Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand
It was E M Forster who told us that study is only a serious form of gossip. I sometimes think the study of literature is perhaps more like a high tea, only we enter into it with no expectation of Battenbergs and cucumber sandwiches being provided. Aside from the formalities, it’s the conversation that matters, and in conversation, timing counts for a lot. We don’t have to say the cleverest thing, but we do need to say something apt, and at just the right moment, if we wish to command the interest of our listeners. This is true for writers, critics, readers: someone offers a conversational rabbit, and off we go after it.
There is, of course, something of a knack to presenting the right idea at the right time, and this is what interests Christina Stachurski in her monograph Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. Why did the three novels she examines – Man Alone, The Bone People, and Once Were Warriors (which is also treated in its filmed version) – capture our imagination? What allowed these books to seem so pressing, so timely when they first appeared? Stachurski explores why these three books made such a splash at our tea party by placing them within the historical contexts of their initial receptions.
One of the conventions associated with New Zealand literature is that we understand it as re-presenting ourselves on the page. Each of the books Stachurski examines has been lauded, historically, for its ability to do just this. She suggests that each of these novels picked up on and presented formulations of identity, and particularly Pakeha identity, which were contemporaneous with their publication and reception. Reading Pakeha sees these texts as appealing, in part, through their ability to reflect and confirm the worldviews of much of their readership.
For Stachurski, these novels are the very stuff of identity politics. She blends a variety of theoretical approaches, carefully laying out her “analytical toolbox” in her longish introduction, which draws on the works of Freud, Edward Said, Wolfgang Iser, Eve Sedgwick and others. This is a rogues’ gallery of theorists, but Stachurski’s prose remains cogent and readable, especially in her discussions of the books themselves. It is here, in her treatment of Mulgan, Hulme and Duff, that the real interest in Reading Pakeha lies.
In Stachurski’s argument, Man Alone allows its readers to understand the New Zealand landscape as being basically vacant, devoid of Maori presence, available for occupancy by Pakeha colonisers. Johnson’s journey represents a victorious recolonisation of the land. She argues that Mulgan’s novel offers a version of Pakeha-ness that tends to exclude all but white, heterosexual men. On the other hand, The Bone People offers a substantially wider vision of what it is to be Pakeha, but this is still a conception that Stachurski worries tends to exclude women, and risks essentialising Maori identity. She argues that Once Were Warriors might not essentialise Maori in the way The Bone People does, but it does play into the kind of thinking that interprets Maori as entirely responsible for their disadvantaged position, and seeks to frame domestic abuse as a specifically Maori problem. Each of these scenarios is richly suggestive of Pakeha worldviews at the time these books were most celebrated, and, taken in sum, Stachurski presents a fairly troubling assessment of the novels. The problems of postcolonialism arise once more.
However, she is interested in pressing further and identifying the implied readers of the novels. The notion of the implied reader, which suggests that books call for a certain sort of reader, is attractive in theory; it would allow us to usefully read works of literature as if they were historical studies of attitude, zeitgeist and culture. Yet in practice, it is maddeningly difficult to use the idea to produce authoritative criticism. When we read, we disagree with books as much as we agree with them. Often we might not find ourselves described on the page, but find value in a work nevertheless. Just because The Bone People was a literary sensation does not mean that the majority of its readers used it as a tool with which to shape their personal identity. Some did, apparently – Joy Cowley’s famously gushing review comes to mind – but whether this represents a generalised response is harder to gauge. The doubts and disputations of common readers often remain unrecorded.
Reading Pakeha’s awareness of the historicised and timely nature of literary discourses is perhaps its strongest point; curiously, it is also a point of weakness. Stachurski notes that the “germ” of her book comes from her doctoral thesis. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the thesis is a venue in which writers can stretch out, research over a number of years, and engage with the really difficult stuff. Yet her thesis was submitted in 2001, and, although doubtless revised for the present publication, Reading Pakeha addresses itself most strongly to conversations we were having about New Zealand literature over the course of the 1990s. Whatever our notion of New Zealand literature was at the turn of the millennium, it has changed over the last 10 years. Stachurski’s discussion of Man Alone as a late colonial text seems a little odd next to the actual late colonial texts excavated in Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’ brilliant 2006 book, Maoriland. In 2008, Victoria University hosted a conference entitled “Flogging a dead horse: are national literatures finished?” The organisers’ tongues were only partly in their cheeks; this kind of event perhaps shows how complicated the postcolonial literary environment has become. It is as if Stachurski briefly stepped out of the room, and returned only to take up the conversation at an earlier point. It is not that her contribution is not worthwhile; simply that it does not seem entirely timely.
She does touch on this new era in her conclusion, where she suggests that we have perhaps passed the point where the publication of any single novel could capture our attention quite as completely as Mulgan’s, Hulme’s and Duff’s managed to. Does this mark the break-up of our little tea party, or does it merely suggest that the room is now so full that no single voice will cut across the gathered hubbub? That’s a question worth pondering over the teacups.
Tim Jones has recently completed an MA in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.