Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories
ed Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire
Bridget Williams Books, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908912 92 7
Huia Short Stories
Huia Publishers, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908975 16 3
Joy Cowley: The Complete Short Stories
ISBN 1 86950 250 7
100 New Zealand Short Short Stories
ed Graeme Lay
Tandem Press, $24.95, ISBN 0877178 01 2
That the short story has been the dominant literary mode in New Zealand is deemed by a number of critics to be consistent with the emergence of a (post-)colonial literature in this country. It is arguably the genre that best allows for experimentation by new writers in the process of forging a literary voice that might be said to be distinctively of New Zealand and by New Zealanders.
Lydia Wevers, in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, suggests of the short story that “more than the novel, [it has] been the genre in which the preoccupations of a colonial and post-colonial literature have worked themselves out”. This makes sense, given that many short stories are (or historically have been) published in local periodical presses and addressed to “an explicitly local readership” rather than a British one. Moreover, the form of the genre itself is suited to the process of (literary) identity formation: the brevity of short fiction “speaks for the absence of other, larger certainties”; the “problematic questions of separation, race, culture and identity which constrain and shape an emerging national literature can be more comfortably articulated in a genre which does not imply resolution”.
Do these claims find support in the recently published anthologies and collections of short stories under review here? In their introduction, the editors of the third edition of Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories suggest the stories evidence “cultural diversity” and that in them “the tones of voice are many”; in the fictions “a number of other countries had grown up and persisted despite all the pressures towards uniformity of ‘official’ New Zealand”.
It would be hard to argue against such assertions, given the diversity of writers represented in the anthology and the period, almost a century, which it covers. And yet there is little here that could be called unconventional. Certainly the criteria for selection in any anthology is subjective (McLeod and Manhire briefly outline their criteria in the introduction) but it seems that in this selection “the best” overlaps significantly with the “best known” (and, significantly, internationally recognised).
Chronologically arranged, the anthology begins with Katherine Mansfield’s magnificent “At the Bay”. What follows are representative stories by what must be judged the dominant voices this century: Frank Sargeson, Dan Davin, Janet Frame, Joy Cowley, C K Stead, Witi Ihimaera, Maurice Gee, to name a few. Expectedly, then, the majority of the stories written before the 1970s chosen for inclusion reflect the mode of (masculine) realism which characterised so much writing during this period.
Inclusions from more recent decades reflect the diversification of literary modes, particularly the influence of “post-modern” fragmentation and narrative self-consciousness, the notable tendency of writers (and characters) to look beyond the bounds of (provincial) New Zealand and a growing presence of female and Maori writers — all of which have characterised literature here in the past few decades.
However, there is little unexpected in the choice of writers represented: for example, Keri Hulme, Russell Haley, John Cranna, Barbara Anderson, Anne Kennedy, Fiona Farrell. The new inclusions in this edition of the anthology, Forbes Williams’ “Let’s Go Shopping!” and Emily Perkins’ “Not Her Real Name”, clearly herald the arrival of two exciting new voices but again both authors write and have been lauded from within the inner circle of the literary scene (Forbes Williams’ first collection of stories, Motel View, was awarded the PEN first book award for fiction in 1992; Emily Perkins was awarded the Montana best first book award (fiction) for her collection of stories, Not Her Real Name, in 1996.)
The third edition of Some Other Country, like earlier editions, provides an excellent introduction to the canonical short story and its dominant practitioners in New Zealand and as such it is well suited to its role as a set text on the first year Introduction to literary studies course at Victoria University. Nonetheless, familiarity rather dulls the edge of the potential dissonance of its plural voices.
As if to address the kinds of absences evident in McLeod’s and Manhire’s selection, Huia Publishers released Huia Short Stories, 1995. In the introduction the anonymous editor(s) suggest that the purpose of the collection is far more self-consciously in accord with Wevers’ assertion that the short story form is an ideal medium for the posing of “problematic questions of separation, race, culture and identity which constrain and shape an emerging national literature”. In a search for new or little-known Maori writers, Huia Publishers organised three short story awards in 1995, and received over 300 entries. Huia Short Stories collects 16 stories written in English by the finalists; the anthology is unequivocally viewed by the editor(s) as a medium in which Maori writers can explore the “important and distressing events” of the past few decades.
McLeod and Manhire assert in their introduction to Some Other Country that recent fiction evidences a new sense of cultural security on the part of writers who, having completed literary and national “rites of passage”, are now secure enough to look outside and represent that which lies beyond “‘official’ New Zealand” — to look towards the world “beyond their own shores”. The stories collected in Huia Short Stories suggest something very different. These fictions are resolutely focused inward on (usually fractured) contemporary Maori communities and look back to a (lost) local and specific past rather than to a global future. With very few exceptions, they are overwhelmingly negative in tone. The voices of writers and characters are tentative rather than confident; they express a sense of cultural loss and disorientation wholly inimical to any notion of the security and consolidation of nationhood and cultural belonging.
The narrator in John Moffat’s “Te Taonga” recalls the death of his grandmother, a death which suggests the passing of the old order of communal unity. But Moffat, like the narrator, is not content just to lament this passing; a redemptive encounter with the grandmother’s ghost promises communal reintegration in the reclamation of the mythological past and lost tribal spirit she symbolises. Despite her death, the spirit of the grandmother, like that of the tribe, “will live here always”. This story, the first (and perhaps finest) in the collection, is unusual for the note of hopeful promise it offers.
Some of the later stories suggest the importance of whanau, of togetherness, remembrance and story-telling (Debra Reweti’s “The Empty Page”, Te Atahaia Tungane’s “A Different Togetherness”, Briar Smith’s “Puku Up, Puku Down”, Kingi McKinnon’s “Hohepa’s Goodbye”) but typically the anchoring family member (usually a grandmother) and her wisdom is representative of an old (often rural) order that is dead or dying.
The values she embodies are harshly contrasted with a narrative present in which materialism, alienation and violence, if not yet triumphant, are her likely successors. In the majority of the stories, however, this succession has come to pass. In these whanau and the values of the marae are absent or debased: in Jacqui Brown’s fine “The Funnel Web Spider” a venerated kaumatua is recognised by the narrator as the man who sexually abused her as a child; in Wi Kuki Kaa’s “Te Ara Makutu or The Gunfight at Kehua Corral” a promising son is a double victim of his family’s insistence on the tradition of taumau (arranged marriage) and his father’s refusal to countenance the possibility of makutu (voodoo) when he falls mysteriously ill.
Other stories record the day to day existence of Maori in urban settings struggling to make ends meet in dispiriting or degrading conditions: office cleaning (Moana Sinclair’s “Five O Clock Tune”), prostitution (Paula Witaka’s “My First Client”), mining (Marlene J Bennet’s “All in a Day’s Work). Yet others record in harsh, realistic prose the consequences of detribal-isation, materialism and urbanisation: familial violence, criminality, drug abuse and alcoholism, being HIV positive, living on the DPB (Kingi McKinnon’s “Hohepa”s Goodbye”, Phil Kawana’s “Stand on a Cloud”, Lance Evans’s “Living”, Maraea Rihari’s “Payday for Tania”). For the most part imagery is sparingly used; stark, journalistic realism and linear narratives dominate the collection. The words “raw” and “outspoken” spring to mind.
They contrast sharply with the measured emotion of Joy Cowley’s writing in her Complete Short Stories. Cowley is clearly a more experienced and, arguably, a more proficient writer than the many of the Huia contributors. Nonetheless, her carefully crafted literary artefacts lack the punch of their powerful (if patchy) work. To suggest that there is something buttoned down and controlled about Cowley’s understated stories is not, however, to suggest that they lack heart. As Cowley writes in her introduction:
Much of what I do is commissioned and tied to formulae, but every story, whether for adults or children, still begins with the heart… The story which comes head first as an intellectual exercise will never be born alive: it remains a corpse and decomposes with repeated writings until I end up burying it. But, since stories must begin with the heart, the intellect can know little about them until the work is finished.
This emotional imperative is everywhere evident in The Complete Short Stories which gathers together the 17 stories Cowley has written for adults over the past 30-odd years. Together with early “classics” such as “The Silk” and “The Kite” are five previously unpublished stories: “Heart Attack”, “Going to the Mountain”, “All About Love”, “Flowers” and “The Cleaning of Windows”. Cowley describes the first five stories in the collection, all written in the 1960s, as “linear, gauche, fresh, naive”. Linear and fresh, yes; gauche and naive, no — although they are very simple variations on what is obviously a successful “formula”. The characters in these stories are naive and gauche but this is not descriptive of the stories themselves nor of their narrators. In fact, the stories “work” precisely because the narrators are possessed of a moral and emotional knowingness implied by the subtle irony or ambiguity of the short paragraph, often only a line in length, with which each story typically concludes.
The middle stories, those from the 1970s and 1980s, are also ironic but this tone is more pervasive; the ignorance and limitations of the characters are pointed up rather more insistently throughout, not merely at the story’s end. With the exception of the episodic (and apparently autobiographical) “The Machinery of Dreams” each moves through a realistically detailed, linear plot to a resonant but understated coda in which the reader is encouraged to experience some realisation of the heart.
The previously unpublished “Flowers” clearly evidences the structure and tone so typical of Cowley’s writing, capturing in its straightforward plot and understated prose the complexity of a daughter’s response to the death of her demanding elderly mother. It is well-matched by “Heart Attack” which sketches a son’s guilty response to the death of his father and the marital reverberations which result. “Going to the Mountain” explores the same dynamic but from a different perspective: the nearness of the elderly protagonist’s death is suggested as he smells mountain snow, the stuff of his most evocative memories and dreams, in the flowers on a geranium bush; but his daughter’s and grandson’s response to this foreshadowed death (he believes) will be one of indifference.
“The Cleaning of Windows” is a surprisingly violent story that ends on an uncharacteristically bitter note. It portrays a child caught between the competing claims of a family rivalry that ends in an act of vicious cruelty. But of the “new” stories “All About Love” stands out — not only because here Cowley’s familiar irony is for the first time self-consciously directed at the writer (as character) but also because it gives such a clear account of what she is attempting to achieve in her writing. As the character, a writer, struggles to shape her story within the story, she thinks:
Although the story is straightforward, I would like it to have many layers so that it can be peeled with each reading to give some new truth about love. What each truth will be, can vary with the reader, but there’ll always be recognition. That’s the thing with truth. It is instantly familiar.
And so it is in story after story by Cowley. If her characters and plots are far from happy (the stories are predominantly about loss, death, separation, marital breakdown, illness, loneliness) nonetheless they experience, or encourage the reader to experience, some kernel of “truth” about the heart. Despite the negativity of Cowley’s subject matter and the “inward” psychological focus of the stories, the ironic vantage point of the controlling writer suggests not only moral certainty but cultural confidence. It is this which separates Cowley’s writing so thoroughly from that of the Huia writers.
Truth about the heart was clearly not the primary criterion for selection in 100 New Zealand Short Short Stories. Rather, in the words of editor Graeme Lay, “[b]revity was the brief”. In 1996 Quote Unquote announced a competition challenging authors to complete a short story in fewer than 500 words. The flood of entries “demonstrated what could be achieved within such a constrained space” and “led to the concept of a collection of such short short fiction”. One advantage of this conception is that the shortness of the fiction allows for the inclusion of many more stories by different writers than the average anthology (as the title suggests, 100). The collection is well chosen, balancing stories by established authors (for example, Witi Ihimaera, Frank Sargeson, Owen Marshall, Patricia Grace, Lauris Edmond, Fiona Farrell) with those by less well-known writers or newcomers. A good example of this is the inclusion of Joy MacKenzie’s “Taniwha Gold” alongside Sargeson’s “A Piece of Yellow Soap” which it rewrites from the perspective of the washer woman.
Despite the cleverness of many of the inclusions and the obvious care taken in the selection of these, the collection is disappointing. Lay describes the stories as “literary bonsai”. The effectiveness of his metaphor depends, I suppose, on how you feel about bonsai. Are they beautiful and complete miniatures or root-bound and stunted, utterly constrained by the dimensions of the containers that hold them? The word-limit imposed on these fictions compromises their potential for complexity and limits their potential diversity; they all begin to seem the same. With few exceptions, the brevity criterion precludes active reader engagement. These appear to be, in Cowley’s words, stories which come “head first as an intellectual exercise”.
Each of the collections reviewed here is limited, perhaps inevitably, by the selection criteria used: stories chosen for being “the best”, for being by and of Maori, for having heart, or for their shortness. Read together, however, they begin to offer some insight into the kinds of cultural pluralism which Wevers suggests is characteristic of the short story genre and expressive of postcolonial diversity.
Kim Worthington teaches English literature at Victoria University.