Thus far in this project I’ve rather neglected New Zealand literature, so I thought I should pay it some attention. Doubly rooted in the rich oral tradition of the indigenous Maori people and the equally rich literary tradition of Britain and Europe, New Zealand offers a great deal that is worth paying attention to. The following is little more than a taster of works by some of our most celebrated writers, arranged in chronological order.
Mansfield with Monsters: the untold stories of a New Zealand icon, by Katherine Mansfield, 1912-22 (with Matt and Debbie Cowens, 2012). Although she left New Zealand at the age of just 19 (never to return, although that’s partly because she died of TB at 34), Katherine Mansfield is arguably still regarded as the brightest light in New Zealand’s literary heavens. Her short stories, such as ‘Bliss’, ‘The Young Girl’, and ‘A Cup of Tea’ are excellent examples of early 20th century Modernism. But Mansfield’s letters, notes, and drafts reveal a different side to her personality and her writing. She corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft, consulted with mediums, and may have participated in rites conducted by Aleister Crowley. Based on these tantalising hints, the Cowens (themselves both literary scholars) have reimagined a selection of her stories as tales of the supernatural, the alien, and the frankly bizarre.
Jerusalem Sonnets, by James K. Baxter, 1970. In 1969, the poet James K. Baxter founded a commune at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui river, where he would live on and off until his death in 1973. Among the works he produced during this time are the Jerusalem Sonnets, a selection of poems written in free verse which are both evocatively descriptive of life on the Whanganui river and filled with a wide variety of themes including faith and doubt, love and friendship, the importance of tradition, Maori-Pakeha (White) relations, and life and death. There is wry humour as well, and an overall sense of being grounded in there here-and-now even while searching for the timeless and true.
An Angel At My Table, by Janet Frame, 1984. The second volume in New Zealand author Janet Frame’s three-part autobiography, An Angel At My Table traces her life from her time at Teacher’s College in Dunedin during WWII through several episodes of mental unwellness and institutionalisation, to the publication of her first successful novel with the mentoring and support of another great New Zealand author, Frank Sargeson. Both inspirational and heart-wrenching it’s a tale of success against all the odds, made even more poignant because it really happened.
Potiki, by Patricia Grace, 1987. On one level this is undoubtedly the most distinctly ‘New Zealand’ work on this list, being deeply grounded in Maori culture and language (although the reo Maori presented is no more complicated than the invented words and phrases that one might expect to encounter in an average work of science fiction), on another level it is also the most universal. It’s the story of a small, poor community who refuse to surrender their heritage and their way of life to the forces of ‘Development’. Set against a background of real life events, the protagonists pay a heavy price for their resistance.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain, by Witi Ihimaera, 1995. When it was first published, Nights in the Gardens of Spain represented a marked departure for Witi Ihimaera from the style of his previous novels, which, like Potiki, had dealt primarily with tales of rural Maori. It’s the story of David, a married Pakeha father of two and university lecturer who can no longer deny his sexual attraction to men. Beautifully written and intensely heartbreaking – it deals unflinchingly not only with the impact of the slow implosion of David’s marriage on his wife and children, but also with AIDS, which in the 1990s was cutting a swathe through the gay community – it offered me a window into a world which I, as a heterosexual woman who only reached adulthood in the noughties, could never otherwise gain access to. At times I hated David for what he was doing to his family, and himself, but I pitied him too. The ending isn’t exactly happy, or even ‘satisfactory’ in that quintessentially British sense, but to be honest I’d have been disappointed if it was.
The Vintner’s Luck, by Elizabeth Knox, 1999. The last offering on this list is something quite different – a story set thousands of miles away and two hundred years ago, in 1800s France. It’s the story of a winemaker, Sobran Jodeau, and his relationship with the mysterious angel Xas, which unfolds over the course of years and ultimately comes to embrace both his family and the gentry at the local Chateau. I should emphasise that this is not a Christian novel… but to say more would reveal entirely too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that it’s a story as evocative as Baxter’s poems and, at times, as heart-breaking as Ihimaera’s gardens. Angels, after all, are immortal: humans are not.
If you’re not in New Zealand these books might be hard to track down, but I promise you they’re well worth the effort.