Speaking for Themselves: Ex-pats Have Their Say
Cape Catley, $29.99,
Visitors to New Zealand are asked, not long after arrival, a little question that comes up again and again – “So, what do you think of New Zealand?” By “not long after” I mean in the taxi on the way from the airport, and by “again and again” I mean whenever they encounter a Kiwi. I’ve been here for the better part of 16 years, so can suggest, “It’s just beautiful here, and the people are just lovely” as a good response. “Oh my gosh” works as a preface, but only if you’re American.
In spite of answering the question many times, it has never occurred to me that this was also a question ready-made for those intrepid Kiwis who have for whatever reason made their lives elsewhere. In Speaking for Themselves Jan Morgan has asked a whole lot of ex-pat Kiwis about being Kiwi and, like us foreigners, they seem to find the place beautiful and full of lovely people, perhaps a bit lacking in opportunity and rather boring, but still it’s a beautiful place they’ll return to when they retire or are dead. Jon Stevens sums up the sentiment, if not eloquently, as least succinctly when he says:
Wellington has really become quite cosmopolitan, hasn’t it? It’s caught up, it’s grown up. I love the place and I’d love to go back and live there but I’d be bored, probably. I thrive on just doing stuff, and in New Zealand I’d get bored pretty quickly. But I’ll retire there, I will always go home. For the record, if I die anywhere in the world, somebody get me and take me back to New Zealand, will ya? Stick my body in New Zealand soil.
I’m afraid by the end of the book Stevens’ verdict becomes a rather tedious refrain – although few mention burial. The other big talking points are that it used to be even more boring, more racist and more lacking in opportunity than it is now, now being a time of great racial harmony, world class food and wine and a gothic sensibility that freaks out Peter Gordon and is exploited successfully by Trelise Cooper, both of whom just love being Kiwis.
All of the writers talk about how New Zealand has changed, and one of the more interesting aspects of that change is the wish to be associated in some way with the tangata whenua, an association which represents a somehow more New Zealand way of being a New Zealander. For instance, I now know that Peter Gordon is 1/36 Maori, Paula Morris’ father was part-Maori, Rena Owen is half, and Alannah Currie had a Maori family next door. Teddy Tahu Rhodes sports a Maori tattoo because “Maori and Pacific Islander culture is so beautiful”, and Temuera Morrison is “brown white” (part Irish/Scottish and part Maori), “but the Maori side gets Tem’s full attention.”
Wanting to be Maori is great, but in the context of this book it seems yet another way to idealise a place that – unless I’ve missed a major cultural shift – is still busy trying to sort out its race relations.
The issue of boredom aside, the problem is not the integrity of the Kiwis – I’m sure they mean it – the problem is the question, or lack thereof. The book is supposed to be a series of interviews with successful Kiwis living abroad; the problem is that there don’t seem to have been many questions; without questions you get rambles; and while it turns out John Clarke and Sam Neill are good ramblers, the others don’t exactly shine.
I once asked that iconic ex-pat Kim Hill whom it was she wanted to interview. She said she didn’t care as long as they were interesting. What occurs to me in reading Speaking for Themselves is that Hill’s interviews work because the interviewer makes it possible for something to happen. Even if you don’t edit it down, as you can’t in a live interview, the interviewer shapes the conversation, they lead their subject to unexpected places, they reveal something, they spark insight, or outrage, or something more than that New Zealand is a good place to be buried. I wish Hill had done the book; it would have been fascinating, as Kiwi ex-pats as a category are an interesting bunch. As it is, the book reads like a bunch of seemingly homesick postcards written by people who know they are obligated to say something nice – after all, we live here and they live somewhere better.
Laura Kroetsch is an ex-pat American who lives in Wellington.