“They’re reading our books there”, William Broughton

Spiritcarvers: interviews with eighteen writers from New Zealand
Antonella Sarti
Editions Rodopi B.V. (Amsterdam and Atlanta),
US$66.50 (hardcover) $19.00 (paperback), ISBN 90 420 0713 3

New Zealand writing and writers have received a lot of attention in European universities for more than 20 years now, though that fact is not as widely known in this country as it might be. In Denmark, France, Germany and Italy (the list isn’t exhaustive) our writers are being read and studied, often in quite sophisticated detail, by students in more than a score of universities. To adapt an advertiser’s slogan, “They’re reading our books there.”

A number of teachers, some of them native to the countries that they teach in, others expatriates from England, Australia and New Zealand, have worked to ensure an audience of critically perceptive readers for New Zealand writing. This work has been supplemented by visits from New Zealanders, writers and academics alike, who help to keep a focus on the possibilities that arise from seeing New Zealand literature as an antipodean alternative to the previously academically dominant literatures of Great Britain and North America. In a world in which English is increasingly being recognised as a “world language”, the apparently contradictory idea of an abundance of literatures (plural) written in English receives vindication when readers encounter the literature of Aotearoa New Zealand, whose points of origin are so clearly at once both European and South Pacific.

Spiritcarvers seems intended to add to this European awareness of New Zealand writing.  Published in a European series entitled “Cross / Cultures: Readings in the Post Colonial Literatures in English”, the book is a collection of 18 transcribed interviews conducted by the Italian academic Antonella Sarti, who was for a time a visitor in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Italian. Apart from one part of the interview with Margaret Mahy, all the interviews were evidently conducted in later 1994 and early 1995 but not published until 1998, and the contributors’ list includes most but certainly not all of the major fiction writers who were active and practising in the mid-1990s. (The most obvious omissions are Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall and C K Stead, and indeed Christopher Bennet Evans’ short foreword disclaims any intention of “encompassing the New Zealand literary scene”, though we have no indication of what basis of selection Signora Sarti either chose or was forced to work within.) The end result is a book that is tidily produced, though with a few too many proofing errors, including the blush-making misnaming of a distinguished arts administrator in the Acknowledgements.

Signora Sarti does, however, show an impressive knowledge of her subjects’ writings. She goes far beyond the general briefing notes that an interviewer might be expected to have available, and reveals a perceptive and detailed grasp of the works of each of the writers she interviews. Clearly she has done her homework with exemplary thoroughness, and as a result she has been able to produce interviews that suggest a conversation between two equally well-informed people, rather than, as sometimes happens, a dialogue in which one of the two parties clearly has the upper hand. It has the effect of subtly but firmly directing the interview along the path that Signor Sarti wants it to go, rather than allowing the interviewee to make the running, yet in spite of what she says in her introduction about “sustain[ing] a common thread in enquiring after the presence of recurring motifs”, we do not gain the impression of an intellectual agenda governing the questions.

In the catalogue of 18 authors there is a range that reminds us, if we needed reminding, that we ought to take for granted a seamless mixing of generations, gender and ethnicity in a book like this that seeks to represent the strength of the art of fiction-writing at the 20th century’s end.  All of the writers interviewed are still active, some having come to prominence in the recent past and some having been with us now for a very long time. Five Maori and two Polynesian writers stand beside the eleven Pakeha; the gender balance is perfect, nine each.  The short biographical notes that preface each interview remind us that almost all the writers have worked not only in the longer and shorter forms of prose-fiction, but also widely across the literary genres, distinguishing themselves in poetry and drama as well as in prose; while the photographs that accompany the interviews contribute to the feeling of the book being accessible and personal for all its sense of serious intellectual precision.

But who will read this book? Finally it is a reference work, and as such I guess it will be ransacked by students (by no means the worst of fates) who are looking for information for essays in contemporary New Zealand literature courses. Because we are encountering the interviews five years after they were undertaken, there is inevitably a wish to bring some of the information up to date; we would probably like to know just what Signora Sarti would have discussed with, say, Witi Ihimaera or Elizabeth Knox, Barbara Anderson or Vincent O’Sullivan, in the light of what we know they have achieved in the last five years. The wish isn’t a valid one, because every writer and interviewer is necessarily governed by the realities of the moment when the interview is being conducted. But the book is more than just a research tool or an essay-writer’s companion. It presents us with a broad overview of an energetic literature and its often highly discriminating and sometimes introspective creators.

Volumes of interviews have become more and more common over the last ten years and have tended to replace the “conversations” that occurred frequently enough in the pages of Islands and Landfall a couple of decades back. Such books form a valuable repository of information that helps us to understand our writers and their achievements better. But this book is also a volume that of necessity has seized on a moment of time, and tells us, with some delicacy and precision, what New Zealand fiction writing in the mid-1990s looked like to a curious and well-read outsider.   

William Broughton teaches English at Massey University and has lectured on New Zealand writing in several Italian universities.

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