Where We Land
The Cuba Press, $22.00,
KingFisher Publishing $30.00
Small presses continue to publish some of our most exciting new fiction. Both Where We Land and Īnangahua Gold take us away from present-day New Zealand. In doing so, they ask us to consider where we have come from and where we are going.
Tim Jones’s novella depicts a grim future New Zealand where our navy vessels torpedo refugee boats from Bangladesh attempting landfall. Its brief chapters oscillate between the story of Nasimul, a Bangladeshi refugee who survives the sinking of his ship to elude detention; and Donna, a young shop assistant with limited prospects who joins the territorial Shore Patrol in the hope it will open doors to fulfil her aspiration to train as a mechanic. What makes the novella such a compelling read is the fast-paced narration, coupled with descriptions that world-build a future Auckland in bold strokes: “In these years of the relentlessly rising sea, wealth brought elevation: the only people who lived close to the ever-advancing shoreline were those that could not afford to live further away.”
The time for arguing with the local councils about the risk posed by rising sea levels has long passed. Many streets are now unlit, water-logged, abandoned.
Climate fiction (cli-fi) can sometimes be a dry, ponderous genre (as anyone who has waded through Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 can testify). Not so with Jones, whose sense of mischief is at times reminiscent of Margaret Atwood. There’s a shambolic Dad’s Army quality to the inept antics of the Shore Patrol and a wry, often dark, sense of humour at work. Take this quip from the depiction of the sinking of Nasimul’s ship:
No self-respecting Bangladeshi river ferry sailed without at least twice the number of passengers it was rated for. But death, nipping at their heels the whole way, had achieved what no government functionary had ever been able to and reduced the number of passengers on the ferry to almost exactly the number it was allowed to carry.
This comedic tone invites us to laugh at the Shore Patrol and at the ridiculous propaganda speak of Sergeant “Big Bob” Wilson, while also seeing how Donna has internalised this jargon and how it supports the government’s brutal treatment of refugees and political dissidents. In the end, Donna will have to decide what and whom she believes.
Kathleen Gallagher’s Īnangahua Gold weaves two finely stitched interlaced narratives of the West Coast. We jump from one narrative to another, with most chapters prefaced with Michael Coughlan’s wonderful line drawings of flora and fauna. The first narrative, set in Hurunui in 1857, recounts the crossing of the Southern Alps by a party consisting of Raureka (a local Māori guide) and Murphy (an Irish settler) who have been employed by Pepper, an Englishman who aspires to be the first settler to cross the Alps. The second narrative, set in Īnangahua in 1877, tells the story of the recuperation of Wong, an injured goldminer being nursed back to health by an Irish settler family. There are some surprises in how these narratives dovetail with one another and we see, in the 20-year jump, how mining has started to dominate how settlers view land as a resource.
What’s striking about Gallagher’s prose is her use of clipped dialogue coupled with precise descriptions of landscape to tell her story. Gallagher offers keen observation of cloud formations, the movements of fish in water, the way an English colonist consults a pocket watch to locate himself within the day. The book successfully captures the vibrancy of the West Coast landscape and the rich mixture of cultures and languages spoken (te reo Māori, Irish Gaelic, English, Cantonese). The colonial English view of whenua as a resource to be exploited is coupled with a marginalisation of indigenous knowledge of how to be present and attentive to the living world. Gallagher draws strong similarities between the Māori and Irish experiences of colonisation. Land is stolen, people impoverished, and their language, knowledge and culture marginalised.
Yet the West Coast of Īnangahua Gold is rich with possibilities. Raureka teaches Murphy te reo Māori. For Murphy, an Irish Gaelic speaker, te reo is as much a second language as English. Their relationship of mutual respect suggests possibilities for how we might together move forward.
For both Jones and Gallagher, the non-human world of weather and landscape are more than a setting – they are aspects of a reality, an ecological real, which exists outside human thought and which both sustains life and presents limits to our existence. Both these engaging books are aware of the complex way language is tied to world views and systems of power – yet both also allow their memorable characters agency to make choices and to change their minds.
Harvey Molloy is a Wellington poet.