This Pākehā Life: An unsettled memoir by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books, 2020), 240pp, $39.99
Home is where we start from, to borrow a phrase from the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who in turn adapted it from T.S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. According to Winnicott, we develop our sense of self in relation to others from earliest infancy. We seek connection, intimacy and reciprocity, and whether we find those vital qualities at home or not plays a determining role in the kind of self that begins there.1 For Eliot, by contrast, home is where we start from, a fixed point of departure. Like the past, home is something we must leave behind, for good or ill, as we inevitably move into an unfamiliar and complicated world to discover ourselves out there. The ambivalence of that departure—a heroic striving or an expulsion?—haunts Eliot’s poem of beginnings and ends, past and present, gains and losses.
I start with home in this way to illustrate that, even when we agree that it shapes us profoundly, home pulls us in different directions and means so many different things. What Alison Jones’ British immigrant parents probably thought of as home was a nation more than 18,000 kilometres from the place they chose to start a new life and raise a family in the 1950s: New Zealand. In the process, Basil and Ruth Jones ensured that the home that Alison and her siblings started from would be very different from their own childhoods (Basil’s in a working-class Newcastle family and Ruth’s in an Essex orphanage, sharply divergent formative experiences that perhaps did not bode well for the couple’s compatibility).
The word ‘unsettled’ in the sub-title of Jones’ challenging and often courageous memoir, This Pākehā Life: An unsettled memoir, deliberately invokes the inescapable history of colonial settlement and dispossession in Aotearoa New Zealand that we all must acknowledge and that provides the connecting thread of Jones’ story. But it also resonates in another sense, especially in the early chapters where Jones recounts a childhood of upheaval and mobility around New Zealand as her father sought relief from his periodic depression in a new job, in a new town, a poignantly futile gesture of hope and desperation that any depressive will recognise. (Jones, however, never speculates that her father’s recurrent depression may also have motivated his migration to New Zealand in the first place.)
Basil Jones’ propensity to uproot and unsettle his family—from Auckland to Blenheim, Dannevirke, Whakatāne, Tauranga—exposes the young Alison to a range of landscapes, neighbourhoods and school environments where she first begins to observe the sharp differences between her own life and that of her Māori peers. She witnesses a way of being in the world that contrasts markedly with ‘the Jones rules’ that favour constraint and privacy over openness and generosity. These early experiences are important staging points in the process of ‘becoming Pākehā’ that is central to the book’s purpose and theme.
Jones insists her memoir is not an examination of what it means to be Pākehā (‘a slippery eel of a word,’ she wryly notes) but of becoming Pākehā, because Pākehā is always a relational term, never a received identity or a simple box-ticking exercise. It can only be understood in relation to both Māori knowledge and history, premised as it is on engagement between Māori and non-Māori: ‘it requires and nurtures a doubled being: a sense of shared humanity with Māori as well as a deep sense of otherness, of the unknown and the unknowable’ that provokes a fundamental, if generative, tension. Above all, ‘becoming Pākehā’ is a process that unfolds through relationships with others over time, neither linear nor uni-directional but ‘contingent, fluid, and always on the move’.
Little more than halfway through the book, following detailed accounts of her political apprenticeship in a range of causes beginning in her student days, Jones tells the reader that, as a young adult, she ‘now claimed [the term Pākehā] proudly for myself’:
I felt a solid sense of arrival in taking up that name and identity; that word anchored me in this part of the globe, in a permanent and necessary relationship with the indigenous people—even if I was not yet sure what that relationship might be.
Jones writes movingly about friendships with Māori wāhine that developed through her political activism as well as the fieldwork relating to her academic research in Māori education, and lays bare her own mis-steps and misunderstandings before sustaining connections could be forged. She is also courageous in revisiting childhood friends, a process that uncovers false or misattributed memories that she had always understood as foreshadowing her increasing engagement with te ao Māori. Of one friend, Maria, she acknowledges, ‘All my adult life, I had traced my interest in Māori back to Maria … She was a fantasy of my own life story, making Dannevirke the place where my memories started’.
As psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips notes, ‘We use memories to forget with’2 and Jones’ discovery that some of her most treasured memories were in fact fantasies leads to her retrospective interpretation that they represented ‘a childish longing for love and for home, two things I did not have’. However, such mis-rememberings mean that some things in childhood remain hidden or un-investigated, such as what Jones calls ‘my mixed feelings about Māori’. Up to this point, Jones has not described any negative sentiments towards Māori, although she recounts her brother’s memory of being bullied by Māori boys and her sister’s ‘fear of waiting with the Māori kids’ at the bus-stop before adding, ‘I do not recall outright hostility’ and ‘I knew little of my brother’s troubles’. Instead, Jones records feeling confused, mistaken or lacking in knowledge to understand the lives of her Māori friends and neighbours. But are confusion and ignorance ‘mixed feelings’? Or is it a case of mixed feelings after the fact, a deferred sense of guilt that she did not question her childish ignorance sooner, or challenge earlier what she heard expressed in her home?
Like memories, all memoirs are partial in every sense of the word, and external pressures—familial or legal, for instance—may result in a veil being drawn over some aspects of a story that an author might otherwise have explored more freely. But Jones’ willingness to confess and even highlight some mistaken memories makes it difficult to understand her reluctance to interrogate other memory gaps or to rely repeatedly on variants of ‘I don’t recall now.’ There is also a strangely distant or detached tone in accounts of important childhood events she has chosen to include. Before Alison turned two, for instance, ‘twins had been born’—the passive voice here occluding both mother and siblings—and the habits and possessions of the toddler Alison, ‘a sensitive and busy child’, are then described before the paragraph concludes: ‘My mother told me about these things; I cannot remember them’.
There is nothing unusual about parental re-tellings eventually blurring with, or becoming, personal memories of childhood, but the abrupt shift following the birth of the twins, to an account of the violent usurpation of the land on which the Jones family were currently living, seems a rather loaded interruption of the domestic narrative. ‘I barely remember the place’, Jones continues, before providing fragmentary images of early childhood that ring touchingly true in their clarity and randomness. More traumatic events, however, are brushed over: ‘One day, I fell down the stairs, according to my mother, and broke my leg, but I have no memory of that’.
Such reticence seems to shy away from confronting the childish longings that Jones will come to understand as inextricably linked with her desire for connection, for a Pākehā sense of tūrangawaewae. It also pulls us out of these evocative moments in her story: readers of memoir need to feel they are seeing memory lived on the page, not just memory told, as Mary Karr puts it.3 As a feminist academic of impeccable credentials, Jones knows better than most that history is personal as well as political, intimate as well as public, but too often she pulls her punches, evading a fuller exploration of uncomfortable moments like that broken child in her unsettled home.
A similar moment where memory becomes a form of forgetting has stayed with me long after finishing the book, its simplicity only serving to emphasise the emotional force it carries. Jones describes how, at fifteen and preparing reluctantly to leave Whakatāne, she kept a length of orange wool. Before bed at night she tied a knot in it to mark the passing of each day before putting it back in its special place. In packing up to move yet again, Jones ‘threw away the knotted orange wool with happy adolescent days bound into its strands’, a deliberate gesture to discard mementoes—or memories—that attest to the transience of contentment.
Sven Birkerts has argued that ‘the search for patterns and connections’ is central to the project of memoir, and the material that Jones brings to her story of becoming Pākehā offers tantalising glimpses of how past experience contributes to a vital becoming.4 Perhaps most surprising of all, though, is that Jones’ discovery of earlier roots in New Zealand is relayed with little emotional investment and seems a missed opportunity to interrogate further the extent to which being ‘grounded’ or ‘unsettled’ may co-exist. In her Preface, Jones writes: ‘I became who I am here … I cannot imagine living anywhere else’; This Pākehā Life illustrates how knowledge, like relationship, connects the past with our daily life in the present, in all its messy contradiction. It is a pity, though, that more could not be brought to light or—like that knotted orange wool—recovered and reintegrated into the story so that the generative tension of which Jones writes so compellingly could be given greater rein.
- Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 10.
- Adam Phillips, ‘Freud and the Uses of Forgetting’, On Flirtation (London: Faber, 1994), p. 24.
- Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), p. 76.
- Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, again (St Paul: Graywolf Press, 2008), p. 6.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every Morning, So Far, I’m Alive: A memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).