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The Monday extract: Stephanie Johnson on the problem with Australia

An extract from Playing for Both Sides, a kind of memoir by Auckland novelist Stephanie Johnson on her love-hate relationship with Australia.

In the summer of 2011-12, I lived for a brief period in the hinterlands of Byron Bay. One afternoon I heard on local radio a report about a riot that had taken place in a Queensland secondary school, which was apparently started by New Zealanders. The reporter, urged on by the host, eventually conceded that the culprits were “Maoris” (sic). No explanation was given as to what provocation the New Zealanders had before they reacted violently. Sadly, it is easy to imagine the taunts and jibes that likely met their young ears.

Over the past few years in New Zealand, Australia has received a bad press and not only for ungracious and boorish behaviour on the cricket field. First there were stories of resident New Zealand children being denied medical care and higher education. More recently, the nation pulled together in disgust and horror over the detainment of New Zealanders in Villawood and Christmas Island. Some of these men were criminal; many were not, including the famous case involving Lance Corporal Ngati Kanohi Te Eke Haapu. Otherwise known as Ko, this young New Zealander  came to the attention of the authorities by visiting a friend from the motorcycle gang Rebels. Outside the prison Ko was grabbed and flung into a cell. The Australian rationale for his incarceration is a new law passed in 2014 designed to crack down on foreign immigrants of “character”.  It seems, with the arrest of this solider who fought alongside the Australians in Afghanistan, that the ANZAC spirit is mighty sick.

Despite these distressing signs of tearing in the trans-Tasman relationship, many of us continue to have close, personal relationships with West Island. At an estimate 650,000 New Zealanders currently make their home there, even after the recent wave of returning, disgruntled Kiwis. Many families are as bifurcated as mine is – not only does my adult son live there, but also my husband’s family and many of our friends.

Most of my twenties were spent in Sydney, with my first books bearing on the dust jacket “Stephanie Johnson is a young Australian writer”. My own people have been in New Zealand since the 1840s, yet I was happy to let the untruth stand for reasons that are complex and some of them hardly honourable. But then, who believes in nationalism any more, really?

Stephanie Johnson in c1984, just before leaving New Zealand to become “a young Australian writer.” (Image: Supplied)

The occasional parochialism of fellow New Zealand writers depresses me and never more so than when I was asked by a well-known male writer at a friend’s book launch, ‘Who did you sleep with to get your books published in England?’ An Australian writer may well ask the same question of a young woman, but more than likely as a bad joke. This was said with real vitriol, a lack of sharing in rare success: the truth is very few books by New Zealanders are published outside our country.

The longing to return waxed and waned, and still does on the rare occasion. When my 1998 novel The Whistler was short-listed for an Australian science-fiction prize, the organisers contacted me to check that I was Australian and only domiciled in New Zealand. “I’m a sixth generation New Zealander!”, I said proudly, and was immediately disqualified for the wrong passport. I wondered then, why didn’t I stay?

When I see the much larger advances Australian writers receive I can’t help but wonder, why I am still here? When I travel through infinite forests of gums or follow a horizon of broken, ancient mountains, or walk among a colony of gentle wallabies on a wild beach, I long to have that land at my doorstep always. I don’t remember making a clear decision to stay in New Zealand, but that is what has happened and it seems likely that I’ll live here for the rest of my life.

My husband Tim is Australian. He fell in love with New Zealand and has not ever really longed to return permanently. Our daughters Maeve and Willa were born here. Maeve is one of the thousands of young New Zealanders to return from Australia in the past couple of years, the exodus stemmed and returning. She is 25 and may well go back again – and if she does it would be with my blessing, not that she needs it.

Like many parents who worry that our little country will not provide a secure enough future for our adult kids I find myself obsessing about how low our wages are, how scarce the opportunities to make a living wage, how sad it is our unions are so decimated, how tragic it is that the left is so demoralised and that the voting pubic is in love with uncaring neo-liberals. But that is pretty much the same all over the west.

Maeve is the same age I was when I left for the first time. It seems to me now that the New Zealand that I left was a kind of paradise.


Playing for Both Sides (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99) by Stephanie Johnson is available at Unity Books.