When I arrived in New Zealand 28 years ago I confessed to an eminent seismologist that, although an avid reader, I knew little about New Zealand writing. Fortunately for me he was a Renaissance man with an interest in everything. He promptly lent me Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame. I was intrigued, finding it quirky, sad, poetic and wise. Next, he lent me Plumb by Maurice Gee. I loved the author’s slow unveiling of the complexities of the protagonist. Gee’s approach was different to Frame’s, yet I could see there was a link, one I could only describe to myself as a distinct New Zealand-ness. Thus began an enduring passion for New Zealand literature.
They were heady days, and Wellington was a great place to be. Fiona Kidman’s A Breed of Women was published and became the first New Zealand novel I actually bought. I lent it to someone who never returned it. If the culprit happens to be reading this, I’d like it back, please. In the iconic Unity Books at Perretts Corner, I discovered a host of other home-grown novelists and poets, and my early forays into New Zealand history and biography revealed a past so immediate, it was as if I could reach out and touch it.
I went along to the Poetry Society and, with dizzying speed, became its vice president. The glow of this august title remained even after I discovered it meant my going up a dark alley to collect the key to Crossways before opening up and setting the chairs out. The job also entailed shopping for flagons of wine to sell by the glass in the interval and being gently badgered by the president, Irene Adcock, into giving lifts home to elderly patrons. Irene was so gracious and such a driving force behind the society that I could never refuse her.
A decade later saw me national president of what was then PEN, now the New Zealand Society of Authors, thumping the table and saying that we wouldn’t agree to the Literary Fund’s transferral to the Arts Council unless it was to the sector’s advantage. Not many months after that I was appointed first programme manager, literature, for the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, later to become Creative New Zealand.
Now that I’ve popped out the other side, so to speak, 17 years later, it seems timely to cast an eye over the scene. Those earlier writers have become revered elders, and a host of terrific younger authors have succeeded them. The literary organisations work well together, and the old parochialities have been watered down in favour of the greater good. This year sees the inauguration of New Zealand Book Month, with movers and shakers from all parts of the industry getting behind it.
Creative New Zealand is a vital player in the mix. It contributes roughly $1.7 million a year towards writing, publishing, touring, promotions, residencies, book awards, fellowships, festivals, international exchange, audience and market development, professional development, mentoring – in fact, to every major literary activity that takes place at a national level.
Although perceived by many to be a kind of grey eminence that hands down decisions from on high, the Arts Council is made up of groups of hard-working people from all over New Zealand doing their best to allocate scarce resources in the context of rigorous scrutiny and debate. None of this support should be taken for granted. Much of it comes through a contestable project budget that is subject to increasing demands from all art forms and in danger of remaining static without an increased allocation from government.
Literature is particularly vulnerable because so many activities require recurrent support through the project budget, most notably the literary organisations, residencies, festivals, and journals (such as this one) that are annually funded. In a static dollar environment it is difficult to provide reasonable security and growth in these areas without reducing the one-off writing and publishing grants which are the lifeblood of the art form.
It is therefore in all our interests to highlight everything that is being achieved by state funding for literature at every opportunity. The government must be encouraged to sustain and, wherever necessary, to increase its support for the arts. New Zealand writing is leaving an enduring legacy that speaks of our unique cultural identity. It is a message that must be brought home, again and again.