Why is so much writing too afraid to ever dare be offensive? A new literary journal produced in the Orkney Islands attempts to introduce some bad manners – with assistance from New Zealand authors.
In February of this year, Craig Marriner published an essay with all the stoor of Hunter S Thompson at full throttle. Marriner’s gonzo eye was turned on his hometown of Rotorua, and something about the way he barrelled around the streets of his childhood, throwing out opinions, observations, jokes and memories was both exhilarating and scary. Was nothing sacred? What the hell was he going to say next?
It struck me that I’d never read anything about Orkney with the provocative verve of Marriner’s piece. In fiction, Fiona MacInnes’s Iss and Tim Morrison’s Queerbashing come close. But non-fiction? No way. We all seem to be in thrall to scholarly monographs about ancient carvings, ancient customs, ancient accents. Anything, really, as long as it’s dead and gone and can be pinned to the page like a desiccated butterfly.
“Any society is a society in conflict, and any anthology of a society’s poetry that does not reflect this, is a lie,” wrote Tom Leonard, in the introduction to his Radical Renfrew anthology. It’s not just poetry: the same idea applies to all kinds of literature. And clearly included under the “any society” heading is Orkney. Unfortunately, most single volumes as well as most anthologies of Orkney writing shy away from depictions of conflict. In other words, they are lies.
A WALL IN ORKNEY. ALL TERRIBLE PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR LOL
In any small community, and especially in an island community, the ability to ignore your annoying neighbours, to navigate around minor disagreements in day to day life, is an essential skill. After all, if you have it out with the folk next door, if you let those niggles blow up into serious conflicts, where are you going to go afterwards, win or lose the argument? You’re still stuck side by side on the same peedie rock in the same big ocean. The island way is to avoid confrontation, to speak only indirectly of difficult topics. It’s better to let a consensus emerge over days or years than to have an argument with a “winner” emerging after a few minutes of raised voices.
That makes a lot of sense in daily life, but it’s different with writing, where the freedom to voice strong opinions is essential if the work is going to be of any serious worth. Tom Leonard expands on this in Radical Renfrew: “Poetry has been so defined in the public mind as usually to exclude the possibility of social conflicts appearing. The belief is widespread that poetry is not about the expression of opinion, not about ‘politics’, not about employment, not about what people actually do with their time between waking up and falling asleep each day; not about what they eat, not about how much the food costs. It is not in the voice of ordinary discourse, contains nothing that anyone anywhere could find offensive.”
Now re-read the paragraph, substituting “Orcadian literature” for the two instances of the word “poetry”. That’s where we’re at. Does it describe the island community of New Zealand, too?
I wanted to pull together a collection of non-fiction that delivered a more honest representation of our place and time. I wanted strongly-voiced opinions. I wanted discussions of politics, and descriptions of how folk earn and spend their money. I wanted contributors who were searching for ways to capture the voice of ordinary discourse in Orkney. If some of it ended up being offensive to someone somewhere, that would be a matter for celebration, not apology.
I sent Craig Marriner’s essay to Orkney writer Morag MacInnes and asked her if she thought she might be able to write something similar about her hometown. She did. It had exactly the kind of fizzing energy I was hoping for. Soon, with two more pieces by Orcadian writers and two more by New Zealanders, plus an expanded and unexpurgated version of the Craig Marriner piece that inspired the whole thing, I was able to assemble and publish Tūrangawaewae, Beuy.
Conflicts that are usually swept under the carpet are dragged out into the open. Alison Miller’s essay pays attention to the undertows of class, gender and family dynamics: these forces are as powerful here as anywhere, but rarely written about. Paula Morris also conjures visions of long-gone homes and family members with remarkable vividness, but the potential nostalgia is undercut by a subtle, unsettling miasma of “dirt and secrets” rising from the creeks and mangrove swamps of West Auckland. An important figure of an older generation, Maurice Gee, created such a powerful, mythic version of the area that any writer approaching it since has had to grapple with his influence.
Steve Braunias is the literary editor of The Spinoff, which commissioned Marriner’s essay, but he’s also one of New Zealand’s sharpest non-fiction writers. His book, Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World, provides snapshots of small-town life all across New Zealand, though many of the conversations he reports could just as well be taking place in Pierowall or Lyness or Herston. In his contribution to this booklet, Braunias’s essay evokes some of the great laconic narratives of Frank Sargeson, which prompts the following quote from Sargeson’s first novel, where a farmer considers the dangers of living in an area prone to floods and mudslides: “That’s where a man’s farm goes, Mr Anderson said, Down into the swamp, or else down the creek. They talk about people leaving home, but round these parts it’s more of a case of home leaving them.”
Half the title of this booklet will be obscure to New Zealanders, half to Orcadians. Beuy is an Orcadian word that seems to mean simply “boy”, but actually signifies a lot more. It can be used as a greeting to any male acquaintance: “Whit like the day, beuy?” But it can also be an exclamation of surprise: “Another Doonie win? Beuy!”
It’s a sign of its speaker’s Orcadian origins, as it’s not a word spoken anywhere else. But it’s also (when used in the first sense) a sign that the addressee has earned the right to be considered worthy of being called beuy. If you’re a New Orcadian (as Morag MacInnes puts it) you might have to wait many years to hear yourself addressed that way. You might never hear it.
What do you hear if you are a New Zealander – a descendant, two or three generations ago, of European settlers – as opposed to a descendant of those who arrived there a thousand years earlier? In Sargeson’s novel, young farmhand Dave, on his way to visit friends on Christmas night, puts it like this: “You could hear the singing anyhow, and the guitar, and now and then the stamp of feet… It was something popular that he didn’t know the name of, something that was intended to be very sweet and sad; and the Māori way of singing somehow made it a whole lot sadder without any the less sweet. Though maybe, Dave was telling himself, you had to allow for being outside and listening on such a night.”
The singers, inside, are at home. But what about Dave, hesitating outside the door?
I cheated when I quoted the first passage from Sargeson’s novel I Saw In My Dream. I silently omitted one short sentence in the middle of it, to make my initial point clearer. But the whole passage is really as follows: “That’s where a man’s farm goes, Mr Anderson said, Down into the swamp, or else down the creek. Jack’s always saying this country’s our home. They talk about people leaving home, but round these parts it’s more of a case of home leaving them.”
Jack and Mr Anderson, farmers of European descent – Pākehā, in New Zealand parlance – return again and again in the novel to debates about who can best farm the land, and who has the right to farm the land. Which are really debates about who has the right to inhabit and govern the land. Whose home is it anyway?
It’s a big question, and not one this booklet sets out to address. Maybe next time. Meanwhile, read on beuy, read on. And connect with your tūrangawaewae.
Tūrangawaewae, Beuy (Abersee Press, $10 incl P&P) is available by ordering direct from publisher Duncan McLean in Orkney. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.