Never Lost For Words: Stories and Memories
Auckland University Press, $29.95,
Never Lost For Words is in part a memoir illustrated with snapshots from family albums, in part a collection of short stories triggered by events in the author’s life. Amelia Batistich describes her book as “a mosaic put together with fragments of my writing life”. It should remind readers of a distinctive voice in the post-war years, as our literature began to develop its New Zealand identity. In a modest way, this memoir is a commentary on the literary scene of the middle decades of last century – a time when individual arts were more closely connected; when the works of poets and painters appeared side by side in the same journals. The School Journal provided employment for James K Baxter. Caxton Press in the South Island competed in publishing New Zealand fiction with Longman Paul in the North. The film-maker John O’Shea explored racial disharmony in Broken Barrier; and Frank Sargeson first voiced the theme of Dalmatian migrants. His story “The Making of a New Zealander” set Amelia Batistich on her own writer’s path. Here was the core of her inspiration, a rich vein to be mined. Here was her “memory of the blood”.
Amelia grew up with stories of young Dalmatians digging kauri gum up north, sending home for “letter-brides”, and, as years went by, putting down roots in the new country. She was born into a migrant family, though her parents’ courtship seems to have been a notch above the mail-order variety. After 15 years in the gumfields, Amelia’s father had saved enough money to buy land, and he made a trip back to Dalmatia to find himself a wife. Amelia describes her mother’s desolation on a bare patch of farmland at Tangowahine, “the place where the woman was taken”:
The Dalmatian woman cried for the first six months. Is this America? she asked her husband every night when he came home from his work, the drainage contract job a mile away. All day she stood at the gate, waiting, hoping to see another woman come down the track. No one. Not even the smoke from a neighbouring chimney to be seen. Yeli ovo Amerika?
In her own stories, Amelia was often to explore the desperate loneliness of a migrant woman torn away from her homeland and culture.
By the time Amelia was born in 1915, the family had moved to Dargaville, where English, Maori and Dalmatian “seemed to belong together”. The town must have seemed a metropolis after life in the outback. The mother ran a boarding house for Dalmatians in from the gumfields, and for their brides arriving from the old country. Dressed in their wedding finery, these homesick girls repeated their first English sentence: “I do, I do.” In the boarding house everyone spoke Dalmatian. (It’s Croatian today.) It was only when Amelia was sent as a boarder to a convent school that English became her main language. The Irish Catholic nuns rescued the child of migrants from cultural confusion and imbued her with treasures of poetry and drama; they gave her the tools of a future writer, as well as a sense of national belonging. From then on, Amelia would always define herself as a New Zealander: “I belong in New Zealand, to New Zealand. Nowhere else could I call home. Let no one, but no one tell me different.”
This self-identity was especially strong during her visit to Yugoslavia in 1981, where her novel Sing Vila in the Mountain had been translated into Serbo-Croatian. After the book launch in Zagreb, Amelia travelled to the mountains region on the Adriatic coast, where generations of her family had been born and had died. The derelict stone houses in the deserted village filled her with deep emotion. The language of her ancestors sang to her. But her own Serbo-Croatian was “the equivalent of the broken English spoken by Dalmatians in New Zealand”. She was a foreigner in Yugoslavia; a visiting writer from the Balkan diaspora.
The shape of Amelia’s life appears as culturally fragmented as the structure of Never Lost for Words. Yet the contradictions and the deviations from the main course finally settle into a harmonious stream. Could this be how a complex background can mould talented individuals, and benefit the society in which they live and work? Amelia’s loyalties shift from the Dalmatians in Dargaville to the English-speaking nuns at the convent. When she leaves school, Little Dalmatia reclaims her. In her late teens she is once again immersed in the language and customs of her parents’ community in Auckland. There she meets and marries Tony Batistich. It’s a union between broken English and broken Dalmatian. Then follows a suburban wifehood and three children. Keeping a dairy open at all hours. Menial jobs. And always that longing for something else, the desire to write. A Dalmatian wife is not allowed to leave her husband even to babysit. But Tony’s opposition doesn’t stop Amelia from attending night classes at the WEA. She joins a writers’ club. Two of her stories are accepted by the New Zealand Listener. She buys her first Olivetti and sets out on a writer’s road.
What a journey: snatching moments for her writing from household chores and a factory job. A joyful exploration of the newly-sanctioned, suddenly fashionable Dalmatian-New Zealand theme. Amelia describes how, hunting for subjects in everyday life, she “quarried the crowds at Ellerslie”. Her passion to write wore out six Olivetti typewriters, used up reams of paper. She sent her stories to magazines of the day: Mate, Arena, New Zealand Listener. I wonder, if she was ever published in Landfall. Or was it already aloof, a “templet” for high culture?
Amelia’s open enthusiasm may have struck the burgeoning academic critics as naive. She published wherever her stories were welcome. She seems to have had no precious view of her calling. Even the Dalmatian theme, which was growing into an albatross, does not come across as a message. Photographs of Amelia show a woman resembling a contented mother of a suburban family rather than a pensive practitioner of the arts. There are clearly expressed loyalties in Amelia’s life-story. Nothing in her past is ever discarded. No memory is sanitised. No connection becomes inconvenient or is severed. All experience enriches her life and consequently her writing. Yet this lack of artifice could be seen as a weakness, as her Achilles heel. Surely, real writers need to display greater sophistication? Unless their association with the tangata whenua excuses simplicity of language and form. Amelia wrote some stories from the Maori perspective; she would not be allowed to venture into that territory today.
“Though our roots went deep in Dalmatia, home was nowhere else but here”: this is Amelia’s adamantly repeated statement. Being a New Zealander is her birthright. But what about her place in our literary ranks? In the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Nina Nola points out “the problem of being classified as a chronicler of minority experience. Neither critics nor publishers have allowed that Batistich is an important voice on New Zealand society in general.” This is echoed by Amelia herself. She sees her writing as “part of the New Zealand story”, and is disappointed that editors of her collections have been interested only in her migrant stories. She includes several of her non-Dalmatian stories in her memoir. In “The House of Love”, Nell (like Robert Browning’s Last Duchess) scatters her radiance on people and objects, behaviour which husband Geoff finds beneath contempt. Geoff and Nell happen to be in Auckland at the races, and not in Renaissance Italy.
For the fair-minded, the achievements of Amelia Batistich are evident. She was encouraged by Sargeson and Baxter, and was extravagantly praised by Jim Henderson for her stories in Open Country. She wrote for the School Journal for almost 30 years, at a time when the journal harvested contributions from the best of this country’s poets and writers, and illustrations by the best-known artists. It’s true that Amelia Batistich was commissioned to record the experience of minorities, of migrant groups like Bohemians, Chinese, Indians. Yet, in reality, she continued with the theme introduced by Frank Sargeson: she wrote about the making of New Zealanders. Could it be that this society has been so obsessively exploring a bicultural Pacific identity that it has carelessly marginalised all other contributions to its development; as indeed, it has wantonly destroyed much of our slender history as part of restructuring? It might be fair and generous to recognise Amelia Batistich as a New Zealand writer in her own right.
Natasha Templeton is a novelist living in Wellington.