Take a vicarious roadie via Attraction, the novel by Ruby Porter that was longlisted for the country’s biggest fiction prize. Released last year, it’s now a slightly eerie snapshot of Aotearoa as we were.
Attraction is a New Zealand road trip novel with a heavy dose of postcolonial guilt. Whitewashing, cultural amnesia, reckoning with intergenerational guilt – it’s all in here. Three young women drive from Auckland to Whāngārā, to stay at the unnamed narrator’s family bach, and then on to Levin, where her grandmother has been hospitalised. Two are Pākehā, one is of undefined descent. One Māori man, the narrator’s depressed te reo teacher, features in the supporting cast. Despite the erotic triangle that seethes uncomfortably throughout this trip, the narrator’s greatest titular attraction is not to her selfish maybe-girlfriend or her best friend, but to the whenua. Her deepest desire is to belong to the land, to feel like tangata whenua. This is important, as it inverts a traditional trope of the colonist: the extractivist, exploitative, land-hungry settler who wants the land to belong to them. The novel rotates on this territorial axis, turning relentlessly in a narrowing gyre, spinning tighter and tighter around guilt-ridden attraction to the whenua.
Like Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch, but from an obviously different cultural perspective – Porter is Pākehā – historical and present disputes over land are at the heart of Attraction. And this heart is dissected with precise strokes: nuanced, complicated, bloody. Porter’s narrator pulls apart family mythology, tugging at skeins of memory to reveal the violent dispossession behind her family’s acquisition of Māori land. Eventually, she uncovers the truth: her ancestor fought against Te Kooti in the New Zealand Wars. The money he received for this military service was used to buy the treasured family bach in Whāngārā. Feeling ashamed and indelibly tainted by this history, the narrator seems trapped between her desire to atone for a distant wrong and the impossibility of that atonement. The guilt is therefore not merely general or colonial; it is specific, familial, personal. However, Porter also demands that readers inquire into their own role in, or unacknowledged inheritance from, colonisation.
The narrator is a fine arts graduate, evidently on a creative hiatus, who now does little but practise various forms of self-flagellation and mortification (despite strongly suspecting she is pregnant). She literally does not eat, basically willing her friends to notice. (Spoiler: they don’t, they just eat more.) She binges and purges. She self-sabotages through abysmal communication with people she clearly loves. She has emotionless sex with her ex-boyfriend, seeking nothing but validation. Terrified of/infatuated with her maybe-girlfriend Ilana, she pretends to throw away her painting equipment when her current beau insinuates that her art is pathetic, little more than a neglected hobby. She destroys a great deal, our narrator. Herself, included. Amongst other differences between The Matriarch and Attraction – tonality, narrative methods, chronological sweep – a crucial one is that while Ihimaera’s matriarch triumphs in all circumstances, Porter’s narrator is often weak, self-pitying, and incorrigibly masochistic. Although well-intentioned, and permanently trying to atone, she wallows. On the novel’s closing page, we leave her, dismally, expounding a metaphor of dog shit as memory: “brown smear baked into the concrete”. A scatological version of Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, “that memory won’t rinse clean.” Porter reveals that our imperfect knowledge of the past is fixed, ineffaceable. And, unlike land, the resulting guilt is inalienable.
The repeated musing on memory; the ass-fingering in the backseat of a car on tapu land; the calorie counting; the occasional bulimic episode; the accidental pregnancy; the intergenerational guilt (versus the intergenerational trauma and dispossession of indigenous people, a reality less-explored in this novel, although undeniably more destructive); the protesting; the landscape … Porter packs a great deal into this brief narrative, but it never feels congested. Nor sanctimonious. On the contrary, Porter’s narrator is aware of what Rebecca Solnit calls the un(der)acknowledged human “cathedrals” of thought and “alarm clocks” of wokeness. In Whose Story is This?, Solnit reminds us of the long-term, careful construction of our knowledge: “It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labours of others.” Our narrator is keenly alive to the lineage of these gifts, the incalculable debts she owes to those who have preceded her, those who have worked to raise consciousness and change minds.
Not one acre more. Not one cultural appropriation more. Beyond the explicit references to historians of colonisation and Māori leaders and intellectuals, the text carries resonances of several generations of activists and theorists of decolonisation, cultural renaissance, Māori self-determination and sovereignty. Te reo is naturally woven throughout the text, becoming awkward only when the narrator is challenged on the extent and sentiment of her linguistic “wokeness” (usually by her capricious, selectively woke girlfriend).
Between the three central women, we witness a more complicated version of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s erotic triangle, in which two male rivals bond homosocially through their competition for a shared female object of desire. In any erotic rivalry, Sedgwick argues, the bond that links the two (male) rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the (female) beloved. In Attraction, Porter presents us with a dynamic homosocial/homosexual/let’s-just-call-it-queer trinity: our unnamed narrator; the narrator’s (is-she-in-love-with-her) best friend, Ashi; and a painfully casual, caustically non-committal maybe-girlfriend, Ilana. They are all emotionally invested in one another, albeit to varying degrees and with varying consistency. There are many question marks hovering over sexuality and attraction, particularly between the narrator and Ashi. Is their love platonic, erotic, or something oscillating between the two? As readers, we are never sure, as it is never discussed. But nor, it seems, are they. This love simmers, accepted as tacit understanding, which leads inevitably to misunderstanding and resentment. One thing seems certain: nothing is unconditional.
Fortunately for Porter (and her publisher), this dynamic – along with its mercurial delivery – has spurred comparisons with the inimitable Sally Rooney, particularly 2017’s Conversations with Friends. Unfortunately for me, the comparison doesn’t quite ring true. At least, not beyond the shared silhouettes of relationships: protagonist having affair with significantly older man, who is in a long-term relationship (oddly, both Rooney and Porter name their male romantic interests Nick); protagonist simultaneously being unambiguously in love with her best friend (who, in Rooney’s version, is also an ex-girlfriend and fellow creative). Beyond Porter’s deliberately fragmented style, her devotion to history, race relations, contemporary politics and socio-economic reality make this a much more self-consciously serious novel than Rooney’s work.
The more natural comparison comes from closer to home. Comparison with Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, although perhaps an unfair one, begs to be made. Unfair because Hulme is a giant of New Zealand literature, and The Bone People won the Man Booker Prize in 1985. (Porter is Pākehā, so she is not vulnerable to the same facile blood-quantum denunciations as Hulme, whom C.K. Stead doubted was “properly” Māori.) Isolated artist in a creative rut; violence; powerful emotional dynamic between three principal characters, seething with negative undercurrents; postcolonial identity; biculturalism; fluid use of te reo; strong identification between novelist and central female protagonist: there are significant thematic and stylistic similarities. But while Attraction is offered up with panache, bravery, and political engagement, it falls short of a masterwork. And Hulme’s artist, Kerewin Holmes, is far more compelling in her failings and emotional self-quarantine than Porter’s unnamed narrator.
This is neither a chronicle of evasion, nor polite bicultural strategy of “quietist respect” for Māori. By contrast to the novels of Maurice Gee (which deal with colonisation by not dealing with colonisation) or the “polite” distance of Anne-Marie Jagose’s Slow Water and Fiona Kidman’s The Captive’s Wife, Porter deep-dives into engagement with te ao Māori. In this sense, she makes herself vulnerable, dealing bravely with issues of colonisation, dispossession, and inexpiable guilt. It’s not a perfect novel, but auē it’s one we need.
The following refrain punctuates many chapters: “Every time you remember something you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.” This mantra is perhaps intended to echo W.G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin, A.R Luria, Frances Yates, some Olympian authority of memory and forgetting. But in fact, it ends up being closer to Deborah Levy. Not the brilliant Hot Milk or living-memoir Levy, but the repetitive Levy of The Man Who Saw Everything and Swimming Home. A listless repetition that comes across as hackneyed, uninspired; a koan repeated by a tired and tiring Zen master.
Much of the narrator’s guilt relates to what Naomi Klein has called the “original imaginative sin” – the frontier-expanding, extractivist ethos and “Othering” that enabled the theft and enslavement of human beings from Africa and land from indigenous peoples. Part of this novel’s mission is to commemorate this violence, to lodge it in public memory. From the narrator, we hear of the cultural and socio-political ferment leading up to the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, the legislative erasure of any un-investigated customary title which vested ownership of the public foreshore and seabed in the Crown. And her judgement is unequivocal: “The Seabed and Foreshore Bill was the biggest raupatu, the biggest theft, these islands have ever seen.” She also describes marching in the anti-TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) protests which exploded into New Zealand’s streets from late 2015, and the Ihumātao occupation and protests. Recalling other dubious parts of colonial history, Porter excerpts historian M.P.K. Sorrenson’s work on the meagre items used to “buy” the entire Auckland CBD from Ngāti Whātua. Again, the authorial verdict is clear: “It’s easy to forget that the land you live on is stolen. Ponsonby is a place that actively forgets.”
Wrestling with an embittering, atomising colonial legacy, Porter’s narrator is determined not to perpetuate the colonial sins of her forebears. This doggedness is undermined by her awareness that, as Pākehā, without actually leaving the country, how can she not contribute to ongoing colonisation? Thus, Porter is part of a self-flagellating sliver of Pākehā society: the unholier-than-thou. This is a literary vein Stead would have dismissed as – indeed, did dismiss, in a vitriolic review of The Matriarch – “collective paranoia”. But, joining a venerable tradition of historical and fictional writing on New Zealand history, this is a narrative we need. It is unsurprising, then, that Attraction was awarded the inaugural Michael Gifkins Prize (2018); that Porter’s champions include the prize’s judges, Patricia Grace and Lloyd Jones; and that Attraction was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction.
The politics aren’t new, the history isn’t new (just under-studied), the seamless mixture of English and te reo Māori is certainly not new. However, the fact that an Australian publisher accommodated Porter’s extensive use of te reo is cause for optimism. Porter has spoken about this negotiation, recalling the discussion over “pulling back on things that made it a deeply New Zealand book”. Thankfully, whatever has been retracted to “universalise” the book has left it a thoroughly New Zealand novel. Attraction remains inextricably embedded in the landscape of the North Island, the history of colonisation and its aftermath, and the emotional residue of the remembered past, which is inflected differently for each individual.
This is a new clarion call, in some ways, but also a very old one. It is built upon a palimpsest of awareness of wrongdoing and exploitation. Offering an intergenerational mea culpa, Porter writes for countless young Atlases shouldering postcolonial worlds, historical debts to bear and somehow (impossibly?) pay off, weight we long to slough, like old skins, desiccated, worn out.
This guilt, of course, is poisonous. It is almost the 21st century version of James K. Baxter’s indictment of puritanism in New Zealand society, which he diagnosed as “carr[ying] like strychnine in its bones a strong subconscious residue of the doctrines and ethics of Calvinism”. As a protective talisman against this toxicity, Baxter carried around a volume of Robbie Burns’ poetry. But, Porter demands, is guilt better than the alternative? Ignorance? Wilful blindness? What or who will be our protective talismans? What will be our panacea? What iconoclasms, what diagnoses, what prescriptions do we need? Is literature the answer? Maybe, repurposing some of Stead’s less acerbic words, the novelist can serve as “warrior, the novel as taiaha or mere”. The reader – positioned as ally or enemy – must reflect, must learn, must act. Porter wields her weapon well. A new voice in a long-running battle, this is a brilliant opening salvo.
Attraction by Ruby Porter (Text, $37) is usually available from Unity Books. For now, we recommend buying it as an ebook. (You can read ebooks on your smartphone, tablet or computer – just download the free Kindle app or use the Apple Books app.)
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.