Monday, April 27, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TELL YOU WHAT: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015” Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99); “SAM ZABEL AND THE MAGIC PEN” by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)
There is a great temptation in reviewing an anthology of prose pieces. You are tempted to go all bibliographical, name-check every one of the contents, and then start picking favourites.
I find it very hard to resist this temptation with Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction, so I will go all bibliographical. But I will at least refrain from name-checking every single item in the book.
Tell You What was jointly edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, who are both Auckland-resident writers and reviewers. Susanna Andrew runs the books pages of Metro magazine. Tell You What was published in November of last year, and I have only now had the pleasure of catching up with it. It consists of 29 nonfiction pieces, nearly all originally published in the last two or three years, and most written by the New Zealand-born, although there are one or two written by the merely New Zealand-resident. I totted up the names of the authors (see what I mean about going all bibliographical?) and discover that the selection consists of 15 men and 14 women, so you can rest assured that it is gender equitable.
In their perky introduction, Gracewood and Andrew basically argue that New Zealand nonfiction is not esteemed as highly or taken as seriously (in reviews, journals etc.) as New Zealand fiction is. They say that it should be. The first selection in the book (Anthony Byrt’s very brief “What I’m Reading”) is an apologia for reading on-line nonfiction rather than fiction. Gracewood and Andrew also reflect one major change in publishing by declaring (p.2) “fully half the contents of this collection were originally published in the ‘web’ ”. As I already knew (and as you must know by now, because you are reading a blog), in the last twenty years there has been a seismic shift in the way prose of all sorts reaches the public. With editors of newspapers and publishers of books, there is now much hand-wringing over the way printed paper is being supplanted in many areas by the computer screen. Interestingly, though, when people really want to preserve something in more permanent form, they still turn to paper – as in this anthology, or as in the anthology The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011), which celebrated the 10th anniversary of an on-line phenomenon.
Okay, after the bibliographical stuff, I come to the harder part of reviewing, which is actually reviewing.
A simple statement to begin with. I loved this collection and found there were only one or two selections that didn’t engage my attention or arouse my admiration. As the longer pieces are only eight or nine pages long, it would make a very good bedside book.
The editors do not state that they had a scheme in arranging the contents in any particular order, but I can sometimes see the ghost of a scheme. Eleanor Catton’s “Land of the Long White Cloud” is a very visceral reflection on New Zealand landscape. Lara Strongman’s “A Song From Under the Floorboards” has a similarly strong sense of place in reflecting on childhood and memory. David Haywood’s “What Not to Expect” considers the difficulties of getting on with family life when it has been disrupted by a major crisis. Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground” reinserts Ngai Tahu into the history of Christchurch. What I haven’t said is that three of these four pieces, which open the anthology, turn on the trauma of the Christchurch earthquakes, their aftermath, the rebuild and what this has to do with the city’s society and history.
While I wouldn’t call it a scheme on the part of the editors, there are other major themes in this collection.
One is family and personal connections – Megan Clayton’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”, with its profound reflection on her pregnancy and people’s reaction to it; Naomi Arnold’s “Mother’s Day”, concerning the unexpected sojourn of a relative in her home as a family was being reconstituted; David Herkt’s “Paul” (one of the most confrontational and powerful in the collection) about caring for and interacting with a man who is both mentally-challenged and gay. The pieces on forebears (Simon Wilson on his grandparents; Keith Ng on his grandfather) are also part of this family and relationships theme.
And yet some of these selections could be read from another perspective. Megan Clayton’s piece is as much about how people are undervalued in a monetarist society as it is about her pregnancy. This brings us to the impact of neo-liberalism upon New Zealand, most blatant in Greg Bruce’s “The Desperate Quest: How Auckland’s Property Market Drove Me to the Edge of Insanity”. But it is also found in Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground”, where there is the epiphany (p.42) of people actually talking to each other during the Christchurch re-build rather than just continuing with their private economic concerns. New Zealand society doesn’t have to be atomised by self-interest!
Some pieces are good advocacy (Tina Makereti on the impact of the Maori language on writing in English; Leilani Tamu on racialism and sexual abuse). Some have a strong conservation theme (Rachel Buchanan’s “There’s a Buried Forest on my Land”, relating the present to the whole botanical and geological history of Taranaki; Claire Browning on planting tree in Featherston). One mixes a conservation theme with the good, clear, expository prose of science popularisation (David Winter’s “The Origin and Extinction of Species”). Then there are the ones from left field, which do not reflect on New Zealand at all (Gregory Kan’s “Borrowed Lungs”, about training in the Singaporean army; Jemima Diki Sherpa’s “Three Springs”, on Nepal and mountain-climbing).
Oh dear! I seem to have fallen into the trap of flinging a lot of titles at you after all.
Time to make some evaluations and award some prizes.
Most Maddening Selection in the Book: the poet Alice Miller’s “Digesting Ourselves”, a somewhat disjointed reflection on how Facebook, the Internet etc. are affecting human interaction. It does set some good intellectual hares running, though.
Most Intellectually Challenging Selection: Allan Smith’s “What I Learned from Momo”, a complex contemplation of the author’s interaction with the architect Maurice K. Smith and his aesthetic values. It did come alive for me, however, when Smith got into analysing the mural that graces the old Odeon theatre in Auckland. (How often I tried to decode it while waiting to review some goddam film at the Odeon!)
Two Pieces About Which I Have the Most Mixed Feelings: Alice Te Punga Somerville’s “Shine Bright Like a Moko”, which centres on Rihanna’s hand tattoo. (Is it a serious reflection on cultural appropriation; or is it much-ado-about-nothing sparked by a pop star’s foolish fashion statement?). AND Jose Barbosa’s “My Swim with Kim” ( It seems half satire on Kim Dotcom and his entourage, but half social gossip.)
And finally, The Piece That Gave Me the Greatest Inner Satisfaction: Ashleigh Young’s gentle, witty piece “Small Revolutions”, about cycling in the city. She balances her enthusiasm for urban cycling with a frank acknowledgement of the pains and disadvantages of cycling. It’s a very fine balance, which is what cyclists should have, after all.
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Once before on this blog I reviewed a work by the artist Dylan Horrocks, his Incomplete Works [look it up on the index at right] and I was really chuffed when he sent an appreciative response to my brief and inadequate review.
The burden of my argument then was that I had not paid much attention to comics as an art form, and had great difficulty in accepting the concept of the “graphic novel”. I think I’ve got over that difficulty now, because I had no difficulty in accepting both the intention and the form of Horrocks’ thoroughly grown-up graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.
Let me do the boring thing I so often do in reviews and give you a little synopsis.
Sam Zabel is a cartoonist, with more than a passing resemblance to Dylan Horrocks.
Married, with two kids, Sam Zabel should have domestic bliss with his family, but he’s slowly going nuts with boredom. He’s lost the creative buzz that cartooning once gave him, he looks glum even when he reads Tintin books to his kids, and he absolutely hates having to drudge away drawing, on commission, frames for a “superhero” comic featuring Lady Night. As another character says, Lady Night looks more like a porn star than the way superheroes used to look in comic books. Worse, when Sam dreams, his dreams resemble a randy adolescent’s masturbation fantasies. They feature exotic women with perky boobs, few clothes and a willingness to engage the male dreamer in creative copulation (e.g six pages of out-of-control orgy with green-skinned Mars women at pp.78-83).
So are comics doomed to be puerile kidstuff, promoting fantasies?
That’s one line of enquiry this graphic novel takes, but there are plenty of others. To get all academic about it, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen becomes an interrogation of the whole comic-book form.
Meeting first an amateur cartoonist called Alice Brown, then a woman hero, escaped from manga, called Miki, Sam is dragged in his dreams through various genres of comics, engaging with them as living things. At one point he is worshipped as a god by the natives of Mars (cartoonists are gods over their own creations, are they not?). His dreams are sparked in part by finding a New Zealand comic from the 1950s drawn by (the fictitious) Evan Rice – so there is an element of nostalgia in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen for an earlier, simpler, and not-so-sexualised type of comic. Sam Zabel is, after all, interested in finding once again the simple joy he got out of comics as a child.
It is important that Sam’s two companions in his dreams are both women, because another line of enquiry is the question of how much comics – and especially fantasy comics – promote specifically male fantasies. In other words, how sexist are they? “Do you ever feel ashamed of your fantasies? Do you worry they might be bad or dangerous or wrong?” Sam asks Alice Brown in a dream sequence, which shows him still sexualising her. “Are you kidding?” replies Alice, “Didn’t you read that paper I wrote last year for the ‘Feminism and Pornography’ conference on sexual fantasy and the erotic politics of shame?” (p.137) Obviously your modern male cartoonist, going through a mid-life crisis, can’t any longer ignore the arguments of feminism.
I haven’t mentioned the Magic Pen that finds its way into the title – symbol, I surmise, of the creative power of drawing and cartooning, from the dawn of humanity (cave drawings are awarded a sequence) to the present. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen does question the common genres of comic book, but in the end it affirms the form. Sam Zabel emerges from his wild and fantastic travels determined to engage in a new way with the world about him, perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility about the impact cartoons have. Fittingly the epigraph to this graphic novel is W.B.Yeats’ line “In dreams begins responsibility”.
Now you see what I’ve done in this excuse for a review, don’t you? Being basically a literary word-man, I’ve engaged with Dylan Horrocks’ ideas without saying anything about the visual impact of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. And a huge part of the impact of any graphic novel is visual. (70%? 80%? More?). I’ll confine myself to these statements – it is colourful, it is action-packed (many pages with minimal text), and it is very, very recognizably the work of Dylan Horrocks. The firm outlines of characters. The eyes most often rendered simply as large black dots. The lack of chiaroscuro in presenting characters (usually one uniform colour, without shading, per human face).
I should also add that it is great fun. Comic books are meant to be that, aren’t they?
Footnotes. By the way, there are some nice incidental in-jokes here. When Sam Zabel gives a paper at a literary conference (the same conference Dylan Horrocks once attended, oddly enough), there’s a friendly caricature of a real New Zealand literary academic at the podium
At the back of the book there is a glossary, explaining terms used at various points in the speech bubbles. Many of these are common New Zealand references that presumably would be incomprehensible to non-New Zealand readers. And a high proportion of them come from the colourful oaths used by a Kiwi cartoon character who has clearly learned to swear at the Captain Haddock school of swearing (“Thundering typhoons!”, “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” etc.). They include such choice cusses as “Hinemoa’s calabash!”, Hillary’s ropes! ”, “Marauding moas!” “Trespassing tapus!” and my favourite (when he begins to get lectured on sexism) “Kate Sheppard’s ribbon!”
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS” by Kiran Desai (first published 2006)
I usually write these “Something Olds” by going to the extensive notes I’ve taken in my reading diaries over the last twenty-or-so years, and then writing them up in readable form, sometimes doing a little extra research as I do so. In the case of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, however, I am not going to do this. The Inheritance of Loss is one of the best Booker winners of the last decade, and I recommended it emphatically when I reviewed it for the New Zealand Listener in the year it appeared. So I am simply going to serve you the review I then wrote.
Before I do so, however, a few of my usual words on the author. As many people noted when she won the Booker, Kiran Desai (born 1971) is the daughter of another distinguished novelist, Anita Desai, who has been three times Booker-shortlisted but who, unlike her daughter, has never won it. The Desais (mere et fille) are of Bengali and German ancestry, so the themes of racial and cultural identity, especially as they relate to India, and of the impact of different cultures upon one another, are natural themes for both of them. Anita Desai now teaches literature at an American university. Kiran Desai moved from India as a teenager (aged 15) and has also largely been resident in America ever since. Apparently Kiran Desai is a meticulous and slow writer. The Inheritance of Loss took her seven years to write and was only her second novel. She is the youngest woman to have won the Booker.
And what follows is simply, and unaltered, the review I wrote for the Listener (18 November 2006):
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About two-thirds of the way through The Inheritance of Loss, there’s an ironic and sad scene where upper-class Indians are buying in essential supplies, so that they can barricade themselves in their homes to ride out a period of civil strife.
Essential supplies include reading matter from the local club library. One Anglophile woman states her preference for the novels of Anthony Trollope “Old fashioned books is what I like,” she says. “Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of… free-floating plasma.”
As drawn by Kiran Desai, the speaker is a shallow fool. But I’m sure that Desai approves at least in part of her sentiment. The Inheritance of Loss is modern in the sense of having a lively apprehension of different cultures and their relativity, a sharp ironical eye and multiple narrative points of view. But it also has a clear beginning, middle and end – the sort of firm structure that is absolutely essential for real impact in literature.
In Kalimpong in Darjeeling, bang up against India’s border with Nepal, retired judge Jemubhai Popatlat Patel thinks nostalgically of his days in the (British) Indian Civil Service and pretends to be a cultured Englishman. But in his dreams he relives racial humiliation in England and knows how much his Englishness has been compromised.
Meanwhile down in the servant quarters, the cook imagines his son Biju is making a great success of himself in the new global power, the United States. But we know better. Biju lives a precarious existence in New York without a Green Card, toiling for exploitation wages in fast-food joints and restaurants that are, says Desai, “perfectly first-world on top, perfectly third-world twenty-two steps below.”
Between the judge and the cook is the judge’s orphaned teenage granddaughter Sai Mistry, old enough to be falling in love, and beginning to get sentimental over her Maths tutor Gyan. But Gyan, frustrated and poor, is drawn to be part of a local nationalist insurgency.
The novel is set in the mid-1980s, when Indian-Nepalese are about to demand separate statehood in a violent way. It moves between the consciousness of Judge Patel, Sai, the cook, Biju and Gyan. From the opening page we know bad things are going to happen to its wealthier characters when young men break into the judge’s house and steal firearms in the name of an independent Gokhaland. The novel observes closely, but ploughs a clear narrative path.
Kiran Desai (Indian-born, American-resident) satirises the unreal memories that expats often have of their homeland and the unreal images that the colonised often have of their overlords. Western tourist views of India get a pasting, but Desai is equally merciless about the religious snobberies, class distinctions and ethnic barriers among Indians. She loves India, but observes its pimples without postcolonial whining.
If cultural and political matters are part of a novel, there’s a temptation to reduce it to a list of Important Themes. I admit to peeking at Pankaj Mishra’s review of this novel in the New York Times, and I discover that it is apparently about Globalisation, Multicuturalism, Economic Inequality, Fundamentalism and Terrorist Violence.
Indeed it is about all of these things. In part. But if they were the whole of The Inheritance of Loss, it would be more tract than novel. The inheritance of Loss is as much about Desai’s excellent style, ability to sum up character in a phrase and eye for a telling image. Phrase for phrase, it is a rich work.
Like all literary prizes, the Booker has an uneven track record. It’s sometimes gone to brilliant works (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist), sometimes to duds (James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late) and sometimes to what seem consolation prizes for writers whose better work had missed out (Ian McEwan’s trite Amsterdam). Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss was this year’s [2006’s] Booker winner. In this case, the judges got it dead right.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
MY AUNT HAS TURNED ONE HUNDRED
A few weeks ago I went to an event of a sort which would once have been a rarity, but which now is becoming more commonplace - at least in the Western world.
I went to my aunt’s 100th birthday.
My aunt was born in the year of the Gallipoli campaign.
My aunt has all her marbles. She has only recently moved into a rest home, she can still chat in a lively fashion about the extended family, and knows all the names of her nieces and nephews and cousins and all their children. When I talked to her, she set me straight on aspects of my Lowland Scots ancestry, about which I did not know. She quite abashed me by her alertness, and I have many decades to go before I reach her age.
Of course my aunt is a little infirm, requires help in getting up and sitting down, and would not be able to run a marathon (she is 100 years old, for goodness’ sake). Otherwise, she is the picture of health.
Naturally, I had to wait my turn to talk to her. She was seated on a sofa in the centre of a room in her daughter’s house. Admiring family members were chatting and eating and drinking around the room. All were waiting their turn for the privilege of joining her on the sofa and talking with her. If she were a more pretentious person, she could have adopted a regal posture.
My aunt is my mother’s younger sister. My mother died in 1994 at the age of 82. If my mother were alive now she would be 103. She was born in the year the Titanic went down. In comparison, I think of myself as young, reinforced by my whole psychological formation as the youngest member of a large family. Despite all mature reasoning, a part of me will always be the little brother of my older siblings, and my foolish mind often begins with the assumption that I am a youngster in any gathering of adults.
But at my aunt’s birthday party, a counter-thought established itself. Here I was circulating among cousins (many of them grey-haired or bald) and comparing notes with them about children and grandchildren, and travel plans, and memories of things that happened half a century ago. The young teenage grandchildren of one cousin were yipping around outside and splashing in and out of a pool.
Suddenly I had a flashback to my maternal grandparents’ Golden Wedding celebration when I was a young child.
It was around about 1960.
I was tall enough to see over the top of the tables where the nibbles were piled, they being my chief focus of attention. I was of an age when I could slip between conversing adults, as I came up only to the adult midriff. And as the speeches and as the talk went on, I wondered who these old people were and what all their boring talk was about. They all seemed so ancient. The impression I have (I cannot recall in detail conversations I heard in childhood) was that they grew up in a world of legend, far removed from my time. I was too polite a child to use such a term, and I’m not sure that it had yet been coined. But what I thought was that these people were old farts.
I come out of the flashback and realise that, to those happy kids playing around outside, I now am one of the old farts.
What they cannot know, of course, is that I am really still a teenager only playing at being a patriarch and mature adult male. And that was probably the psychological disposition of those ancient forebears I saw as a child.
At this point, I could reflect on time and how it concertinas us and how relative our perceptions of it are. To a child, twenty or thirty years ago is prehistory. To you and me, twenty or thirty years ago is yesterday. My one-hundred-year-old aunt may have a Victorian name, Laetitia (the same name my grandmother had). But she is my contemporary, not a figure of legend.
None of this depresses me, for in ageing I find I continue to be the person I am, and will continue to be until death or senility (whichever comes first) gets me.
Some time ago I wrote a poem, which touches on similar themes. Here it is.
True history has a trail. Not just
the bubble of the moment but
the strings tied to your feet, in
ancestry, paternity, uncle- and aunt-ship
and those who survived a time
before your own, but can still live it
in your time, recalling, explicating,
seeing things in the present
of yourself. And in your brain, too,
1966 is not just 1966, but what
you have brought to that table.
So it’s ‘66. I’m fifteen
or thereabouts and watching
on Sunday afternoon television
an English film from 1951
called I Believe in You in which
a do-gooding probation officer
with plummy voice
saves proletarian youth from crime.
And I’m thinking “How old,
how very old, this film is!
You’d never have a lead now
played by Cecil Parker, or
the audience asked to like
these snobby types.” Not that
I put it into words like that.
(I’m redacting. You understand.)
I mean I had a sense the world
had changed, and even, un-rebellious,
on a sofa, in a living room, I knew
this was the 60s
and the film was an antique.
So now I’m stunned to find
the gap from film to me was only
fifteen years; and fifteen years
is nothing in my life now,
taking me back only to
1999 when I knew what I know
and who I know and was already
me as much as I will ever be.
And I’m thinking of the trail,
the strings, those things
clutching the grown-ups
in 1966, the older ones who thought
this film something they’d just seen
yesterday at the Bijou,
modern, like them. And 1951
was last year. And outside the pub
old RSA types still in their heads
fighting Tobruk, and not having
to ask why Matapan Road was called
Matapan Road because that was
their recent history and they dragged
the trail into my time
Monday, April 20, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ENTANGLEMENTS OF EMPIRE – Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body” by Tony Ballantyne (Auckland University Press, $NZ39:99)
The writing of history is always a matter of refining or rebutting the history that has been written before. Once upon a time, such history as was written in New Zealand spoke in terms of missionaries and colonisers in the nineteenth century “civilising” Maori and bringing them the benefits of the modern world. That view has long since passed away (or been blown away with gales of laughter). In its place, however, there emerged an equally simplistic view. Missionaries and colonisers expropriated Maori, violated their culture and imposed narrow norms upon them. Both views assumed passivity – a lack of “agency” – in Maori, and uniformity (“two worlds”) in Maori custom and culture. In the last couple of decades, the best New Zealand historians have been trying to insert a greater degree of nuance into how we see the pre-colonial and colonial past. Nuance includes an awareness of the variety of Maori responses to Pakeha settlement and the variety of Pakeha motives and intentions in settling.
In this outstanding and very readable book, Entanglements of Empire, Professor Tony Ballantyne, who currently chairs the University of Otago’s History Department, is on the side of nuance. Covering the period from 1814 to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, he rejects the terms “encounters” or “meetings” as a way of imaging Maori-Pakeha relationships, and opts instead for “entanglements”. In the pre-Treaty period, indigenous people and the newcomers related to one another in many different ways, and their respective cultures were modified each by the other. Being dynamic, they were enmeshed and entangled in each other, in compromises and in selective adoption of each other’s norms. And the most pervasive way in which this cultural entanglement occurred was in conceptions of the human body itself.
As Ballantyne explains in his introduction: “In this book I examine the cross-cultural debates and entanglements set in motion by the establishment of Protestant missions in New Zealand in 1814, especially those arguments and engagements that turned on the ways in which the human body was understood and organized.” ( p.2) Further “… missionary sources from early New Zealand are punctuated by a deep and recurrent concern with the body, its meanings and its regulation, and these reflections are frequently contradictory, ambivalent or ambiguous.” (p.8). Ballantyne goes on to argue that “the image of the repressive missionary is well established in New Zealand historiography, and is firmly embedded in the nation’s popular imagination”. But (calling on Michel Foucault as his witness), he says this “repressive hypothesis” is belied by the frequent awareness of, and dwelling upon, sex and sexuality in missionary archives. (p.8) Missionaries were not oblivious to human corporeality.
This leads naturally to another important concept, which informs this book. Ballantyne does not subscribe to either a unitary or an idyllic view of pre-Pakeha Maori existence. As he says: “It has been commonplace to contrast the complex laws and strong regulation of sexuality that shaped missionary mentalities with the supposedly more ‘natural’ place of sex within the Maori world, but it should be clear that Maori understandings of the body were just as highly enculturated as those of their missionary counterparts. We must recognize that the Maori body does not belong only to the realm of culture, but is amenable to historical analysis as well. Maori ways of organizing the body were not rigidly constrained by an unchanging culture, but rather were adaptable and dynamic.” (p.13)
Further, he is determined to treat the entangled cultures even-handedly: “I have attempted to treat both evangelical missionaries and Maori equitably, imagining both of these collectives as complex agglomerations of individuals and interest groups whose actions and worldviews were conditioned by both culture and history.” (p.15)
Thus much for the theoretical underpinnings of Entanglements of Empire.
In construction, Entanglements of Empire divides into six long chapters, each considering one aspect of the Maori-missionary interface. The issues are respectively
* Missionary conceptions of Maori life prior to their settlement here
* How the Maori sense of space and its ordering was in tension with the missionaries’ sense of space and its ordering
* The mingling of Maori and missionary concepts of time and its construction in relation to labour
* Sexuality and sexual codes
* Maori and missionary concepts of death and the rightful disposition of the dead
* The changing of missionary attitudes towards Maori, which were part of the prelude to formal British colonisation.
In his opening chapter, as he outlines pre-settlement Pakeha conceptions of New Zealand, Ballantyne emphasises that European exploration of the Pacific at first gave priority to finding new resources, then (especially after the voyages of Cook) added the desire to “civilise” by means of implanting (in New Zealand and elsewhere) European crops and introducing European animals. Even before missionaries were part of the story, then, the urge to “civilise” (establish European norms) was strong.
As the first leader of a Protestant mission to New Zealand, sponsored by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Samuel Marsden formulated his plans to woo Maori with skills and technology (“civilisation”) before evangelising them. But, says Ballantyne, Marsden developed this view through his contact with Te Pahi, Ruatara and Hongi Hika, who were desirous of such technology. And “it was the mana – the authority and charisma – of these high-ranking leaders that made the mission possible: the establishment of the mission was entirely dependent on Maori patronage, material support, and protection.” (p.57). This dependence, which lasted for most of the period before 1830, meant that missionaries were in no position to “impose” their norms upon Maori. Materially, they were very much in the subordinate position. To make any impact upon Maori at all, they had to accustom themselves to, or at least put up with, Maori norms. The matter of trade also meant much mutual conference and compromise. In Ballantyne’s interpretation, this meant a long period in which missionaries and Maori exchanged and adapted, piecemeal, their received ideas about the body.
For all that, even in the earliest period of missionary activity, when the missionaries’ watchword was still “Civilise, then evangelise”, there was already the assumption that Maori would eventually be absorbed into an imperial system. Says Ballantyne: “While Marsden was a vocal opponent of some of the consequences of imperial activity – especially the mistreatment of indigenous crewmen on European ships and British sailors’ sexual exploitation of indigenous women in the Pacific – he considered the empire to be a potent vehicle for the dissemination of Christianity and Christian missionaries to be agents for the extension of commerce around the globe.” (p.64)
In this early period, the dominant issue of “cross-cultural engagement” was (Chapter Two) how space was used. Ballantyne begins his consideration of this by quoting from Charles Darwin’s approving comments, in his 1835 visit, on how missionaries had, as if by an “enchanter’s wand”, transformed the physical conditions of Maori life. On the contrary, says Ballantyne, such changes as had been made were achieved only after a long period in which missionaries had to accept Maori direction on where and how they lived. “Mission stations were never simply planted by the missionaries at locations they deemed desirable; the fundamental contours of the CMS mission to New Zealand was dictated by the mission’s deep implication in kin-group politics and rivalries.” (p.77) Mission stations were set up only at places approved by rangatira, so that the very first station, at Hohi, was hemmed in by infertile land. This was the deliberate strategy of Hongi Hika and others, to ensure that the missionaries remained dependent on Maori goodwill and trade to ensure their supply of food. It was only later – and then at the pleasure of rangatira – that missionaries were able to set up stations at Waitangi and Kerikeri where there was more arable land.
More important, in this matter of the disposition of space, was the way dwellings were designed, missionaries at first having to accustom themselves to more communal (rather than private) living space. Tapu ruled Maori handling of food and contrasted with how missionaries’ kitchens and dining rooms functioned. This could contribute to tensions with those Maori girls who were given domestic duties in missionary houses. Whether or not the sexes should be segregated when missionaries instructed them was another issue. So was the degree to which land could be fenced in. And how one behaved in space – with reference to what was tapu and what was noa – was often at odds with missionaries’ conceptions of decorous behaviour. In this connection, Ballantyne notes how many phrases in Thomas Kendall’s 1820 Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand are concerned with the right disposition of the body – avoidance of farting in company, spitting and so forth.
Turning to the matter of how the first missionaries, in their attempts to “civilise” Maori, wished to inculcate industriousness and an efficient use of time (Chapter 3), Ballantyne remarks “this chapter can be read as a contribution to a long-running debate over the connection between Protestant missionary activity and the globalisation of capitalism” (p.100). Pace Judith Binney and others, he refutes the view that missionaries imposed their ordering of time upon Maori, again noting that they were perforce living in an “indigenous socioeconomic context”. Those “mechanicals” who were the first missionary settlers (non-ordained laymen) usually found that they had to do their own labour rather than relying on Maori labourers to whom they could, as they had planned, teach trades. Furthermore, in the Maori disposition of labour, slavery flourished in the early missionary period, in part because some tribes took increased numbers of slaves to trade for European goods with those tribes in proximity to missionaries. By the 1830s, some missionaries, such as Richard Davis, were frustrated at the failure of Maori to adopt European economic patterns. There was a widespread Pakeha misconception of Maori “laziness”. But as Ballantyne notes, the reality was that Maori labour tended to be task-specific rather than ruled by the clock, and attuned to the rhythm of the seasons. There was, however, one area in which Maori had, by the mid-1820s, conceded to a missionary ordering of time. This was in the widespread acceptance of the Sabbath – Sunday – as a day of rest and worship. In a masterly analysis of attitudes to the Sabbath (pp.132 ff.), Ballantyne discusses how missionaries combined their notions of Sunday observance with Maori respect for tapu. There was also the circumstance that by the mid-1820s, missionaries had achieved a slightly more independent status in their more fertile stations (such as Paihia) and were themselves more in a position to preach the importance of the tapu day.
When he comes to the matters of sex and sexuality (Chapter 4, called “Containing Transgression”), Ballantyne excels in not submitting to stereotyped views of missionaries as repressing their sexual urges. He notes that “despite Marsden’s stress on the primacy of the Christian conjugal family, sexual restraint, and social discipline, from the outset the CMS mission was plagued by recurrent conflict and sexual relationships that contravened the boundaries of marriage. Mission families and their associated workers struggled hard, but routinely failed, to achieve the goal of making the mission stations models of Christian happiness and order.” (p.138)
Inevitably, then, we have the stories of missionaries who failed to live up to their Christian – and especially evangelical – sexual ideals. Thomas Kendall fathering a child out of wedlock and Kendall’s wife bearing a child by the convict labourer Richard Stockwell. The drunken Wesleyan missionary William White who may have been guilty of rape. [William Colenso’s fall from grace is outside the timeframe of this book]. It is perhaps equally inevitable that the case upon which Ballantyne dwells longest is the most problematic, that of “the unfortunate” William Yate. Ballantyne spends over twenty pages on his case, because it involves so many conflicting issues.
He notes early in his analysis “I do not attempt to frame Yate as a kind of cultural ancestor in the way in which some New Zealand writers have been drawn to Yate as a figure who chafed against sexual repression and racial boundaries. Rather, I place him at the centre of a series of overlapping debates about the ways in which missionaries should modulate intimacy, the consequences of certain types of sexual acts, and how such transgressions could best be managed.” (p.140)
This appears to be a polite way of saying that it is anachronistic to see Yate – as he has been seen in some recent works of historical fiction – as a proto-gay martyr. Ballantyne notes “As teacher, preacher, spiritual guide, and ‘father’, Yate believed in his own ability to lead Maori out of heathenism, to transform their beliefs and practices. However, Yate exploited this position of authority to initiate a series of sexual connections that seem to have involved duplicity and coercion.” (p.140)
Boldly contradicting Judith Binney (p.154), Ballantyne says that there is solid and reliable evidence that Yate coerced and bribed Maori youths to have sex with him, and the accusations against him were not fabrications. At the same time, it is clear that what most irked the other missionaries was Yate’s boastful and egotistical tone in a published memoir he wrote of the mission; and their accusations would not have been made had he not been so publicly intimate with a male Pakeha friend as he returned from England to Australia. And yet Yate never got the public hearing about his transgressions which he so desired. Clearly the CMS was in damage-control mode, wanting to be rid of Yate but not wanting the case to garner too much publicity.
If I have any criticism of this chapter, it is that it seems to stray a little from the theme of comparing/contrasting/showing the interrelation of Maori and missionary attitudes. It tells us of the missionaries’ constant anxiety of sexual misconduct corrupting their mission and hindering their spiritual outreach by setting a bad example to Maori. But it does not give us a clear and complementary exposition of Maori sexual norms. Or am I underrating the way Ballantyne quotes from Maori witnesses against Yate, showing how they too were perturbed and shocked by his behaviour?
The chapter on attitudes to death and the disposition of the body (Chapter 5) has no such flaw. Ballantyne contrasts clearly the interacting worldviews. While the evangelical attitude to the approach of death was that it was a time for making peace with God (and accepting Jesus fully), this does not mean – in spite of the views of some superseded authors – that evangelicals did not express grief when the people they loved died. Missionaries did have to learn not to violate tapu sites when it came to burial. They also suffered for some years the inconvenience of not having consecrated burial grounds. They tended to bury their dead next to each mission station – in effect, in the grounds of their homes. Missionaries had great difficulty in accessing traditional Maori religious beliefs about the afterlife, as such esoteric knowledge was tapu and tended to be reserved for tohunga. At first, this meant missionaries assumed Maori had no structured religious beliefs. Only gradually did CMS personnel come to understand the role of rank and mana in Maori funerary and interment rites, the reburial of the bones of rangatira and others of rank, and the mourning rituals (counterpointed by the routine killing and disposal of slaves). Haehae, the ritual self-wounding and cutting of mourners in their grief, and suicide in mourning were common.
Ballantyne does not edit out the less attractive features of Maori customs.
There was an implicit conflict between Christian notions of heaven (and hell) and the Maori image of the departure of spirits from Cape Reinga. For a while, some Christianised Maori were able to hold the two concepts together in their belief system. By the time the Reverend William Puckey made a journey to Cape Reinga in the 1830s, however, younger Christianised Maori were indignantly rejecting their ancestors’ tradition. Says Ballantyne “These incidents are potent reminders that although the presence of missionaries precipitated cultural change, Maori were primary agents in the actual spread of Christianity, and that the growing authority of the Bible was dependent on the willingness of converts to openly challenge tikanga (rules, protocols) and ritenga (custom).” (p.206)
In his final chapter, “Bodies and the Entanglements of Empire”, Ballantyne argues that by the 1830s, missionaries were increasingly representing Maori as an enfeebled race, threatened by lawless (or diseased) Pakeha visitors – notably sailors involved in buying sex - and hence in greater need of formal “protection” by the British government. This was the tone of innumerable pamphlets produced by missionaries for British consumption. It was credible in the age of the notorious Elizabeth affair (in 1830), in which the unscrupulous Captain Stewart transported Te Rauparaha and Te Hiko down to Banks Peninsula to carry out their slaughter of Ngai Tahu. The missionaries’ appeal coincided with the age of humanitarianism and abolitionism in England and found a ready audience. In presenting Maori as the helpless victims of European inhumanity, missionaries were in effect stripping Maori of “agency” and denying twenty years of Maori-Pakeha interdependence, with the missionaries mainly in the subordinate role. Be that as it may, missionary representations were instrumental in leading first to the appointment of James Busby as British “resident”, then to the Treaty of Waitangi. So, says Ballantyne “the formal colonization of New Zealand was ultimately sanctioned by a treaty that framed the alienation of sovereignty as an act of protection, designed to defend the interests of an enfeebled people.” (p.249)
As you will have noted, my procedure in this review has largely been simply to summarise what the author has to say. I do this because I believe he breaks new ground in putting so many cultural interactions together in one coherent argument. At various points, Tony Ballantyne has the confidence to challenge the interpretations of Keith Sinclair, Judith Binney, James Belich, Ranginui Walker and others who have commented on matters near to this book’s central concerns. This is never done in a blunt or dismissive way. Usually Ballantyne is asking for more nuance in interpretations that threaten to become dogma. This reminds us of one central fact about the writing of history. It is always an interrogation of, and negotiation with, both primary and secondary sources. Its conclusions are always provisional. Given that, this is a profound and close reading of an essential period of cultural interaction in our history.
Curious, if trivial, footnote: One trivial but interesting point that caught my eye. In the introduction to Entanglements of Empire, we are told (p.17) that “the image that adorns the cover of this volume” was devised by the Maori artist Cliff Whiting and symbolises the impact of imperial encounters upon Maori culture. Actually, this image appears opposite the title page. The image on the cover is an idealised picture of the CMS missionary station at Rangihoua. However, the Cliff Whiting image appeared on the cover of the edition of this book published by Duke University in the USA in 2014. I assume this means we are getting exactly the same text as in the American printing.
Bibliographical footnote: Some of the concepts in Entanglements of Empire overlap with those of other books that have been discussed on this blog and that can be looked up on the index at right. For a specific case of a settler Pakeha dependent on Maori goodwill to function in New Zealand, look up Jennifer Ashton’s At the Margin of Empire. For the physical conditions in which early missionaries worked, look up Angela Middleton’s Peiwhairangi: Bay of Islands Missions and Maori 1814 to 1845. More distantly related to the above, but still concerned to re-evaluate Maori-Pakeha relations in colonial times and to be even-handed about it, look up Peter Wells’ idiosyncratic The Hungry Heart and Journey to a Hanging. I also add that I recently had the pleasure of reviewing, for Landfall Review on Line, Vincent O’Malley’s stimulating collection of essays Beyond the Imperial Frontier, which has much to say about colonial Pakeha and Maori cultural interaction.