Essay: Andrew Paul Woodon NZ literature

Beyond an Angel At My Table: Contemporary Writing in Aotearoa

This meandering essay was seeded by a rather curious opinion piece commissioned in July 2015 by the New Zealand Book Council for one of New Zealand’s two Sunday newspapers. Provocatively entitled ‘Why Don’t the Australians like Our Authors?’, it caught my attention as a worthy discussion of a topic I hadn’t given much thought to. The cliché is that trans-Tasman literary dynamics tend to revolve around New Zealand worrying about what older sibling Australia thinks about them, and Australia being more concerned with its global presence among the big girls and boys. In terms of New Zealand’s publishing industry, being able to predict what will sell in our primary export market is an important topic indeed. Books, at least, don’t carry fire blight. Some books by New Zealanders do well or become classics in Australia. Some don’t and are exiled to the Christmas Island of the remainder table. Sometimes, those that do well barely register with Australians as having any sort of New Zealand national identity at all; in that respect we are two countries divided by being very similar.

Ultimately, the article proved inconclusive, no formula or greater pattern divined. Aside from skibbling about, frequently doubling back and negating its own (mostly) anecdotal evidence, I was pretty jolly surprised that a quasi-official document could quote Eva Mills, who runs the Young Adult list at Allen & Unwin in Melbourne, saying, ‘NZ [as a setting] is perfect for Australian teens as it is familiar in many ways, but still exotic in others, which adds a point of difference,’ – and yet fail to use the word ‘Māori’once. I re-read it a few times to make sure. Personally I can’t imagine anyone writing about New Zealand literature, specifically authors who are very definitely Māori, without mentioning this being one of the things that differentiates it from the literature of other Anglosphere and postcolonial countries; New Zealand is defined by its biculturalism – but more on that later.

This started me thinking about how New Zealand authors are received in Australia, not least because I had always thought Australia was positively disposed to authors across the Tasman provided they weren’t trying to claim the pavlova or rattling on about what Trevor Chappell did in 1981. The idea that Australians don’t like New Zealand books (particularly as even the article strongly suggested that they do) seemed to me to come from an unnecessary position of cultural cringe. Kiwi writers have always been very much at home in Australia, attracted by the energising, cosmopolitan atmospheres of Sydney and Melbourne, and Australian authors have long been welcome and highly visible at New Zealand literary festivals. And, despite various successes of our own in the last ten years, notably in commercial cinema, New Zealand persists in measuring itself against Australia.

I contacted Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association to confirm that Australians were indeed reading New Zealand books. He assured me that in recent years Eleanor Catton, Lloyd Jones, Alan Duff and Witi Ihimaera have all been strong sellers in Australia.  In the four decades since the publication of her novel The Bone People, there has been consistent and substantial interest in Keri Hulme, though her productive output since has been a thin trickle. In fairness the article makes similar points, but without much critical analysis of why, and doesn’t emphasise that Duff, Ihimaera, and Hulme are also Māori writers with very nuanced understandings of the dominant literary culture in which they exist simultaneously at the centre and at the margins. It is that self-conscious straddling of two worlds and multiple cultures that often make Māori authors more compelling than many of their Pākehā contemporaries eyeing up a generic global market and the accompanying circuit of festivals. The relatively small and concentrated literati and visability of indigenous people and culture in New Zealand also acts like a magnifying lense on the reputations of Māori authors as the voice of the colonised, a national moral conscience (whether they particularly want to be or not).

Race relations in New Zealand are far from perfect, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say Māori have far greater influence and autonomy than do Aboriginal Australians across the Tasman. While Aboriginal artists are a strong presence in the visual arts, it is difficult to think of many Aboriginal authors who have similar iconic status in Australia as that of some Māori authors in New Zealand. Māori authors certainly don’t have the same political baggage to overcome in Australia as do Aboriginal authors, which may add to the appeal in that market. It would be impossible to conceive of a New Zealand academic suggesting that there were too many Māori authors being taught in New Zealand schools as did Professor Barry Spurr of Aboriginal authors in his 2014 review of the federal curriculum. Even so, while Australians obviously are reading New Zealand authors from all backgrounds, have they, or rather you, moved much further beyond the well plowed fields of The Bone People and An Angel At My Table? And, if you haven’t, what should you be reading?

The popularity of all Becker’s listed authors in Australia is in large part due to their winning of major awards or other high profile publicity. The Bone People won the 1984 Booker Prize and Catton’s complicated The Luminaries won the Man-Booker, in 2013. Jones’ deeply moving Mr Pip was shortlisted for the Man-Booker and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Overall Best Book in 2007. Alan Duff’s harrowing 1990 novel Once Were Warriors was made into a feature film in 1993. Following this logic the longlisting of Anna Smail’s The Chimes for the 2015 Man-Booker will have put it on a number of Australian bedside tables. Smail’s novel is an intoxicating, dystopian quest-tale set in a sort of parallel, very weird London, one that’s been reduced to a kind of totalitarian medieval state – think of the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but with a hint of Michael Moorcock’s counterfactual Elizabethan novels. This other London is musically organised. Most people’s memories are daily stripped away by the titular Chimes, a befuddling, brainwashing music (the Guardian’s Catherine Taylor describes it as a ‘kind of omnipresent tinnitus’ though perhaps a weaponised muzak is more apt) produced every vespers by a mechanism called the Carillion. This isn’t of itself an original premise, having existed in variations ranging from Frederik Pohl’s 1954 short story “The Tunnel under the World” to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, but Smail handles it beautifully and with freshness.

Publishers delight in this sort of positive buzz, but nothing succeeds like a scandal and as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. While Witi Ihimaera, preeminent doyen among Māori authors, is, according to Becker, still a healthy New Zealand presence in Australian sales, he hasn’t had a major work of fiction out since the historical novel The Parihaka Woman in 2010 (Maori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, the first volume of his memoirs came out in 2014). It is, however, Ihimaera’s 2009 novel The Trowenna Sea that may be the last book of his Australians will remember. In part this is because it deals with the early history of Tasmania, but mostly because it was at the centre of a plagiarism ruckus. Following publication by Penguin Random House, New Zealand Listener reviewer Jolisa Gracewood noticed a number of short, unacknowledged passages from other writers and historical sources. The Listener confronted Ihimaera (more robustly than was perhaps necessary), who apologised, putting it down to oversight. In fairness, the novel contains a multi-page section of acknowledgements and anyway as someone (although I forget who) said, civilization is when you can’t remember book you read it in. The whole thing blew up into a needlessly vulgar hot mess.

The University of Auckland, where Ihimaera was teaching, investigated and found no deliberate misconduct. But then Keith Sorrenson, a professor emeritus of Auckland University’s history department, further stirred the pot by saying Ihimaera had admitted lifting material for his truly wonderful The Matriarch (1986), including from Sorrenson’s own work, and had ‘learnt nothing’, as reported in the New Zealand Herald. In that same report, another man of letters, Vincent O’Sullivan, who though reluctant to comment directly on the case, agreed with the analogy of plagiarism to drug use by an athlete, calling it a ‘performance enhancing technique.’


T. S. Eliot was correct when he said ‘immature poets borrow, mature poets steal’ (so was Coleridge: ‘the Ninth Commandment was not writ for bards’). Nonetheless a chastened Ihimaera had Penguin Random House remove the book from public sale and proceeded to buy up all the remaining stock himself. Though there was a planned revised edition with additional acknowledgements in the works for 2010, it was subsequently cancelled, and consequently your best bet for finding a copy is in a library.

Becker also informed me that Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame are still widely read in Australia as early and mid-twentieth century classics. No surprises there, Frame’s 1984 semi-autobiographical An Angel at my Table (Patrick White was a fan) and Mansfield’s short stories (some of the best ‘society porn’ since Jane Austen) have been on Australian high school syllabuses at least since the mid-1980s. New Zealand is also a powerhouse for children’s books (Craig Smith’s Wonky Donkey (2010), for example) and YA authors (such as the late Margaret Mahy, whose 1984 The Changeover –  soon to be made into a feature film starring Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Charlie Heaton and Lucy Lawless – hasn’t dated at all, and Elizabeth Knox).

On the subject of YA and scandal, Ted Dawe’s 2013 novel Into The River was recently thrust into the international spotlight when Don Mathieson QC, president of the NZ president of the Film and Literature Board of Review (and conservative Christian), prompted by a complaint by the meddling NZ conservative Christian lobby group Family First, temporarily banned it from trade or sale. Admittedly it’s a gritty Great Expectations-esque Bildungsroman; a young Māori boy from the rural North Island wins a scholarship to a prestigious boys’ school in Auckland. There is drug use, sex, predatory and manipulative adults, and copious use of ‘the c and f words.’ One can only presume that Mr Mathieson and friends have not often sat near the back of the bus when school comes out because none of this is likely to alarm the modern teenager. Family First had been gunning for Into The River since it was awarded the paramount prize at the 2013 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards and was subsequently picked up by Penguin Random House, demanding it be given an R18 rating and be cling-wrapped like top-shelf pre-Internet porn. News of the ban made it all the way to Time magazine with interest from translators and even Hollywood.

Of course, generally, people don’t choose, read and love books based on the nationality of their author unless they have an agenda. Some New Zealand authors do well in the Australian market simply because they know how to tell good stories. In this crowd I’d place Fiona Kidman, Carl Nixon Catherine Chidgey, Tracey Slaughter, Emily Perkins, and Kelly Ana Morey (one of a younger generation of Māori authors not bound to established themes). Kidman’s most recent novel, The Infinite Air (Vintage 2013) is an intriguing exploration of the life, mysterious Pacific mid-flight disappearance of New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten. Kidman imagines what happened after, providing Batten with a rich, incognito fictional life. Carl Nixon’s The Virgin and the Whale (Vintage 2013) is an exquisite story within a story about story-telling, a little bit The English Patient, a little bit A Thousand and One Nights, in which a first world war nurse waits for her husband to return, keeping his memory alive for their young son by spinning fantastical stories about him. Meanwhile she is also nursing a young soldier with a head injury and amnesia whom she also tries to engage with stories, which she does with consequences.

The novels of Catherine Chidgey I can only think to compare to Margaret Atwood in their tangled tales of dirty deeds and magical realism. Tracey Slaughter is a master of lyrical and atmospheric prose, densely literary without caring overly much for the rules. Emily Perkins’ 1997 debut collection of short stories Not Her Real Name (Anchor) consisted of twelve extraordinary stories turning a microscope on the mid-1990s Slacker ethos. Her 2012 novel The Forrests (Bond Street Books) remains a staggering literary achievement which caused a bit of a sensation in the UK with its sprawling family and human relationships rendered with an almost forensic attention to minutiae (though no less a reader than Ursula K Le Guin felt obsession with details dragged it down). Kelly Ana Morey’s last novel, Quinine (Huia 2010) was a strange, beautiful, sultry evocation of German colonial life in what is now Papua New Guinea (where Morey grew up). This year, Morey, another phenomenally talented Māori author, has a largely Australian-set historical novel about Phar Lap titled Daylight Second, out with HarperCollins. At this point I’m going to briefly divert away from fiction to mention biographer and poet Stephanie de Montalk’s How Much Does It Hurt (VUP 2014), an absolutely breath-taking collection, easily identified with, of personal and literary essays on the subject of chronic pain.

Beyond the question of who is reading what and whether it’s any good, the institutional dynamics of the trans-Tasman literary relationship are fascinating in themselves. Given the relatively small New Zealand market dominated by a few big players, it’s understandable that New Zealand authors look overseas with Australia being the first port of call. A related matter is how receptive Australian publishers are to New Zealand authors, which appears to be quite open with the anecdotal proviso that neutral or Australian settings and themes are preferred (Australian authors come up against similar with UK and US publishers). Anecdotally it is particularly difficult for genre and more commercial authors in New Zealand. Why? Because they don’t have access to the funding and marketing of, say, university and writing school-based authors who get funnelled off to university presses. Unregulated parallel importing significantly battered New Zealand’s domestic publishing industry (something Australia may also experience if Mr Turnbull has his way). One either has to have a pre-existing market like British-expat science fiction author Phillip Mann, or look overseas to Australia, the UK and the US, like Nicky Pellegrino with her Italy-set novels, and gritty noir writer Carl Shuker.

There is also, of course, the phenomenon of the trans-Tasman author with roots in both countries. Here of course I am thinking of the inestimable Martin Edmond. No Sydneysider should go without reading Edmond’s extraordinary Chronicles of the Unsung (2005) which draws together autobiographical reminiscences of Europe, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. Edmond’s psychogeographical approach invites comparisons with W. G. Sebald, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. The memoir-novel has long been a popular New Zealand genre – Janet Frame’s novels are largely fictionalised accounts of her life. Edmond frequently takes a Kerouac-esque spin on it, as he does in his latest book The Dreaming Land (Bridget Williams Books 2015), a poetic recollection of growing up in rural New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s.

Another category I’d like to touch on is books by New Zealanders that Australians should read if they haven’t already. Some are obscure even in their country of origin. Some might be preconceived as not exotic enough or perhaps too ‘Kiwi’ to appeal. Some are the next wave. All repay reading if only to dispel any remaining impression that New Zealand is some sort of vague, independent, more distant Tasmania, or as Terry Pratchett once put it, where Australia keeps the lawnmower. Passing over the obvious like John Mulgan’s Man Alone (1939) or Maurice Gee’s Plumb (1978), one of the most important of these is David Ballantyne’s frequently neglected 1968 gem Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down (republished in 2010 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing). Like the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson (all republished by Penguin since 1998) and Ian Cross’ The God Boy (1957, republished by Penguin in 2004) Ballantyne’s novel captures a strain of brooding, angsty, Kiwi gothic: the barely suppressed violence that haunts the bush, farm and small town finds its way into the paintings of Colin McCahon, and, as Sam Neill went to great lengths to demonstrate in his 1995 documentary Cinema of Unease, the movie industry. Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down grips from the spare, fairytale lyricism of its first lines:

There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world, and he had a horse called Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.

More recently, any novel by Barbara Anderson (who died in 2013) is also worth seeking out and devouring. Girls High (1990) a hilarious and heart-felt sequential novel of interlocking short stories set at a girls’ high school, and the witty and wise All the Nice Girls (1993), drawing on Anderson’s experiences as the wife of a naval officer, remain perennially popular. Anderson, who garnered an international reputation despite only beginning her literary career in her sixties, has been compared in style to Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble, Bernice Rubens, and even Raymond Carver. The 2005 Collected Stories (VUP) is wonderful, followed by her last book, a memoir, Getting there: an autobiography (VUP 2008).

Patricia Grace (a Māori author easily up there with Ihimaera), has produced an enviable body of work over the last decade. Her first novel, Mutuwhenua (Penguin Random House, reissued in 2004) is one of her best. As with Into the River, it is built around a Māori protagonist from rural/traditional background suddenly forced to deal with the dominant Pākehā (European) culture, a common trope in New Zealand writing, and particularly so in Māori writing. In Mutuwhenua the main character is a young Māori woman who marries a Pākehā schoolteacher and must leave the reassurance of her family and tribe for life of adapting in the city. Grace’s themes are family and history, likewise very much to the fore in her latest novel Chappy (Penguin Random House 2015), the story of a privileged young man exiled to New Zealand – a latter-day remittance man – to sort himself out and reconnect with his Māori side. It forms a counterpoint to Mutuwhenua as the protagonist Daniel unpicks the relationship between his Māori grandmother and mysterious Japanese grandfather.

In the vanguard of emerging New Zealand writers I’d like to gesture in the direction of Pip Adam, who is PoMo, but PoMo like you’ve never seen it before because Adam out-Hemingway’s Hemingway. She strips away all the literary devices – all the pretentious writing about writing, the irony, the character development, figures of speech or satisfyingly predictable narrative arc – leaving the stark bones and raw meat of scorching cold realism. Rather than providing the emotional insights, her writing draws them out of you. Everything We Hoped For (VUP 2010) and the slightly surreal engineering-made-sexy I’m Working on a Building (VUP 2013) are game changing. Well known in New Zealand, Māori poet Hinemoana Baker had a stint as Arts Queensland Poet in Residence in 2009. She is currently based in Berlin, but deserves to be more widely known in Australia. Talia Marshall is an emerging Māori writer of extraordinary talent, whose first poetry collection is in the works and who reviews books for the New Zealand website The Spinoff. She’s a name to keep an eye on as a future hot ticket of New Zealand literature.

To return to my puzzlement at the NZ Book Council article’s failure to distinguish Māori authors even as they noted they were often the most interesting thing about NZ literature, being a twenty-first century kind of a guy and enjoying a good public sh*t-stir, I tweeted them about it. If the 2016 Oscars nominations taught us nothing, it’s that in the West, story telling often defaults to its ‘assume white’ setting. After two or three attempts I got a slightly defensive two tweet response: ‘…the word ‘Maori’ doesn’t appear, just like the words ‘Pakeha’, ‘Asian’, & ‘Pasifika’ don’t appear because – the article is about ALL Kiwi writers and how Australia views them.’ I didn’t find this terribly satisfactory because, as the article established, it is the Māori writers, words and themes that Australians tend to think distinguish NZ literature from the rest of it. I could point out that Māori as the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand are a bit different to the other categories and the ‘ALL Kiwi’ thing sounds like the sort of populist rhetoric right wing politicians to silence and make invisible minorities (Google ‘Don Brash’ and ‘Orewa speech’), but I won’t. I shall just assume some comms person was a bit overworked that day, roll my eyes and get back to reading.

Works Cited

David Ballantyne, Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down, Text Publishing, Melbourne (1968, reprinted in 2010)
Joanne Black, “Other people’s words”, New Zealand Listener No 3627, Vol 221, November 28-December 4 2009,  accessed 09/01/2016
David Day, “Falling book prices could force authors to abandon their keyboards,” Canberra Times, February 9, 2016,  accessed 9/02/2016
Jolisa Gracewood, “Keeping it real”, New Zealand Listener No 3627, Vol 221, November 28-December 4 2009,  accessed 09/01/2016
Peter Evans, “ ‘We Liked Janet Frame Til We Read Her’ – An Essay on Why a New Zealand Writer Has Never Won the Nobel Prize for Literature,” The Spinoff 06/10/2015 
Elizabeth Heritage, “Why don’t Australians like our authors?” Sunday Star-Times, July 25 2015.
Robert Hughes, “The Decline of the City of Mahagonnay” in Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical, The Harvill Press/Panther, London (1990)
Kim Knight, “Hollywood comes calling for ‘banned book’ Into the River”, (Fairfax), accessed 9/01/2016
Kim Knight, “Into the River ban was in ‘public interest’: Don Mathieson”, (Fairfax),
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Forrests by Emily Perkins – a review”, Guardian, 1 June 2012,  accessed 11/01/2016
C. S. Lewis, “High and Low Brows”, in Rehabilitations, Oxford University Press (2nd ed, 1919)
Jared Savage, “Plagiarists ‘like drug cheats’”, New Zealand Herald, 20 November 2009,  accessed 09/01/2016
Catherine Taylor, “The Chimes by Anna Smail review – an original dystopian debut”, Guardian, March 14 2015. accessed 15/09/2015
“Witi Ihimaera admits plagiarism”. New Zealand Herald, 6 November 2009. accessed 09/01/2016