Don’t we live in America? Rose Lovell-Smith

A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction
Anna Jackson, Geoff Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer and Kathryn Walls
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864736970


Chapter four of this collection of essays by five authors is called “Utopia”. But it is actually about dystopias – some of the many unpleasant and gloom-inducing post-apocalyptic dystopias recently created by New Zealand authors for older children and young adults. As a chapter title, “Utopia” acknowledges the idealism that has always accompanied nation-building in New Zealand, an isolated country with an equable climate, one easily envisioned, it seems, as transformable into a near-perfect place. But the actual dystopic subject-matter of Chapter four acknowledges the equally strong elements of pessimism and “soured idealism”  which has marked our literature at least since the Great Depression.

In a national literature where the dominant fictional mode has always been realism, “making up” or imagining into new forms the place where we live has not been all that common. But fantasy-lands more or less resembling New Zealand have flourished in the novel for older children and adolescents, as is evident throughout this “first study of national identity in New Zealand YA fiction”.

Nevertheless, as Anna Jackson notes in the first page of her introduction to this study of nationhood, “Children themselves, even older children, are unlikely to find [national identity] an interesting focus.” Young people, as she notes, make up and imaginatively inhabit their own landscapes, their own significant places – and New Zealand, their own nation, is, apparently, unlikely to be one of them. Jackson cites Steph, the youngest daughter in Elizabeth Knox’s autobiographical-cum-fictional  account of childhood in a 1970s Tawa family, The High Jump, who “does not even know what ‘New Zealand’ is, and, when told it is the country she lives in, feels ‘aggrieved’, asking, ‘Don’t we live in America?’ ”

It’s hard not to find Steph’s question still a pertinent one. But the interest of this book is not in what kinds of guidance we give young people engaged in constructing their own “imagined community” of New Zealand: it does not answer questions about how, why and what our young people read. Rather, it is a theoretical discussion of our literary construction of a sense of national identity by relating it to, or deriving it from, the worlds we are shown to inhabit in novels for juveniles.

As such, however, this book is explicitly, and unusually, not interested in landscapes, in the mountains, beaches, bush, farmlands, mangrove swamps or streams of childhood adventure. Rather, it embarks on a series of sideways approaches to social formations usually taken for granted,  interrogations of “largely peripheral details” – and as such, I found it fascinating.

In YA fiction there’s always been a lot of interest in processes which might easily become metaphors of the post-colonial situation: processes like growing up, leaving home, finding out more about who you are, and finally achieving independence, individuality and a secure sense of selfhood. Which might be why, here, refracted through the process of locating fictions for the young, our recurrent obsession with our fragile sense of national identity and with the challenges of our diverse set of problematic post-colonial heritages often acquires interesting new depths and new dimensions.

As an example of a rather rare kind of local publication, a specialised study of juvenile fiction with a specific theoretical orientation, A Made-Up Place is exciting to read. Each of the five authors has contributed two chapters to the book, and each of these 10 quite brief chapters tackles hefty issues raised by a central ideologically rich concept.

After Jackson’s introduction, which covers the relevance and interest of overseas theorisations and models to our own discourses of national identity, these chapter titles are, in order: “Maori and Pakeha”, “Englishness”, “History”, “Utopia”, “Money”, “Religion”, “Sport”, “Futures” and “Maori Gothic”. In general, these concepts prove useful ones. They have stimulated a rewarding set of discussions which often overlap in fruitful ways, viewing the same book from different angles, and throwing new light on each other’s claims.

Not all chapter authors take the same approach. Harry Ricketts provides an overview of common trends across many historical fictions in “Histories”; Kathryn Walls concentrates her discussion on Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps, Maurice Gee’s The Champion and Jack Lasenby’s The Conjuror, thus covering three decades of change and continuity in ideas about Maori-Pakeha relations (the time frame for the book, according to the first page, is “published since the 1970s”). Geoff Miles’s closing discussion of Maori Gothic, although largely devoted to showing there’s no such thing, does make for an interesting ending with its look at some fresh new texts.

Particularly valuable, I thought, was the nomination of “Englishness” as a central concept: Miles’s discussion of the Knox Dreamhunter duet, which I was pleased to see paid serious attention as the “most imaginative and complex treatment of the utopia/dystopia motif in recent YA fiction”; and Kathryn Walls’s discussion, in “Money”, of the fundamental importance of poverty and wealth in Margaret Mahy’s YA fiction: her analysis of The Changeover, in particular, was a real eye-opener.

On the other hand, the tendency of some of the authors to depend on intensive analysis of a limited number of texts, while it gives cohesion to the book, can mean that a specific chapter, like Tatjana Schaefer’s chapter “Futures” – dealing, inevitably, with New Zealand’s pasts and presents rather than its actual future – becomes somewhat repetitive when Gee’s O trilogy, Lasenby’s The Conjuror and Beckett’s Genesis all come up for discussion a second or even third time round.

New Zealand YA fiction has been a fairly conservative genre. As Walls’s discussion of money in Mahy makes clear, even when an author’s acute understanding of social issues is manifest in their narrative, this has not necessarily been accompanied by fictional attention to the possibility of social change or to the mainstream politics, unofficial political activism or community-based grassroots enterprises which might (and do) actually bring about social change.

Ricketts’s survey of the YA historical novel, of course, provides some cases where private individuals do get touched by, or even swept into, stirring events, and he notes the use by Pakeha authors of the time-slip narrative which brings past and present Maori and Pakeha  characters together at a time of crisis or warfare (time-slip novels, where present-day children of the coloniser enjoy the privilege of visiting indigenous people in the past – often a “pre-contact” past – are found in many post-colonial children’s literatures).

Another national trend noted by Ricketts is the apparently entirely Pakeha contemporary character endowed by the author with mixed ancestry. This trope (see Mahy’s Changeover and Kaitangata Twitch) occurs at the end of Tessa Duder’s Alex quartet, where “Alex’s future partner Tom is suddenly, conveniently revealed to have distant Maori ancestry” – a move which, as Ricketts notes, “is both opportunistic and anachronistic”, belonging rather to the time of publication, 1992, than to the ostensible setting in the 1960s.

Has literature for young people been more prolific in producing fantasy worlds than fantasy utopias? In one genuine children’s utopia, Edith Nesbit’s Fabian vision of London transformed, a clean and quiet city stands beside the crystal-clear Thames, its beautiful low-rise housing set in a continuous garden, altogether looking rather as we hope Christchurch is going to look after the earthquakes.

Nesbit’s futuristic London is visited by her time-travelling child characters in The Story of the Amulet (1906), and they are astonished to meet a boy who likes school – a reminder that perhaps we have not done too badly. I always used to think this London sounded like a really nice place to live. But, offhand, I cannot think of a fantasy utopia among the children’s classics of the British colonies, where the Seven Little Australians or Six Little New Zealanders strain of realism has, at least until recently, been stronger than the Magic Pudding or Falter Tom and the Water Boy strain of fantasy, and where among the most popular books have been L M Montgomery’s Ann of Green Gables and sequels, Mary Grant Bruce’s  Billabong series or our own Drovers Road trilogy by Joyce West.

All of these are certainly utopic, but all present the good place as a thoroughly realistic rural, egalitarian, communitarian settler society. Settler societies didn’t need to fantasise utopias then, I suppose, because settlers lived in them, or imagined they did, and expected to keep them, too, forever.


Rose Lovell-Smith teaches in the English Department of the University of Auckland. 

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Posted in Essays, Literature, Non-fiction, Review, Young adults
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