Alternate lives, Louise O’Brien

Don Vicente’s Daughter and Other Stories
John Parkyn
Oceanbooks, price unavailable,
ISBN 978192715012

All the Voices Cry 
Alice Petersen
Biblioasis, $15.95,
ISBN 978196845524 

Albert Wendt
Huia, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775500377

John Parkyn’s first volume of short stories, Don Vicente’s Daughter and Other Stories, is an affectionate collection of yarns set in contemporary South America, where the Dunedin-born Parkyn now makes his home.  Having set his 1999 novella The Ambush in Nicaragua, he sets this collection  mainly in Mexico, reaching out to Cuba, Nicaragua and all the way back to New Zealand. But it’s the expatriate perspective which is defining, framing his depiction of a land which is exotic, colourful and always distinctly foreign.

Unsurprisingly, given Parkyn’s background in journalism, the depictions of local scenes and people are finely observed and very detailed. The dozen stories which make up the collection (three of them previously published) are dramatically atmospheric and rendered in vivid local colour: dusty plazas, blindingly bright in the heat of the day; grubby urchin children competing for street corners; donkeys, laden with produce, plodding down cobblestone streets to thronging marketplaces; noble peasants whose calloused hands are the dignified evidence of a lifetime’s arduous work; ex-pats fenced inside their opulent homes and narrow politics. Teetering on the edge of stereotype, these evocative images are set in startling juxtaposition with a social underbelly of poverty, political corruption, and the horrifically violent drug trade.

Sometimes the drama tips into melodrama, falling into stock metaphors and familiar phrases: in “Thunder”, a storm breaks as a wife confronts and then leaves her unfaithful husband. Occasionally, the tone slips even further into farce. In the title story, for instance, a beloved daughter is caught in the crossfire between police and her drug-lord lover: “Her head rolled to one side and a crimson froth stained her lips. A shadow swept across the plaza as a scudding cloud momentarily obscured the sun. Karina’s body twitched once, twice, then at last was still.”

The writing is at its best when the narrator is self-consciously an outsider, describing experiences across cultures. The writing is less convincing when the narrative attempts to inhabit an indigenous perspective. For, in Parkyn’s stories, it is the outsider who is best placed to see the systemic and institutionalised injustices which plague everyday life in South America, so inured are its inhabitants, so preoccupied by daily survival. The frustration and anger in the stories are thus also more often located in the outside voice, for whom the horror is not normalised. Across the collection, the narrative voice focuses strongly and despairingly on those ordinary people who suffer under a succession of oppressive regimes. Don Vicente’s Daughter and Other Stories is approachable and unchallenging, with a clear and consistent theme, and neatly conventional in structure. A straightforward linear narrative of beginning, middle and end carries the reader effortlessly along, and even when events are indeterminate, their intended lesson is not.

New Zealand-Canadian Alice Petersen’s debut story collection is quite different, in structure and conception. More complex, interesting and much more challenging, All the Voices Cry requires a great deal of work from its reader. Unlike Parkyn’s plot-driven and self-contained narratives, Petersen’s stories place their emphasis on the significance of an instant or a state of being. Using a wide range of voices, All the Voices Cry examines the weight of meaning contained in the moment: a car that won’t start; a prophecy given to a child; the cooking of a magnificent fish; a walk on the beach.

These stories are rooted in the natural world, saturated in lovingly detailed observations of landscape and wildlife, images which are also dominant as metaphor and allegory. Characters are very aware of the places they inhabit, whether Canada, New Zealand or the Pacific: a sculptor uses ferns and leaves to create transient works of art, a beachcombing artist records the variables of tide and current, an academic searches for Stevenson’s sea caves. Even when they’re not always at ease with forces which can be as threatening as they can be idyllic – the cold, the bears, and “rashes of unidentifiable origin” ‒ characters are fully present in the physical world.

Each story thus offers a moment from a life, as an excerpt from a larger story which is often left implicit. Each examines states of being, concepts and feelings, more than arcs of action; those, readers must flesh out for themselves. The clues offered in order to do that are in the form of patterns and repetitions, within and across the stories. The collection relies on these links to generate an implicit narrative, setting one thing against another to create a meaning existing in the collaboration between  text and reader. This way of reading is set out by Hattie, in “Neptune’s Necklace”, an artist who confesses to “a weakness for pattern”: “wherever three or more objects appeared together, well, that created significance, even if it was accidental”. In the stories, repetitions create rhythms, patterns create significance, everything draws meaning from the other things around it.

This approach lays a heavy burden on both the reader ‒ who must make the connections and figure out their significance – as well as on the prose itself. Images are weighted down with meaning, and every word is loaded with the enormity of potential significance. Sometimes the weight is more than the writing can bear, becoming tortured, over-thought and over-written. This effect is only amplified by the brevity of the tales in this collection – the longest is just 14 pages, the shortest are six. The writing is dense and condensed ‒ sometimes to the point of being cryptic ‒ and often poetically lyrical. All the Voices Cry is an exhausting and sometimes frustrating reading experience, but very pretty.

In his latest collection of short stories, Ancestry, Albert Wendt manages a lyricism which doesn’t tax the reader at all. Juggling literary theory, indigenous politics and cultural sensibilities, Wendt’s writing never loses sight of readability, never overwhelming the story or characters with the burdens of theme or message. Rather, those points are elegantly made through the combined weight of these vibrant stories, through the juxtaposition of their many voices and their very multiplicity.

A central figure in the development of Pacific literature, as writer, teacher and researcher, Wendt with his last magnificent novel, The Adventures of Vela, won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the south east Asia and Pacific region. Ancestry, as an unpublished manuscript, was judged overall winner of the 2011 University of the South Pacific Press Literature Prize. It portrays the varied ways of being and acting Samoan in the modern world, setting that multiplicity against the narrow confinements both of traditional Samoan expectations and Palagi stereotypes.

The background for modern identities is the conventional cultural stereotypes which the stories poke fun at, explicitly measuring authenticity against tired notions of Samoan-ness. Some characters are indeed dusky Gauguin maidens and noble savages, sage elders, great cooks and melodious singers: just as many are not. Literature and poetry are also represented as unreliable guides to reality, so when Laura sets her read experience against her lived experience in “First Visit”, she can’t determine which is authentic: “Now she is testing that [literary] reality against the real Samoa; or is that read reality shaping how she is seeing and being in Samoa? Fuck that dry intellectual wanking, just live it and enjoy it ….” Yet the enduring strength of such definitions makes it necessary that alternate lives and behaviours need to be affirmed as valid. This is underlined by the instances when characters are accused of being somehow not Samoan enough. In “Interrogation”, a daughter tells her middle-class father that “Our ‘aiga reckon you’re so Palagi you’ve only got temporary suntans!”; in “Friendship”, a student in an anthropology course has firm hopes of her Ngati Whatua lecturer: “Doctor, I hope your suntan goes all the way into your ihi!” Similarly, in “Hawai’i”, when Taimane’s cooking and housekeeping skills fail to fulfil cultural stereotypes, it’s her cultural authenticity not the stereotypes which her partner David calls into question: “And she was supposed to be Samoan, the ideal Samoan woman!”

The illogic of cultural stereotypes is further highlighted by those Palagi who act Samoan, as Laura does when she visits her husband’s village. To the discomfort of her hosts – for “Palagi shouldn’t do such work” – she eats outside, undresses in public, builds an open cooking fire, and cuts and carries wood, figuring out how to do it by referring to a book she read in an undergraduate English class (Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree). Her behaviour also discomforts her husband, who is more “at home” in New Zealand, “blending in easily with everything”, and “doesn’t really know much about” being a “proper Samoan”. Instead, he is “wriggling and squirming as he tries to walk that endless tightrope … caught in the quagmire of identity and his people’s demanding expectations”.

Those demanding expectations are shown to confuse and alienate, especially young people, requiring contorted cultural politics. In “Robocop in Long Bay”, Robo can only gain approval and belonging through a “practical schizophrenia” which lets multiple versions of identity coexist as he balances the expectations of one community with another. This is not hypocrisy but a pragmatic strategy that allows you to survive and be admired by your community as a “tama lelei”, while, with a clear conscience, you also give expression to the side that they condemn as “evil and sinful and of the flesh and un-Samoan” without hurting them.

So a young man dutifully plays his role in a church picnic before smoking dope out of sight of “severe scrutiny” behind a sand dune, and elders shun the youths whose lifestyle they condemn while accepting proceeds from their illegal activities. In “First Class”, Daniel’s mother likewise advises him to deal with his students’ curiosity and expectation of “this Samoan/Polynesian professor from New Zealand” by imitating an identity he doesn’t yet own: “act, act, act, that’s the only way you going to get somewhere.”

The implicit solution to the quagmire of identity described in Ancestry lies in the multiple valid versions of modern Samoan identity which it also represents: academics living in renovated Ponsonby villas, gang members, church elders, villagers, university students. These stories expand Samoan identity to include those living traditional lives and very non-traditional ones, encompassing people of all hues, including the new caramel generation (“a mix of brown Polynesian and white Pakeha”). There’s no one way to be Samoan in this collection, and its inclusive definitions allow complexity and variation, while still affirming the values of a common ancestry and inheritance. It’s not a new formulation but it’s well-executed, gentle and with Wendt’s characteristic mastery of language, myth and narrative.


Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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