Other Voices 3: Lifestories
Ruth and Oz Kraus (eds),
Brick Row/ Hallard Press, $19.95
Other Voices 3: Lifestories is one of those books you read and, midway through the page, stop, grab the phone and call anyone you can. It is, without question, hard to believe – a real ‘get this’ kind of collection. As with curdled milk, you thrust it under someone’s nose insisting, ‘Smell this!’
According to the editors, Ruth and Oz Kraus, the idea for the collection came from a conversation with a New York film‑maker and a renewed interest in ‘biographical material as a universal phenomenon’. Lofty sentiment or trick question? The premise of the collection is that seventeen ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders will tell their own story – a story that the blurb claims is ‘the stuff of real life’. There’s not space here for me to harangue on genre issues, but I will suggest that the idea of ‘real lifestories’ and the use of a drawing of a ‘diary’ as a cover illustration are traditionally understood to fall within the realm of autobiography. One wonders where the emphasis lies: are these real‑life stories or real lifestories? This confusion seems to be the source of the problems with the collection, for it is one where editorial decisions baffle the reader with an almost mind‑numbing frequency.
All in all the collection is appalling – poorly conceived, poorly written. The lifestories are in fact rarely that, and the idea that the overwhelmingly Pakeha academics and professional writers included represent ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders is absurd. The collection is an odd mix of what we are told is ‘biographical fiction’ (whatever that is). The collection is also a litany of cliché, self‑pity and xenophobia. One almost feels that the point the Krauses are making in putting it together is that, yes indeed, folks, we are pretty awful – a tedious and, at times, bigoted bunch who really really miss England.
Among the truly awful pieces is Craig Harrison’s ‘Sand Man’, the story of a nice white man who manages to save not only a bunch of ‘genuinely simple’ black people but the whole human race from a renegade microbe brought to earth by an alien who looks suspiciously Asian. ‘Sand Man’ stands out in its dogged determination to be poorly written and to evoke a kind of racism few have the gall to articulate in this day and age.
To compound the discomfort this story elicits, the editors have thoughtfully included Gary Sommerville’s ‘Three and a Half Miles East of Turangi’, another poorly written tale in which a bunch of men in a prison yard vie for possession of a little white cat named Queenie. A very subtle morality tale, this – Queenie leaves Syd for another man, Syd kills Queenie, skins her and makes her into a hat. And lest the reader has missed the point, Sommerville hammers it home in closing with, ‘And I’d always considered that cats were real staunch. Loyal even. Just like a woman.’ From the politically unsound, we move to that which is also in poor taste. The editors’ inclusion of Rob Verhoeven’s ‘Fong’s Night’ reminds one of the great erotic literature of colonisation gone hopelessly wrong. Orientalism becomes the literal act of sex with an Asian woman, which perhaps would have been more appropriately published in a place where the censors would have found it.
These stories and others are so bad that the mediocre come as a relief. Leanne Radojkovich’s ‘Taxi To Go’ is one of the few which manages to shine – simple, sharp and funny. This may be nothing more than pearls mixed with the swine, a mixture in which other mediocre stories such as Albert Wendt’s ‘A Genealogy of Women’ and Alan Riach’s ‘Common Language’ give the reader that synaptic charge so longed for in the rest of the collection.
As the last to the party I can only agree with those who’ve come before me – don’t bother. These stories lack the self‑reflection and irony that could have made the collection delightful and important. ‘Lifestories’, though, is a wonderful idea. Autobiography is a powerful medium that could, and should, allow for the articulation of the experience of the ‘common’ New Zealander. An alternative to ‘Lifestories’, or perhaps one that more fully realised the potential of the idea behind the collection, would be an approach that relied on oral histories and personal narratives from a wider range of non‑academic and/ or professional writers. Certainly, such a collection would find a place in a culture which continues to grapple with the issues of biculturalism and national identity.
Laura Kroetsch is a graduate student in the English Department at Victoria University.