Invitation to a smorgasbord, Christine Johnston

The Cat’s Whiskers: New Zealand Writers on Cats
ed Peter Wells
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1869417453

The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 2
ed Fiona Kidman
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1869417402

Huia Short Stories 6: Contemporary Maori Fiction
Huia, $29.95,
ISBN 1869692012

Like Wallpaper: New Zealand Short Stories for Teenagers
ed Barbara Else
Random House, $18.95,
ISBN 1869416937

To satisfy New Zealanders’ well-documented and over-analysed appetite for short fiction these four volumes appeared in time for Christmas consumption – each with its point of difference and target audience, one aimed at teenagers, one featuring Maori authors, one celebrating the cat’s relationship with writers and one claiming to present the “best” New Zealand fiction. Three of the four include introductions by their editors – mini-essays on the genre, the contributions and the selection criteria.

While the names of Peter Wells, Fiona Kidman and Barbara Else appear on the front covers and spines of their respective collections, the sixth Huia anthology relegates its big names to the back cover. Although the material has been selected by high-profile writers Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme and the lesser known Wena Harawira, their names do not appear in large print and there is no introduction. This reflects the fact that this collection features material from Huia’s annual competition for writers of Maori descent. Judges are not necessarily editors. Of the four, only this anthology enjoyed Creative New Zealand support.

The role of the editor of a collection varies according to her or his relationship with the publisher and the degree of autonomy and responsibility. A number of issues rear their heads. Who has copyright? Did the idea for the anthology originate with the writer/editor and was she or he given carte blanche? Or was the compiler approached, offered a fee and asked to work within certain guidelines? How important to the marketing of the book is the editor’s name and reputation?

The anthologist’s lot is not always a happy one, but those who do a good job make it look easy. Of necessity editors operate as gatekeepers, excluding more than they include and no doubt generating more disappointment than delight in the writing community. If responsible for the book’s final shape, they are preoccupied with achieving unity and a good balance of content and style – the gritty and the uplifting, the whimsical and the well-structured, as well as responding to their own notions of literary quality. There may also be pressure to achieve a good muster of big names to help to sell the book to the public.

Peter Wells had perhaps the easiest, ie the least controversial, job. (He may also have had the most fun.) The Cat’s Whiskers: New Zealand Writers on Cats presents variations on the theme of cats in the form of poetry, fiction and memoir, and includes an introduction with some historical perspective and his reflections on the contributions. Wells concludes his introduction: “I hope this book gives cat lovers the pleasure of recognition, the comfort in knowing others are as besotted with these small animals, and that the poems, stories and essays give pleasure where pleasure is due …”

So, the book was intended to delight its readers, and it succeeds on that score, its attractive hardback format making it a perfect gift for cat lovers. I found Wells’s own contributions to be among the most interesting pieces. It is a fascinating book to dip into, but beware: reading it cover to cover may induce a bout of felinophobia even in a cat fancier.

Fiona Kidman, editor of The Best New Zealand Fiction  Volume 2, may have had the hardest editorial job. Put that down to the four-letter word. She explains in her introduction how stories were selected:

These stories, or fictions as I prefer to call them, represent my own choice of what is the best recent writing in this country … . I should say that whereas last year I depended mostly on submissions I requested from a handful of writers whose work I immensely admired, or who I was aware of as emerging talent, this year I was overwhelmed by unsolicited manuscripts. Some of them were very good, and one or two have made their way into The Best New Zealand Fiction: 2.

 

In her introduction to the first volume of The Best New Zealand Fiction Kidman explains in more detail how she was inspired to collect fresh, unpublished material – short stories and extracts from novels – for an annual anthology to match the Best American Short Stories and Best Australian Short Stories series: “For years and years I’ve loved short story collections that proclaimed themselves ‘the best of’.”

While the use of the word “best” in the title is problematic, implying, to me at least, a system of evaluation and ranking other than one writer’s preference, the provision of an attractive new outlet for local short stories is such a bonus for the writing community it would seem churlish to quibble over a word. As Kidman has the passion, “the credentials” and the backing of a leading publisher, the reading public is the richer for it. Let the debate begin. (In The Best American Short Stories series stories are selected from material published in North American periodicals or by North American writers in a 12-month period, selected by the series editor and shortlisted to 20 by a guest editor, thus passing through three separate gates, a process that lends credibility to the superlative.)

Kidman’s collection represents a veritable who’s who of NZ Lit and has much to offer. While it contains some surprises and a few disappointments – pieces that baffle the gentle reader – we feel that we are on familiar territory with many of the writers represented. Shonagh Koea’s misunderstood protagonist is as familiar as one of our own aunties. In his thoughtful narrative, Vincent O’Sullivan evokes a 1950s kitchen where Dad reads the Star and Mum peels the potatoes, at the same time defending that decade against its detractors. Annamarie Jagose’s  “At Waimama Bay”, echoing Mansfield, is an exercise in literary nostalgia, but the material is handled with restraint and the shifts in point of view are slick. There is a comforting quality to these classic Kiwi stories that are so often preoccupied with reconciling the past and the present.

Call me old-fashioned, but I preferred the stories set in New Zealand, those that reveal the changing face of our country, like William Brandt’s “100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains”, which highlights shifts in gender roles. Tze Ming Mok contributes humour and drama in “Daily Special”, her narrative from a Chinese fruit and vegetable shop. The compelling voice of Paula Morris’ Rangatira, Paratene te Manu, cannibal-turned-Christian, telling the story of his eviction, is a tour de force.

I loved the book’s crimson cover and the recurring pohutukawa image – what could better evoke a New Zealand summer? But sacré bleu! What’s the translation of a French story set in Paris doing in there?

The reader comes to a collection, modestly subtitled Contemporary Maori Fiction, somewhat differently. (I did spot the b word on the back cover, however.) I approached it as a pakeha whose rudimentary knowledge of te reo did not allow me to read the four stories written in Maori. The Huia collection, consisting of short stories and novel extracts from their annual awards for writers of Maori descent, includes pieces that are gritty and heart-breaking, funny and challenging with lively, realistic dialogue. Some seemed fragmentary, a consequence perhaps of the 3000-word limit imposed on short stories in the Etuhi! Get Writing! Awards. Novel extracts are given more leeway (5000 words), and I found those by Shona Jones and Isabel A Waiti-Mulholland to provide the most satisfying reading.

The present is strongly evoked in this collection but the past is not forgotten, with references to WWII, the Maori Battalion and Vietnam. Nor is it possible to escape the wider historical context of the issues facing modern Maori. In his bio, one contributor, Eru Hart, challenges Maori writers to “think beyond stories of ‘Nanny in the kumara patch’”. I would suggest that this collection has taken up that challenge.

After three helpings of short fiction for adults I wondered as I picked up Barbara Else’s collection whether I would feel acutely conscious of my status as a non-teenager. Would Like Wallpaper: New Zealand Short Stories for Teenagers prove an also-ran among the grown-up books? No way. This collection is a little gem with its striking title and witty cover photograph. It includes stories that are wry and funny, moving and thought-provoking.

I was full of admiration for the authors who evoked the turbulence of adolescence so economically. It is notoriously difficult to write for a teenage readership, where capturing and retaining the attention of young male and female readers demands pared-down writing, immediacy of action and characters who are instantly credible; it is a test of writing skill. I liked the “no bullshit” style embraced by those authors who cut to the chase and provide entertaining and memorable moments without the gratuitous violence sometimes considered necessary to hook young punters.

Barbara Else’s introduction gives teenage readers useful pointers on how to approach the stories. It begins: “Each story here reflects an aspect of what it is to be a teenager in New Zealand. The settings are New Zealand homes and flats, local schools and roads, beaches, rivers, cities. It was a prime requirement, that the story be placed here, in this country. But in another sense each piece is universal.”

I particularly liked stories by Fleur Beale, William Davis, Samantha Stanley and Jane Westaway. The versatile David Hill never misses and Carl Nixon whose “Like Wallpaper” provided the title for the collection, proves what an accomplished writer he is with his deft handling of an emotionally charged theme.

Else’s introduction concludes with the comment: “This book isn’t just for people from 13 to 19 years old. It offers 20 ways to understand and relive those particular times of exuberance, turmoil and adventure.” I couldn’t agree more. Adult readers could do worse than dip into this selection; it provides an enriching and oddly reassuring experience. It was good too to be reminded as a reviewer of what I learnt during 10 years in a book club: “One reader might love one piece while another reader can’t abide it for exactly the same qualities.” So, permission to disagree is granted. It’s just fine to be picky when invited to a smorgasbord. As they say in the best restaurants, bon appétit.

 

Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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