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Essay: why is New Zealand literature so afraid of race? And how come the Spinoff books section is just as bad?

An essay by Brannavan Gnanalingam about subtle racism in New Zealand literature.

While Lionel Shriver recently caused a bit of a stink saying that fiction writers could put on a sombrero whenever they wanted, contemporary New Zealand writers appear to be terrified of entering into a sombrero shop in the first place. We’ll happily spend months researching New Zealand approaches to wood-chopping in the 1860s, but when it comes to talking about people of ethnic backgrounds other than white, it suddenly becomes too difficult.

Obviously, writers can write about whatever they want, but it’s incredibly tedious when our national literature ends up presenting New Zealand as being as white as pre-Roman England. New Zealand is a country of immigrants, in which its contemporary literature pretends like there has been no immigration.

I understand writers’ trepidation to go into areas of difference. I’m about to write a novel about a refugee from the Sri Lankan Civil War. If any old writer wrote it on the back of a two week beach holiday in Galle and an understandable infatuation for Kumar Sangakkara, I’d be horrified. Of course I’m not saying you can’t write about it, it’s more you need to be aware of discursive frameworks, historiography, stereotypes; that stuff that takes, you know, research. What we writers are meant to do. Save that time in the library and go have a drink (or email chat, if you’re an introvert) with different people. Or failing which, you can use structural absences as a thematic tool, if that’s your gas.

How many of our Pākehā writers would pass a racial Bechdel test (ie, there is more than one person of colour, at least two characters of colour have a conversation, and the conversation has to be about something other than a white person)? The Luminaries features two non-white characters talking to each other. And when I read it, it felt exciting. Maybe it arose from the fact that Eleanor Catton is herself technically an immigrant. Or maybe it’s because the book was a scathing account of the Global Financial Crisis, featuring immigrants chasing money in a globalised New Zealand, all while masquerading as an historical novel. Anything else?

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Eleanor Catton

It’s almost as if talking about the “Other”, except in some sort of personal way, is way too political, man. Heaven forbid writers have things like opinions or ideas. My latest book is a black comedy on the War on Terror and New Zealand’s Islamophobia. A laugh a minute subject, I tell you. I occasionally worry that people would think it’d be too “po-faced” and “too Wellington” for anyone outside of the make-believe Wellington beltway, but to be honest, this book has sold better than any of my previous ones.

Why does it matter? New Zealand’s population is 74% European, 15.6% Māori, 12.2% Asian, 7.8% Pasifika, and 1.2% Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African. By way of contrast, Australia is 92% Caucasian. There hasn’t been any diversity studies in terms of publishing data (like there is in TV and film for example) to form an accurate picture of what is published here. Janis Freegard did a breakdown of 2014 novels, which showed that 88% of fiction titles were by Pākehā writers, 7% by Māori, and 5% by Asian / Indian writers. No Pasifika novelists were published in 2014, according to Freegard. In 2014, 88% of poetry was published by European writers, 5% Māori, 3% Pasifika, and 1% each for Asian and for Middle Eastern / Latin American / African. We’re talking one hand, possibly two hands, when it comes to counting non-white published writers.

I am of course talking about our mainstream literary environment, and not the weird and wonderful things going on in the fringes. But it’s not filtering past the gatekeepers, and perhaps explains the current thematic conservatism. I wonder if there’s a code that the gatekeepers use when replying to work by ethnic writers, or if there’s an assumption that only people of a particular community would want to deal with different subjects. Do they use code words, like American gatekeepers use the word “urban”, as a way of trying to be covert in their racism?

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Once Were Warriors offered a realistic, if raw, depiction of life in New Zealdand

I should add, in case anyone thinks that I’m embittered, that I’m not really talking about my experience. I’ve luckily had four books published by Lawrence & Gibson. Admittedly, Lawrence & Gibson has been described as “piss-ant” by TVNZ’s lawyer, but that came from a misunderstanding involving alleged breach of copyright and an “altercation” that took place live on Good Morning. I have also had a decent amount of reviews and the occasional festival event.

If our voices are as bland as a mild butter chicken, this also leads to an ever-shrinking audience. This would particularly be the case in a country such as ours where the demographics are becoming more and more diverse. Diversity isn’t really the hallmark of what gets covered in New Zealand media’s ever-shrinking books sections. Reviewing the one writer of colour that has recently won the Booker Prize does not a “world literature section” make. In a cursory and racially dubious analysis of the 30 pieces in the Spinoff Review of Books, 26 out of 30 (87%!) were about books by white people, or otherwise, pieces by white people.

Frequently, whenever anyone of any colour speaks at Writers Events, they’re marketed as “an Other” or speak to “immigrant voices” or “culture clashes”.  Difference is marketed first, followed by the writing. It’s as if the festivals are saying, “Hey look at our event. We like tokens! We’ve made an event about tokens and marketed them as tokens! Tokens for everybody!” Would Eleanor Catton have been invited to be a keynote speaker at “immigrant voices”? Like fuck she would have.

There’s not much of a sense from most recent novels that Auckland is the most Polynesian city in the world. Or that non-white, non-Māori folk have lived here almost as long as the British have lived here. So much of New Zealand’s most compelling literature from the past explored messy issues of culture: Grace, Sargeson, Hulme, Ihimaera, and Wendt, etc. etc. It’s not as if we don’t consume this stuff. I’m struggling to name more than a handful of contemporary novels from Pākehā novelists that explore diversity – Hamish Clayton’s Wulf or The Luminaries stand-out – but they’re set in the past. At least in The Real Housewives of Auckland or Shortland Street, there’s a tinge of colour in the skin. It reminds me of the quote from someone I can’t remember that the United States is a segregated place where the popular culture likes to pretend it’s multicultural, whereas Britain is a multicultural place where the popular culture likes to pretend it’s segregated. What is our literature setting out to do? Not much, if your target audience is looking increasingly like a Donald Trump rally.

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Albert Wendt

Such criticisms shouldn’t feel threatening. When anyone with a bit of power is challenged for a brief moment, they act as if they’ve just been martyred like Saint Sebastian. You end up with the hilarious spectacle of Lionel Shriver howling in all of the major daily papers and in all of the “Literary Events” and in all of the literary journals and in all of her books published by major publishers that her voice is being silenced. You know what silencing involves? Not being given a voice in the first place.

It’s natural that a more conservative approach results from an environment with fewer publishers, fewer booksellers, and fewer reviews. And understandable, if you’re a gatekeeper with a financial stake in figuring out the right crowd. But it’s not as if writers need to play that game too. In this current environment, an average Kiwi book sells a few hundred copies. Good luck surviving on that status quo. You might be able to buy a bottle of Scrumpies to celebrate, or worst-case scenario, imitation Scrumpies. It’s certainly not enough to support you through that year in the masters programme(s) and/or the year or ten you needed to write the book.

When shit’s going down, people tend to get all 1950s in their quest for safety or write World War I novels to get CNZ funding. Maybe it explains the preponderance of historical / non-urban novels currently being published as it’s safer to discuss vaguely political material with the comfort of hindsight. Surveying what gets published here, though I won’t name names as I don’t want to burn all of my bridges, it feels as if Enid Blyton has written our political manifestos.

Some people will no doubt talk about merit: the best books will come through! Merit has no relevance when it comes to assessing something subjective like art. And even if it did, if your framework for what is “meritorious” is simply the staid status quo, there’s something wrong with your framework.

Far be it for me to introduce commerce into a discussion about a lack of diversity in the arts, but such considerations could be useful, if selling product is your game. There’s an awful lot of internal memos among the professional services in New Zealand about their lack of diversity. Whether anything is actually being done is another point, but it’s widely acknowledged as limiting companies’ marketability in a globalised world and ability to attract diverse clients. Simple fact: diverse clients help such companies when times are tough.

The thing is, national identity should be hard to define. If there were a diversity of voices, then such definitions of “national identity” and “national literature” and “white” and “non-white” literature would be far too elusive. But if our voices are presented as the same by those who write, and those who guard the gates, it just ends up boring AF. You just end up sounding like my mate, who when we were 15, unsuccessfully claimed that he wasn’t mono-cultural because he had had an Italian chicken burger from Burger King. Most people read to hear different voices, to be transported elsewhere, and to see the world through new eyes. It should therefore be obvious that if our books are meant to be about New Zealand, then we should be trying harder to show New Zealand as it really is.


A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse (Lawrence and Gisbon, $23) – based on the famous discovery in 1981 when the son of nascent journalist Fran O’Sullivan found a briefcase belonging to an SIS agent (all true!) –  is the latest novel by Wellington writer Brannavan Gnanalingam.

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