A View from Here: My View As A Writer
The carnival itself is intended to celebrate New Zealand literature and letters, given New Zealand is the official guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year
In “A View from Aotearoa-New Zealand” I talked about geographic isolation and New Zealanders as migratory birds, heading outward to the world even if we also often return. I believe New Zealand writers also tend to look outward to the world in terms of literary engagement, even if our subject matter can sometimes be almost self-consciously inward looking.
Recently, I interviewed poet Rhian Gallagher, whose poetry collection “Shift” had just won the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry. (The podcast of that interview is here and still ‘listenable.’) In the interview we talked about what made a book distinctively “of New Zealand” and although I am not sure we reached a conclusion then—it is, as Rhian correctly pointed out, a very big question—the conversation did spark further reflection.
The conclusion I have now reached is that what makes writing “of New Zealand” is primarily that it is written by a New Zealander or New Zealand resident. Someone from “otherwhere” may come in and offer a transitory viewpoint on New Zealand, but it is questionable whether that constitutes New Zealand literature as opposed to an extension of their own cultural perspective.
Beyond that, I don’t think there are or can be any rules about what constitutes the correct degree of New Zealanderish-ness in a work—because here’s the thing: when you’re in the middle of something, especially something so ubiquitous as culture and society, it is almost impossible to see it clearly. We are all very much inside it, after all. In order to see one’s own culture with a degree of objectivity, I suspect both geographic and temporal distance may be essential—but even then, nostalgia and the distance itself may cloud the glass. (In other words, there are no easy answers: surprise!)
Like most countries, New Zealand has different cultures and societies within that one label of “Aotearoa-New Zealand.” I don’t just mean the obvious ones like Maori and Pacific Island cultures, those of UK and European descent, as well as early Chinese and Indian settlers and more recent immigrants from those same regions–although they are important. But living in Grey Lynn in Auckland is a very different New Zealand than Avonhead in Christchurch; living on the East Cape very different from residing in Timaru or Winton.
So what makes up the New Zealand “slant” on literature that is written by people either coming from or still living in any of those places, or shifting between them, may vary enormously.
I do not think one can be held up as more right than any other: we are all, in our ways, New Zealanders. What we write, in its diversity, comprises the body of New Zealand literature.
Looking at My Own Work:
If I look at my own writing as a specific example, I write fantasy fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that. I also write poetry, and occasionally short fiction. In terms of the epic fantasy, the stories are set in alternate worlds, ones which draw on mythological and physical landscapes that are not derived solely from New Zealand.
Yet given that it appears to be part of our New Zealand psyche to look outward to the wider world, that in itself does not represent an inherent diminution of my—or my work’s—’New Zealander-ishness’ or Kiwi credentials.
I discussed landscape and environment, and its influence on world building, in my very first post for the Aoteraoa Blog Carnival, way back in February, here. I find it difficult to conceive how any writer could live in an environment or landscape and not be influenced by it. I know I am, and that the influence is very much present in my writing, as alluded to in that post.
Yet, although we all now know that Tolkien’s Middle Earth, thanks to Sir Peter Jackson, is aligned with New Zealand in the international mind, I suspect we, as New Zealanders, rarely look out the window and see the landscape in fantastic or epic terms. Nonetheless, those influences are there.
I did part of my growing up in the King Country, where the hill behind our house was a terraced pa site and the local stories were of battles fought on the nearby sand dunes between hapu of the Waikato iwi and those led by Te Rauparaha. Bones would still often turn up when the sands shifted.
And there were later tales, of the Maori resistance to British settlement in the 1860 and ’70 wars, with the subsequent withdrawal into the King Country. Tales of battles and retreats and loss, of enmities and friendships, and of the slow turning of that ebb tide of defeat and dispossession through the 20th century.
Epic stories and human stories—and if I do not write exactly those histories, nonetheless the threads of those influences and all the thoughts and reflections they engender are not something I can divorce from either who I am, or what my writing is.
Nor is this the only influence, on me or on my work. I have lived in a number of regions of New Zealand and been influenced by a raft of histories and stories. I would particularly mention Otago, that harsh and rugged land of gold, where the history of the Chinese miners is as strong and distinctive a thread as that of those who came from the UK and US, Europe and Australia. I grew up with the stories of the gold, together with those of the remote sheep stations and the coastal regions where the first colonial settlers were whalers and sealers who married into the local Maori communities.
Again, all human stories, and in their way, epic stories–and to the extent that they have either moved or inspired me, I am quite sure that influence has also shaped my writing.
The influence of culture makes itself felt in other ways, many of which may also be invisible to the writer who is “in it.” Part of this influence may be subtle. For example, in New Zealand, we can pretty much look up and see the stars from just about anywhere (so long as it isn’t cloudy, of course.) But that is not true in many other parts of the world. So observation, description and discussion of the stars in writing, while matter-of-course for the New Zealand writer, may not be for the reader in other sectors of the globe.
New Zealand is also allegedly one of the world’s least corrupt societies: this suggests a concern around justice and fair play that may come through in our storytelling. Whether it does and whether it is distinctive or not—perhaps that is something only those outside of New Zealand, who read our literature, may judge.
To return to my premise, from my perspective as a writer and looking at both my own work and that of others, I feel very much that if it is written by a New Zealander or New Zealand resident, then it is part of the body that is New Zealand literature. It is our human nature to cherry pick for that we decide is of greater or lesser value, more or less “of New Zealand”—as well as striving to make connections and discern trends where there may in fact be none.
We are all the sum of our experiences, but for me as a writer, the greatest part of that experience comprises being a New Zealander. None of my experience will be quite the same, or even similar at all, to that of other New Zealand writers. Yet I am nonetheless a New Zealander and a writer: together, they shape both my view from here and my work.
My other three posts in the “A View from Here” series are:
- A view from my study (short and sweet ), here.
- A view from Christchurch (the first post written), here.
- A View from Aotearoa-New Zealand, here.
A Brief Note on Maori Terms Used:
“Pa” — a fortified settlement and/or fort
“iwi” — a Maori tribal confederation
“hapu” — a sub-tribe, considered by some to be the primary societal grouping; the federation of hapu sharing common ancestry forms an iwi
“Waikato” — a major iwi and the one from which the Maori “kingitanga”, King movement originated
Te Rauparaha — a famous Maori war leader, sometimes referred to as the “Napoleon of the South”