An essay by novelist Kirsty Gunn, who claims New Zealand fiction remains besotted with dreary issues of national identity.
Quite a while ago now, I wrote a novel about a boy growing up, who loves the sea, loves to surf, and who has a day in the middle of summer when the sea seems to want to prove something to him. Though that narrative was soaked in the New Zealand of my past – with memories of a particular beach, one particular summer – it was pure fiction, pure made up stuff of sand and salt and shadows.
The novel won a prize in Scotland – and, it’s true, there were parts of Scotland in the book as well. My children were little girls at the time it was written and we spent many weekends at a beach about an hour’s drive out of Edinburgh where we were based then. I also knew of the surfing scene up in the far north where my sister lives, where the kids surf in wetsuits all year round such is the penetrating cold of the cold north sea. So Scotland, yes, was in the story, for sure, it makes up a huge portion of my imagination always.
In general, though, it was the Wairarapa beaches of Castlepoint and Riversdale that constituted the landscape of that book – so that it was New Zealand, most probably, that rose clear off its pages to many readers. At the end of the prize ceremony – I’d made my speech, I’d thanked the judges, the party was about to begin – a woman came up to me and said, “What’s a novel like your’s doing winning Scottish Book of the Year?”
She was standing really close, smiling, but not smiling. “It’s not a Scottish novel at all,” she went on. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not Scottish.”
At the same prize ceremony, the late Gavin Wallace, the literature director of Creative Scotland (for Scotland had followed New Zealand’s lead by the early 21st century and was no longer The Scottish Arts Council but Creative Scotland – with all the similar entailments those changes brought to both funding bodies) had spoken about an “International Scottish Literature”, a means of thinking about how the culture of a country may be defined as much by all that it brings to it, all that is beyond its shores, as it speaks of its own indigenous colours and tastes and histories.
Gavin Wallace was an inspiring and erudite spokesman for such a literature. His untimely death in 2013 seemed then, and today, to mark a change in the way Scotland views her novels and short stories and plays. It was Gavin Wallace who introduced a funding stream that would allow books to be translated out of and into the country – an intelligent, generous reciprocity of interests that could only widen and deepen our understanding of Scottish letters. That stream has been dammed and now is dry. The literature bursaries that he helped establish are gone – literature must now compete with film and the music business as far as funding via Creative Scotland is concerned – and any books or plays or poems that are enabled by grants and awards must be shown to have “benefit”, as is stated in the manifesto created by Creative Scotland in line with ever new directives coming out of The Scottish National Party with its targeted, politicised interest in Scottish culture and ideas.
Everything has to be Scottish, for Scotland, about Scotland, and with everybody in Scotland in mind. Sound familiar? It’s familiar to me, because when I think of growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s it was for these kinds of reasons exactly that I wanted to leave. Reasons that were to do more with politics, as I saw it, than literature. All those unrelentingly New Zealand very male kinds of men writing about the land of cattle farms and slaughter, of willing women and flagons of beer… All those endless tales about what it was to be a New Zealander, about how we spoke or might speak, and how we should speak if we were to be true to ourselves, if we were to find our way…It was about nation-building, to my mind, this kind of activity, not the imagination; it was alienating, to say the least.
At my girls’ school we read Mansfield and Janet Frame and Fleur Adcock and Marilyn Duckworth by way of an antidote – but the flavour of the country was strong. Frank Sargeson and Dan Davin and all who followed had established its tone. Sam Hunt was on the rise in his singlet and with his bottle of red; the shades of Barry Crump had well and truly eclipsed the figure and work of his sophisticated, London domiciled ex-wife – she barely counted as a New Zealand writer, as I seem to remember; there was the shape of her absence in discussions and media of the time. Even studying American poetry with the urbane Bill Manhire couldn’t quite make me believe there was a place for anyone who didn’t have the kind of named-town, idiolectic particularity, an “authenticity” (the speech marks are my own but the word was everyone’s) that was being put about by way of real writing, the honest to goodness New Zealand stuff that would get published. I would send off my little short stories to the Listener and Landfall and the rejection notes would come back telling me that what I’d submitted wasn’t what they were after at all. I even have one of them somewhere: A handwritten message on that thrilling Landfall stationery they had back then saying “It’s nice, this, but it’s not really a New Zealand story, is it?”
By the time I came to the politics and feminism of Fiona Kidman and the gnarly indigenous poetics of Patricia Grace, by the time I had been introduced, by the late Frank MacKay, to the subtle classical and European inflected locales of Vincent O’Sullivan’s work, that had followed in turn that same teacher’s modernist parsing of James K Baxter (who until then I had foolishly, shamefully, placed amongst those other “blokes”) it was too late. I’d fled. I wanted to live somewhere where I could write whatever I wanted in the style I wanted about anything I wanted.
The fact that New Zealand lakes and rivers and watercourses run through my pages, and have done ever since I first made my fiction, doesn’t change that principle. I couldn’t stay somewhere which felt so willfully disconnected from other places, so perpetually…. nationalist, actually, is how it felt, in its priorities, so fixed on a voice that must be forever talking about what it was to live here, what that signified, and how it might look, identity – as a sentence on the page – and how those sentences might add up and sound.
To me, all that was exhausting. For New Zealand to be set on a project to define itself to the world, as a country that might exist quite apart from Britain…On a mission to create itself as an independent territory of letters and culture that could float in glorious isolation in the Pacific sea, not answering to anyone…To my mind then – though I may understand it now – that kind of engagement could only be limiting, to the imagination, creative volition, and to the free and easy passage of thought itself. When I reflect upon the country that is Scotland in 2018, determining its own form of detachment from an imperial Britain, the activities and sensibility follow nearly to the letter the state of affairs debated in New Zealand all those years ago: the literary agenda mimicking the same figuring of identity politics, declaring itself as an intellectual and cultural endeavour and finding reward for that in public recognition and award and financial support.
I have hoped for something in both Scotland and New Zealand that felt more like a synthesis, of tried and tested methods with new approaches, an amalgamation of old tropes with bold, unexpected ideas that come from artists and philosophers and risk takers and that have nothing to do with past requirements that literature might be so responsible for clothing the nation in its culture. For it seems to me that the writing I’ve followed from New Zealand ever since my own leaving, for the most part, from what I’ve seen, has not shifted much from those priorities established back then when I was a girl.
I myself have shifted; now on visits back to Unity Books buying up everything I can that has about it the whiff of the pohutukawa tree, the tang of wool, that rings and clatters with the sounds, those cadences of home. My point of view has opened up that way. On a recent visit to the UK Fiona Kidman gave me Lauris Edmonds’ In White Ink, a selection of her life’s work, and I read it through in one rapt session, sitting as I was in my mind in a house above Oriental Bay in Wellington with the wind rumbling through the macrocarpas, and the harbour water below me dark and large. I can’t get enough of Dan Davin and Frank Sargeson now.
Yet a review of Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest novel, All This By Chance, in this year’s winter issue of New Zealand Books is proof of the fact that though I’ve changed, literary politics in New Zealand have not. I’m speaking for novels, rather than making a case for the poetry of, say, the international phenomena that has flown into view by way of young women like Hera Lindsay Bird. Novels are what I know. And from those I read, and in the magazines whose reviews I follow, and the conversations I have with writers and scholars and critics and literature lovers in New Zealand, it seems all too clear to me that old habits die hard.
The bloke may no longer be ranging through the pages of the stories everyone is talking about now (although he is a presence, I do note) but the old cultural identity issue is still out there – in Polynesian and Māori garb, or in feminist and gender ethics clobber, maybe – writ large. In a recent review of The Expatriate Myth: New Zealand Writers and the Colonial World by Helen Bones, Simon Hay discussed the need to address power structures within New Zealand that would suppress certain kinds of social groups, sensibilities, in any overview of the literature. “If Bones were to swap ‘New Zealand culture’ for ‘bourgeois, white settler New Zealand culture’…I think I would more or less agree with her,” he wrote. He’s referring to a particular period in New Zealand letters, but the sentiment is up to date. Keep grappling with those issues to do with identity and self and for goodness’ sake, both book and review are saying: Get the identity right!
It’s the kind of sensibility that is expressed in the review of O’Sullivan’s novel, that, in one sweeping, dismissive reading discounted a whole world that had been meticulously put together. Here was a New Zealand that existed as a place both in the imagination of a North London chemist, all sunlight and beaches, and the reality for a family who find themselves split apart and darkened by the atrocities of a past that can barely be articulated. “Yet the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Holocaust’ are almost totally absent,” wrote reviewer Ann Beagehole, as though all imaginative material, and ethical and social and moral and spiritual, must show itself clearly on the tin. What kind of New Zealand story is this, her review seems to suggest, to describe a history that dares not speak its name?
Casting my eyes over the latest wave of contemporary novels – on both sides of the hemisphere, mind you – this kind of thinking seems to prevail. The hesitancies of art have been silenced in favour of promoting sure outcomes. Where are the gaps, the occlusions? The places for reticence, for suggestion? Where is the poetry and poetics in the kind of story that must emerge on the printed page as a 100% version of this way of thinking or that? The novels that aren’t set in a rictus of known figures and tropes? I’m hardly saying that Scottish and New Zealand writers are lacking in verve and colour. Only that those down-at-heel outsiders that were once so fresh in the novels of James Kelman have now staled into so many imitations as to render the story of marginalised urban lives redundant. In the same way that the inheritors of New Zealand’s own form of dirty realism have hardened their art into self conscious tales of people like us, like us, like us, over and over, set on infinite repeat.
O’Sullivan is one of many writers in the country who has always resisted such easy compartmentalising, of course, to the advantage of all who love novels and believe in literature’s power to change and enlarge our lives. But arts agendas all over the world are just that – agendas – and they are powerful. My own thinking has taken me recently towards research being undertaken at Oxford around the issue of literary authenticity – how so much of our so-called works of imagination and/or textual and linguistic originality are actually – including for many of the reasons I’ve outlined here – versions of a state sponsored programme of letters.
It leaves the imagination gasping for air, all this. For in ticking the boxes and proving ourselves to be engaging in what are deemed the important debates of the day we lose raw thought. Idiosyncrasy. Delicacy, and monstrosity. We lose the lovely wastes of exploration and tentativeness and the subjects and figures that might take their place within it, feral and various and new.
Not everything is about the familiar. Strange creatures walk, and are novels. We need to remember that culture is protean as much as it is an expression of some fixed status quo. Let the other places sound, and silence, sometimes, resonate. Let imagination show us what to write, open to fictions that may be as sweet and unexpected as those expressed by my Wairarapa boy finding himself washed up in a marquee at the Edinburgh festival. In the world we’re inhabiting now, scarier than ever, to keep reiterating what we already know doesn’t seem to be moving us forward, so might we not instead allow ourselves to be discharged into a sea of the mind?
As the film writer and public intellectual Michael Wood wrote recently, addressing the kind of art that is the opposite of certainty, that confuses us and makes us alert, “forms speak to our bewilderment, to everything we cannot master. They may suggest too that mastery is not exactly what we need.”
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.