Obituary – Peter Wells (1950-2019)

Peter Wells (1950-2019)

Siobhan Harvey

Into the apparent silence of diverse voices in Aotearoa New Zealand literature, award-winning novelist, essayist, historian, anthologist, filmmaker and playwright, Peter Wells spoke. His was an articulation which, in life, was strong, uncompromising, inquisitive, intelligent, humane, amusing and vulnerable – qualities which reflected the character of the man; qualities, moreover, which will remain evident to future generations should they read a book by him. 

Today, diversity is a public and personal landscape navigated with relative freedom by the young. Social media posts by devout sports celebrities proclaiming damnation for “unrepentant” gay people surface, sadly. Likewise, populist global heads of state institute policies persecuting those who are different. As Brunei evidences, homosexual love is positioned as a criminal, even capital, offence in many countries. 

By and large, though, the prevailing trend globally is one of acceptance and equality where LGBTQI peoples are concerned. In New Zealand, classrooms in which tomorrow’s authors are being shaped are generally tolerant spaces for those who recognise or explore their diversity. This openness is reflected in the works of our best emerging writers, including Chris Tse (He’s so MASC), Hera Lindsay Bird (Hera Lindsay Bird) and essa may ranapiri (ransack). As a mother and member of the rainbow community, I’m heartened to see such progress and tolerance. But it wasn’t always thus.

More than any other author in this country, Wells broke with a literary tradition which saw being gay as taboo. Rather than following the convention of using discretion, implication and sublimation to write about being gay, Wells broke ranks, choosing to craft narratives which are candid, unprejudiced and richly mulled in their depictions of gay lives. In this, he uncovered freedoms those who have come after him have inherited. 

Born in Auckland in 1950, Wells grew up in a Point Chevalier he describes, in the first chapter of that exemplary New Zealand memoir Long Loop Home (2001), as “a prison … a wasteland … a no-man’s-land”. Framed through the perspective of his teenage self, it is a world which parallels his recollections of his time spent at “all-boys, military-type, sports-mad” Mount Albert grammar, “which I went into loving and came out hating”. From the early 1970s onwards, attendance at Auckland University, then Warwick University (UK), followed. Here, also, was an era, “an exciting, highly molten moment in which sexuality, race, gender floated free”, during which Wells came out: as gay and as a writer. 

By the time his first book, the collection of short stories, Dangerous Desires (1991) was released, with its important exploration of identity, AIDS, family and eroticism, Wells had already made important contributions to New Zealand television, documentary and film through the likes of Jewel’s Darl (1985), A Death in the Family (1986) and The Mighty Civic (1988). His book’s scooping of the Reed Fiction, PEN First Book and New Zealand Fiction awards was followed by a second story collection, Duration of a Kiss (1994), and a novel, Boy Overboard (1997). Indeed, 1997 was an illustrious year for Wells, with the release of the Nicki Caro directed movie Memory & Desire (based on stories in Dangerous Desires), the Stewart Main directed One of THEM! (scripted by Wells), and the groundbreaking anthology Best Mates: Gay Writing in Aotearoa New Zealand, which collected many of the hidden gay voices and writings from the past. The following year, he co-founded the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Wells subsequently wrote many important, enduring books, such as the aforementioned 2002 Montana Book Award Biography winner, Long Loop Home, 2004 Deutz Medal for Fiction runner-up, Iridescence, and Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pakeha History (2018). In 2006, he was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. As with the best partnerships, Wells’s accomplishments were supported and nurtured by his long-term relationship with husband, author and design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins. 

But, in the bravery of being the first, there’s always loneliness and exposure. In spite, or perhaps because of, his trailblazing, Wells knew full well the potential debility of being framed as “the gay writer”. Through his beautifully crafted prose and richly layered characterisation, not to mention his masterful realisation of plot and story, he long defied literary stereotyping of self and others. 

So, it’s left to his books and his extensive work as a literary activist to sustain and deepen our understanding of Wells. Close as we are to his passing, what can be said with certainty is – as the author of superlative books like Dangerous Desires, Long Loop Home and Iridescence; as unflinching essayist of “When my brother got thin” (joint-winner of the 1999 Landfall Essay Prize); and as co-founder of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and “the same same but different” literary festival – Wells’s oeuvre and achievements will continue to inform our literature and diversity. 

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