Hello to Berlin, Cilla McQueen

New Zealand writers abroad

A German visitor to the Berlin Colloquium held in Wellington in August mentioned that she felt so “far away” that the New Zealand television news seemed to have little relevance. Far away from where? I wondered, thinking of Bluff. I was, after all, in the North Island. Among the glass and concrete rectangles I felt as far away as she did. We were both aware of displacement to a different sphere.

It’s good for a writer to get away from home now and again for the sake of a different perspective. After the first day of the language course which I attended at the Goethe Institut in Berlin in 1988, I wrote: “On the wall of the corridor is a large map of the world /  Right down the very bottom is little New Zealand /  Now I’m as far away as I can get.” Changing hemispheres, I was invited to adapt to a Eurocentric viewpoint for the duration of my stay. I found this difficult and swung between feeling that New Zealand was very far away and that it was startlingly present, obtruding into my daily writing and explorations of the city and its history to the extent that I as frequently found myself writing about New Zealand as about Berlin.

I went to Berlin to write because it seemed that a metaphorical meniscus between East and West was made concrete in a man-made wall built to keep two halves of a people apart. Parallels and contrasts between countries and hemispheres readily produced images of insularity and separation. My sense of foreignness increased along with my knowledge of the language as I learned the reality of difference between East and West, as well as between New Zealand and Germany and their respective points of view in the Pacific and Europe. I wondered about the fate of that dividing line and the future of Germany when I heard that “The Wall is crumbling and falling down all by itself / The iron within is corroding / Soon large cracks will appear //  What will the Left Hand do? What will the Right Hand do?” and that “The bones of the Wall / are shit metal / liable to decay.”

In a swirling, chaotic effect, the flow unleashed through a formerly impermeable barrier may have carved even deeper social and political divisions. Unification has not reconciled some glaring oppositions. In 1988 a conversation with young Berliners informed me that whereas some people, usually older ones, saw Berlin as tragically divided,  “Many young people don’t see Berlin as a divided city. To them, West Berlin and East Berlin are two contiguous cities, and foreign to each other.”  I suspect that this may still be the case even though the material barrier has been removed.

For a New Zealander, it is nature in the form of the ocean around us that makes the difference between here and everywhere else. The sea is neutral, if not protective of our individuality. We have a relationship with it and with the body of our islands that the German people, being continental, can’t have. In the European sensibility, the living landscape seems obscured, even effaced, by population and the
“weight of history”. I could feel a Sartrean nausea when contemplating the roots of the numbered trees which
line the streets of West Berlin.

The chance to see New Zealand and its literature through European eyes was valuable to me as a writer. After coming close to tears at the sight of wild flowers in the Rhine valley crisscrossed by overhead power lines, I was happy to see our untouched South Island mountains and lakes in a photographic presentation by a German tourism student. It was a breathtaking contrast – impossible to imagine that there could exist in the world such a natural and pristine place. The students were awed but worried that there seemed to be no people. “But what about culture?” they asked.

When I visited England as a child I was amused and appalled at questions about life in New Zealand such as whether my father was a Flying Doctor or whether we all wore grass skirts. If Mary Scott’s Breakfast at Six: Me and Paul and 1000 Sheep is really the most popular New Zealand book in Germany, it must confirm that our overseas image remains recognisably colonial. Beneath that layer lies the history of the Pacific and its peoples.

Just as German people know little about New Zealand, New Zealanders know little about the shifting forces and political tensions of Europe, past and present.  The divisions are not as clear-cut as they might seem but subtle, mixed and deep, and understanding these is valuable training for looking at our own. It is certainly a good thing for writers and artists to have this experience, returning home to take more seriously the history and culture of New Zealand and the currents of change in the Pacific. They can learn the hard lessons of world history and develop the ability to turn their ideas upside down when they cross the equator.

I enjoyed the energy and intellectual stimulation of Berlin but was happy to come home to this horizon. The experience of Die Mauer (“The Wall”) completed a process of polarisation and confirmed for me my New Zealand identity. Nowadays, living in Bluff, looking at the signpost at the end of the road, I see that Europe is far away. I feel comfortably here – it’s visitors who have that sense of otherness.


Cilla McQueen published her Berlin Diary, which records her Berlin experiences, in 1990. Her new collection of poems and drawings, Markings, is reviewed on p21.


The first recipient of the New Zealand Berlin writer’s residency is Sarah Quigley.


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