A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction, by Anna Jackson, Geoffrey Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer and Kathryn Walls (Victoria University Press, 2012) pp. 223, $40.
Young adult fiction seems to me to be a leaky genre: a literary intersection that raises questions the minute you try to define it. Is YA fiction primarily pitched at the young adult reader? Does the teenage reader occupy a borderland of reading where one hand scoops up Jane Eyre or 1984 or Great Expectations,while the other hand reaches for The Hunger Games or Feed or The Dreamhunter (or nostalgically picks up Harry Potter again)? Does YA fiction need to feature a teenage protagonist who gets caught in conflict and situations that he or she will overcome? Will there be an astute ear on the part of the author for contemporary teenage dialogue, for fashions, preoccupations, angst, cultural markers and so on? Is the YA fiction label just a marketing tool?
Yet, however critics, academics, authors and readers might attempt to define it, there remains an enduring passion for the genre’s products: its books. Perhaps it is because this canon takes adult readers back to that nostalgic moment when we were in pursuit of the big issues and ideal solutions, and when we thought, in our state of youthful freedoms, we could do anything and the world was as boundless as we wanted it to be.
New Zealand, of course, has a wealth of writers who publish fiction under the YA tag: Fleur Beale, Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee, Kate De Goldi, Tessa Duder, Mandy Hager, Karen Healy, Jane Higgins, David Hill, Elizabeth Knox, Jack Lasenby, Margaret Mahy, Anna Mackenzie to name some favourites. Many tap into the global trend to produce gritty realism that takes risks with subject matter, that introduces dystopian plots or otherworldly settings. With such an abundance of YA writing being published in New Zealand, I am delighted to see the arrival of a book prepared to discuss and evaluate the work of some of these authors.
A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction is not, however, an overview of the YA phenomenon in New Zealand (along with the intricate questions and ambiguities I’ve raised above), but rather a specific approach, as the title suggests. The key question that underwrites each chapter is: How does New Zealand feature in, unwittingly infiltrate, or knowingly drive the YA fiction that is published here? Five members of the English Programme at Victoria University (Anna Jackson, Geoffrey Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer and Kathryn Walls) respond to the issue within nine overlapping topics (Māori and Pākehā, Englishness, History, Utopia, Money, Religion, Sport, Futures and Māori Gothic).
In the very readable introduction Jackson suggests that New Zealand is not written into local YA narratives overtly. In other words, the five authors have gone on a scavenger hunt looking for traces of New Zealand that the YA authors may have left, consciously or otherwise. My instant reaction is to pause and reconsider ‘New Zealand’. Jackson refers to Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ that are in debt to print media, along with Tim Edensor’s notion of national identity that is both ‘popular and everyday’ and that is ‘material and embodied’. The key issue, Jackson concludes, is how the world shapes the stories we tell (in this context, how does New Zealand shape our stories and by inference our identity?). To my mind, the issue stretches back to the age-old role of stories, myths and fairytales which act as a form of acculteration. Simmering below the narrative surface (and sometimes more openly) are our taboos, fears, goals, gods, regulations and appreciations. New Zealand is going to be there in physical traces (flora, fauna, vernacular, food, along with recognisable urban and rural settings), but how does ‘New Zealand’ appear in less tangible traces? This is what A Made-Up Place explores – and conversely, I would suggest, how the stories we tell shape the world.
Jackson introduces the notion of a fault line between the real world and the made-up world (a porous boundary that is easily navigated by younger readers). The fault line is there, too, in Margaret Mahy’s confession that The Changeover ‘repaired an imaginative displacement within me’. Mahy had consumed literature from elsewhere as she lived in the here of ‘hills and long beaches’. I like Jackson’s fault-line motif as it implies the threat of shock or instability or faint tremor, and perhaps each chapter of this book (in different ways) explores this movement between here and there, natural and supernatural, Māori and Pākehā, New Zealand and Aotearoa, privileged and non-privileged. When I read Mahy’s Memory, I can remember being startled by the news a character was part Māori. Until that point place seemed entirely indeterminate. The new information was a little tremor in the narrative that made me yearn for more context, both physical and cultural.
What I enjoyed about the book under review is the way each chapter (at once readable and enlightening) provokes a raft of further issues and questions. As I stated at the outset, I don’t see this collection as a general celebration of YA fiction (we need another book to take on this role), but as a volume of critical essays intent on exploring what ‘New Zealandness’ means within a particular framework. In the first chapter, Kathryn Walls uses three books to discuss the representation of Māori–Pākehā relations in YA fiction: Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua, Maurice Gee’s The Champion and Jack Lasenby’s The Conjuror. She considers the advent of biculturalism in the 1970s (as opposed to the previous drive for assimilation) along with the existence of covert and overt racism. As a wider topic it could fruitfully expand to a whole book, and I was left with questions that I continue to mull over. For the Māori citing his or her whakapapa, this is the ground from which to write, or be written about. What of the Pākehā? Must he or she trace back through the generations to understand the how and where and why of genealogy? Does the Pākehā writer inevitably write from a smudged or eclipsed or faked ancestry and history?
Jackson tackles the subject of ‘Englishness’. (Like her, I also see this as an unstable term that references more than drawing-room etiquette, as a term that is filtered through memory, distance, class structures and English literature.) Jackson is critiquing the importation of English culture, codes of behaviour and literature into the New Zealand experience. When Jackson discusses the way Fleur Beale and Margaret Mahy draw upon various aspects of Englishness in particular texts, Jackson pivots her discussion upon issues of colonisation, so that the individual novels become stepping-stones to a discussion beyond plot and character. Does Englishness have any place here – and perhaps ours is a particular form of Englishness? Does that sense of Englishness smother? Does it fuel amnesia; does it contribute to how certain stories are banished to the periphery: it is questionable for example, Jackson suggests, ‘how long the Land Marches can remain on the border of our stories’.
Harry Ricketts tackles the role of history, and raises some astute questions about how we approach writing from another era. How, for example, do we place our contemporary awareness within an old context (continuity slips will go beyond the physical to include racism and feminism issues)? Ricketts suggests readers will have different reasons for reading historical fiction, and different expectations, just as authors will have differing relations with historical subject matter (from the subtle tweak through to the resistance of authoritative versions). Personally, I have no problem with rewriting history so that we get to see a girl with strength and independence in a historical context. But again, we are lead back to the tricky question of what we want fiction to do. Do we want fiction to represent the political ideal (which in itself is a moveable feast), or to provide keys and clues to dismantle the politically incorrect, or to ignore politics – and is any of this even possible?
As readers, we can lose ourselves in the narrative, be entertained, moved and stimulated. Characters, situations and plot might not conform to an ideal, but we are used to reading against the grain; we can be aware of the ideology that we might otherwise absorb unwittingly. A Made-Up Place, in its search for traces of New Zealand, moves into the narrative gaps and the authors provide some little gems of analysis. Miles, in his discussion of Utopia, suggests ‘what is repressed will invariably return’ (as in, for example, the invisibility of indigenous culture). In another chapter he asks whether the Māori Gothic label is an appropriate formulation or a conceptual imposition as he explores the oneness of Māori supernatural and natural worlds in contrast to the rupture the Pākehā contrives or has established. Schaefer, in exploring the degree to which the future might represent the New Zealand present, concludes that we ‘need to question established history and to learn from the past’. Perhaps these assertions seem familiar, but they gain new life within the richness of the YA context.
Congratulations are due to Victoria University Press for publishing a book on children’s writing. We publish and consume so many children’s books, it is a treat to enter a discussion that gives value to this field. A Made-Up Place offers lively arguments, is free from obfuscating academic jargon, and is highly relevant as we continue to live and write our way in and out of our New Zealand skins. Finally, while the issues it discusses are paramount in our hypersensitive moment, A Made-Up Place sent me in search of books I haven’t read in an age – not necessarily to go in search of ‘New Zealand’, or any of those ideological concerns, but simply to reconnect with a well-written story.
PAULA GREEN is a poet, reviewer, children’s author and anthologist. She co-wrote (with Harry Ricketts) 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, and edited Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems. Her new poetry collection, The Baker’s Thumbprint, will be published in May 2013.
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