Supporting a long-haul life of writing, Paula Morris

Paula Morris (Ngati Wai), fiction writer and essayist, presents the Academy of New Zealand Literature/Te Whare Mātātuhi o Aotearoa.

Last year, when I returned to New Zealand after too many years away in the United Kingdom and United States of America, I did what I always do, wherever I live: I became embroiled.

The elements of the “literature sector” based in Auckland – publishers, festival, directors of the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) and Book Council – were having a series of conversations, and I infiltrated various drinks and meetings, keen to hear about what was going on. There was a new spirit of cooperation, perhaps, and a desire to make the most of ever-decreasing resources. In-fighting in a small market with low stakes is inevitable – irresistible, even – but in-fighting, parochialism and short-sighted self-interest seemed like relics of a different, simpler, stupider time.

There are issues, impossible to ignore, for those of us who write and publish in New Zealand. Our young people aren’t making the transition from New Zealand writing for children and teens to our “adult” writers. Many of our adult readers feel that “New Zealand literature” is worthy, but not very tempting, the oatmeal option. Some people read “New Zealand literature” – probably one book – at high school and didn’t like it, so that’s that. We still prefer our books to have an overseas endorsement, preferably from the United Kingdom. We suspect books without this endorsement to be not quite good enough, like the All Whites or the Tall Blacks, inferior to the international competition. Meanwhile, the overseas market for books set in New Zealand is small.

And, yet, we write. Something was missing in the sector picture, I felt, and it was a platform for our mid-career and senior writers, the people making a long-haul life of writing despite everything – everything including our own self-doubts, our feelings of invisibility and marginalisation. “New Zealand literature” is not one thing: it’s many different stories, strands and perspectives, different points of entry and departure. We needed to tell a big-picture narrative, but also offer a variety of ways into the books being published now, as well as support the writers who build our contemporary literature piece by piece. As writers we need sustenance – creative, intellectual, emotional – between book publications. Those years between book publications are the years we’re writing, and for us the most important years of all.

Somewhere, amid all these sector drinks and meetings, sprouted a new initiative, the Academy of New Zealand Literature, or Te Whare Mātātuhi o Aotearoa (ANZL). I sounded out a small group of writers: Vincent O’Sullivan, Fiona Kidman, Rachael King, Eleanor Catton and Charlotte Grimshaw. I met with representatives from publishing companies, Copyright Licensing, the NZSA, the Book Council, Creative New Zealand, and the festivals in Wellington and Auckland, to make sure what I devised didn’t duplicate or complicate. I plagued Stephen Stratford, Mark Broatch and Guy Somerset for advice and opinions, and bored other writers – Patricia Grace, Fiona Farrell, Bill Manhire – to death, explaining what I was hoping to do. I met with connections at the Royal Society of Literature, the Booker Foundation and the Commonwealth Foundation in London, to see what we could borrow. Most vital of all, perhaps, I secured seed funding from the University of Auckland, from the Vice Chancellor’s Strategic Development Fund.

The ANZL was launched on May 10th. It’s a new writers’ community designed to promote the writers of New Zealand contemporary literature and their work. Informed by international models like the Royal Society of Literature in the United Kingdom and the German Academy for Language and Literature, the ANZL positions and promotes contemporary New Zealand literature – fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction for adults – with a focus on living literary practitioners, providing a compelling, coherent narrative about the diverse strands of our literary culture to audiences at home and overseas. These audiences may include readers, researchers, educators, students, agents, publishers, editors, anthologists, translators, booksellers, arts organisations, residency boards, and festival directors in New Zealand and beyond.

Most of the work of the Academy is to promote and support our creative writers, beyond simply promoting a new book. The focus is on tangible outputs, including a content-rich website (www.anzliterature.com) designed as a showcase for our contemporary literature, a source of secondary research material, and a forum for intellectual debate. I call this the Shop Front, because everything in it can be explored by the public.

The site features three key strands: features, the Conversation and the Interview. The features are in-depth magazine-style stories on different aspects, genres and issues within contemporary New Zealand literature.  The first features posted include Philip Matthews on writing in and about Christchurch after the earthquake; Rosabel Tan on the thriving crime writing scene; and Kirsti Whalen on the burgeoning of and challenges for creative nonfiction in our small market. Upcoming features include investigations of the new wave of Pasifika writers; the diversity and debates of our poetry scene; writing in and about the Deep South of New Zealand; and the continued growth of both commercial and literary historical fiction.

The Conversation features an ANZL writer who’s had a long-distance conversation over the course of six weeks with a writer overseas, to discuss any issues – literary, cultural, political, social, personal – they wish. The first Conversation is Alison Wong, the New Zealand writer currently based in Australia, in conversation with Vietnamese American fiction writer Aimee Phan.

Our Interview strand offers long Paris Review-style discussions of a writer’s body of work. The first Interviews are with two of our ANZL Fellows: Patricia Grace (with Adam Dudding), followed by Owen Marshall (with John McCrystal).

The site is also visually rich, with photography, original art and a series of literary comic strips by the inimitable Sarah Laing.

As well as a Shop Front, the ANZL has a Back Room, identifying opportunities for our writers to make creative, intellectual and professional connections at home and abroad, and encouraging our members to share contacts and information. We’re building connections with numerous writers’ conferences, arts festivals, university networks and artists’ residencies around the world. I’m already working with contacts in the Baltic region, Vienna and the South Pacific to establish writer exchanges, and I’m particularly keen on developing opportunities across the southern hemisphere, especially in southern Africa and South America. We’re also planning to create e-samplers to promote our writers directly to international publishers and festival directors.

During the 18-month seed-money period, the ANZL will remain relatively small, with about 15 senior writers as Fellows, and around 100 Members, all of whom are active practitioners. This means a writer who has published (not self-published) at least two books in the above genres, with their most recent books published since 2005. The range of invited writers was wide, from Ben Sanders to Manhire, from Tusiata Avia to Nicky Pellegrino, from Jenny Pattrick to Tim Corballis, from Charlotte Randall to Steve Braunias, from Witi Ihimaera to Catherine Robertson to Pip Adams to Paul Ewen.

Much of the above is controversial, I know. I’ve fielded numerous complaints from many people about the elitism of the ANZL, and how too many writers are excluded. Where are our children’s writers, and playwrights, and historians? What about someone who’s an acclaimed writer but hasn’t published a book in ten years? What about someone who self-published and is now on a bestseller list elsewhere? What about the writers who’ve published just one book, but are the hot names in the international scene?

First of all, the ANZL is elitist. The truly egalitarian organisation for writers in this country is the NZSA, and I encourage all writers to be members, as I’ve been since 2002. We exist alongside them, not as an alternative, and our kaupapa is different.

The ANZL will grow, I hope, but it needs a small start. Much of the seed money should be spent on the site and its content, and on our e-samplers, not on overhead. I work for free, now with outstanding part-time help from Harley Hern, a writer who’s just graduated from Auckland’s Master of Creative Writing programme. Our small start is still a vast amount of work. In fact, it’s a monster threatening to devour every moment of our waking (and writing) time.

The ANZL can’t be truly representative. Not all of the writers I invited said yes. Some didn’t want to join any club; some didn’t like the sound of this one in particular. Some felt it was bound to be Auckland-biased because I’m from Auckland and so is the seed money. Some didn’t like the sound of the phrase “New Zealand literature” and didn’t like the notion of someone else determining or controlling the narrative. Some said they didn’t care if people overseas found out about our books and writers. Some thought there’s no need for the ANZL.

Maybe there isn’t. But most of the writers I approached were deeply enthusiastic. Many stepped forward at once with information on networks and residencies they’d be happy to share with other writers. Many completed the long, impertinent questionnaire we sent around without complaining (too much), and helped us gather information and visual material.

Visit the website to read and explore, and watch this space. Writers play a long game. Many of us represented on the ANZL have been writing for decades; many of us hope to write for decades more. I hope the ANZL helps some of us, at least, to keep going.

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