History made and re-made, Bronwyn Dalley

Stories without End: Essays 1975-2010
Judith Binney
Bridget Williams Books, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877242472

 

Since reading Stories without End, a collection of Judith Binney’s essays, I’ve been talking with  fellow historians about the collected works of other New Zealand historians. These haven’t been long conversations. Most of the time we’ve struggled to name more than one or two such works. Monographs, multi-author volumes and edited collections abound, along with a few Festschriften in honour of a particular scholar, but it is rare for a historian’s collected works to appear in this country, about this country’s history. Perhaps it is due to our relatively small publishing market, which may not view such works as financially viable. Maybe historians have focused more on producing books rather than essays. Whatever the reasons, we are very thin on the ground in historians drawing together and reflecting on their writing. Stories without End is a very welcome addition to this narrow genre – and publisher Bridget Williams is to be congratulated for seeing this to fruition.

The volume is testament to the huge body of work that historian Judith Binney has produced over the last 35 years. Of course Binney is one of the handful of scholars who could actually produce such a work as this. Her bibliography of published works – strangely not included here – is extensive and impressive; the essays in Stories without End come from a deep kete of offerings.

Binney towers over areas of New Zealand history, and her work has been recognised repeatedly in awards. Her latest monograph, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921 (2009) was the New Zealand Post Book of the Year in 2010; in 2006, her prodigious contribution to this country’s history was reflected in a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Non-fiction. She has been a major contributor to our foremost academic historical journal, the New Zealand Journal of History, virtually since its inception in 1967; a number of the essays reproduced here had their first appearance in that periodical. For readers who know her most through her published monographs on figures such as Rua Kenana and Te Kooti, or her continuing dialogues about the histories of Tuhoe and the Urewera, these essays will be new and diverse, covering the spectrum of Binney’s scholarship since the mid-1960s.

Stories without End draws on and builds from an earlier collection of her work, published in 2004. To mark her retirement from the University of Auckland and her long editorial association with the New Zealand Journal of History, a special issue of the journal appeared in that year. “Korero in honour of Judith Binney” brought together eight previously published essays, along with a bibliography of her writings and an excellent commentary by Damon Salesa on Binney’s work. Seven of those pieces are published again here, with the opening piece, “Whatever Happened to Poor Mr Yate?”, drawing on some new material in a short bibliographic note. Another 13 essays reproduced in Stories without End have had more limited circulation, as journal articles or chapters in books; one essay is currently in press, to be published later this year.

An introduction provides context about the genesis of the essays and pulls together some threads linking them.  For a work of this scope, covering such a breadth of topics across several decades of work, I found the introduction a little unsatisfying. I would have liked to have known why Binney chose these pieces over others, and whether she thought differently about them, reflecting over time and the changes that have taken place in New Zealand history in some areas, particularly as a result of the work of the Waitangi Tribunal. The essays are left to speak for themselves, and the reader to gauge that sense of change. They are arranged more or less chronologically, so reading them as a whole certainly suggests evolving thinking on Binney’s part about the nature of evidence and history.

The essays showcase the trajectory of Binney’s research, as well as her pioneering role in a number of areas of scholarship.  Her early work on missionaries is represented in the essays on William Yate and Thomas Kendall (“The Lost Drawing of Nukutawhiti”). The latter, first published in 1980, draws from material Binney was working on in the 1960s when she released a biography of Kendall.

Women’s history has been an interest of Binney’s for many years, and several of the essays reflect this. “The Misses Lundon and the ‘White Blackguards’ ” and “Portrait of a Maori Woman, 1887” are recent works. “Some Observations on Maori Women”, aired initially at a talk in London in 1988 and reprinted a couple of times since, has been a major contribution to women’s history.

Binney has long been an exponent of the power of oral tradition and oral history. At the University of Auckland, and more generally, she has been a key player in New Zealand’s oral history community. She has written thoughtfully in this area, and the role of oral sources (and their written forms) comes through in several of the pieces. “Maori Oral Narratives, Pakeha Written Texts” grew from her extensive oral histories completed as part of the research for a work on Rua Kenana; the final essay in this work, “Stories without End” reflects on the ways oral stories change and develop over time.

Binney is very explicit about the nature of her sources, and the need to seek widely in constructing narrative. Alongside essays exploring the oral tradition are several that emphasise the power and role of the visual. “Two Maori Portraits” and “Tom Ryan’s Sketches of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki” are just two of the essays that use photographs, paintings, flags or murals as historical sources. Such sources are, she reminds us, like written texts, created for a particular reason, and tell different stories at various times. Combined with oral accounts, images offer powerful ways into the past.

“Bringing the Stories Back Home: Dialogues Over Twenty-five Years” explores what happened when, in 1977, Binney and collaborator Gillian Chaplin took a box of photographs of the Maungapohatu community back to the family and followers of Rua Kenana. Binney and Chaplin hoped the people would help identify the unknown faces: “We expected nothing more. Instead, we found that the photographs unlocked memory”, and the essay goes on to discuss how that process has continued ever since.

Many of the essays in this collection are classics of New Zealand history. At the time of first publication, they were critical contributions to areas of history that were opening up, and they  have been cited extensively by subsequent scholars. “Whatever Happened to Poor Mr Yate?” remains core reading for studies both of missionaries and male relationships. “Maori Oral Narratives, Pakeha Written Texts” is central to understanding oral traditions and ways of telling history, and is one of the most important pieces on oral history published in New Zealand.

Other essays have had more limited circulation. Their inclusion here will hopefully expose them to a more general audience. “Two Maori Portraits”, published in a volume on anthropology in London in 1992, is a good case in point. Here Binney examines how 19th-century Maori leaders used the medium of photography for their own ends, and discusses how photographs have continued to be transformed into vital ways for Maori to tell and retell their histories. It is an important counter-argument to some who see 19th-century Maori as the dupes of photographers; this  should be essential reading for anyone using photographs as sources, or thinking about how history is made.

The topics of these essays may be discrete – missionaries, women’s history, the oral and the visual – but they are nearly all linked by the threads of Binney’s  research about, and dialogues with, the people of the Urewera. Those dialogues have occurred over many years, and many of the stories Binney cites date back well beyond the living memories of their narrators. Binney’s monographs Nga Morehu, Mihaia, Redemption Songs and, more recently, Encircled Lands, form the heart of this collection. In one way or another, the essays take their cue from these works, growing out of or into these books and stories.

For those who know Binney’s work, there might be little that seems unfamiliar in Stories without End. By their very nature, collected works bring us things we have read before, stories we know, people we have met in earlier pages, arguments already made. If we’ve read these essays, or the books, before, we might be tempted to think that there is nothing new here. Yet it would be a mistake to open this book thinking we know what we will find, simply because we may have read these essays before in isolation from each other. The sum reads differently from the parts, and is the stronger for it.

Stories without End has a rhythm that is not as tangible in the discrete works as originally published. While this collection may showcase the breadth and depth of Binney’s work over several decades, there is a beat running through every piece; this book explores how the “stories that continue” get told in new contexts – it is about the ways we all make and remake history.

Nowhere is this stronger than in three essays that capture this most evocatively; if you think you’ve read it all before, read these, and think again. “Te Umutaoroa: The Earth Oven of Long Cooking” discusses, at one level, the loss of land and a prophecy, but it explores how those issues become transformed into “myth-narratives” that suggest and shape future action. “Encounters Across Time: The Makings of an Unanticipated Trilogy” is a thoughtful and personal account of the evolution of Mihaia, Nga Morehu and Redemption Songs.

Here Binney links the works through people she met or was referred to, through stories passed on, through photographs and memories. She weaves back and forth across time, from when the books were researched and the stories first told her, through to the publication of the works and yet other narratives spoken, leading to further quests. The final essay, “Stories without End”, brings much of this together as Binney explores the oral narration of stories over time. These three essays share quotations from the people Binney has interviewed, the same stories and episodes are related but with a twist or two, depending on who is telling the story, when and for what purpose. It is here that Binney’s argument about the shaping and use of narratives is most pronounced.

This is a beautifully produced book, rich in image and thought. It tells us about the nature of history – how we remember and tell, what we remember and tell, and how remembering and retelling have a fundamental relationship to what is now and what may be.

 

Bronwyn Dalley is a Wellington historian.

 

Judith Binney died as this issue went to press. An obituary will appear in our next issue.

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Posted in Essays, History, Non-fiction and Review
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