Rich and disturbing detail, Lydia Wevers

The Sky People and Other Stories
Patricia Grace,
Penguin Books, $24.95

The Ace of Diamonds Gang and Other Stories
Owen Marshall,
John McIndoe, $19.95

The Foreign Woman
Fiona Kidman,
Vintage, $19.95

All the Tenderness Left in the World
Stephanie Johnson,
Otago University Press, $24.95

Like You, Really
Kate Flannery,
Penguin Books, $24.95

Like the great majority of New Zealand writers, regardless of race and gender, Patricia Grace began her long and distinguished career with collections of short stories. The Sky People and Other Stories is her fourth collection in a series that began with Waiariki in 1975, groundbreaking in that Grace’s was the first collection of stories by a Maori woman to be published.

As had Witi Ihimaera, Grace had published stories in Te Ao Hou, a journal which specialised in work by Maori writers. The appearance of Ihimaera’s and Grace’s work in book form was the start of the most important diversification of New Zealand literature in our cultural history. The Maori renaissance followed – a decade in which, as Witi Ihimaera has said, “Maori people once again stood up, spoke out and refused to sit down until they had had their say” (Te Ao Marama Vol 2).

Not only have major writers appeared and achieved major international success, but the quantity of writing by Maori, increasingly in both languages, establishes it as a field with particular characteristics and preoccupations. It is a field with a history and a future, a literature that, in writing its difference from the work and the cultural territory of white New Zealand writing (with all its diversity), expands, deepens and complicates the cultural and geographical territory New Zealanders share, the “nation” we represent.

The significance of the Maori textual presence in New Zealand postcolonial literature and cultural identity cannot be overstated. In beginning with short fiction, Grace followed a literary career that is peculiarly well marked in New Zealand writing. It is arguable that the writers (Sargeson, Mansfield) whose work established the notion of a national literature did it so thoroughly by means of short stories that they created a cultural stereotype which dogs us to this day: we still don’t seem to have enough novelists.

But it has always seemed to me that writers who set out on the traditional New Zealand path have to begin by negotiating both their literary history and the impositions of the genre, most notably its difficulties of scale. It is not surprising that a colonial and postcolonial literature should represent itself so often in a genie which scales down narrative and restricts certain kinds of amplitude. But short fiction also troubles and disturbs a reader’s sense of wholeness and a New Zealander’s sense of nationalism, because it never deals in the big picture but only in pluralities. There are always more stories around the one you are reading. When you are a Maori and a woman as well as a short story writer, this sense of alternative narratives is heightened.

When Grace’s first collection, Waiariki, was published she said on the back cover: “My hope is that these stories show aspects of a way of life that is essentially Maori and thus give some insight into what it is to be Maori. These stories are about living, dying, change; emotions, aspirations, and human relationships.” Grace’s early stories investigated the collision of mostly rural Maori communities and Pakeha expansion and development, but argued for the maintenance of traditional ways and beliefs by emphasising Maori attitudes towards the land and its conservation and the strength of family and community amongst Maori.

For all its satirising of and challenges to white New Zealanders, Grace’s fiction celebrated an emotional and cultural life that readers of other races could well envy. Grace’s stories have characteristically used mythology to express what is elemental to Maori belief, as in the famous story known to every school child in Aotearoa, “Between Earth and Sky”, where the woman’s labour becomes an affirmation of the Maori myth of creation. The sense of an alternative cosmogony, though less elaborated than in the work of Keri Hulme, is strongly present in her stories.

Like Witi Ihimaera’s, Grace’s work as a whole shows what has been called in New Zealand the “urban drift” of the Maori. This is one of those phrases that suggests something natural and unthreatening but refers in fact to a statistically demonstrable shift of Maori people from the economically unviable country community into urban life, poverty, crime and institutions. Unlike the work of Bruce Stewart, Apirana Taylor or Alan Duff, Grace’s writing has not typically dealt directly with the violence and despair that characterises some aspects of Maori life in New Zealand. But there has nevertheless been a shift in her last two collections of stories towards a darker context, a more disturbing environment.

The opening story of The Sky People rewrites the myth of Rangi and Papa, the Maori myth of creation, but as a cynical satirical story of failed parenting. “Sun’s Marbles” opens a collection whose tone and preoccupations have moved into a different register. Grace’s fiction, like that of a number of other Maori writers, has entered a new phase of diversification, one that, like Maori politics, is much more challenging for the comfortable Pakeha reader.

Some of the 15 stories in The Sky People and Other Stories pick up constant preoccupations of Grace’s. “House of the Fish” describes a Maori family being driven from their home by Pakeha machines, from “the old place to the hard place”, losing in the process their history, their cosmogony and their dead. In the final story, “Sweet Trees”, Grace personifies the bush so the stories of two lovers are interleaved with a commentary of bush birds who practise their magic to make a myth of the two humans. This kind of maintenance of Maori belief is deftly done by Grace, partly as a way of suggesting the changes that have to be accommodated in a contemporary mythmaking. The lovers’ life stories come straight from urban- disaster- childhoods of constant moving, poverty, alcohol, violence and discrimination, while the birds’ retreat to “sweet, sweet trees” for the next 10 years begs a lot of questions.

Grace’s stories typically avoid judgment. Judgment is inferred or left to the reader’s moral sensibility, which is why Grace’s stories can often be very disturbing to a Pakeha reader. You can laugh at the hilariously apt story “Ngati Kangaru” but you also have to feel uneasy about it. “Ngati Kangaru” illustrates why Grace is perhaps the most subversive Maori now writing.

Much of Maori writing has opted for a very confrontational mode. Grace’s tactics are far too graceful and subtle for the full frontal, but are not less political. “Ngati Kangaru” begins with Billy “laughing his head off” reading the history of the New Zealand Company. Admiring the Wakefields’ brilliant scam, Billy decides to put the same plan into action on behalf of the Ngati Kangaru who want to move back, with their Aussie-earned savings, to a small holding in New Zealand.

“So all we need,” said Billy to Makere, later in the evening, is a vast area of land “as far as the eye can see”. As it happens, the old home of the iwi, confiscated at the end of the century, is now a luxury holiday resort, that is, a “wasteland” – end of summer, full of “waste”, or unoccupied houses. “Reclaiming and cultivating a moral wilderness – that’s what we’re doing”. Billy and his company get to work repossessing with such brilliant success that you wonder uneasily why this scheme couldn’t actually work and reflect even more uneasily on its first application.

Grace’s comic imagination is as political as they come. In the title story a group of marginal people, dispossessed, poor and homeless, bring their vivacity and resources to bear on making a living and end up recycling junk so successfully they are transformed to middle-class property owners. My reservation is that I found the narrator of this story too contrived and whimsical and, though her craziness is represented as a form of evil, it never seems to me as convincing or interesting as what these people actually do, which is a brilliant commentary on materialism and the consumer society and its racism.

The company is called Hel and Bak and they make recycled haute couture such as “New Zealand maid” from vinyl and hosepipe with marching girl boots, or the Kia Ora gown “with its skirt of laminated Good Luck Kia Ora New Zealand coasters” and a special cloak Les We Forget decorated with 100 plastic tikis from Air New Zealand. To complete the ensemble are two little Maori dolls made in Hong Kong whose piupius have been replaced by pinstriped suits and shoes, with two hooks inserted so you wear them as earrings.

Laughter in The Sky People carries an edge, but what is also disturbing is the environment in which Grace’s stories occur. It is not so much that they are about violence as that violence is what happens. In “Flower Girls”, a version of a set piece of Maori writing, the tangi of an elder, the “big man’s” daughters arrive with their flower names, Violet, Hyacinth and Lilac, and their ruined lives, drink, drugs and illness and are terrible reflections of the world beyond. They seem to epitomise the real face of urban drift, but the end of the story reveals a secret past of family abuse which sets everything into another dark context.

In this collection there is nothing sentimental about Grace’s reconstructions of Maori life and there is nowhere without its atmosphere of threat. I noticed particularly that in the story “Boiling”, which deals with a family group Grace has written about since the beginning, Charlotte and Lizzie and Macky and Mereana and Denny Boy, Charlotte uses sympathetic magic on Lizzie’s boils by plunging crayfish – and her arms – into boiling water, as if this family, too, which has always represented the warmth and solidarity of Maori family life in Grace’s fiction, has to hurt itself. “My Leanne” is a chilling story of a teenage boy’s murderously possessive love for his girlfriend. “Cardigan of Roses” concerns a violent dispute over a boundary between neighbours of, I assume – though this is never said – different races and raises the rich metaphor of boundaries to great effect.

But Grace is far too good and various a writer to allow herself only one side of any story. The number of voices and experiences in The Sky People constitute a richly diverse world and one to which the reader cannot have a singular or simple response. Violence is a much more usual element of her characters’ lives than it was before. I find that both frightening and just and it seems to me further confirmation of Grace’s status, both in Maori and in New Zealand writing. This is not just because her writing demonstrates so many qualities and so much richness of dialogue and narrative and character, but because she has her finger on the pulse of what is happening in our society.

Even if there wasn’t internal evidence of politics or rather political implications in Grace’s stories, a glance at C K Stead’s introductory “A Note On Absences” in The Faber Book of Contemporary South Pacific Short Stories would alert any reader to the politics of the New Zealand literary scene. Stead explains that an earlier version of the anthology included stories by Albert Wendt, Keri Hulme, Witi lhimaera and Patricia Grace which were all withdrawn at a late stage.

Wendt and Grace didn’t give reasons for the withdrawal, though any reader of Metro could make a good guess at why Wendt’s story was withdrawn. Ihimaera and Hulme suggested that Stead’s relations with Maori and Polynesian writers were to blame. Stead’s note goes on to review the “history of insult and attack” Keri Hulme has accused him of and finds “only the application … of the same standards of judgment applied to any work in the English language … irrespective of the race of the author”.

I am not of a school of thought which believes in the existence of standards or indeed of judgments which apply seamlessly across anything as disputed and subjectively argued as literary texts. It seems to me Stead wilfully reconstructs a battleground in going on to claim he is asked “to give Maori or Pacific Island writers special exemption from all but favourable notice, which is what these four appear to want and mostly to get.”

However, without reopening the whole debate, which I am sure others will, it does seem to me that, in reading the work of Maori and Pacific Island writers, a Pakeha cannot help but realise that within the same general outline of place quite different worlds exist. What happens in one is quite simply likely to be more dangerous, more unstable and poorer than in the other and, even if the lives and circumstances of some individual writers do not look very different from those of their Pakeha counterparts as Stead claims at the end of his “Note”, the textual resemblances and shared narrative environments of Maori writers as well as the social statistics which are produced about their race, make abundantly and shamefully clear what different worlds we inhabit. Of course any one writer can always write better or worse, but what Maori writers take the time and trouble to show us is something New Zealanders really need to know.

Stead’s construction of the political/literary map is a pressing reminder of how political literature always is. But it does, as he rightly claims, give a less usual and varied view of South Pacific writing, which as a context for New Zealand writing is enriching and a welcome geographical shift. And as a context for the (absent) work of Patricia Grace, it not only highlights the politics of Maori fiction, but draws attention to the way her work is enriched by a satiric playfulness that resembles the fiction of Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, Michael Morrissey and Epeli Hau’ofa. Postcolonial literatures are remarkable for the diversity of their bedfellows.

Owen Marshall is frequently hailed as the master of the short story in New Zealand. While I am congenitally disinclined to construct hierarchies, I have no quarrel with his status and prestige in our most significant genre. But why is The Ace of Diamonds Gang and Other Stories a rehashed collage of stories dating from as early as 1979 with the odd new story thrown in?

John McIndoe press has published another “selected stories” by Owen Marshall as if it were a new collection. It is only if you read the list of contents or the small print on the back cover or you know Marshall’s stories very, very well – which lots of New Zealanders do by now – that you realise that you have read all but two of the stories before. They represent a selection from his first collection, Supper Waltz Wilson, up to The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories. It feels like cheating to me and I would welcome a statement by the publisher or by Marshall himself as to why it has been decided to publish his work in this way. If his stories are now out of print for a new generation of readers then McIndoe could subtitle this work “selected stories” as they did for The Divided World?

The Ace of Diamonds and Other Stories is familiar Marshall territory. It is a remarkably homogeneous selection from Marshall’s work. None of Marshall’s more experimental stories are included, the style is uniformly realist; 16 of the 18 stories are written from a boy’s point of view; only one of the stories mentions Maori; and the rest of the characters represent indisputably Marshall country – rural, South Island, Presbyterian, small town and male. No one else writes about this version of New Zealandness with such freshness and yet deep familiarity. Although I know most of these stories very well, I enjoyed re-reading them, particularly the early Marshall stories of which there is a number in this collection. I like the comic twist most, the stories with an offbeat humour like the salt on a tequila.

In an early story, “The Philosopher”, from Marshall’s first collection, Uncle Blick outwits a child sneak by adding a string of very improbable acts (urinating down the chimney, eating gentians) to the original sin (patting the neighbour’s bottom) the child is dobbing him in on. As Uncle Blick’s wife and the child’s mother listen to the list of accusations, their reactions slide from vengeance to incredulity and telltale Rodney (of course) is outplayed. Marshall’s New Zealand, though, has that air of invention peculiar to very successful realism, like Sargeson’s Depression or Lawson’s Bush – can even the South Island really ever have been so white, so rural, so upright, so clubby, so male?

Fiona Kidman’s writing gets better and better and I am inclined to think she is now a better short story writer than a novelist. The short story suits Kidman, as it suits a number of good women writers now publishing, because it makes the most of her gift for nuanced social observation, highlighted detail and ear for what marks the contemporary. It allows her to leave narrative suggestively unresolved and makes the most of her ability to record the passing scene.

The Foreign Woman is a collection of 15 stories and together the New Zealand they reveal is a place rich and diverse in character and incident. Kidman, like Stephanie Johnson or Kate Flannery who have also recently published collections of stories, is able to retain a geographical specificity without getting locked into cultural stereotypes. When I read these stories of Kidman’s I feel both that New Zealand is deeply familiar and that it is much more interesting than it sometimes seems from far away (I write this from Europe).

Oddly enough I found the title story, which is explicitly about non-Anglo (Greek) New Zealanders, a more familiar narrative than the stories about white New Zealanders of Anglo-Celtic descent living in the eighties and nineties.

Maybe this says more about my circumstances than it does about Kidman’s story – that is, it is New Zealand which has become strange to me. But what I find so attractive about Kidman’s writing is her ability to bring out the flavour on the page.

“Separating”, the opening story, about a difficult evening spent at home by an upwardly mobile young couple, explores all the tensions between genders in the context of the husband’s offer to cook dinner, which he does extravagantly, pretentiously and wastefully in cuisine magazine style. The story never moves from its realist mode but the accumulation of detail and frustration seems to push its portrait of the contemporary marriage-and-kitchen into larger-than-life satire which you can taste on your tongue, very deliciously.

Many of Kidman’s characters are associated with high-profile milieus such as television or journalism; if they come from a country background, it is something that has been left behind long ago, a place full of evasions and hypocrisies. When the teenage narrator of “Skulking Around” asks her mother to explain something she doesn’t understand but is obviously a sexual betrayal of a young man by his older wife, her mother hesitates and then says (make Freud weep): “His toe got bitten by an eel.”

Sometimes Kidman’s stories tremble on the edge of the grotesque (though this is not her mode, as it is for Stephanie Johnson) as in “Honor and La Jane”. This is a thrillingly awful story about a goofball married to the voracious and ruthless La Jane, teenage mother of their baby, her mother Paula, squeezed into a black leather miniskirt and sparkling wig, and boyfriend Duane, lay preacher with a split-level in Waterloo. It’s the Tonya Harding version of New Zealand, brightly coloured and in terrible taste, side by side with the hopeful niceties of the middle class.

Since Mrs Dixon and Friend (1982) Kidman has written a series of stories about Bethany, her ex-husbands and her children which form a sort of chronicle of middle-class Pakeha New Zealand life since the seventies. Bethany is earth mother version of the New Zealand female, cooking from the Moosewood Cookbook, her children and stepchildren and ex-husband’s children all drawn to her, all pursuing alternative lives in one way or another. Bethany is the kind of New Zealander we all like to think still exists out there in the country somewhere, living out a kind of life that got lost from sight after 1980, still a standard of truth or decency or something. In Kidman’s work she represents the antidote to a more cynical view of up-to-date New Zealand.

“Nasturtium” is a kind of record, a record partly of women’s liberation and the protest movement and what happened to the lives and marriages of women while their ideas were changing. But it is also a more sinister record of the infamous murder of his wife by a well-known Wellington doctor in the eighties, for which his defence was that she had teased him about his sexual capacity. Kidman’s story doesn’t take up simplistic positions and is all the more powerful because of it.

I hope Kidman will continue to write many volumes of stories because she is emerging both as one of the most accomplished practitioners of the genre and as one of the shrewdest observers of our time.

Since Stephanie Johnson’s The Glass Whittler appeared in 1988, a collection of stories which flesh out, if that’s not too close to the bone, the cruel paradox of the title, I have been a fan of her writing, which keeps a cool and steady gaze on what is grotesque, ludicrous or monstrous in twentieth century life. All the Tenderness Left in the World takes its title from the last phrase of a story about beautiful Pearl, a child whose beauty is so overwhelming that her mother locks her in a room in a tower block with her handicapped sister and leaves them there to cope. All the tenderness left in the world is that between the sisters as Pearl washes Clara’s tiny misshapen body.

Like much of Johnson’s fiction, the background environment of the story comes straight from the novels of Philip K Dick – alienating, inhuman, technological, claustrophobic – but there is more humour, or, rather, satire, in its reflection. Some of these stories are set in Australia and some in New Zealand but the distinctions are purely surface distinctions, street names or accents. The Tasman in these stories is no kind of boundary.

It is a richly but also darkly lucid environment. In the opening story Wendy, whose marriage has just ended sets out to make an income (many of Johnson’s women earn an income in inventive and unconventional ways) by practising Musical Analysis therapy, a sort of mix of astrology and primal scream. Johnson takes her scalpel to New Age and it is a huge pleasure laughing out loud at the Ecotique, open seven days a week for all the poor souls who “dabbed on their last drops of patchouli too many hours before the Shamanic Ball”.

Even Johnson’s less outré stories, such as the opening three or four, have taken several steps sideways into extremity and when you are embarked on a story as weird as “God’s Garbo Man” you feel you have strayed into a film by Wim Wenders. But Johnson’s fictional world is never let loose from at least the outlines of a familiarly realistic one. As Don Hurt drives his Commodore down Remuera Road and wrestles with his unsatisfactory marriage and children, it is as recognisable a locale as any in the fiction of Owen Marshall and Fiona Kidman. And what eventually happens to him is not far from the pages of Metro-Felicity Ferret territory.

Johnson’s sharp, brilliant scourging stories take the urban metropolis and its culture and push it – only a little – over the edge. “The Extension”, which is set in a Perth, complete with references to Alan and Eileen and Joy, ends with Tiffany Dreggs driving in (bad) disguise into the sunset having organised the demolition of her house when she learns her husband has skipped the country leaving her with all the unpaid debts. There is a glorious sharp correspondence between Johnson’s stories and the big bad world you read about in magazines. And many of her women characters are just great – so maliciously inventive.

Kate Flannery’s Like You, Really is a series of connected but discontinuous stories about an extended Catholic Irish Italian family from Christchurch. These are lushly detailed histories involving rafts of people, mothers, sisters, fathers, uncles, grandparents and nuns, seen from the point of view of Reen, the eldest daughter, and the great locations of family life: holidays, car travel, best friends, sex, food, marriages, photographs, anecdotes, myths and memories. Like you, really. Well not quite like me actually, but enough like and enough different.

Flannery writes with lots of texture and vivacity. Her descriptions of food bring back every high-calorie tooth-rotting snack you’ve ever gorged on, even things that are now out of everything but print, and the endless tedium of teenagehood and family vacations. Like You, Really offers some satisfyingly novelistic satisfactions (you get to find out what happens after) but leaves out some of the longueurs of the novel, the explanations and filling-in information. I loved it. It made me want to revisit the sixties, even the car rides. A recent survey in the United States forecasts the end of nuns within 20 years: Like You, Really may be the chronicle of a vanishing way of life.

The short story in New Zealand is in good health. It is as various rich and good as you could hope, and reflects a good range of the complications, troubles, rewards, anxieties and talents involved in the story of any New Zealander. I think we are lucky to have such a strong history of short fiction (and soon maybe we’ll have one of novelists too) because it seems all the time we have more good writers of it appearing.

Who was it who said God is in the details? If it is nothing else, the short story is the art of the detail. It is in the rich and often disturbing play of detail that short fiction writers offer us New Zealand.

 

Lydia Wevers has written extensively about New Zealand fiction, including on the short story in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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