Plumb Duff, Otto Heim

Out of the Mist and Steam: A Memoir
Alan Duff
Tandem Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1 877178 58 6

Alan Duff frames his autobiography with scenes of his post-Warriors success: here we see him at ease with Prime Ministers, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins at Janet Frame’s kitchen table. The author of Out of the Mist and Steam is assured of his authority and no longer embarrassed by poor grammar. His voice commands an audience of thousands, and he speaks with just pride and some wonder of his many public speaking engagements and of his recognition among fellow-writers.

It is an achievement few would have thought possible 20 years ago, not even Alan Duff himself. “Mankind is a contradiction,” he writes near the end of his memoir, but the sentence is a trite expression of the turmoil from which Duff, the writer, has emerged. His immediate response to Hopkins’ poetry seems a more telling indicator. Duff’s voice is indeed riddled with contradiction, as is the story of its emergence, which Out of the Mist and Steam tells.

Readers of Duff’s fiction will be familiar with this voice and its two most pronounced tones, which are often at odds with one another: the tell-it-like-it-is line, which captures and indulges in the rhythms of the idiom of social non-achievers, and the voice of the moralist, denouncing failure and passionately urging change. The former is the dominant chord in this book. Alan Duff tells us what it was like, growing up half-caste in Rotorua in the 50s and 60s, passing an uncommonly troubled adolescence and being socialised into delinquency. It is a story of promise and betrayal, of violence and confusion, achievement and rebellion, discipline and punishment. This is the stuff of Duff’s world, and it is indeed striking to notice how many fragments of memory have found their way into characters and story elements of his novels. This “been there, done that” familiarity with the world he describes obviously lends Duff’s accounts of all varieties of state-housed Maori life their authenticity.

But, as in the novels, the strength of Duff’s writing is above all in his style, which is capable of registering the confusion, the negligent happiness and the thwarted aspiration, as well as the violent outbursts, of his people in a literary voice. Though he speaks with awe of his father’s love of the written word and how Gowan Duff taught his children correct grammar, his own writing at times fairly disregards the rules of grammar and relies on the expressive force of four-letter words to an extent that is more typical of oral expression. But Duff handles narrative with skill and stylistic assurance when it comes to rendering the mental states and feelings at different stages of his life. He can move from controlled exposition to a kind of shorthand narrative in a manner that not only evokes a drifting state of mind but also suggests the difficulty of its recollection.

At his best, Duff succeeds in conveying a “slice of life” by matching tone and detail without any interference of authorial judgement. To be sure, the unflinching exposure of embarrassing and shocking details itself amounts to a form of indictment. For the most part, however, Duff is careful to keep his judgement general, as if to acknowledge the complexity of individual life. The most marked exception is the representation of his mother, whom he deals with very harshly. This is perhaps the only instance where Duff betrays his principle that “all a man should do” is “judge himself in his own context”, for the son judges his mother’s failures more severely than his own failings as a father, and he places the largest blame at her feet with little consideration of context. But this looks like unfinished business, since the portrait of the mother is as damning as the father is idealised.

After all, the very inconsistencies in Duff’s account of his life contribute to the sense of honesty that pervades this memoir. There appears to be very little that is palliated and little that Duff deems too private for publication. The most vivid impression that one is left with after reading Out of the Mist and Steam, however, is an appreciation of a certain resilience of character, of respect for a man who, from being first in class as a boy, went through boys’ home, borstal and prison before emerging as a successful and responsible citizen. That this success had perhaps less to do with strong will than with sheer survival and resourcefulness in no way diminishes the achievement.

Of course no autobiography is merely a record of life as it was, and Alan Duff in particular would not be Alan Duff if he didn’t write with an agenda. As in his fiction, the voice of the moralist is never silent for long but likely to intrude at any moment, be it to vent the author’s irritation, to generalise a fact into a principle, or simply to reflect ironically on a word or phrase in a parenthetical aside. Duff’s moral vision is not expressed in the narrative progression of his memoir, which effectively ends in 1980 with his release from prison, when change is as yet incipient. His autobiography is less a story of “how I became what I am” than an account of “what I was before I became what I am”. Nevertheless, it is not only a confession; the organisation of the book evokes a contrast between past and present which, although revealing little about the actual mechanics of change, articulates a strong moral code.

This moral code is evidence of another kind of resilience, for the values and beliefs that Alan Duff stands for were already in vogue in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ day, and their decline has been observed many times since. The principal elements of this mentality are an odd combination of individualism and a fascination with statistics and large numbers; a faith in scientific rationality and a distrust of intellectual critique; a confidence in the uplifting function of literature; an appeal to biological heredity as an explanation of social reproduction; an insistence on the character-building benefits of hard work and discipline; and an ideal of manhood based on physical strength and competitiveness.

As far as his moral vision is concerned, Alan Duff indeed appears belatedly Victorian. His fiction has a strong grounding in a naturalist literary tradition and his memoir brings to mind a classic American autobiography, Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery, published in 1901. A hundred years ago, Washington was perhaps the most respected black leader in America and one of the most popular public speakers of his day. Although his autobiography belongs more properly to the “how I became what I am” variety, its vision of social change in many respects seems to anticipate Alan Duff’s ideas. Like Washington, Duff urges his people to emulate the dominant culture in business and industry in order to achieve social and political equality; like Washington, he champions the value of education but is sceptical of Maori higher education; and, like Washington, Duff firmly objects to political activism as a means to fight racial disparity.

Like Booker T Washington, Alan Duff is controversial among his own people because he challenges widely held assumptions about race relations, and, like Washington, he can point to his own life as the best argument in favour of his vision of change. Nevertheless, I can’t help observing that the record of violence, confusion and delinquency that marked Duff’s growing-up is inseparable from a context shaped by the mentality which he has somewhat belatedly acquired. After all, this mentality and its anchoring, especially in educational and penal institutions, make up a rather rigid and coercive social framework. For Alan Duff, to have successfully fashioned himself in this mould no doubt represents a triumph over fate, and perhaps his story will inspire others who recognise themselves in his self-portrait. But what a bleak place New Zealand would be if this were the only way for a Maori to succeed in this day and age.

That this is not the case and that there are other ways of growing up Maori has recently been demonstrated by Witi Ihimaera’s anthology, also published by Tandem Press, which under the title Growing up Maori presents short autobiographical pieces by more than 30 prominent Maori, including Alan Duff and many others of his generation. To recognise Duff’s voice among this gathering is a great relief because it suggests that his success is not only indicative of the resilience of a somewhat dated ideology but forms part of a larger movement toward greater possibility and diversity in New Zealand’s bicultural society.

Otto Heim’s study Writing Along Broken Lines: Violence and Ethnicity in Contemporary Maori Fiction was reviewed in our March 1999 issue.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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