Raising Questions, Paul Millar

Witi Ihimaera: A Changing Vision
Umelo Ojinmah,
University of Otago Press, $24.95

I Have What I Gave: The Fiction of Janet Frame
Judith Dell Panny,
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $34.95

 

Signs are that New Zealand literature is in good health. Our creative literary culture is blossoming and criticism too has burgeoned since Allen Curnow first argued about the development of New Zealand poetry. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, a steady supply of anthologies, and even this quarterly, suggest that we now have a critical literary culture that, through an aggressive nationalism, creates a literary space for us to examine our wider cultural identity. In this context two scholarly monographs on established writers must be welcomed.

Umelo Ojinmah’s description of Witi Ihimaera’s changing concept of ‘biculturalism’ is, to quote the foreword, an ‘interim report’, of a ‘career still in process’. Here is a generally lucid cultural and textual analysis charting the movement from a pastoral to a political perspective in Ihimaera’s attempts to ‘define, develop and defend’ his vision of biculturalism.

Ojinmah identifies Pounamu, Pounamu and Tangi with a ‘pastoral’ phase. The power of rural Maori communities to preserve Maoritanga by stressing the centrality of aroha, whanau and language is a powerful subtext. Countering this is Ihimaera’s depiction of generations of young Maori struggling to survive in an impersonal urban society, with the inevitable loss of traditional values. Ihimaera’s solution to this cultural rift is not assimilation or separatism, but biculturalism.

Whanau represents a ‘transitional’ phase – in Ojinmah’s words ‘a poignant, almost swansong lament … for the world that was’. The transition is brief. Ihimaera’s description of the power of post-colonial society’s emphasis on individuality to erode cohesive communal forces, leads quickly on to the more politicised prose of The New Net Goes Fishing, stories that identify how urgent the problem of Maori urban alienation has become.

Ojinmah perceives in The Matriarch the most complete development of Ihimaera’s radicalised views on biculturalism. Ihimaera both acknowledges the activist perspective and presents a revisionist history of Aotearoa – a revision that, in Ojinmah’s view, exposes a faultline in Maori culture produced through the tensions of post-coloniality.

The final chapter of Ojinmah’s discussion sees a bleakness in Ihimaera’s later work that is at odds with the pastoral optimism of his early writing. Despite this Ojinmah can still perceive an affirmation of hope in the survival of the Maori race and a sense that biculturalism is still the best, perhaps the only, course to follow.

When it comes to examining our cultural identity Ojinmah can offer us a different perspective. This book derives its origins from Ojinmah’s doctoral dissertation: a comparative study of Ihimaera and Nigerian Chinua Achebe as post-colonial writers. Nigeria is not New Zealand, and despite a sophisticated understanding of our history and culture Ojinmah is not embedded in it. The sense of difference is however, a tantalisingly silent presence. My own interest in comparing Maori writers like Ihimaera with Koori writers such as Mudrooroo Nyoongah means that I will read Ojinmah’s dissertation. Yet it is a comparison that deserves to be made before a wider New Zealand audience. Instead we are only given passing references to Achebe and Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Severing many of the ties binding us to European high culture seems insufficient if we fail, or are denied the opportunity, to learn to recognise ourselves in other, particularly third-world, cultures.

My only other significant criticism is with the term ‘post-colonial’. The absence of a clear definition seems to imply some universally received meaning. Yet the experience of post-coloniality in Nigeria is surely different from the New Zealand experience. What does post-colonial mean to an indigenous minority largely submerged in a dominant majority culture? Try telling Atareta Poananga that colonialism no longer exists in Aotearoa.

In Witi lhimaera: A Changing Vision, Umelo Ojinmah’s insights are stated with refreshing clarity and force: this is more than an ‘interim report’, its relevance to New Zealand culture is undeniable.

Judith Dell Panny’s study of Janet Frame’s eleven novels and the extended short story ‘Snowman, Snowman’ is ambitious. The cover promises access ‘to the most provocative questions implicit in [Frame’s] work.’ The key Panny uses to gain access is ‘allegory’, described as ‘a system of double meaning that is sustained throughout a work’. Panny identifies allegorical patterns in all Frame’s texts, patterns that are more pronounced in her later work. Allegory provides access to Frame’s pathos and humour, and its ethical implications are examined by re-reading with reference to the literal meaning of the text.

Even my abbreviated summary of Panny’s method reveals the magnitude of the task she has set herself: the allegorical patterning of all of Frame’s novels! Start reading this book and you soon realise there is definitely allegory here. Each chapter summarises the narrative of one text, focusing on the revelation of particular allegorical patterns. The references are numerous: the Bible, Paradise Lost, The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, to name but a few.

While admiring Panny’s assiduous identification of allegorical patterns I found myself asking questions without getting satisfactory answers. For example Panny argues that allegory does not structure Frame’s early work, allegorical patterns are only a feature. What interests me then is some account for this shift towards allegory, but little attempt is made even to advance a theory. This book is one of the few comprehensive studies of one of our most important writers, yet New Zealand culture seems to have been largely overlooked. The allegories all refer back to canonical texts of European high culture. References to New Zealand culture are fleeting: the dental room called ‘the murder house’, small town New Zealand’s provision of ‘scented gardens for the blind’, the tendency of a certain type of New Zealand male to wear shorts in all weathers. There is little self-recognition in such glimpses, even less in the brief descriptions of the land and in the occasional translations of Maori words. It seems possible that Frame’s inversion and subversion of European texts (texts that are themselves more than a little allegorical) asserts cultural identity by countering their canonical authority. This would explain London’s allegorical status as hell – the destination of many a catabasis, or descent.

Panny suggests in her introduction that Turnlung’s philosophy, reiterated at the conclusion of Daughter Buffalo, ‘What matters is that I have what I gave’ is a philosophy that Frame herself could embrace. Although Panny’s careful allegorical readings of Frame’s texts leave little doubt about what we have been given, they do not answer the question ‘but what do we have?’ However, in forcing the question, I Have What I Gave opens up new areas of enquiry.

The cover promises a lucid exposition ‘without recourse to a terminology that might impede a new appreciation of Frame’s texts.’ I, however, felt impeded by terminology when I read Panny’s conclusion that before ‘Living in the Maniototo Frame’s work was modernist rather than postmodern.’ What is the value of European critical terms to describe the literature of a society antipodal to Europe. Must we classify ourselves? New Zealand culture is largely unique in its isolation and ethnic make-up. Panny’s use of ‘postmodern’ is too glib. It takes more than a footnote to define a term that I still struggle to come to grips with. What is she drawing on? Is it Frederic Jameson’s neo-marxist definition, Jean Baudrillard’s apocalyptic gloom or JeanFrancois Lyotard’s hip-hops with language? If we are ‘post’ anything, then Ojinmah’s ‘post-colonialism’ for all its difficulties is still a better bet for any analysis of New Zealand literature. Or, rather than oscillating between various constructions of theorists in the northern hemisphere (most of which deal at a fundamental level with relationships of power), perhaps we should work to construct our own definitions – then we could begin putting language to work for us, in our terms.

 

Paul Millar is a doctoral student in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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