Time of energy and change, Howard Warner

The Picador Book of Contemporary New Zealand Fiction
Fergus Barrowman (ed)
Picador $24.95
ISBN 0330 339966

From the Mainland: An Anthology of South Island Writing 
Lawrence Jones and Heather Murray (eds)
Godwit $29.95
ISBN 0908877 501

Between the publishing histories of the first and last authors represented in The Picador Book of Contemporary New Zealand Fiction lies a strange discrepancy. At one end is Janet Frame, now an icon of New Zealand culture, known and respected throughout the world, revered at home. However, most of her works were originally published in United States editions, only becoming available in recent years in New Zealand book stores. It is the kind of publishing route guaranteed to weed out all but the most persistent, most durable of writers.

At the other end is Emily Perkins, a young woman (born in 1970) on a fast track to success in New Zealand. Here she appears in a major anthology, aimed at distribution in both domestic and foreign markets, before even her first collection of stories has been published. Ironically, in an age when international borders are so easily crossed and a global lifestyle is becoming ever more real, authors can at last find a ready and supportive market at home. This is not to belittle her efforts or talent next to Frame’s (both are surely driven by impulses other than publication) but it does show something of the breadth of contemporary‑fiction experience available to Fergus Barrowman.

With any new anthology of New Zealand writing I find myself wary of encountering yet another selection of proven winners repackaged for mass consumption and at the same time excited about the prospect of unearthing some new germ of enlightenment about our cultural development. So many anthologies have appeared in this country over the past decade, via a wide range of local and multinational publishers. Even as the publication of new fiction works has increased, especially since the epiphany of the bone people, anthologising has kept apace.

Some collections have tried to define emerging or quintessential genres of New Zealand fiction (or sought to impose a genre label) such as science fiction or sex. Some have been geographically exclusive, concentrating on Auckland city fiction or South Island writing. Some have marginalised writing into distinct social categories: gender, ethnicity or age.

Some have been purely personal selections, clearly defined according to a stated agenda of quality, as in Bill Manhire’s 1989 Six by Six: Short Stories by New Zealand’s Best Writers. Others have aimed to present a record of the range of New Zealand writing at over a particular period, as Barrowman’s collection does (“…to picture a literature in a time of great energy and rapid change ‑ to freeze it at its point of maximum expansion and offer a promise of its final shape,” he describes it).

Its period is 1979 to 1995 and Barrowman sets out his thesis about the influences on the period’s writing in one of the most comprehensive introductions of any New Zealand anthology to date. Since 1979 domestic publishing has boomed and his 31 selections were all produced over this time, though several of the writers had made their mark earlier.

The inclusions have been arranged by the date of the author’s first published book (Frame’s in 1957 to Perkins’s later this year). This enables Barrowman to consider the work of “generational groups”, corresponding to developments in New Zealand’s political, economic, social and geographical landscapes. They progress from the (predominantly pakeha, male, realist) provincial period of Shadbolt, Gee, Stead and O’Sullivan (“the third phase of confident belonging in a place”) through the post‑provincial period of the 1960s when women’s and Maori concerns emerge and on to the biculturalism of the 1970s (Barrowman sees it as more of a segregation of Maori voices writing in English and pakeha voices skirting politely around all matters Maori). They finally arrive at the more outward‑looking current period of fiction in which writers assess their place in the wider world.

The most recent stories in this collection show a diversity of styles and milieux, some new, as in the gay fiction represented here by Peter Wells, and some breathing fresh life into the fashions of earlier eras, such as Alan Duff’s vernacular stream of consciousness in Once Were Warriors. But Barrowman’s “paradox of place” is still ever‑present. Writers such as Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins and Forbes Williams give the lie to any assertion that our fiction is less self‑conscious about “where is here” than in earlier eras, while the number of stories in which characters go abroad, think about going abroad or return from abroad hint at a growing awareness of cultural globalisation.

The selection differs from some previous fiction anthologies in that novel extracts (by 11 of the authors) sit side by side with short stories. Barrowman’s yardstick appears to be not just quality or personal liking but how well the piece represents the author’s essential contribution to our literary canon. Thus we get Keri Hulme’s story Te Kaihau / The Windeater rather than an extract from the bone people.

The choice of authors seems comprehensive and mostly balanced, though 1 am surprised by the omission of seminal South Island chronicler Stevan Eldred‑Grigg (Cantabrians will scream about northern bias, but there is inevitably someone who misses out). Fergus Barrowman, as editor of Victoria University Press since 1985 and founder of literary magazine Sport is centrally located amid the current movements in fiction, but he narrowly avoids elevating too many of his own stable at the expense of others just as worthy.

As a New Zealander reared on an indigenous literary diet, I didn’t expect too many revelations from the selections themselves. The established writers (Shadbolt, Ihimaera, Wendt, Kidman, Marshall et al) are all there, with comfortably representative samples. Otherwise, Fiona Farrell’s A Story About Skinny Louie, a short story which would eventually be absorbed into her novel The Skinny Louie Book, was an exciting first reading which may lead me further into her work. John Cranna’s story Visitors, with its sussurant echoes of Grandfather’s ethnic musical instruments, filled me with awe a second time around. Lloyd Jones’s story, Swimming to Australia, moved me no more nor less than when I first read it. In fact, there was a pleasant surprise: the inclusion of a rich Margaret Mahy fable, The BridgeBuilder.

Whatever my personal reactions to individual stories, I am aware while reading that this is ostensibly a best‑of collection designed to introduce a New Zealand sensibility to overseas readers. It makes for an interesting exercise to slip under the carapace of this ideal reader ‑ to listen to the accents, taste the flavour, vicariously live the lifestyle, as we would with a collection of, say, Canadian or Scottish writing.

It seems to me a propitious time for such a volume to be launched on the international market, with the high level of interest in New Zealand generated by our cultural, economic and political achievements. The selection of works here and the excellent introduction by Fergus Barrowman do full justice to such an endeavour.

In similar vein is From the Mainland: An Anthology of South Island Writing, though it shelves the historical approach in favour of a geographical one. The 47 selections, by 40 authors, are presented as they appear on a squiggly line charted from Michael Henderson’s Golden Bay to Ruth Dallas’s Invercargill. Place is the essence here. There’s none of your Auckland flashiness or Wellington cosmopolitanism. It’s a slice of New Zealand in which fishing, sports and religion are recurring motifs.

“We were looking for works that evoke a strong sense of South Island places, people and/or history,” write editors Lawrence Jones and Heather Murray. And, surprisingly, in almost every inclusion ‑ whether short story, poem, travel piece or extract from some larger work ‑ there are strong indicators of the locality in question. Eight titles include the relevant place name (including both Cemetery, Oamaru, by Fiona Farrell, and Lawrence Cemetery, by Brian Turner). Janet Frame’s story Willowglen begins, “Arriving in Oamaru… “, while Keri Hulme, in Slipping Away from the Gaze of the Past, starts: “Moeraki is…” In any land mass less self‑conscious about being geographically marginalised (such as the North Island), this compulsive locating might have been less of an imperative, I suspect.

The editors make it clear their selections were written from the early 1980s on and the writers fit into one of the categories of born‑and‑bred South Islanders, the more recently resident, the expatriates and those who (like the godwit of the publisher’s imprint) have been away and returned ‑ which covers an awful lot of ground. All, according to the introduction, are people “writing with a strong sense of South Island life”.

Surprisingly, the overlap with the Picador anthology is minimal: only Fiona Farrell’s Skinny Louie story and Owen Marshall’s A Day with Yesterman get a double reading, and Eldred‑Grigg makes up lost ground with a meaty chunk from his novel Oracles and Miracles. There is plenty of good reading here, but I can’t see the anthology appealing to an audience much wider than dyed‑in‑the‑wool “mainlanders” looking to bolster their sense of solidity in a precarious, expanding world.

Howard Warner is a Wellington freelance writer.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Short stories
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