Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on place from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey (Victoria University Press, 2016), 222 pp., $40
Extraordinary Anywhere consists of sixteen essays, a ten-page introduction jointly signed by the editors, and a response essay by Martin Edmond: 222 pages of prose in all.
Edmond writes that in order ‘to investigate something properly we need … archives, dreams, memories’. That was expressed in another way some decades ago by the American author Wendell Berry, who suggested that ‘we have to know where we are before we know who we are’ – in other words develop a sense of deep culture, human or otherwise. An individual, he is saying, needs to explore the physical, historical and ‘storied’ environment of a place before he/she can truly place themselves there. We can use either of these statements as parameters with which to consider the contents of the volume, because they suggest a movement beyond the superficial from the essayist.
One of the interesting aspects of the editorial approach to Extraordinary Anywhere is that the editors feel there is a case to make for the assembled essays to be a new approach to writing about place. In particular, they claim to have moved beyond the reach of earlier writings from Bill Pearson, Bruce Jesson, Sandra Coney and others. What occurred in the writings from the 1930s to the 1950s seems to be a search for nationhood, where writing attempted to highlight characteristics that might define what it is to live within that nation. To my mind that is not necessarily writing in essay form about place – if place is to be found in the process of habitation. Those writings were a cultural construct, using determinants that could appeal to or debate nationhood. They were conscious of the creation of a group mythology, rather than about how individuals inhabit an ecology or environment that happens in this instance to be Aotearoa. Interestingly, that writing came to the fore in relationship to the centennial celebrations in 1940. Is it coincidence that the volume under review has appeared at a time when the political will is to harness the arts in a commemoration (celebration?) of another collective myth – of a nationhood formed on the battlefields of somewhere that seemed always elsewhere?
While it is a task for every generation to lay claim to sites they inhabit, and to create narratives for that place out of history, ecology, human interactions and personal relationships, some of the essays here are more a commentary on a sense of place rather than what I would consider a personal expression of what it means to be living in a place. My perception is that some writers have gone in search of how a given place gives rise to a certain sort of culture, a stance more appropriate to a spectator or onlooker. Such investigations are a little too detached and distanced in my view, and leave me indifferent. When the engagement is with the place, actually being there, the writing is personal and engaging, as can be seen when Ashleigh Young writes of growing up in Te Kuiti. The editors’ contributions, which situate Ingrid Horrocks in Pukeahu and Cherie Lacey in Napier, have a similar engagement. It is that more personal occupation which enables the essayist to tell not only of themselves, but also of their place, so that we get an implied cultural commentary along with a reading relationship. This is when non-fiction writing edges across genre boundaries into a more creative sphere where the requirement is to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Harry Ricketts’ essay provides this experience when he writes of his ‘oldest friend’ Nigel, while showing us a lot about himself, and ‘placing’ himself culturally, all within the guise of telling a story about an old mate.
Ricketts also introduces another facet of living in ‘our place’ that no contemporary collection can put to one side, and that is te reo Māori. The Canadian linguist, ecologist and poet Robert Bringhurst, if I understand him correctly, considers indigenous language an integral and living part of the specific ecology of place – in other words, if we are to be at home in New Zealand it could be deemed appropriate for us to learn the language of this place, if we are to care for the ecology (culture) of it. In her essay about inhabiting Pukeahu, Ingrid Horrocks also enters this territory of tikanga Māori, writing with some humility about how we might inhabit a place where there is more than one culture.
Alice Te Punga Somerville contributes an insight into the way stories of place belong in the present, the past and the future when she quotes a Te Ātiawa story of the eels (the tuna that were in pre-European times a food source for the local people) of the Waitangi Stream, that historically flowed where the Wellington waterfront is now situated. ‘People were also quite surprised to find that though there’s no stream, because it’s all in an underground pipe now, there’s still a large quantity of eels living in the Waitangi stream.’ The point of that story is that not only tangata whenua benefit by knowing the stories of their own place, because it brings depth and understanding to the way they inhabit the land they walk upon. While the story may ‘belong’ to Te Ātiawa, when we travel in the area of the Waitangi stream it is something we all share.
The prospect of reviewing this volume of essays interested me partly because I lived in forty houses before reaching fifty years of age. A sense of place and belonging has been a personal fascination for many years. A number of essayists also mention an itinerant childhood and the many times that they moved, a common enough experience of colonial societies. As Harry Ricketts and also Tina Makareti commented, this can lead to a search for ‘turangawaewae’ or a place to belong to. An interesting insight for Makareti is how the inner restlessness of that state, of not quite belonging to one particular place, is a source of tension that informs and drives her writing activity.
Being stable and ‘belonging’ can be in itself a tenuous business, as those who lived through the Christchurch earthquakes attest to. It is easy now to get seriously disoriented by an absence of inner-city landmarks that we once used for navigation. Sally Blundell writes an essay about a cultural re-inhabiting of the inner city, an overview of specific aspects in the city’s recovery process. A natural response to destruction of the city infrastructure has seen the enactment of many personal stories, as individuals lay claim to their place in spite of its changes.
Over 85 per cent of our population live in urban surroundings and each of those places is still subject to the defining characteristics of any manner of inhabiting these islands. Nobody can exist away from the influence of mountains and the sea, or without recognising that the weather is a reflection on our geography. We live aware of our geological situation brought about by the land’s straddling of tectonic plates pushing in opposition to each other beneath the surface. While we can tell ourselves that we are part of a global culture, we live locally, as the inhabitants of Christchurch discovered during the earthquakes, and wake each morning in a very specific set of circumstances that is ours alone. Floods can cut off parts of cities, as happened in Upper Hutt’s Birchville recently. Our stories of place are subject to the vagaries of climate and geography, just as they have always been. When the editors write that they see essays of place ‘superseding the imaginary, and potentially exclusionary, idea of “the nation” or brand New Zealand’, I think the point is that essays of place are more overtly personal, rather than necessarily removed from landscape and environment.
Regardless of debates on why the essays have appeared, and the need to make a case to justify their existence as a new approach, the book is important for the simplest of reasons – people need to have and be able to share stories to establish belonging within a group. The personal essays here are important because each of them develops a story of inhabiting a place. How do any of us belong anywhere if we are unable to identify with the stories we tell each other?
That is why if Lynn Jenner chooses to let us know about the taniwha of Poplar Avenue, or Ian Wedde wants to disclose the details of his walking out for a coffee, or Giovanni Tiso takes the opportunity to ponder the potentially invasive nature of the internet let loose among his photographs, they convey idiosyncratic experiences, which, nevertheless, enable others to make a connection as they read. When Lydia Wevers tells her stories of the books from Brancepeth station, or Alex Calder gets led on a merry dance by satnav in the wilds outside of Tapanui, they take us imaginatively towards a neglected hinterland of early colonial and settlement history that that most of us connect with in only a very remote way now. But, as Annabel Cooper reminds us, our minds need untidy corners to venture into, just as those of us did who were fortunate enough to have secret places to inhabit when we were children.
The diversity of sub-cultures and the manner in which disparate individuals inhabit the islands making up Aotearoa New Zealand is too broad to encompass within this volume. That is not a new situation, and was probably the case even when Māori bequeathed their stories to the next generation orally. I imagine there will be individuals who feel unrecognised in this volume, because the title can be seen to claim a certain national coverage. It is important to recognise that personal essays of place are by definition local, and anecdotes of the particular. In that way they open the doors for others’ stories.
The final essay of the collection, by Martin Edmond, gathers the strands of thought on offer and, in a sense, reviews the contents, teasing out a broader context from them. In doing so, Edmond coincidentally provides a master class in the craft for any aspiring essayist of place. His essay spreads the net wide, possibly because his view is that of an intimate outsider, a New Zealander who hasn’t cut the ties that bind, but lives elsewhere. His words, in concert with the contents of the entire volume, are suggestive of further possibilities in the realm of personal essays of place.
PAT WHITE is a poet, essayist and memoirist with a strong interest in place and the seasons. His collection of autobiographical essays, How the Land Lies: Of Longing and Belonging, was published by VUP in 2010. His most recent collection of poems, Fracking & Hawk, was launched on National Poetry Day 2015. He lives in inland Canterbury.