I met my New Zealander in the Summer of 1991, in Edinburgh, Scotland. On my last day, we popped into the Waterstones bookshop in Princes Street and she bought me this.
I read it during the long train journey back to Italy. I can still thumb through that copy and catch faint mnemonic glimpses of what it was like to not know the first thing about the country in which I now live. Although it wasn’t my absolute first book by somebody I consciously recognised as a New Zealand author. Earlier that year, fresh from watching Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, I read To the The Is-Land. It has one of the great beginnings in literature:
In the Second Place
From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.
That paragraph might as well have been placed at the beginning of Te Kaihau. These were stories that read like a novel, deeply strange and full of a terrible beauty. There was my first encounter with the unease and foreboding that would become so familiar and with the assuredness of that literary voice. It was exciting.
1991 was my first year out of high school. I enrolled in physics, and it took all of two weeks to figure out what an utterly preposterous decision it had been. However, I had to hang around for a while and sit one exam before transferring to another course in order to qualify for a deferral of my (compulsory) military service. The physics buildings included a large study room which the more senior students referred to as ‘New Zealand’. I never found out why.
I transferred to the faculty of modern letters, where by applying myself over the next several years I successfully failed to graduate. There they made me read Katherine Mansfield. She was easy to admire but I didn’t find her as exciting. Then Justine moved to Italy, which gave me both a reason and the means to learn about the place.
In October of 1994, following the success of The Piano, the New Zealand Film Commission took a festival to Milan entitled ‘The last wave – the new New Zealand cinema.’ (The oldest was Smash Palace and it’s not as if the country had produced more than a dozen feature films before it, but we’ll go with ‘new’.) I have been able to find the original programme online, which confirmed my recollection that it was a very good selection. We saw Utu, Ruby and Rata, Desperate Remedies, Ngati, Jack Be Nimble, Old Scores and a series of shorts. We missed Vigil and Smash Palace. Utu perplexed me a little (I look forward to seeing this year’s reissue). I liked Ngati most of all. Desperate Remedies, which seemed a good romp back then, turned out to have dated rather badly when I saw it a few years later on television. Or maybe I was looking for something else in my New Zealand cinema by then.
Aside from the saturating light that I remembered from Te Kaihau, two images in particular stayed with me from those films: the creature being pulled out of the drain in the short Kitchen Sink; and a sequence towards the beginning of the (otherwise terrible) horror Jack Be Nimble in which a housewife is repeatedly lashed in the face by wet clothes hanging from a rotary clothesline in the wind. The darkly humorous mystery/magic and the unthinking violence of the everyday.
A story in the Te Kaihau ends with one of those outrageous questions that a writer is not supposed to ask:
Have I told you anything?I realise now that in the four or five years before leaving Italy – even before there was a reason or a plan – I was building a country in my head, and that although it relied on the conversation and the personal stories of the few New Zealanders I knew (Justine, mostly), it was also, if not primarily, a literary country, a cinematic country, a country of visual arts and music.
Has it meant anything to you?
Or is it all just writing?
All just words?
We went to a rather unfortunate Crowded House concert. We saw Once Were Warriors (in Italian). I read some more Janet Frame, and one of those collections of short stories. I failed to read Alan Duff. There was Fred Dagg. There was a wonderfully tatty Front Lawn t-shirt. Then, for Christmas of 1995 – inscriptions can be so precious, so precise – another book-gift, purchased at the only English language bookshop in town.
I read it that winter, feverishly (literally, as I was in bed with the flu), and then again later that year or early the next, during my domestic exile. It may well have been the last novel in which I utterly lost myself, just when I needed to. It was also bigger than the country I had built inside my head. Much bigger, and infinitely lonelier, and stronger. I couldn’t mine it for information, as I did other things. It transported me, rather.
I wanted to follow that voice, even though the foreboding hadn’t disappeared. The ‘human-wounded land’.
The real country differed from the imagined country in ways that I couldn’t begin to retell. We arrived just in time for this. It was a shock even for Justine, who had left a few months into the life of the Fourth National Government, before Ruth Richardson really got into her work. But it’s more than that. My New Zealand, the country I had built in my head, was a place that cared for its pasts, and looked to the future through anxious young eyes. There were children at the heart of every story: Tione and Ropata in Ngati. Rata’s son, Willie. Flora McGrath. Simon/Clare. Little Janet herself. Children possessing of a laconic wisdom, often troubled, sometimes unable to speak. All around them was the history, etched like scars on the landscape. This was New Zealand before The Lord of the Rings, not yet the ultimate, hyper-marketed endpoint of an English colonial fantasy. I found it, even in its darkest moments, enormously sympathetic. But it’s there, it’s not unreal. And I still search for it.
I recommend reading Marian Evans’ account of how The Bone People came to be published. The wonderful photograph in that post with Keri and Marian (which you can see enlarged here), is a centrepiece of the Tirohia Mai exhibition currently showing at the National Library.
If you’re in Wellington next Monday, Danyl McLauchlan and I will talk to Dave Armstrong about writing and blogging as part of the IIML’s Writers on Mondays series. I hope you can come.