Striding Both Worlds: Witi Ihimaera and New Zealand’s Literary Traditions
Katherine Mansfield and the (Post)colonial
Janet Wilson, Gerri Kimber and Delia da Sousa Correa (eds)
Edinburgh University Press
In Striding Both Worlds, Melissa Kennedy has written one of the most substantial and insightful books published in the field of New Zealand literature in recent years. Apart from the light it sheds on the works of Witi Ihimaera, its importance resides in the challenge it mounts to the conventional, accepted reading of Māori literature in New Zealand. Whereas most critics during the past 30 years have approached this literature from a “culture-centred position” derived from postcolonial theory, Kennedy reads from a “text-centred position”, and places Ihimaera’s work in the broader context of Western cultural references, rather than construing it simply in terms of the politics of Māori nationalism, as almost all previous commentators have done. Her study also benefits from being informed by a wider range of critical and theoretical perspectives, including those of European scholars, than is usually the case.
Kennedy’s approach yields an abundance of new insights that extend beyond Ihimaera himself to Māori writing as a whole. On the basis of her analysis of Ihimaera’s works, she identifies a “cross-cultural interaction” in Māori literature that contradicts any assumption that it is “a discrete enclave” isolated from the Pākehā world. Biculturalism itself, she argues, is “not formed by a binary of two opposites but by cross-cultural influences already within both halves” that can frequently lead to an “unreconciled tension in the multiple ways in which the Māori writer employs Western cultural references.”
In her close study of Ihimaera’s works, Kennedy offers compelling evidence to back up this claim, establishing the extent to which he was influenced by external traditions as diverse as English Romanticism, Italian opera, America popular and film culture, and international Western literary aesthetics and theory generally, demonstrating conclusively in the process that Ihimaera’s fiction operates within the contexts of the diasporic, indigenous, glocal and global novel. Such a combination of national and international biases, however, “cohabit with difficulty”, producing “alternating and contradictory stances” in Ihimaera’s work, in which he oscillates between confidence in modernisation and hybridity, and anger and grief at the alienation of land and loss of cultural identity that Māori have suffered since colonisation. In Kennedy’s opinion, Ihimaera’s relationship with Māori culture, as illustrated by the positions he adopts with respect to indigeneity and diaspora, “serves as a model for an understanding of Māori cultural identity and its artistic expression as multiple and composite.”
One of the strengths of Kennedy’s book is her detailed examination of less well-known works by this important Māori writer that are usually not discussed at any length. Apart from exploring the novels with which many readers will be familiar, like Tangi, Whanau, The Matriarch, The Whale Rider, The Uncle’s Story, and The Rope of Man, Kennedy also gives an extended analysis of little-known works like Waituhi: The Life of the Village (1984), the opera for which Ihimaera wrote the libretto, tracing the influence on it of Pietro Mascagni’s verismo opera Cavalleria Rusticana, upon which the former was closely modelled. Similarly, she explores Ihimaera’s venture into fantasy and science-fiction with Skydancer (2003), acknowledging it as an anti-mimetic, postmodern, metafictional text that plays with time and utilises pastiche, thus demonstrating how Ihimaera asks for his work to be read within the wider framework of contemporary Western literary aesthetics, rather than being tied narrowly to a fixed relationship with Māori culture outside the text. Together with her excellent discussions of Ihimaera’s use of operatic and musical allusions and English and European literary culture in works like The Matriarch, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and The Uncle’s Story, Kennedy’s exploration of these neglected texts rectifies the tendency of earlier critics to register only the Māori aspects of Ihimaera’s works. Her own avoidance of this error leads her to conclude, correctly, that on the basis of Ihimaera’s creative practices, “it is not possible to configure Māori writing as positioned against a static, hegemonic bastion of impenetrable Western literature.” Such a perspective is fresh and highly welcome.
There are, nevertheless, some surprising gaps in her coverage of Ihimaera’s oeuvre. Anyone looking for an exposition of The Dream Swimmer, one of Ihimaera’s most difficult, puzzling texts, will be disappointed, as this sequel to The Matriarch receives only a couple of cursory references. Similarly, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies receives very little attention, whereas it is perhaps Ihimaera’s most interesting rites-of-passage novel, making a good companion piece to The Whale Rider, and serving as an adolescent prelude to The Uncle’s Tale. While Kennedy does refer to Ihimaera’s project to rewrite his earlier works from time to time, much more could be made of this, particularly with respect to such a major work as The Matriarch: some consideration of the changes and additions Ihimaera has made to the original text in the later version he published could have illuminated some of the issues Kennedy raises.
But these are minor quibbles. Overall, Striding Both Worlds is a significant achievement that is unlikely to be displaced or superseded for many years to come. It provides a reliable guide to the complexities of both Ihimaera’s vision and also of his representational strategies. Given Ihimaera’s centrality within Māori literature, the new perspectives Kennedy has introduced have the potential to induce a fairly radical revision of the conventional account of Māori writing as a whole.
Rather than being a conventional edited volume, Katherine Mansfield and the (Post)colonial is the annual publication of the UK-based Katherine Mansfield Society, published in yearbook form. As such, it contains a diverse range of material, with half the volume consisting of critical essays that explore Mansfield’s identity as a (post)colonial writer in relation to her reputation as a European modernist, and the rest comprising original creative writing (poems by C K Stead, Kathleen Jones and Gladys Mary Coles, and a short story by Witi Ihimaera), reports on newly discovered Mansfield material (mainly transcripts and correspondence) of potential interest to scholars, and reviews of recent relevant publications. While the ancillary material is interesting, especially the reports, the main importance of the volume resides in the eight critical essays which, as Janet Wilson points out in her “Introduction”, represent a current of Mansfield criticism that has previously lain dormant.
Almost without exception, these essays are pertinent and illuminating. Given that all but one of the authors is based in Europe, the positions from which they view Mansfield’s writing – highly apposite in terms of investigating the colonial/postcolonial dimensions of her work – have generated a number of fresh perspectives and new insights, particularly concerning the complexity of Mansfield’s ongoing relationship with her New Zealand homeland. In an excellent essay, Aimee Gasston identifies Mansfield’s fascination with cannibalism, used recurrently as a trope, which shows her defiantly importing her own brand of savagery to Europe for the purpose of satirising the cultural elite of Europe. Gazing in the opposite direction, Lorenzo Vari shows how Mansfield in “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” uses family relations as an allegorical prism for representing her sense of New Zealand society as a “shattered Arcadia”. Another stand-out essay is that by Stefanie Rudig, who uses a comparison between Mansfield and Robert Louis Stevenson to show how, even though their migratory movements were diametrically opposed, each was accompanied by feelings of exhilaration and enthusiasm for the “new” culture, as well as feelings of unease and de-familiarisation. The experience of these contradictory feelings, Rudig argues, simultaneously caused both writers to subvert and redefine marginality, while leaving them with a heightened awareness of selfhood. Essays such as these, in my view, demonstrate the contribution European scholars can make by looking at Mansfield’s oeuvre from their different perspective.
In certain other essays, however, one senses the machinery of postcolonial theory being asserted too forcefully, at the expense of the more nuanced reading that the complexities in Mansfield’s writing requires. I am not sure that Homi Bhabha’s model of inescapable hybrid “in-betweenness”, which provides the foundation for at least one essay (for example, that by Aretoulakis), takes us as far as one needs to go in accounting for Mansfield’s feelings towards her native homeland relative to Europe when, as several of the authors point out, there is a temporal shift in Mansfield’s attitude, as she turned in later life to her homeland for inspiration, recognising that “a young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to recognise it … New Zealand is in my very bones.”
The real significance of this collection is that it reveals Mansfield as a writer who could incorporate displacement without denying it, using her experience of the complexities it generated to work progressively through issues of self that kept on evolving right up until her early death in 1923. It also becomes clear, as Vincent O’Sullivan points out in his report on the editing of the recently published Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, that important areas need further critical attention: her attitude towards, and engagement with, Māori; her widespread use of fairy stories; and threads of sadism and masochism that become obvious in her work. This book is very timely, therefore, in indicating a variety of potential avenues for further exploration.
Alistair Fox is emeritus professor of English at the University of Otago.