A History of New Zealand Literature, edited by Mark Williams (Cambridge UP 2016), 417 pp., $225.95
Until the publication of this book in April 2016 there had been only one multi-author history of New Zealand literature – The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991, second edn. 1998), although there had been single-author histories, most notably two by E.H. McCormick (1940, 1959) and Patrick Evans’s The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (1990). By its general title and its Cambridge University Press origin this book seems to invite comparison to the Oxford History, but a comparison reveals they are really quite different kinds of histories.
The Oxford History is a very large book, topping 900 pages in the second edition, and had a large printing. Editor Terry Sturm, in his introductions to both editions, claimed it to be ‘a comprehensive work of literary reference, working on inclusive rather than selective principles’; inclusive partly because as the first full history in the field it engaged in ‘the mapping, simply, of what has been written in English, and largely lost to view, over nearly two centuries’. It was ‘addressed not simply to specialist readers but to the rapidly expanding body of educated general readers of New Zealand books in New Zealand and overseas’.
The basic planning for the Oxford History took place in 1982–83, just when a revolution in the study of New Zealand literature became visible, marked by the appearance on the New Zealand literary scene in August 1983 of the first issue of And, on its cover a photo of two cowboys ‘coming in’ to a room with drawn guns, and within it such outspoken essays as Simon During’s ‘Towards a Revision of Local Critical Habits’. The Oxford History did not appear in print until early 1991, but the basic plan of a text-oriented, inclusive set of more traditional narrative genre-based histories of New Zealand literature in English was in place and had determined the choice of contributors, the structure and the critical approach of the book. In his introduction to the second edition, dated October 1997, Sturm referred to the impact of recent literary theory, including ‘the new orthodoxies of post-colonial theory and its often reductive applications to particular cultures’. He granted that the new theories had ‘well and truly exploded’ the ‘earlier versions of cultural nationalism (masculinist, realist, monocultural, provincial)’ that had once dominated New Zealand literary studies, and described how, ‘before proceeding with a second edition, of course, the question had to be asked whether the principles on which the first edition was based … still usefully stood, or whether an entirely new grounding, requiring a quite different historical approach, needed to be sought’, but he confirmed that the decision made was to continue with the original approach.
When the Cambridge history was being planned, probably in 2012–13, the situation was different. The Oxford History was already occupying the field and had carried out its mapping function from the beginnings through 1996; however, its basic plan had been drawn up 30 years previously, and did not fully take into account the critical and historiographical revolution since then. A new history would not only need to map the writing since 1996 but also to view the entire corpus from the new perspectives. But there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the editor and the contributors to the Cambridge history to refer directly to the Oxford History, as it appears only once in the text of their history, and it is not referred to in the ‘Notes on Contributors’ even though Williams himself contributed the section on literary scholarship, criticism and theory to the second edition, and Lydia Wevers, who wrote the Cambridge history essay on the short story and the novel 1972–90, contributed the much more substantial section on the short story in the Oxford History.
There is no paperback edition, and although various eBook, iBook and computer file options are available, they are not advertised on the Press’s New Zealand website. The length (417 pages – less than half the size of the Oxford volume), implies that the Press did not see the book as a ‘comprehensive work of literary reference’, although their website says that the book ‘is of pivotal importance to the development of New Zealand writing and will serve as an invaluable reference to specialists and students alike’. The student wishing to see what the book said about the fiction of O.E. Middleton or A.A. Grace, to take two examples, would find in the index no listing for Middleton (as against the Oxford History’s five listings and bold type indicating there was an entry on him in the bibliographical section) and for Grace a single listing, pointing to a brief passage in the introduction that mentions ‘the Maori stories’ that are nowhere discussed in the text (as against five listings in the Oxford History, one involving a discussion of those stories). Striking evidence that the book was not designed as ‘a comprehensive work of literary reference’ is the lack of any bibliography, in contrast to John Thomson’s excellent bibliographical essay in the Oxford History, 106 pages in the first edition, expanded to 126 in the second. The full referential footnotes to each essay, however, will prove useful to anyone interested in that particular topic.
Presumably the scope and structure, the number and identity of the contributors, and the essay topics were at the discretion of the editor, Mark Williams. Williams’s experience as editor, critic and historian of New Zealand literature is attested by his extensive list of publications (even fuller than is indicated in the ‘Notes on Contributors’).
The editorial decision as to the scope of the Cambridge history is implicit in what is omitted from the title – ‘in English’. The Oxford History had in those two words at the end of its title ruled out any discussion in the main genre-based sections of texts in te reo Māori, but it did include Jane McRae’s 30-page ‘introductory survey of writing about literature written in the Maori language’, and it included discussion in the appropriate genre sections of texts in English by Māori and New Zealand Pasifika writers. By omitting those two words from its title the Cambridge history left open the possibility of discussing as part of New Zealand literature writings in te reo Māori, and that possibility is immediately affirmed in the opening ‘chapters’. (The quite separate essays are called ‘chapters’; but the book lacks the continuity and focus implied by that term, and they will be called ‘essays’ in this review). Ingrid Horrocks in ‘A World of Waters: Imagining, Voyaging, Entanglement’ focuses on what Peter Gibbons in the Oxford History called ‘The Archive of Exploration’ – all the texts discussed are in English, but she refers to Judith Binney’s statement of the need for more Māori texts from the time that present the experience from a Māori perspective.
Peter Gibbons’ discussion of the ‘archive’ is a model of clarity and economy, but in the years since he wrote it, as Horrocks states, ‘understandings of European texts of the early contact period in particular have changed dramatically’, resulting in ‘more nuanced readings of the voyage literature’. Drawing on and referencing many studies published in the last 20 years, she offers such a reading, seeing the texts as literature more than as historical documents, and presenting the view that the culture contact between Māori and English before Waitangi can be seen as a complex ‘entanglement’ rather than as a ‘cross-cultural collision between two peoples’. Arini Loader, of Māori origin and a historian specialising in nineteenth-century Māori literature, in her second essay, ‘Early Maori Literature: The Writing of Hakaraia Kiharoa,’ offers the Cambridge history’s only discussion of a text in te reo Māori – not an overview of early Māori writing nor even of Kiharoa’s ‘writing’ (an 1852 collection of manuscript ‘textualisations’ of 69 waiata from the oral tradition, providing a source from which Sir George Grey and Āpirana Ngata drew in making their more extensive collections).
Rather, it focuses on a richly detailed reading of the apakura which opens the collection (quoted in full), ‘offered as a something of a beginning or a conversation starter’ and presented as an example of the ‘rich material that remains largely unexplored, yet that has so much to contribute within the broader frame of the literary history of these islands’. Inclusion of the essay is a gesture towards biculturalism, and the essay itself is clearly a significant piece of research, but it perhaps belongs in a more specialised publication, while the needs of a general history of New Zealand literature would probably have been better served by a discussion of some of that ‘rich material’, possibly including both the original Māori texts and English translations.
While the Cambridge history does not feature Māori writing in te reo after its first section, it does feature Māori and New Zealand Pasifika writings in English since 1950 in three later essays (all, incidentally, by women). Alice Te Punga Somerville’s ‘Te Ao Hou: Te Pataka’ in Part III makes a significant addition to New Zealand literary history in discussing the valuable contribution that bilingual journal made to New Zealand culture in its run from 1952 to 1975 (it is not mentioned in the Oxford History). Melissa Kennedy’s essay on the Māori Renaissance in Part IV defines and celebrates it as a literary movement. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘“Nafanua and the New World”: Pasifika’s Writing of Niu Zealand’ in Part V traces, from a feminist postcolonial perspective, the rise of Pacific literature – a movement only briefly mentioned in the Oxford History with only one woman writer of note (Sia Figiel) – to ‘an established field in which women are widely present’ acting out ‘the shift from being represented to representing, from object to agent’. The Cambridge history in these essays stakes out ground not fully mapped by the Oxford History.
Another significant difference from the Oxford History is in the structure selected for the Cambridge history. The basis for that structure is not genre, as in the Oxford History, but chronology: the book is divided into five parts, each encompassing a period of New Zealand literature: 1760–1920, 1920–50, 1950–72, 1972–90, 1990–2014. That editorial choice opened up possibilities as to the nature and number of contributors and of essay topics. It would have been possible to have had primary contributors discuss all the genres of a period (possibly with separate essays for Māori and New Zealand Pasifika writers of the last two periods), but Williams seems to have chosen to have separate genre-based essays for all but the ungainly first period. Further, he seems to have decided that the genre-based essays should not be inclusive historical surveys so much as strongly focused arguments approaching the material from a variety of recent critical perspectives, and that each part should contain one or more special essays dealing with a topic from that period that would not be discussed in the genre-based essays. That choice of structure meant that there would be more contributors than in the Oxford History, making for shorter contributions. In the final result there were 26 contributors in 417 pages – an average of 16 pages per contribution, often with extensive reference notes. The greater number of contributors at the same time made possible a wider variety of age, location, educational background and critical approaches among them, and also probably made more likely a more equal gender balance, reflecting the changes in university staffing since 1998 – of the 26 contributors, 11 are women. All but one are identified in the ‘Notes on Contributors’ as at least part-time university staff, but are involved with a much greater range of disciplines and programmes than was found among the Oxford History’s contributors, including history, theatre studies, media studies, cultural studies, creative writing and medical humanities. Four are also identified as poets.
While a majority are identified as senior academics, a number hold less senior positions. Sixteen work in New Zealand universities, but nine work at institutions in Australia, Austria, Belgium, England, Scotland and the US, giving the volume an international flavour. Analyses of each of the five parts show how the contributors carried out their tasks, making the book as much a miscellany of essays on aspects of New Zealand literature as a general history of that literature.
The ungainly ‘Part I: 1760–1920’ bundles the writings of 160 years into one period, making any genre-based survey essays impossible. Instead Williams chose to include five very different essays, making no attempt at complete historical coverage. Horrocks’ essay is a survey of sorts, dealing very well with a sub-genre: voyage literature of 1807–40. Loader’s essay narrowed the focus to one representative waiata, while Jane Stafford in ‘Maoriland Reservations’ widened it to include nonfiction, poetry, and fiction by a range of the important writers of the period 1872–1914, but at the same time narrowed it to focus tightly on their treatment of the varieties of New Zealand landscape, including scenic reserves, the transitional pioneer landscape of Blanche Baughan’s ‘The Bush Section’, and the ‘achieved’ landscape of her ‘The Paddock’. The result is one of the best essays in the book, a text-centred approach to an important theme that tells us much about the period, efficiently combining relatively broad historical coverage with an original contemporary approach.
The remaining two essays in Part I each focus on a single figure. Simon During’s ‘Samuel Butler’s Influence’ ranges widely over Butler’s works, centring on the development of his theory of influence, stated in the posthumously published Life and Habit (1923), almost 60 years after he had left New Zealand permanently. The relationship of the theory to the literary history of New Zealand may be tenuous, but in a rhetorical tour de force During demonstrates that the theory’s origin may be traced back to Butler’s experience as a ‘pioneer farmer’ in New Zealand, described in his A First Year in Canterbury Settlement (1863), which he came to see as a ‘liberation from what he elsewhere described as the “science-ridden, culture-ridden, afternoon-tea-ridden cliffs of Old England”’. This experience freed him from the constraints of his upbringing as an English gentleman and coloured all his later writing. In a clever move, During argues that the contradictions in Butler’s theory relate to his need to avoid ‘questions that demand politics’, thus causing his blind spot in relation to injustices to Māori. During arrives at a triumphantly postcolonial conclusion relevant to contemporary New Zealand: ‘Only political and legal processes can rectify colonial-era injustices, and thereby release settler and colonial culture such as Butler’s from the stigma of being enabled by the colonial system that deprived Māori of their land and rights.’
Bridget Orr’s ‘Katherine Mansfield: Colonial Modernist’, the final essay in Part I, documents the ‘reconceptualisation’ of Mansfield in discussions of her life and work in the last 20 years, that is: that Mansfield, the colonial writer, was not opposed to the English Modernist, but rather that the two operated together in a colonial version of international Modernism. Wevers’ account of Mansfield’s stories in the Oxford History was already taking a revisionist view of her, but Orr’s complex and detailed account allows the reader of the Cambridge history to get a sense of what has happened in the 20 years since the Oxford volume.
Both During and Orr offer lively, challenging reading, but Part I taken as a whole offers no coherent and reasonably complete account of New Zealand literature of the period. Except for Butler’s 1863 book, no text or writer in New Zealand between 1840 and 1872 is even mentioned. The student seeking a contemporary view of the work of such figures as George Chamier, Thomas Bracken, Dugald Ferguson or Vincent Pyke will be disappointed.
‘Part II: 1920–1950’ focuses primarily on the writings of the cultural nationalists; however, two essays discuss writings mostly outside that movement. Philip Steer’s ‘Colonial Ecologies: Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira and Writing in the Settled Environment’ discusses in Marxist-tinged terms a range of writings from Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand (1870) to T.H. Scott’s ‘From Emigrant to Native: Te Whenua’ (1947), focusing on ‘narrative and poetic attempts to comprehend local ecologies and the place of settler culture within them’, seen from a contemporary ecological–environmental perspective. In tracing from the 1920s how ‘the emergence of an environmentally minded critique contributes to a broader scepticism about the shallow and instrumentalised attitude towards place produced by capitalist values’, Steer concentrates especially on Tutira, but finds elements of that critique in writings by Allen Curnow, Robin Hyde, John Mulgan, Alan Mulgan and Frank Sargeson. Nikki Hessell’s ‘Journalism and High Culture: Robin Hyde among the Cultural Nationalists’ is much more limited in scope, and is yet another essay contributing to the feminist reconceptualisation of Hyde as a more significant writer than Curnow and Denis Glover had depicted her. Hessell concentrates on Hyde’s 1935–37 series of essays for the New Zealand Railways Magazine on New Zealand tourist sites. She contrasts Hyde’s essays to the ‘limply anglophile’ ones written on similar topics for the same journal by O.N. Gillespie. By close comparisons of some of Hyde’s poems to passages in the essays, Hessell also demonstrates that the distinction that Curnow and Glover made between her best late poetry and her supposedly inferior journalism does not hold, for the poetry and the journalism cross-fertilised each other. Such insights suggest ‘an alternative history of New Zealand literature to that which the cultural nationalists championed, one that includes the best of our “rabid journalese”’ (Glover’s disparaging phrase for Hyde’s journalistic writing).
In the next essay in Part II, right from the first sentence of Stuart Murray’s essay ‘“Simply by Sailing in a New Direction”: The Poetics of Distance’ the reader is wafted up into the stratosphere of post-structural criticism, where: ‘to emphasise the delimited requires the articulation of that which lies beyond its limits’. Curnow himself was clearly being both concretely literal and metaphorically suggestive in the opening of ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, from which Murray’s title is taken (not from ‘The Unhistoric Story’, which Murray identifies as his source). For Murray, ‘the poetics of distance’ turns out to be a very capacious umbrella under which to construct an argument. Relating ‘distance’ to ‘temporality’, ‘gender’ and ‘exile’, among other abstractions, he moves through the 1930s and early 1940s poetry of Curnow and Charles Brasch, contrasting them to Bethell, Cresswell and Hyde to demonstrate that ‘the actual terms of place … were far less simple than Curnow’s opinions suggest. “To sail in a new direction”, it transpired, was anything but simple.’
Alex Calder’s ‘Defiance and Melodrama: Fiction in the Period of National “Invention”, 1920–1950’ is a subtle study of the way the defiance of the outmoded social conventions that had been carried over from England (a defiance implying ‘we are not genteel, class-conscious, god-smitten sons and daughters of English Puritans’) can be conveyed by the traditional realism of the novel of manners. But such fiction needs the shock of melodrama for a new national identity to emerge. To make his case, Calder begins with Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River in 1920 and ends with Sargeson’s I Saw in My Dream in 1949. He also brings in Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop, Frank Anthony’s Gus Tomlins, John Mulgan’s Man Alone, some of Maurice Duggan’s and Sargeson’s stories, and Dan Davin’s Roads from Home.
Christopher Hilliard’s ‘“Rough Architects”: New Zealand Literature and its Institutions, Phoenix to Landfall’ nicely supplements Dennis McEldowney’s account in ‘The Radicals, 1930s–1945’, the second part of his ‘Publishing, Patronage, Literary Magazines’ in the Oxford History. Drawing on documentary sources and recent publications, against the background of ‘the weakness of the local publishing industry’ and the paucity of general-interest periodicals in New Zealand in the period, Hilliard tells a quietly revisionist version of the story of the short life of Phoenix, the founding of the Caxton Press, the support of New Zealand writers by John Lehmann in his New Writing and Penguin New Writing, the founding of the State Literary Fund, and the founding of Landfall. As Hilliard tells it, literary nationalism was not the sole cause of the making of New Zealand’s literary institutions, a view from Curnow’s generation requiring revision, especially by taking into account how ‘the international cultural politics of the 1930s shaped the discussion of the direction of New Zealand literature’. These three essays in Part II of the Cambridge history could be seen as historical surveys. They do not attempt full historical coverage to equal the Oxford History, but they do discuss most of the major writers of the period in relation to topics or concepts not dealt with there.
The three genre-based historical survey essays of ‘Part III: 1950–1972’ resemble the Oxford History more in their historical coverage. Mark Houlahan’s ‘Out of the Drawing Room and onto the Beach: Drama, 1950–1970’ sets the tone and the approach to be adopted also in the drama essays of Parts IV and V – a straightforward narrative history, relatively inclusive within the period. Houlahan, after saying he will not attempt to retrace the steps of McNaughton, who had ‘comprehensively mapped’ the ‘cultural archive’ of earlier New Zealand plays in his 1974 bibliographical guide and in his 1981 history, both reflected in his section of the Oxford History – begins with Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather in 1962, which initiates ‘the major phase of playwriting in New Zealand’, and then discusses the playwriting careers of Curnow and James K. Baxter, who both attempted ‘to make convincing stage worlds out of their craft as poets’. Curnow he saw as failing with The Axe (1948), too formally literary to communicate to audiences, but succeeding better with his more idiomatic radio plays such as The Overseas Expert (1963), while Baxter’s best plays are those he wrote for Patric Carey’s Globe Theatre in the late 1960s. Central to the essay is the discussion of Bruce Mason’s plays, ‘the greatest accomplishment in playwriting in this period’, with Awatea especially ‘a portrait (and a prophesy) of what a comparable Māori writer would produce’. Houlahan ends with a discussion of the ‘scintillating early plays of Robert Lord, easily the best new playwright of the late 1960s and early 1970s’.
Scottish poet-critic-scholar Alan Riach’s ‘“Physician of Society”: The Poet in the 1950s and 1960s’ is an aphoristic, impressionistic, chronological ramble through the poets and poetry of the period. Riach begins quoting Baxter on the role of the poet as ‘a prophet according to his lights’, a ‘cell of good living in a corrupt society’, one ‘who could “by writing and example attempt to change it”’. Baxter’s statement, delivered as part of a lecture at the 1951 writers’ conference, was the opening shot in the Wellington–Auckland poetry war of the 1950s, with Baxter by his ‘passionate embrace of the social purpose of poetry’ leaving behind ‘the priority of self-determined cultural nationalism’ of Curnow. Riach skims over the Curnow–Baxter quarrel that followed, seriously misrepresenting Curnow’s Penguin anthology in the process. He discusses poets who began in the 1930s (Brasch, Curnow, Fairburn and Glover), noting Curnow’s silence in the 1960s and his returning in 1972 with the emphasis on ‘increasingly refined and steely aspects of personality and memory’ rather than on ‘any theorised nationalism’. Then he discusses the varied Wellington poets who began in the 1950s (Louis Johnson, W.H. Oliver, Hubert Witheford), ‘different in tone and kind’ from both Curnow and Baxter. Central to the essay is the discussion of Baxter’s development from ‘the self-appointed role as moral doctor in a world of social corruption and hypocrisy’ in such poems as ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street’ in 1960, to the speaker with the ‘sustained, ironic, exhausted, quizzical, compassionate tones’ of the first of the Jerusalem Sonnets in 1970: ‘one of the most remarkable developments of modern poetry’.
Timothy Jones’ ‘Against the Social Pattern: New Zealand Fiction of 1950–1970’ thesis is that the New Zealand fiction of 1950–70 that has been defined as ‘critical realism’ developing from the cultural nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s was actually ‘critical in focus, but not always realist in substance’, because it depicted Pākehā New Zealand as an unhappy, homogeneous society caught up in a destructive social pattern of secularised puritanism, while it ignored life in ‘the growing “Nappy Valley” suburbs, the baby boom, the ready availability of housing and employment, a newly raised standard of living – all facts of life for many New Zealanders’.
‘Part IV: 1972–1990’ is the shortest of the five sections, containing just four essays. Three are genre-based surveys – poetry, fiction and drama – while the last is unique: Melissa Kennedy’s descriptive definition of the Māori Renaissance. David O’Donnell’s ‘“DBed and chocolate wheaten beaten”: Drama Defining the Nation, 1972–90’ is a well-organised, economical survey following on from Houlahan’s in Part III, charting the rise of professional theatre and playwriting in New Zealand from Robert Lord’s It Isn’t Cricket in 1971 and Roger Hall’s Glide Time in 1976 to Stuart Hoar’s Squatter in 1986 and Ken Duncum’s Blue Sky Boys in 1990. Along the way O’Donnell touches on the careers of the major playwrights of the period: Lord, who died in 1992 and whose legacy ‘signals a shift to a more sophisticated approach to New Zealand playwriting, fully informed by modernist developments in theatre internationally’; Mervyn Thompson, who died the same year, and whose ‘broad range … together with his deep engagement with history and politics make him a major pioneering figure in the development of New Zealand playwriting’; Hall, who ‘proved there was a large, previously untapped audience for New Zealand plays examining current social issues through comedy; and Renée, whose Wednesday to Come trilogy ‘presents a feminist revisionist view of New Zealand history over an eighty-year time span featuring four generations of women from a working-class family’. Interspersed through and following these accounts of careers O’Donnell discusses briefly Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair and O’Sullivan’s Shuriken – with their contrasting views of the national character in wartime – the rise of Māori and Pasifika drama, the rise of feminist drama, and Red Mole’s experimental theatre. At the centre of the essay is O’Donnell’s description of Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament: ‘one of the most potent moments in New Zealand playwriting, highly theatrical, poetic, political, and summing up most aspects of what Thompson called “the state of the nation”’.
Lydia Wevers faced a problem in her ‘The Novel, the Short Story, and the Rise of a New Reading Public, 1972–1990‘ (her contribution to Part IV), a problem reflected in her title. She had contributed the section on the short story to the Oxford History, and her third sub-section for that – ‘Writing as Other; Other Writing, 1960s–1990s’ – overlapped with her essay here. The genre-based structure of the Oxford History meant that she did not discuss novels, so she had to broaden her focus for this essay while at the same time, because of the length limitations in the Cambridge volume, she has only about two-thirds of the space that had been allocated to that sub-section in the Oxford volume. In the Oxford History Wevers had a neat taxonomy of stories of the period that covered the field. There were two kinds of ‘writing as other’ stories: those about New Zealand by migrant writers (Amelia Batistich and Yvonne du Fresne), and those written in English by Māori authors (e.g. Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace). There were three kinds of ‘other writing’ stories: two by Pākehā males – the ‘free story’ of social realism (by Maurice Shadbolt, Maurice Gee, Vincent O’Sullivan, Owen Marshall, C.K. Stead) and the post-modernist story (by Russell Haley, Ian Wedde, Michael Gifkins); and one by Pākehā women, variously affected by feminism (by Joy Cowley, Fiona Kidman, Margaret Sutherland, Shonagh Koea, Barbara Anderson). To touch all the bases was a demanding task, but possible in the space available to her then, and the resulting sub-section was a successful narrative history, one that included discussion of representative stories by all the most significant authors. In this essay, however, Wevers faces a more difficult challenge, but she meets it very well by changing her strategy. Her first sentence emphasises the ‘social sea change’ brought about by ‘Māori activism, including a powerful new literary presence, and feminism’; while her final sentence proclaims that those two ‘major historical shifts … changed not only culture and society but also the fictional landscape’. The 15 pages in between build a convincing piece of literary history to support that conclusion. She begins by sketching the effects on the literary world of this ‘period of intense activity and equally intense change’: the growth of a larger, more diverse publishing sector, both in books and periodicals; the related rise of a new reading public; and a related shift from the short story to the novel as the dominant genre of New Zealand fiction. Some of the secondary short story writers she dealt with in the Oxford History are not mentioned at all – Batistich, DuFresne, Sutherland, Koea and Anderson – and some of the novelists of the period who were deemed important enough in the Oxford to have individual entries in Thomson’s bibliographical essay are likewise omitted – James McNeish and Stevan Eldred-Grigg – but all the essential major authors are included. She opens the survey with a summary of the stories and novels of Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, with their ‘Māori perspective’ significantly revising ‘the national imaginary away from the dominant tropes and masculinist modes deriving from literary nationalism and towards an ordered narrative representing a politically contested and culturally divided social world’. Post-colonialism she sees as providing a link between Māori and Pacific writing in New Zealand, embodied in the work and person of Albert Wendt. Her essay ends with some mention of such next generation writers as Elizabeth Knox, Nigel Cox, Damien Wilkins, Rosie Scott and Lloyd Jones, and a briefer mention of writers who have dealt with alternative sexualities, such as Noel Virtue and Sandi Hall.
‘From Hiruharama to Hataitai: The Domestication of New Zealand Poetry, 1972–1990’, by Harry Ricketts and Mark Williams, is also an inclusive survey, loosely organised around the metaphor of ‘domestication’, beginning with Leigh Davis’s Willy’s Gazette (1983), its ‘arcane, chatty sonnets … made possible by Baxter’s radical domestication and opening out of the form’ in his Jerusalem Sonnets, continuing with David Mitchell’s ‘th’oldest game’ (1971), contrasted to Fleur Adcock’s ‘Against Coupling’ (1971), and ending with Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘In the Garden’ (1988). Along the way there are interesting stops with such varied poets as Anne French, Lauris Edmond, Elizabeth Smither, Ian Wedde (‘a key figure in New Zealand post-cultural nationalist poetry’), Hone Tuwhare, Sam Hunt (‘a Baxterian ghost minus the theology’), David Eggleton, C.K. Stead compared and contrasted to Vincent O’Sullivan, Bill Manhire compared and contrasted to Allen Curnow (‘the dominant voice of our period’).
Melissa Kennedy’s ‘The Māori Renaissance from 1972–1990’ is not a chronological narrative from Ihimaera’s first book to literary output in 1990 that its title might suggest; rather, it is a full, complex description of the tenets, canon, origins and history, modes and unique themes, international effects and possible future of what she considers to be ‘the most significant literary movement since cultural nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s’. As is suggested by the tone of that statement (the first sentence in the essay), this is not a neutral, distant description of the literary movement but a celebration of it as part of a much-needed cultural shift brought about by Māori activism. Kennedy sees it as both influenced by and contributing to the great postcolonial shift of the period when ‘Pākehā New Zealanders abandoned the entrenched idea of an assimilated monocultural nation in favour of a discourse of identity politics that valued choice, difference, and cultural diversity’, a ‘national biculturalism’, and affirms that she has written her essay with ‘this historical context firmly in mind in order to account for the social and cultural pressures that have shaped Māori writing and its acceptance’.
The movement’s ‘canon of major writers’ is made up of Hone Tuwhare, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme – ‘as secure in public consciousness and concern as Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Frank Sargeson were in the mid-twentieth century’. Its origins she traces to J.C. Sturm’s first Te Ao Hou short story in 1955, and its recognition by the Pākehā ‘mainstream’, and to Tuwhare’s first poetry collection in 1964. She cites Chadwick Allen’s term – ‘the blood/memory/land complex’ as ‘an expedient summary of the interlocking and generative topoi with which all Māori Renaissance literature is in some way engaged’, themes or motifs that uniquely ‘describe what it is to be and feel Māori’. These topoi Kennedy sees as being conveyed in two dominant modes: the ‘pastoral lyricism’ expressing ‘the perceived wholeness of past Māori life, family, and connection to the land, construed as deeply satisfying and even spiritual’; the ‘social realism that ‘describes a harsh present featuring Māori as deracinated by urbanisation, marginalised by poverty and underachievement, and bleached by pressure to assimilate with the Pākehā mainstream’.
The expression of these themes has ‘placed Māori literature not only at the centre of what used to be called “New Zealand literature” but also of world literature, especially that dealing with indigenous people and their struggles, where it has achieved unimpeachable authority’. It has placed Māori writings in ‘the forefront’ of the ‘emerging field’ of postcolonial studies. But the biculturalism has been ‘increasingly challenged in the 2000s, especially by new questions demanding attention, including the limits of corporatisation in the social and cultural spheres, and of national immigration and multiculturalism’. Kennedy’s reliance on the linguistic and conceptual abstraction of postcolonial theory are especially evident in the vagaries of her conclusion, while her argument throughout the essay is conducted at a distance from the texts and the concrete facts of literary history.
‘Part V: 1990–2014’ is the longest section in the book, with six essays covering 96 pages. Stuart Young’s ‘From Exploring Identity to Facing the World: Drama from 1990’ adds a new chapter to the story of the rise of New Zealand drama told by Houlahan and O’Donnell in their essays in Parts II and III. Young begins by pointing out that ‘Homegrown drama may be something of a poor relation in the development of New Zealand literature’, but then approvingly cites Murray Edmond’s observation in his introduction to a Playmarket anthology in 2013 that ‘the past 30 years of playwriting practice in Aotearoa-New Zealand represent the strongest literary contribution of that period’. O’Donnell’s essay concluded that by 1990 the theatre in New Zealand had with its growing professionalism and recognition become an ‘important cultural institution’ both for ‘artistic exploration’ and for ‘informed debate’ about class, gender and intercultural relations.
Young’s first sub-section, ‘Tino Rangatiratanga in Action’, traces the ‘triumphal progress’ of Māori theatre from the collectively devised Whatungarongaro: A Story of Now About People Like Us in 1990 through Hone Kouka’s Waiora in 1996 and Briar Grace-Smith’s Purapurauwhetū in 1997. These plays embody the tenets of the Māori Renaissance both thematically, in affirming the need for the characters to recover their Māori identity, and formally, in integrating Māori marae rituals and Māori art forms with Western dramaturgy. The rise of Māori theatre became ‘the most conspicuous development in local drama of the 1990s’.
Young took the title of his second sub-section, ‘“The Intimate Art of Actually Caring”: Revising Pākehā Memory’, from the title of Eli Kent’s 2009 play about the ‘spiritual journey’ of two characters to the Jerusalem grave of Kent’s uncle, James K. Baxter. Although Young does not call attention to it, Pākehā in the 1990s became in urgent need of new blood because, of the five major playwrights of the 1980s whose work O’Donnell discusses, only Roger Hall has remained active: Mervyn Thompson and Robert Lord both died in 1992; Greg McGee turned to other genres and had no stage plays produced after 1984; Renée turned to other genres and had no major stage plays produced between 1991 and 2010. And he looks at the work of new Pākehā playwrights who appeared in the 1990s, such as Gary Henderson, whose Skintight showed that Pākehā as much as Māori could have a deep love of place and could relate it to memory; and David Geary, whose ‘theatrically imaginative’ Lovelock’s Dream Run of 1992 used the interplay of different levels of fantasy and reality to explore New Zealand male identity and sexuality.
Young’s third sub-section is flatly entitled ‘Pacific and Asian Theatre’, indicative of his inability to find a unifying theme. Drama, Young thinks, does provide ‘those from minority immigrant cultures with a medium for exploring aspects of identity and a sense of place in Aotearoa’, and good plays, such as the Malaysian-Indian Jacob Rajan’s Krishnan’s Dairy (1997) or Samoan-Palagi Victor Rodger’s My Name is Gary Cooper (2007) have emerged. But there is no unified movement bringing together the diversity of Asian and Pacific drama as the Māori Renaissance does for Māori theatre, nothing like biculturalism as goal. Young entitles his fourth sub-section ‘Facing That World’, a phrase taken from Dean Parker’s introduction to his 2005 play Baghdad, Baby, where Parker complains that ‘little New Zealand literature seems to have been written on, or consciously within, the major events that have shaped our lives over the past two decades’, and that even theatre, ‘the most public of writing, has been remiss in facing that world’.
Dougal McNeill, in his ‘“While History Happens Elsewhere”: Fiction and Political Quietism 1990–2014’, makes a less inclusive survey of the final period of fiction from a position more heavily involved with the concepts and language of recent literary theory and criticism, an approach that tends to discuss New Zealand literary works in relation to concepts and language drawn from the international literary–theoretical discourse. While there is only one footnote referring to such a text in Wevers’ essay, there are 20 in McNeill’s essay. He begins with a contrast between the Listener reviews of New Zealand’s only Booker Prize winners to date – Keri Hulme’s The Bone People in 1985 and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 – as markers of ‘mutations in literature’s place in cultural politics’. Joy Cowley in early 1984 welcomed Hulme’s novel for its immersion in the cultural politics of postcolonialism and feminism, its success in having ‘given us – us’; while Guy Somerset in 2013 remarked that with The Luminaries it was ‘easy to be distracted from Catton’s lack of ambition where it really matters’ because she had, in her complex structure, plot and narrative method, set herself ‘the creative writing exercise to end all creative writing exercises’.
McNeill discusses at some length the ‘structure of feeling’ that had emerged as New Zealand fiction seemed to become less concerned with reflecting the state of contemporary New Zealand society critically, analogous to the way Chapman and Pearson had wanted it to deal with the ‘social pattern’ of New Zealand in the 1950s. Instead, the creative writing programme with its ‘professionalisation of literature’ was linked to the ‘depoliticisation’ of fiction, for the global ‘culture industry’ wants ‘free-floating cultural commodities’ not ‘nation-shaping work’ related to a specific national situation, and mastering the creation of such commodities is the purpose of creative writing exercises. McNeill, however, turns away from that argument, which had been popularised by Patrick Evans. McNeill suggests the absence of the political is actually ‘a different mode of political engagement, stripped of easy messages and rhetorical posturing, placing responsibility on the reader to locate the political’. He sees Elizabeth Knox’s Black Oxen (2001) as working by leaving the reader to ‘sift through superabundant information and plot streams … to try and work up something like coherence’, and Barbara Anderson’s Change of Heart (2004) as using a disturbed and uncertain first-person narrator to make the reader try to link and evaluate each detail. Such novels, he suggests, make the reader work at the possibilities of narrative, an exercise which, ‘given narrative’s world-shaping powers, is political all the way down’ –an abstract and difficult argument that would probably require much more reference to the worlds of the novels to be convincing.
As he moves through discussing a range of New Zealand fictions – Charlotte Grimshaw’s Opportunity (2007) and The Night Book (2010), Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate (2013), Carl Shuker’s The Method Actors (2005), Dylan Horrocks’ comic book Hicksville (2010) – McNeill looks for the political not in the book’s critical depiction of a society but in the reading experience it offers, asking rather airily: ‘how might we learn to think with and through novels as they engage in the imaginative building of story worlds?’ More comprehensibly, when he turns to historical novels he sees ‘twin impulses’ at work: one towards utopian pasts, depicting pre-Waitangi New Zealand, allowing the reader to see that there might have been a better alternative future than what actually came to pass; the other towards disenchantment and a revisionist unmasking of the past. Examples of the former being Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife (2004), Annamarie Jagose’s Slow Water (2004) and Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (2011), and of the latter Tim Corballis’ The Fossil Pits (2001).
Anna Smaill’s ‘Anecdote in Post-1990 New Zealand Poetry’ follows McNeill’s essay in Part V, and is almost as involved with the concepts of recent literary theory, creating an argument as theoretically ambitious as his. Her aim is to demonstrate that a crucial distinctive characteristic of New Zealand poetry since 1990 is its use of the anecdote as its primary genre. She begins by agreeing with the ‘comfortable consensus’ that contemporary New Zealand poetry ‘overflows with talk’, using conversational language, but then goes on to suggest that a more distinctive view of New Zealand poetry might be found by ‘investigating these stylistic choices at the level of their formal and generic function’, arriving at lyric in ‘hybrid collision with another form altogether: the humble anecdote’. That genre she defines as a little narrative of a brief experience, ‘a snapshot of life that yet might, in some way, be representative, important enough to examine’ what Hugh Roberts – who did not like the genre – called ‘exercises in Higher Blogging, free-verse ruminations on Stuff That Has Happened’. As an example, she quotes and discusses Brian Turner’s ‘Chevy’ (1989), as ‘a clear forerunner of the New Zealand anecdotal poem’, a first-person narrative spoken to an undisclosed listener, exemplifying both the ‘conversational style’ and the ‘confidence in an audience’ that mark the genre. The poem is a well-chosen example to help define the genre, but Smaill’s argument would have been more effective and convincing if she had made a more systematic definition of the genre, bringing together style, tone, narrative situation and structure, point of view and range of theme.
Having then defined the genre of the anecdotal poem she surveys its appearance in post-1990 New Zealand poetry, but after that promising beginning, the survey at times feels loose, uneven, faltering. She is at her best when she discusses a poem in detail, as she does with Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Being a Poet’ (2003), ‘an anecdote about the way in which the humdrum element of family life can’t be edited out of poetry’, for its ‘both insignificant and characteristic’ details offer ‘small snatches of seemingly transparent daily life, through which we are expected to understand something broader – what it might mean to be a poet, for example’. She discusses Manhire’s poetry at some length, showing how his ‘Magasin’ demonstrates ‘anecdote’s potential for radical, and collaborative, openness’. On the other hand, the brief reference to the post-1990 work of Ian Wedde, with no quotation or even the title of a single poem, seems just an attempt to bring that poet into that ‘anecdotal’ tent.
Smaill concludes her survey with an examination of other ‘strands’ of the anecdotal poetic ‘line’. There is the recent biographical strand, longer poems about famous people that include revelatory anecdotes, as in Helen Heath’s collection, Graft (2012), or Janis Freegard’s Kingdom of Animalia: The Escapades of Linnaeus (2011), or Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity (2013). There is the strand of anecdotes concerning mythological characters written by Māori and Pasifika poets, going back to Tuwhare’s ‘We Who Live in Darkness’ (1987), and including Tusiata Avia’s Nafanua series (2009). Smaill pays more attention to Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka (1999), which places such anecdotal personal poems as ‘Honda Waka’ in the context of poems concerned with epic and mythological journeys.
The essay occasionally becomes a mere list of names, and the idiom of critical theory sometimes confuses rather than clarifies; nevertheless, the essay is an important contribution to a general history of New Zealand literature, for it highlights a significant shift in post-1990 New Zealand poetry to, as Smaill says in her conclusion – quoting Curnow’s ‘The Unhistoric Story’ – ‘something different, something / Nobody counted on’.
Anna Jackson’s ‘From Meadow to Paddock: Children’s and Young Adult Literature’ is the last of the genre-based surveys. A highly selective survey, it makes no claim to complete coverage and begins with a single long paragraph on the early fiction of Margaret Mahy, written at a time when, Mahy later confessed, ‘the colonisation of her imagination by English fantasy literature’ when she was young had made her unable to write convincingly about a New Zealand setting. Only with her first two novels written for young adults, The Changeover (1984) and The Tricksters (1987), did she begin dealing with a New Zealand setting (moving ‘from meadow to paddock’). Jackson states ‘the more insistently Mahy sets her fiction in New Zealand, the more class distinction and financial inequalities make themselves felt’, although The Tricksters especially uses the fantasy elements to tell a story about the power of imagination and storytelling. Jackson does not, however, discuss any of Mahy’s numerous later works.
She next traces Maurice Gee’s second career as a writer for younger readers, beginning in 1979–80 with Under the Mountain and The World Around the Corner, and focuses on Gee’s extreme depiction in these fictions of adult evil caused by the desire for power and the will to dominate, recognised but not shared by the child and adolescent protagonists. Of Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire (2013), she writes that this is ‘a novel that comes at the essential questions of Young Adult fiction from a surprising number of angles’. She ends by looking at the darkly dystopian fantasy fictions of Bernard Beckett, culminating in Genesis (2006), and the similarly dark fictions of the more recent writers Karen Healey and David Hair, pointing towards the possibility that Young Adult fantasy fiction is starting to express ‘a more urgent concern about the ways that culture operates more generally to maintain stable structures at the cost of a wilder kind of freedom’. But as a contribution to a general history of New Zealand literature this essay seems much too limited in scope to be a useful addition, especially as the only essay in the volume discussing writing for younger readers.
Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘“Nafanua and the New World”: Pasifika’s Writing of New Zealand’ is a survey, but not a genre-based one; rather it is an ethnically based survey of New Zealand Pasifika writing generally. Marsh’s title for this essay refers to Nafanua, the Samoan war goddess, the central figure in Tusiata Avia’s sequence of poems in Bloodclot (2009), who returns to earth reincarnated as a half-caste girl in Christchurch’s ‘gangland’, sitting in her car outside a New World supermarket while her friends contemplate robbing it. Before joining them, the girl ‘enacts a culturally specific Samoan practice of covering the car’s mirrors’ in order to block out possible ‘portals through which spirits may become visible and draw the living into the land of the dead’. This symbol of an ‘actively selective, protective way of seeing’ by Avia, Marsh takes as a metaphor for her own selective, protective seeing, adopted when she was writing her PhD, in order to protect herself from the idea of Pacific writing as ‘a second-rate parody of English literature’. The supermarket becomes the symbol of the ‘machinery of capitalist commodification and consumption of cultures geared towards producing globally bland brands of identity’ – truly a land of the spiritually and culturally dead. Instead of an aesthetic based on ‘externally imposed historical and contemporary identities’, Marsh urges ‘aesthetic sovereignty’ as defined in the introduction of a 2015 collection of essays on ‘navigating art and literature in the Pacific’.
In her first titled sub-section, ‘And We Are?’, against a sketched backdrop of the postwar Pacific Islands migration to New Zealand and how ‘a shared notion of resistance to oppression connected to being of Pacific descent in New Zealand’ came to be ‘the basis of Pasifika identity politics’, she sees that ‘first-wave of Pacific literature in New Zealand explored the migrant psyche where the notion of “home” is both idealised and problematised, alongside an early political activism that examines racism, culture clash, and alienation’, with Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home (1973) the ‘touchstone text’. This first Pacific novel was joined in 1996 by the first Pacific novel by a woman, Sia Figel’s Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged, which ‘centred the experience of girls and women in postcolonial exploration of self and world’.
Marsh’s second titled sub-section, ‘What’s Niu?’, takes its title from the pan-Polynesian word for ‘coconut’, which in the 1970s and 1980s was a derogatory term for Pacific migrants in New Zealand, but which has ‘been reclaimed as an empowering sign of strategic identity and a brazen badge of islandness rerooted in his land’. She argues that ‘in Pasifika writing language is being reniued of urbanized, composite, physically split places and spaces that Pasifika writers inhabit’. Drama is especially suited for exploring these questions and uncertainties, and Marsh quotes David O’Donnell’s claim that ‘since 1993, plays by Pacific playwrights, particularly Samoans, have ensured that Pasifika drama now holds a “central space” in theatre in this nation and offers a “unique, hybrid theatre in the South Pacific”’.
Marsh’s third titled sub-section, ‘A Niu Canon’, celebrates not a canon of classic, revered texts, but works or spoken performances that adapt, rewrite, answer back to earlier works. New works such as Karlo Mila’s 2008 talk-back poem ‘Inside Us the Dead (the NZ born version)’, a latter-day generation’s response to Albert Wendt’s 1979 ‘Inside Us the Dead’; the Black Friars drama troupe’s performances of Shakespeare ‘with Pasifika flair, drawing on a Pasifka aesthetic of orality and performance’, challenging ‘the idea English canonical tests had little relevance for Pasifika students’; and David Eggleton drawing on Pasifika orality for ‘his figure of the “mad kiwi ranter”’ in his Fast Talker (2006). In this rapid run through a variety of recent developments, Marsh also points to the remythlogising of Nafanua in poems and stories such as Avia’s Bloodclot and Albert Wendt’s epic poem Adventures of Vela (both from 2009). In her final sub-section, ‘Roaring off into the Va’, Marsh closes with the story Avia told her about having for four years held back the manuscript of Bloodclot because she was cautioned about ‘the risk of offending the Nafanua living line and disrespecting Nafanua’s mythos’, until, ‘in an act reflecting many of her fellow Pasifika writers, Avia made up her own mind, covered the rear view mirror, and roared off into the Va’.
LAWRENCE JONES is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago. An anthologist and editor, and the author of a number of books on New Zealand literary history, his current research project is a comprehensive contextual study of Maurice Gee’s fiction for adult readers.
Sharon Matthews says
A thoughtful and comprehensive critique by Lawrence Jones of what is clearly an essential resource for those (like myself) addicted to reading and studying New Zealand literature in its multiplicity of forms. Thank you!