Critics of public funding for the arts during the Covid crisis have alighted in recent weeks on a grant for a novel about alpaca breeders. We invited its author, Duncan Sarkies, to give us an insight into his work.
Here it is, are you ready? An allegorical novel about the collapse of democracy in an organisation of alpaca breeders.
Every Creative New Zealand application includes a one-liner that has the job of expressing the entire project in a single sentence. I often find these briefest of descriptions, which become public when projects are funded, fragmentary and unrepresentative, unworthy of the huge amounts of thought, complexity, care and mahi that go into making the work they describe. But in this case I really love the line. For me, it shows the enormous potential of what a story like this could achieve, if executed well. When people ask what I am working on and I tell them an allegorical novel about the collapse of democracy in an organisation of alpaca breeders I am met with a mixture of deep enthusiasm, dubious enquiry, the occasional withering eye-roll, and most commonly pure unfiltered curiosity.
We live in concerning times. Over the last 20 years, Vladimir Putin has shifted Russia from a democracy to a dictatorship that poses as a democracy. He has been so successful at it that it’s hard to see when and how it can get back to one person, one vote. In the United States, democracy came under a huge threat in the last eight years. What existed before this assault was already farcical. The rules have been rigged by people with special interests for a long time. Antiquated systems that deprive vast numbers of a voice continue to serve a privileged status quo. These are two examples, but all over the world, in divisive times, the foundations of democracy are being tested.
What could happen here in Aotearoa? We live in a land so small that some Silicon Valley billionaires have referred to it as a petri dish. Are we a petri dish? Should we be taking the freedoms we currently have for granted? How has New Zealand largely avoided the scale of corruption we see in other countries? (Not that it really has – just think of how the first Pākehā came to “own” land in the first place.) How could someone see to it that Aotearoa could become a country where a much larger scale of corruption thrived? Who are democracies supposed to serve and why do democracies regularly fail to serve these people? Who wins in the battle between the individual and the collective? What is the end product of a relentless quest for mindless, endless growth? I have so many questions, so many speculations, all ripe to be explored through allegory and other forms of storytelling.
So why did I choose to write about alpaca breeders? Of all the vocations and communities in the world, why choose that one? Let me explain myself. My allegory requires a microcosm, a smaller society that I can use to explore the forces and pressures encountered by organisations, democracies and media. I could have chosen optometrists instead of alpaca breeders. Optometrists are indeed a fascinating bunch. I could have chosen tramping clubs; I certainly went on a few research tramps hoping for dirt, but the best I got was a disagreement over whether a tramping club had the right to make decrees about what shoes people wore. I could have chosen choirs or historians, two communities I researched, discovering this little zinger along the way: Why are academic feuds so bitter? Because the stakes are so low.
I could have chosen a ceramics club, a source from which I picked up some entertaining stories involving a dispute over the male anatomy and what should be considered appropriate decorum. I’d tell you more, but this is a family column.
After exploring a large range of options, I chose alpaca breeders.
In telling you this, I’m trying to stick to the Bob Dylan rule of not explaining your work. If you explain something too much it leaves nothing to unravel, and, after all, so much of the unconscious psyche of any writer can never be explained. But, yes, there are many elements of an organisation of alpaca breeders that fit perfectly with a story about democracy. The alpacas themselves, having almost no say on their futures. The small scale breeders who do it as a hobby, who can so easily be misrepresented. The larger scale breeders, all with their own ideals and/or vested interests. An alpaca magazine, whose function is to inform and promote — two verbs that can easily be at odds with each other. The commercial sector whose interest in selling product will always try to influence the way things are being done. The rule makers, who have a responsibility to achieve the best outcomes for all, but can be easily influenced by these vested interests.
I have been researching alpaca breeders for two years now. I have stared into eyes that have melted my soul. (The alpacas’ eyes were pretty cute too.) I have admired topknots and I have let out audible sighs watching the young ones pronk. I have been to farms and waved my arms to herd livestock in an inefficient manner that only a city kid could think of. I have narrowly avoided the fierce chest-butt of a Berserk Male (yes, that’s a thing, in alpacas as well as humans). I have listened to a recording of the revolting orgling sound a male alpaca makes when he’s ready to do a deed (keeping it PG) and I have watched alpaca breeders delight in imitating this call in front of me for their own entertainment. I have been to competitions and watched people use microphones in environments where a microphone is clearly not necessary. I have posed for a photograph with an alpaca with the same colouring as my beard. This very same alpaca won Best Colour, which means, technically, that my beard is also Best Colour.
And, yes, I’ve found out some brilliant real-life stories, things that have challenged me. I am not writing an exposé. This is purely allegorical, so anything I hear that is remotely juicy has to be reconstituted and turned back into a fictional form. I have a larger goal in mind. I’m writing about alpaca breeders, but I am writing about New Zealand, I am writing about a world at a crossroads. I am writing about the conflict that exists between us as humans, and also inside us — the internal conflict between selfishness and selflessness, between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere.
Alpacas are fluffy. Alpacas are funny looking. Alpacas are stoic (yes, I was surprised to learn that too). Alpacas are cute. Alpacas are a Trojan horse — a vehicle I can use to get under a reader’s skin, to catch them unaware, to entertain and draw in with all their picture-perfect kookiness, and then, once you have laughed, once you have fallen in love, ah, maybe we can really get down to some truths.
I’m excited. I’ve written a huge amount of material, so many scenes that to me feel vital, farcical, heartbreaking, stomach-turning, chilling. I can feel power in this material. Now I have been given an opportunity to do this idea justice, to pour in the time, the craft and the love that this idea deserves.
I am grateful to have been given a chance to do this work full-time, to do it properly. I have huge empathy for other artists who have applied for project funding and missed out. It’s happened to me many times, and I know all too well the struggle artists face in trying to produce their best work and pay the bills at the same time. I’m Armenian and Scottish, so I’ll say kanadz and slangevar and toast all those other artists who are fighting the good fight.
A mini-furore erupted last week when a journalist questioned whether a project like this should receive public funding. Of course, the attack isn’t really about this project in particular. It’s a part of a larger campaign against the validity of art in general. It was just my turn. My project made for a great soundbite, the same soundbite that will hopefully attract people to read it.
I don’t want to get caught in a culture of justification or apology; I’ll leave that for others. I am just so pleased we live somewhere where we’re all free to share our views, including denouncing projects like mine.
When regimes seek to become more autocratic, the first people they attempt to silence are journalists and artists, because these kinds of truth-tellers have an important role in any free society. When you have a culture where dissent is routinely expressed, that is a sign that it is a society that is healthy.
But artists do have a function, they do! They have a huge role to play in a larger conversation. Any society that seeks to stay healthy must reflect. The role of the artist is to hold the mirror.
Duncan Sarkies is hoping to publish his novel through Penguin Random House in early 2023.