to the narrowing mountain chains of Cape York, things go very differently from elsewhere.
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Into the Shadowed Heart

A review by Pico Iyer of “The Red Highway” published in The Monthly, August 2009

The Red Highway (Black Inc., 288pp; $32.95) begins with a spare, haunting account of the Czech artist Karel Kupka clambering out of a plane and (as the book’s first sentence has it) stepping “for the first time into the elusive world of Arnhem Land.” Born in the last year of World War I, and growing up in a cultured family at the centre of Prague’s intelligentsia, Kupka had made his way to Paris in the last year of the next war, got to know tribal art in the studio of Andre Breton and then, somewhat mysteriously, come out to Aboriginal Australia, as if to find his way back to a deeper, purer history that could restore him after civilisation as he knew it in Europe was destroyed in two terrible wars.
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