Shining a transformative light, Sarah Quigley

Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand
Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776560707

At a time when much of Europe is preoccupied with redefining – and defending – boundaries, New Zealand is in the comparatively luxurious position of being geographically isolated yet, thanks to electronic media, intensely connected with diverse political and cultural arenas. These benefits, plus a small but multi-ethnic population, mean that any examination of identity (national or otherwise) can be considered and reflective rather than hasty or reactive – as is evidenced by this wide-reaching, meditative collection of essays from Victoria University Press, Extraordinary Anywhere.

On a first reading, the title might be interpreted as an indication of New Zealand’s current mindset: a newish level of self-confidence that at best manifests itself as assuredness and innovativeness, and at worst comes across as a sort of collective complacency. Yet editors Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey are swift to clarify that, although these are Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand, the aim is not to place New Zealand on a global stage, nor to (re)define national identity. During their initial discussions about the project, they were struck by how many people were “writing, talking and thinking about the distinctiveness of particular places rather than the nation-state – from creative writers and journalists, to historians and cultural theorists.” And their wondering “what would happen if [they] brought some of these emerging conversations together”, along with the decision to encourage a foregrounding of the personal, resulted in this striking collection of essays. The 17 contributors are drawn from a range of disciplines, ethnicity and age brackets; they include Lydia Wevers, Martin Edmond, Ian Wedde, Ashleigh Young, Jack Ross, Alice Te Punga Somerville and Tim Corballis.

By adopting a personal narrative stance – albeit “without necessarily relinquishing the desire to speak of, and to, the collective or public” – the writers allow direct access to their innermost thoughts and experiences. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, this approach to the discussion of place is a newly indirect one. The essays have no didactic intent, central theses or emphatic conclusions; rather, they begin with individually chosen sites (literal or conceptual) and explore the way in which these shape mindsets, and give rise to feelings of belonging or not-belonging. As Horrocks and Lacey explain, these are “essays in the most well-known and perhaps truest sense of the word ‘essai’, meaning a trial or an attempt”; later in the preface, they describe the collection as a “series of experiments” in writing and thinking. Certainly, this is a unique collection; there is no comparable non-fiction book in New Zealand to date that offers such a diversity of voices and viewpoints.

One of the strongest, most lucid and well-structured essays is “Chop Suey Patties and Histories of Place”, by the historian Tony Ballantyne. It opens with a simple memory from Ballantyne’s childhood: family visits to Fairways, a local take-away shop in a southern suburb of Dunedin, to buy spring rolls and “really crisp crinkle-cut chips”. From here, Ballantyne glides swiftly though three decades – Honours at Otago, PhD in England, return to Dunedin, marriage, kids of his own – to his present-day existence, which still features “feed[s] from Fairways … fish and chips are a part of the routines of our family life.”

The brief, intensely personal childhood memory (one with which many readers who grew up in 1970s or 1980s New Zealand will identify) is but a bridge to an examination of wider socio-historical issues, including the prominence of Asian – particularly Chinese – families in commercial life in Otago and Southland, and the way in which once thriving suburbs, such as Caversham, have fallen into disrepair with the decline of small workshop-based industries and the weakening of social institutions such as churches and community associations. In other words, Ballantyne uses his chosen specific site (the take-away shop, then and now) and his personal viewpoint to segue into a discussion of the growth and subsequent decline of southern working- and middle-class suburbs. These, he points out, are highly “specific” worlds in themselves: profoundly different from other suburbs, even within Dunedin. Perhaps more clearly than the editors do, he sums up the methodology represented here: “Thinking upwards from specific everyday sites” to unravel the complexities of place in one’s country, and thinking “below” and also “beyond” the nation, using local and regional patterns rather than broadly nationalistic narratives.

Wevers’s essay “Dirt” is another beautifully executed blend of personal experience and a specific slice of New Zealand history and place. The literal “dirt” encountered by Wevers during one of her research projects was in a cache of books donated to Victoria University: an early lending library that was once housed on a sheep station in the Wairarapa, whose readers were “Victorians, including working-class Victorians”. In a similar way to Ballantyne’s crumbling Caversham facades, these books are unintended archives: every smear of grease, wax, mud or food is an indication of who might have borrowed a book, and where they might have read it. By interpreting these signs, and by returning to the original site of the library, Wevers reconstructs (she emphasises that “the history of place is always an act of reconstruction, an imaginative return”) life on “76,000 acres of Wairarapa eastern hill country”. She uses her personal presence in the essay, as narrator, academic and reader, to rebuild and connect to a past peopled by labourers and shearers, who were also readers. The concentric nature of this piece is hugely satisfying, not least as an example of how it is possible to place oneself at the centre of a narrative, and then transcend or even absent oneself, allowing a larger narrative to emerge.

Several other essays successfully employ personal anecdote as a springboard for exploration of the historical, geographical or sociological. Alex Calder’s essay opens casually, directly and colloquially: “Sarah and I spent Labour Weekend at Mainholm Lodge, a boutique bed and breakfast miles from anywhere, in the rolling Southland hills.” This could be the start of a fictional short story, or taken from a letter to a friend. But, from here, Calder moves swiftly into a discussion of the history of the homestead, its decline and its eventual resurrection as the set for a supernatural thriller (“not one of New Zealand’s most distinguished films”), along the way referencing Eudora Welty, Emily Brontë, William Faulkner, Janet Frame, Dan Davin, Lawrence Jones and Don DeLillo. “All places might be ordinary,” muses Calder, “waiting like indeterminate lumps for a Brontë, Frame or Faulkner to bring the transformative light. Or was it the other way round? Any place might be extraordinary if only we knew it.” This is a wonderfully assured piece of writing: funny and serious in turns, bounding between the private/anecdotal and the collective/cultural, while never losing its way.

These essays are three of the most polished and memorable pieces, while also being most representative of the editors’ stated aims. Many others are fine pieces of sociological or historical journalism, such as Sally Blundell’s measured yet moving essay on the machinations of memory and (literal) recovery of post-earthquake Christchurch: a piece that will undoubtedly become invaluable resource material. Others don’t quite manage to transcend the personal – or, by remaining fixed to an individual viewpoint, somehow block or impede a reader from identifying with content. Tina Makereti’s “By Your Place in the World, I Will Know Who You Are” engagingly illuminates moments in the struggle with a bicultural inheritance, but becomes lost in its examination of the writing process and the essay form itself. Lynn Jenner’s fragmentary, dialogue-fuelled contribution – bouncing between a story of an encounter with a road worker and observations on writing the actual piece (part of which began as a poem) – has commendable energy but, ultimately, in this context at least, fails to convince. Perhaps this is just too far from an “essay” – even from the loose definition offered by the editors – to sit comfortably with the more cohesive, more multi-layered and considered contributions.

There is a tentative, circuitous, wandering feeling to the collection overall, that belies some of its parts. One can’t help thinking that a slightly stronger editorial directive might have resulted in a stronger – while not necessarily less groundbreaking – collection. Yet this very tentativeness might also be considered a measure of the book’s success. These essays inch towards possible, even if partial, resolutions, and their processes are ones in which the reader is placed beside – rather than behind – the writer. Thus, we find ourselves reading not for answers, but for illuminations on a shared search: the search towards understanding our own place, or places, in multiple simultaneous narratives.

Sarah Quigley is a novelist, columnist and editor based in Berlin. Her new novel The Suicide Club will be published by Penguin Random House New Zealand in 2017.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review
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