What are ya, mate? Hugh Roberts

Pacific Highways (GriffithREVIEW 43)
Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones (eds)
Griffith University, $35.00,
ISBN 9781922182241

Is New Zealand peculiarly burdened with the curse of national introspection? Even to pose the question is to succumb to that curse; or perhaps to reduce it to its hall-of-mirrors core: “the defining characteristic of the New Zealander is to be endlessly preoccupied with discovering the defining characteristic of the New Zealander.” Can we ever stop worrying about “who we are now” and just start being it? Well, not yet, if the latest edition of the GriffithREVIEW is anything to go by.

The Review is an Australian quarterly founded in 2003. It gathers together short journalistic essays, memoirs, occasional pieces of fiction and poetry all addressed to a particular theme or topic. For their 43rd issue, that topic is “New Zealand”. It’s notable that not one of the 42 previous editions of the review has chosen “Australia” as its theme. Of course, most are devoted to “Australian” issues and questions, but they take up particular threads (the Australian north, religion, the family), rather than proposing to weave a tapestry depicting the country as a whole. But now they turn their attention to their neighbour to the East and the familiar question emerges: “what are ya, mate?”

So, who are we? If the question is familiar, Lloyd Jones, the guest editor, sets a tone in his introduction heard frequently throughout the collection in assuring us that the answers are new; we’re something different, something nobody counted on:

Thinking about who we are and where we live requires that we consider who lives here, and who gets to say. And, which places does memory hark back to? The answers were different in my parents’ day, as they are in my children’s lifetime. The story of departures and arrivals is ongoing.

“Always, in these islands, meeting and parting”; that, of course, is from Charles Brasch’s “The Islands” and it is to Brasch’s generation – the Landfall generation – and, above all, to the forbidding figure of Allen Curnow that Jones is no doubt alluding when he talks of the answers of his “parents’ day”. As Harry Ricketts puts it in his contribution to the volume: “That decade in New Zealand, the 1940s, was one especially preoccupied with questions of national identity”. Plus ça change

The curious thing about Jones’s introduction is how faithfully it recreates precisely the “answers” that were current back in those “nationalist” days of the 1930s and 1940s. Brasch’s poem contains these famous lines:

Remindingly beside the quays, the white
Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay
The godwits vanish towards another summer.
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way;
And none knows where he will lie down at night.

 

Jones’s introduction begins with the migration of the godwits “from Siberia along the western littoral of the Pacific to a landing strip on Christchurch’s Brighton Beach”. Curnow’s introduction to his A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 offers this cautious answer to the question of “what we may credit to New Zealand” in New Zealand literature:

notice how much in how many of these poets is sea-coast stuff. The islands are not content within themselves; their coasts are crowded with images of arrival and departure.

Here’s Jones:

Many of our legends and histories speak of watery origins. No town or farm in New Zealand is more than a couple of hours’ drive from the sea …. However secure and deep-rooted we may feel about this place we are a nation of immigrants … The story of departures and arrivals is ongoing.

Even the assurance that our generation’s answers must be different from those that precede and follow is an echo of similar assurances from the past. “Something different, something / Nobody counted on” is what Curnow tells us in “The Unhistoric Story” that New Zealand’s history constantly produces. And, in his most anthologised poem, Curnow assures us that the future of New Zealand will belong not to him but to “some marvellous child” who will “learn the trick of standing upright here.”

“Distance looks our way.” It is surprising, perhaps, that in this age of virtual connectivity New Zealand’s geographical isolation seems to weigh as heavily upon the contributors to this volume as it did on Brasch or Curnow. We seem still to be standing at Curnow’s “sea-coast” anxiously scanning the horizon for news from abroad. Gregory O’Brien (“we are a nation of watersiders”) in his essay “Patterns of Migration” and Cliff Fell in his poem “L’Anima Verde” both meditate on the life-cycle of the New Zealand eel: a cycle of emigration and return that seems to cover much the same conceptual – if not geographic – territory as Brasch’s (and Robin Hyde’s) godwits. Lynne McDonald, in “Cable Stations”, tells the story of New Zealand’s connection to the first “internet” – the undersea cables of the imperial telegraph service. David Burton shows us how to gather a delicious meal of paua, seaweed and samphire and cook it right there on the beach while we wait. Bruce Foster’s photo gallery, “When the Swimmer Reaches Shore”, is a beautiful series of “sea-shore” vignettes, places where traces of human intervention (fences, ruins, sea walls) mark our intrusive engagement with the littoral. Lynn Jenner, in a remarkable essay that somehow takes us seamlessly from Kapiti Island to the Holocaust, begins with a declaration of the sea’s importance to our national consciousness (“Our sea is made up of certain blues …. These blues are inside us, enshrined beyond anything conscious, alongside the smell of hot sand and the sound of waves arriving from thousands of miles away”), but immediately pivots to a sense of isolation: “By the time news from the rest of the world arrives here its voice is faint and barely audible above the noise of these waves.”

At times it feels as if we’ve wandered into a re-writing Curnow competition. Your starter for ten:

In your atlas two islands not in narrow seas
Like a child’s kite anchored in the indifferent blue,
Two islands pointing from the Pole, upward
From the Ross Sea and the tall havenless ice … .
(Curnow, “Statement” from Not in Narrow Seas).

 

Steve Braunias, you’re up: “New Zealand …self-conscious above all of being in the bottom right-hand corner of the atlas, the two islands like a couple of crumbs scattered on the wide Pacific”. Dinah Hawken, can you top that?:

Here we are a skinny country
in the largest ocean on earth
spell-bound, windswept, lashed.

The land is like a canoe heading south
to an icy continent or heading north to equatorial
islands.
No one seems to know.
(“The Uprising”)

 

“Distance looks our way”. Brasch’s neatly-turned phrase made a twofold point: that we’re isolated, yes, but also that we hope for the possibility of something remarkable emerging here, something new that will draw the attention of the world. We find that idea cropping up in this collection, too. “In the twenty-first century,” writes Jones, “New Zealanders have less reason to think of themselves as marginal – they are present and noted everywhere.” No doubt, though there’s something about the felt need even to say such a thing that elicits a slight wince from the reader, like hearing Willy Loman insist to his sons: “they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people.”

The “something new, something nobody counted on” which is turning the eyes of distance towards us would seem, from several of the pieces in this volume, to be Auckland and its evolution into “one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Australasia”.  Finlay Macdonald, in “Primate City”, goes one better, calling Auckland “one of the most diverse in the world” and noting the “sheer cultural energy this has generated”. One wonders if the editors could have tried a little harder to get some of that new ethnic and cultural diversity represented in the list of contributors to the volume. Only Ya-Wen Ho (who contributes a translation of a short poem by the classical Chinese poet Li Po) would seem to represent one of these new voices emerging in the New Zealand conversation. Steve Braunias’s “On my way to the border”, a report on a walk through the new immigrant communities of Auckland, adopts a wilfully naïve persona that has the unfortunate effect of radically othering and exoticising the Fijian Indian, Nigerian and Chinese immigrants he encounters on his journey; he makes them seem like extraterrestrials, still unsure what planet they’ve arrived on.

That New Zealand has long been shamefully slow to embrace “outsiders” is a point made blisteringly clear in Alison Wong’s searing “Pure Brightness”, a family memoir that traces, via the deformations wrought on her own family’s history, the long, sad story of New Zealand’s racist immigration policies (and its often appalling treatment of those few Chinese immigrants who did manage to make it to New Zealand), from the days of the late 19th-century “Yellow Peril” panic forward. Harry Ricketts’s subtly observed piece, “On Masks and Migration, explores some of the coping mechanisms immigrants from all backgrounds use to adapt to the uncertain welcome provided by the host country, and also the opportunities for self-reinvention offered by a new cultural context. Leilani Tamu’s vivid account of her struggles to find a secure relationship to her ‘afakasi Samoan identity as a white-skinned daughter of ‘afakasi Samoan parents – a struggle that she resolves, in part, by identifying with the liminal status of the “beachcomber” communities in 19th-century Samoa and their creatively disruptive relationship to racial and ethnic certitudes – also speaks powerfully to the cultural vibrancy (and cultural challenges) the immigrant experience brings to New Zealand.

Some of the best and most telling writing, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from those who are not trying to tackle the big questions of identity at all. Sally Blundell’s “Amending the Map”, about the terrible earthquakes in Christchurch and the efforts to rebuild and rethink the city, is a gripping piece of journalism. The remarkable historical sweep of her essay lets us understand both the ways in which the city’s destruction was predicated upon a certain kind of historical neglect (the springs and rivers which the city had tidied away into drains and culverts and then forgotten), and the ways in which its future form will be marked by the ever-evolving history of Maori-Pakeha relations. The overwriting of the (always somewhat bogus) “English village” vision of Christchurch with one that also speaks directly to a specifically Ngai Tahu identity is an opportunity to go beyond mere assertions about having new answers to old questions and to see them embedded in the framework of our lives.

 

Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, University of California.