Monday, December 7, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TELL YOU WHAT 2016: Great New Zealand Nonfiction” Edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99)

“Great New Zealand Nonfiction” says the subtitle, and I begin curling and uncurling my toes excitedly. When I reviewed Tell YouWhat: 2015 on this blog earlier this year, I wasn’t sure if it would indeed become the annual that it promised to be. Now that the volume labelled Tell You What: 2016 has come out (with the same subtitle) I feel more confident that this has now established itself as an annual event.  The two Auckland editors, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, have once again searched blog, website, magazine and learned journal for what they regard as the best New Zealand nonfiction of the year, although that term “nonfiction” is somewhat flexible, given that a few of the pieces included are decorated with fictional trimmings. There are 23 pieces this time – a few of them very brief, but with a higher proportion nearly hitting the 20-page mark than was the case last time. 12 women and 11 men are represented, so once again it’s scrupulously gender-equitable.
It is a good, stimulating and varied read, but anthologies of this sort are always like a box of chocolates. No reader will like all the flavours or respond to them all in the same way.
To brush off the least important thing – the foreword has been written by a media personality, John Campbell. In babbling, enthusiastic tone he tells us emphatically that, unlike folks when he was young, we have now in New Zealand learnt “the trick of standing upright here” and have found our own postcolonial voices and, he asserts, the variety of this volume’s contents proves the case. But so emphatic is Campbell that, paradoxically, he in fact suggests great uncertainty about what he is saying. If you have to crow so loudly about speaking in your own voice, you are really suggesting a degree of continuing cultural cringe.
Anyway, having got that off my chest, there is the variety of the contents.
Instinctively, my orderly brain started categorising them.
Consider first the Most Genuinely Informative essays.
One is Charles Anderson’s “Into the Black”, a gruelling and detailed account of the Foveaux Strait tragedy when the overloaded fishing vessel “Easy Rider” sank, killing all but one of its crew. In the same category is political journalist David Fisher’s “The OIA Arms Race” on how the Official Information Act is often circumvented by New Zealand bureaucrats, who make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, because the bureaucrats are anxious for their ministers not to look bad. Hence there is the blocking of much information that may legally be in the public eye, all to the detriment of real journalism. And logically enough, this is immediately followed by Nicky Hager’s piece “Loose Lips”, on the perils of being an investigative journalist, and on the techniques to use when you wish to keep your sources confidential. On a completely different matter, Kristen Ng’s “Hanzu in a Headscarf” is equally informative in chronicling travels in a remote province of China. Han Chinese are doing their best (as they are in other provinces) to swamp or stamp out the local ethnic culture in the name of “modernisation”.
If your main desire in nonfiction is to find data or information, these four essays top the bill.
Nearly as valuable in this aspect is Joe Nunweek’s “Three Boys”, which I would categorise as An Essay Worth Arguing With. Nunweek is alarmed by the lack of equity in the way misbehaving teenagers can be suspended or expelled from schools. Nunweek’s main contention is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often victimised in this area. My argument is that, while his point is a valid one, he deals somewhat glibly with how schools really can deal with problem teenagers.
Then there are the contributions that are mainly Anecdotes.
Kirsten McDougall’s “A Small Candle, An Elk” uses an anecdote as a pretext for thoughtful belles lettres. It begins with a lively domestic tale about reprimanding a cat, which has soiled the house, and then morphs into a somewhat sententious reflection on the nature of the self. Ashleigh Young’s piece, about an encounter on a plane with a woman who could be a charlatan, is pure and undiluted anecdote. But anecdotes with a social point to make are Vicki Anderson’s selected tales of riding on public transport in post-earthquake Christchurch, showing how this has at least made some people act as part of a community.
Another well-represented category in Tell You What: 2016 is Advocacy Disguised As Confession. Sylvan Thomson talks about taking sex-change therapy and implicitly advocates the process in doing so. Dan Eichblatt’s  “On Being a Gayby Daddy” tells us how wonderful he is, as a gay man, for fathering a child for a lesbian couple and implicitly does ditto. Jenni Quilter’s “2WW” (the odd title refers to the Two Week Wait between a fertile woman’s ovulation and the onset of her next period) is basically a propaganda piece for IVF. I am bemused (a.) that the endnote implies that the author is American and not a New Zealander; and (b.) that a footnote on p.148 says it was specially written for this book. Wasn’t the idea to collect the best New Zealand nonfiction that had already published? There is likewise implicit advocacy in Matt Vickers’ “Lecretia’s Choice”. Vickers is the husband of Lecretia Seales, who (before her peaceful and unassisted death) was the centre of a pro-euthanasia campaign. While this piece expresses forcefully the grieving of a husband it is written to push the euthanasia cause.
While all first-person tales display a degree of self-awareness, the only contribution in which I detected true Self-discovery was Naomi Arnold’s “Lost and Found” on attending the Wanderlust yoga and music festival at Taupo. She sometimes wanders into New Age mysticism but is saved by the commonsensical and self-deprecating voice which can ask “When do these visions or wants or heartfelt desires becomes something you need to pay attention to and act upon, and when are you just being a self-indulgent dickhead?” (p.20) But, alas, it has one of those up-in-the-air conclusions that is not a conclusion
The collection’s greatest Oddity is Rachel Buchanan’s “For the Trees” – it is interesting for what it says about the difference between magazine articles and academic articles and their genesis, rather than for its ostensible subject. The collection’s Old Stager is Steve Braunias with his “Man on Fire”, a very good and studiedly witty tale about a house fire, which turns into a cancer scare.
But I did say, didn’t I, that any anthology like this is like a box of chocolates where not all flavours suit?
I found a little laboured Lynn Jenner’s story about the difficulty of retrieving a valuable family heirloom – a diamond ring – which had been lost in the Christchurch Earthquake. I was offended by Kate Camp’s professed ignorance in her short piece about visiting First World War graves in Europe. Ali Ikran’s piece about not being able to review Keri Hulme is genuinely a non-event. Megan Dunn’s piece, “The Ballad of Western Barbie”, is so arch you could parade troops under it. A childhood memoir hanging on the hook of a beloved Barbie doll. Giovanni Tiso’s “Philemon and Baucis” is quite a charming but, like the others I’ve gathered into this paragraph, slight.
I think Elizabeth Knox’s “Thoughts on Watching People Shout People Down” reflects very sensibly that Facebook, Twitter et al are great inducers of mass conformity and argues that people should stop and think before making their glib on-line statements. Fair enough. I agree. But it is expressed in a very opaque way.
Having dutifully name-checked nearly all the contents of this book, however, I do not wish to end on a negative note. So I close with the two pieces I regard as Unexpectedly Good.
            Ross Nepia Himona’s essay is called, rather dully,  “Some Thoughts on ANZAC Day”. It argues correctly that we should turn to academic historians to tell us the truth about the campaign, rather than relying on the recycled myth about the birth of nationhood. It advocates strongly that the day should be kept as a day for mourning the dead. The tone is careful and thoughtful, avoiding the rhetoric that this topic too often arouses.
Tina Makereti’s “This Compulsion in Us” concerns becoming a museum curator and struggling with the problem of appropriated and preserved taonga, especially human remains. Yet Makereti, a good imaginative writer, has the intellectual honesty to admit how she too has often been beguiled by, and attracted to, images promising “South Seas romance”, just as early European appropriators of Polynesian artefacts were.
This book offers a good plenty.

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