“We are entering a new world; one in which everything is alive and in motion. If we are to find our way, we must learn to map water and fire, wind and mist”, (233) says Hōne Heke at the end of Dylan Horrocks’ graphic novel, Hicksville. Heke is speaking to James Cook and a representation of Charles Heaphy, and while it is possible that Heke and Heaphy crossed paths, Cook could never have met either of them. So why does Horrocks place them together in a curious subplot to his book, a post-modern ‘comic-within-a-comic’, depicting them as lost in a landscape that keeps changing? The answer could be that these three characters can be easily read as emblematic representations of the different threads that came together to create the fabric of New Zealand society today; the indigenous, the explorer, the settler. “But how does one map when there are no fixed points of reference?” (234) asks Heaphy’s character; and indeed, how do we, as New Zealanders, map our culture when it is constantly evolving? Ought New Zealand novelists be committed to this task?
In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium” (3). Two and half thousand years earlier, Plato also combined the work of the poet and the painter in Republic; “He is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth” (Cai 12). In Metaphysics, Aristotle seemed to reject his teacher’s implication that creative writers impart too much emotion into their works for them to ever be considered objective representations of reality, though he did concede that “The difference between the historian and the poet is … one relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur” (Cai 13). In a book published this year, History Is a Contemporary Literature, Ivan Jablonka writes that “History is not a fiction, sociology is not a novel, anthropology is not exoticism” (2). He then, albeit somewhat arbitrarily, lists the kinds of literature that can “produce knowledge about the real world, past and present” as being “travel logs, memoirs, auto-biographies, correspondences, testimonies, diaries, life stories, and news reports” (2). Presumptuousness aside, novels are noticeably not present. As truly powerful and important as literary fictional forms undoubtedly are (Aldama 235), it would appear the consensus across the ages is that they are limited in their ability to be true depictions of reality. Even so, can they still tell us something of culture? And, if so, the question remains; should this be their aim?
In his book, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, John Storey quotes Pierre Macherrey’s A Theory of Literary Production, in a defence of literary fiction as a means to glean insight into culture; “It is in a text’s ‘unconscious’ that its relationship to the … historical conditions of its existence is revealed”. The ‘unconscious’ being referred to here is generated in the narrative discourse; the ‘truth promised’ versus the ‘truth revealed’ by the act of reading, within such experience lies the ‘unconscious’ – and the delivery of a repressed, ‘historical truth’ (Storey 46).
Evidence to support this idea, that fiction is capable of inadvertently delivering the historical context surrounding its creation, can be found by analysing New Zealand’s own novel history. To start with, New Zealand’s relationship with literature arrived at complications from the earliest possible moments. For hundreds of years, Māori tradition closely guarded knowledge, passing it down orally from carefully selected members of one generation to carefully selected members of the next (Sturm 1). In complete contrast, British tradition recorded knowledge in print, encouraged a general ability to disseminate it, and gauged societal progress by measuring rates of literacy (Sturm 3). Therefore, the story of how the earliest ‘New Zealanders’—whomsoever after Cook’s arrival in 1769 this label applied to—value literature is immediately and inescapably mixed with complex colonial history and revision. Some contend that the more literate Māori became, out of necessity to coexist alongside colonials and by missionaries converting them to Christianity, the greater the distance from their oral traditions they found themselves; a phenomenon described as ‘cultural-colonialism’ (Ballantyne 245). Apparent proof that Māori struggled to find their voice in a colonial medium that had stolen their voice from them, is that it was not until 1972 that a book was published by a Māori author. Indeed, Witi Ihimaera’s short story novel, Pounamu, pounamu, and the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s, arrived more than two centuries after Cook.
However, Ihimaera himself writes in his autobiography, Māori Boy, that despite popular belief, there were early Māori writers (247) and the “unsympathetic climate” (Sturm 23) towards Māori literature is more nuanced than simple racism. Of Pounamu, pounamu, and this nuance, Ihimaera writes that “[Māori] really had to adjust their thinking about it” (44). Some claim that Pākehā inventing the Māori alphabet and writing about Māori—in English —alongside the translation issues with the Treaty of Waitangi and the ongoing focus of print in land disputes, and, as already mentioned, the complications surrounding oral traditions and colonialism in general, all contributed to the “slow … tentative” emergence of Māori in New Zealand novel writing (Sturm 23).
The fact remains, however, that Māori novelists were missing for a long period of time; a period that coincides with the hideous belief that Māori would become extinct and the prohibition of te reo in schools. This gives shape to Pierre Macherrey’s assertions that fiction is “the articulation of silence” and “What is important in the work is what it does not say” (Storey 45). If we view New Zealand-authored novels as a national bibliography, this long silence of the tangata whenua articulates loudly a shameful part of New Zealand’s past, giving new meaning to Allen Curnow’s statement in 1945 that “Strictly speaking, New Zealand doesn’t exist yet” (Curnow, “Dialogue”, 77).
The near-complete absence of New Zealand from Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife can be read in a similar way. Published by a British publisher in 2008, it tells the story of an Englishman recalling the months leading up to his Australian wife’s suicide. The book is mainly set in London and only two, very minor, characters are New Zealanders. Perkins’ national identity is entirely masked, as is her gender. However, by writing of an Australian woman’s troubled ‘overseas experience’ in London, now a staple adventure for many young New Zealanders, Perkins does faintly sketch a portrait of New Zealand, or ‘Australasian’, culture. Themes of isolation, distance, homesickness, national identity, ‘fresh starts’, globalisation, etc., are all indicative of the ‘overseas experience’, yet they also echo elements of our colonial history. “I hate this bloody country!” one of the New Zealanders sobs one day, to which the main character, Ann, comforts her by saying, “I know, I know … I found it hard too when I first came” (Perkins 200). In the 1960 The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Curnow described this anxiety surrounding national identity, cultural substance, belonging, and historical legitimacy that Perkins appears to be evoking: “The best of our verse is marked or moulded everywhere by peculiar pressures—pressures arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history” (17).
The unusual subplot in Hicksville of Cook (as isolation), Heaphy (as physical character), and Heke (as history) can best be understood with Curnow’s ‘peculiar pressures’ in mind. The character of Emil in Hicksville, who is from a fictitious country called Cornucopia, suggests that there are two types of maps; those which represent place and those which represent time (Horrocks 86). Hicksville itself and Novel About My Wife demonstrate that novels can function in the same fashion, mapping our culture in time and space.
Interestingly, like Cornucopia, the version of New Zealand depicted in Hicksville is also completely fantastical, evolving Curnow’s ideas from 1960: “In making a first really comprehensive anthology of my country’s verse, I have found myself piecing together the record of an adventure, or series of adventures, in search of reality” (17).
It is clear then that New Zealand novelists can and do reflect different aspects of New Zealand’s changing culture in a variety of sophisticated ways, but importantly including via omission. Therefore, suggesting they ought to actively do this is a redundant imperative. If they focus simply on writing good novels, the rest will take care of itself.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of New Zealand’s diverse modern culture is the diversity of the novelists themselves; no longer are they bound by skin or shore. Exploring areas outside map—internal and external, historical and contemporary, imaginary and fantastical—does not mean they are lost, rather they have such a firm idea of where home is that they are not scared to venture over faraway horizons in order “to map water and fire, wind and mist”.
I know this firsthand; I am a New Zealander and my first book happens to have nothing to do with New Zealand. It is being published by an American company (Unsolicited Press) and will be printed in American English. Due for release next year, the inside sleeve will read ‘Printed in the United States of America.’ However, the shadow of my national silence articulates a silhouette; I am free of nationalist thinking because I am from this free-thinking nation.
- Aldama, Frederick Luis. “Why the Humanities Matter”. University of Texas Press, 2008.
- Ballantyne, Tony. “Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past”. University of British Colombia, 2012.
- Cai, Zong-Qi. “Configurations of Comparative Poetics: Three Perspectives on Western and Chinese Literary Criticism”. University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.
- Curnow, Allen. “A Dialogue with Ngaio Marsh.” Look Back Harder, 76–82.
- Curnow, Allen, editor. “The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse”. Penguin, 1960.
- Horrocks, Dylan. “Hicksville”. Victoria University Press, 2010.
- Ihimaera, Witi. “Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood”. Vintage, 2014.
- Jablonka, Ivan, and Nathan J. Bracher. “History Is a Contemporary Literature: Manifesto for the Social Sciences”. Cornell University Press, 2018.
- Perkins, Emily. “Novel About My Wife”. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.
- Strum, Terry, editor. “The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English.” Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Penguin Books, 1985.