From the heart
Linda Burgess’ review of Chicken Feathers in the Winter issue of NZB was warm and kind and I thank her for that. She made a comment that has been echoed by other reviewers, that the book was written for the American market, and because this seems now a statement of fact, I think it needs to be corrected. Two key elements of the plot are a fox and a boy who has never seen the sea. That removed the story from New Zealand, leaving options for the rest of the world; however, a writer must write what s/he knows, and because I’ve spent about five of the last 20 years in the United States, it was easiest to set Chicken Feathers in the American mid-west.
I don’t want readers to be misled into thinking that there is pecuniary advantage in writing for the American market. In the United States, book sales are driven by awards, and foreign nationals are not eligible for these awards. My two junior fiction works set in the States have had starred reviews but have not sold as well as their reprints in New Zealand and Australia. There is added disadvantage in that the judges of New Zealand awards tend to look for New Zealand-based literature. It is rare for a book set in another country to become a winner.
While it is wise for an author to be aware of publishing and marketing politics, the most important thing is to write from one’s heart. A story has its own life, its own truth, its own place, and if an author honours that, then there is fulfilment, whether the work sells well or not.
Nominating Andrew Fieldsend – an administrator at Sport and Recreation New Zealand – to review This Horrid Practice, my book on Maori cannibalism, seemed an odd choice, and this was certainly borne out in the quality of his review (NZB, Winter 2009). The review was heavy on pejorative language, and light on accuracy and insight. And, worse still, he left the unmistakable impression that he had made up his mind about the book well before reading it.
Certainly, much of his wording was intemperate. He slated me for using “old-fashioned, scholarly methods” because I insisted on strict evidentiary criteria, and when I reviewed the findings of a range of international experts on the psychiatric basis of some forms of cannibalism, Fieldsend simply rejected this as “amateur psychoanalysis”. In a similar vein, when examining early European accounts of Maori cannibalism to determine their reliability, I was said to be acting like a “coroner”.
He then repeated Rawiri Taonui’s now notoriously inaccurate comment that my book used no Maori records of cannibalism. This is manifestly untrue, and reflects poorly on the reviewer. The book is laden with direct quotations from many Maori across the country, spanning over a century, giving their statements on cannibalism.
I remain unapologetic about setting high probative standards, particularly in relation to contemporary oral sources, and some of the more improbable recent ideas about Maori cannibalism (such as the claims emanating from some academics that it never happened). Had I not been so meticulous, I suspect Fieldsend would have been the first to criticise such laxity.
Colonisers at bay
I recently enjoyed Paul Moon’s This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism and was pleased to see that it was reviewed in your last issue (NZB, Winter 2009). The review, however, was disappointing and somewhat misleading, in that it took Moon’s claims of his purpose at face value and then criticised him for not paying due notice to Maori accounts of cannibalism. While rightly noting the book as “provocative and controversial”, the reviewer failed to fully recognise its entirely polemical purpose – viz to challenge and refute the recent anthropological studies of cannibalism, particularly as they have strayed into the territory of the New Zealand “professional” historian.
Moon refuses to engage intellectually with the arguments of writers like Gananath Obeyesekere but rather wants to undermine and rhetorically defeat them. He wilfully appears to misrepresent the former Princeton academic’s position. For example, it is clear that Obeyesekere agrees with Moon that there is “reasonable evidence” to support the historical occurrence of Maori consumption of human flesh but the anthropologist wants to contextualise the reports of cannibalism within the wider framework of colonial representations of “natives” and the ways in which “native cannibal talk” was an effective form of resistance in keeping colonisers at bay.
This is a subtle point sidestepped by Moon and reduced to the proposition: well, was there cannibalism, yes or no? Even if the answer is clearly yes, Moon’s assumption that cannibalism was a “pronounced feature of the [Maori] culture” is never really substantiated. His recording of the religious campaign against cannibalism is fascinating and significant regardless of the extent of the practice. Finally, with its very short chapters, rather like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Moon’s book is an ideal travelling or long black companion.