Monday, December 8, 2014

Taking place

A few years after moving to Wellington, I had a chance to visit a facility shared by the National Library and Victoria’s Electronic Text Centre featuring a large state-of-the-art scanner. The key attraction of this machine – someone explained to me – was that it could accurately photograph books even if they didn’t lie flat on the glass, which enabled to digitise antique or fragile texts without damaging the spines. It also had very high resolution and colour fidelity. The room the scanner was kept in was painted a special colour that the machine was calibrated to in order to ensure chromatically accurate reproductions.

To illustrate its powers, an old map hung on the wall that had been scanned using the machine and then printed on an equally fine piece of apparatus. It was a late 18th-century map of Aotearoa from the voyages of Captain Cook, but what was unusual about it is that it was in Italian. I think this may have been it.

And what an old, stuffy, ornate Italian that was. The very few Māori toponyms passed on by Cook had been preserved, but otherwise the English names had all been translated, sometimes in brackets but more often not. So Bay of Plenty became Baia dell’abbondanza, the Poor Knights Islands li poveri cavalieri and, most delightfully, Cape Kidnappers was rendered literally as Capo dei ladri di fanciulli, meaning of the ‘children thieves’.

It was a strange map to behold, with Cook’s interpretation of Māori alongside the Italian, as if coming from a parallel history in which Aotearoa was colonised by my people.

I showed this recently alongside the Map of the Coast of New Ithaca charted by Marian Maguire’s Odysseus at a symposium hosted by the Stout Centre on the 'imagined community' of New Zealand. The starting point of the presentation was a piece I wrote last year about experiencing the country as a literally imagined community in the years preceding my first visit. As it happens, the piece was also chosen by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew for their anthology Tell You What, and that too has been a stop on the way to finding my own place in the community – a privileged place of reflection in which to tell my own stories. It’s no small thing.

Buy this book. It's a very good book.
Then last week – for every conference is now, it seems – at a colloquium on placing the personal essay where I somewhat anxiously offered a version of this, I heard Alice Te Punga Somerville talk about the place of Māori writing, and the taking of place. It was a dense and suggestive speech on dislocation and appropriation, and it made me think again about ‘my’ maps, with their toponyms translated or invented. It reminded me that colonisation also involves disimagining what was there before, the stories and lineages that bound the people to the territory, as well as rewriting the maps, both mental and actual.

It’s all rather obvious, I know, but working your way through that knowledge in the form of experience is not always straightforward. This blog has been in large part – and in a way that I certainly didn’t anticipate – my way of coming to term with migration and displacement; my way of taking place, as Alice might say. Then three years ago, when I first started blogging at Overland and the blogs on that site had a masthead and a name, I chose Garibaldi’s Statue for mine in another attempt to locate myself. I was there. I am now here. But still writing about there.

(We are coming to an announcement, I promise.)

Writing for a predominantly Australian audience has been an interesting challenge as well as another – this time quite benign – form of dislocation. If you wish to find opportunities to write outside of journalism proper or long-form fiction, chances are you will have to become practised at writing for different international audiences, as well as a range of different publications and editors. Conversely, if you post your writings on the internet, you may find yourself charting your readership as reported by analytic tools and discover that it is not located quite where you expected. It’s a very instructive exercise, although sometimes all that you feel you know is that you can never tell who’s going to read what where. It is, happily, not a science.

Yet all writing comes from someplace and place informs what we write in ways that aren’t always obvious or subjectively felt but are always interesting. I hope this will come through strongly in the Aotearoa-based issue of Overland I’ll be guest-editing along with Jolisa Gracewood and Robert Sullivan, for publication in May of next year. The call-out for submissions of nonfiction, fiction and poetry can be found here.

As a recent writer of this place, and as someone who has read about it for a bit longer than that, I look forward to this quite a lot.

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