Monday, September 5, 2016

Something New

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

“EXTRAORDINARY ANYWHERE” edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey  (Victoria University Press, $40)


Reviewing a book of essays is as hellish a task as reviewing a volume of poems. Strictly speaking, each essay deserves to be analysed and criticised on its own terms – and preferably at some length. But constraints of space and time make this impossible in a review, and as often as not, one ends up giving general impressions rather than worthwhile analyses.

I’m easing my way as gently as I can into talking about Extraordinary Anywhere. Subtitled “Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand”, this is a collection of 17 essays edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey. To begin with one interesting bibliographical detail about the publication as artefact: this paperback is surrounded by a full dust-jacket, designed by Jo Bailey and Anna Brown and called a “design colophon”, which orients us to the idea of place as memory and mind-map.

The editors’ introduction (called “Writing Here”) has the drawback of attempting to synopsise briefly every contribution to the volume, but it does note accurately that it is now “impossible to present any one place as a microcosm of the wider nation” (p.11). The type of writing about place with which this book concerns itself is very much part of the general reaction against the myth of a unitary national identity and a “national history” that can encompass us all. The role of individual experiences of particular places is seen, say the editors, in the upsurge of blogging, and the increasing number of New Zealand writers who now turn to personal autobiographical essays to convey the sense of a particular place and environment. (It is notable that some contributors to Extraordinary Anywhere are tutors in non-fiction writing at various tertiary institutions).

The editors then explain that they have divided the essays into three sections. The first deals with the essayists’ encounters with single locations. The second deals with mobility, that is, the essayists’ experiences in moving from place to place.  The third deals with imagined locations; or locations conjured up by technology. While reading my way through the volume, I could see how this functioned theoretically, but the brute fact was that such categories quickly became irrelevant. In each of the three sections, personal experiences and reflections mix with literary references and theory about writing. Regardless of the place they are assigned by the editors, all contributors are in conversation with their own past, with locations and with their reading. The less engaging contributions lean a little too heavily on theory. The most engaging are of course the most confessional.

Take Ashleigh Leigh’s “The Te Kuiti Underground” (the first in the book). It comes closest of all to being pure nostalgia as Young recalls her days as a teenager wanting desperately to know the rock and pop groups of her time, wanting to get away from her small town, and then making the extraordinary and liberating discovery that her father had had exactly the same urges at her age. This is memoir as poetic evocation. [See elsewhere on this blog a –regrettably brief – review of Young’s poetry collection Magnificent Moon.]

Much later in the volume is the similarly autobiographical essay by Harry Ricketts [look up reviews on this blog of various of his works] “Finding the Here in Elsewhere”, basically about Ricketts’ transient life as the son of a British Army officer who was posted from place to place. This becomes a discourse on finding identity in shifting locations; and then an account of a friend who made his ‘home’ in somewhere he largely imagined.

Quite different in tone and intention is Alice Te Punga Somerville’s “Maori Writing in Place; Writing in Maori Place”. Essentially this is a piece of advocacy. Somerville begins by taking the long way around defining what exactly we mean by “place”, moves into (her liveliest section) personal memories of Wellington which in turn become a lament for lost memories of the Maori “imprint” upon Wellington and ends as a protest against the paucity of selections by Maori writers in anthologies.

Then there are those workmanlike (and workwomanlike) essays, which combine sense of place with literary criticism.

As Alex Calder has written extensively on this subject before [see on this blog a short review of his The Settler’s Plot], it is understandable that this is the mode he adopts. Calder’s essay “Where the Road Leads: Place and Melodrama” begins as a personal memoir of sojourning in a rural house that was once used as the set for a not-very-good New Zealand horror (or ghost) film. This leads Calder to consider how melodrama seems to flourish in half-settled societies, like early Pakeha New Zealand, where social conditions are still raw and social distinctions have not yet ossified. In turn, the essay becomes a not-entirely-convincing defence of Dan Davin’s melodramatic Roads from Home, especially its over-the-top conclusion.

On a similarly literary wavelength, Annabel Cooper’s “Childhood Haunts”, while weighted with a somewhat heavy and circumlocutory academic rationale, is essentially a comparison of four memoirs by four different New Zealand writers – Mary Lee, James Cowan, Keith Sinclair and Peter Wells [see books by Wells reviewed on this blog]. Cooper’s simple aim is to show how each writer mythologised, and used as a gauge for self-understanding, the environment in which he or she grew up.

The other most overtly literary excursion is Jack Ross’s “On the Road to Nowhere”, setting a reading of landscape against Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (and labouring long over the question of why Butler kept changing his description of the statues that guard Butler’s imagined land.)

Another category includes essays that ponder on the impact of technology, such as Giovanni Tiso considering how Facebook and Google take over and neutralise (or perhaps neuter) our own memories of holidays and places; and Tim Corballis [see review on this blog of his two novellas RHI] being rather more coldly intellectual as he considers how maps at once confirm and annihilate places.

You will notice that so far I have conscientiously name-checked eight of this book’s 17 contributors.

Time now to man up and say where I felt most and least engaged in these texts.

I confess to finding Lynn Jenner’s “The [taniwha] of Poplar Avenue” a rather confusing contrast of Maori and Pakeha perceptions. I admit I didn’t “get” it. Surprisingly, too, it was the two essays by the editors that seemed most confounded by the need to articulate theory. Cherie Lacey’s “Underwater Beach” has a powerful literalist underpinning in her account of land that was buried and land that was thrust up in the great 1931 Napier earthquake. But it takes some patience to follow her interpretation of Napier as the palimpsest upon which the unconscious mind can be written as if the location were a series of psychoactive signals. Ingrid Horrocks’s “Writing Pukeahu” begins as an exploration of the Wellington that lies closest to Victoria University, focusing on the marae and bicultural interaction. I endorse wholeheartedly some of her judgments, as when she expresses misgiving at the gargantuan Anzac exhibition organised by Peter Jackson “as though history, especially war, is an action flick, a dam-busting event with fantastic landscapes and visitor numbers. And with excellent export options. As though the history we needed to remember now was only a hundred years old.”(p.85) At a certain point, however, Horrocks’s contribution becomes too cautious and academic a project report on compiling an anthology about place.

Time now to list the six essays that most fed my brain, enlightened me and put me in fruitful ways of thinking.

Sally Blundell’s “Reoccupying Christchurch” is unashamedly a piece of high-end journalism, joining what is now a growing corpus of thoughtful writing on the post-earthquake city. [See, on this blog, reviews of Jane Bowron’s newspaper despatches Old Bucky and Me; and Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book and The Villa at the Edge of the Empire.] Like Farrell in some respects, Sally Blundell is aware of the way commercial imperatives in the rebuilding of the city sometimes override community needs; but she is also aware of the way the community shows signs of asserting itself and modifying the blueprints other people have drawn for them.

To me as an historian, Tony Ballantyne’s “Chop Suey patties and Histories of Place” was the volume’s very best exercise in combining personal observation with historical theory. This is as much as I would expect from the man who wrote Entanglementsof Empire [see review on this blog]. Ballantyne begins his essay somewhat wryly with accounts of his and his family’s encounters with Asian (mainly Chinese) eateries in Dunedin’s old working-class suburb of Caversham – which has of course been the site of intensive and prolonged study by the University of Otago’s History Department. From this, Ballantyne works out into the principles of understanding communities as “process”, not as fixed entities, and of considering communities in detail before making overarching statements about national “identity”.

Lydia Wevers’s curtly-titled “Dirt” is an exercise in demonstrating how physical artefacts can tell us of the nature of a past community. Wevers considered the battered, stained, sometimes physically-dirty books that were part of the Brancepeth library, bequeathed to the Victoria University Library. Brancepeth was a Wairarapa sheep station, the books dated from a century ago and most were part of a lending library available to shearers, farm worker and others. Her examination of the books allow Wevers to adduce what sort of reading these labourers and unskilled workers liked, how and when they read, and what their reading choices said about their dreams and desires – and social status. The community is revisited through what it has left behind.

I loved the freshness in the writing of Tina Makereti, who is more imaginative writer than academic. Her “By Your Place in the World, I Will Know Who You Are” presents the interesting perspective of one who does not trace her origins to one turangawaewae. As she says “there is an expectation that Maori should know where they come from, yet I write as a Maori who doesn’t have grounding in one place, one tribe or one culture, but who is still Maori. I am Pakeha too. I am not part-Maori and Part-Pakeha; I am both Maori an Pakeha.” (pp.169-170) The implications of this are worked out in her literary practice.

Ian Wedde is probably the longest-established literary practitioner represented in this volume. [See on this blog reviews of his Trifecta, The Life Guard, and The Catastrophe]. In his essay “A Real Piece….”, Wedde at first seems to be wandering aimlessly as he describes his daily walk in Ponsonby and his café-visiting way of life there. This seems like the introduction to a tale of being an urban flaneur (not that Wedde ever uses that term). But it segues into thoughts on how he captures experience in his notebooks and hence how self-consciousness and awareness are the keys to autobiographies concerning place. But then the concept of “place” itself is really a construct… whereupon Wedde discourses charmingly on the blurred line between objective and constructed places, exemplified by the advertising campaign surrounding the fictitious-but-real Hobbiton. The essay may amble but it is amiable.

Martin Edmond’s closing “response essay” replies to the whole book, emphasising that the “archive” (objective historical data) and “memory” (human experience) should always be in conversation wen we write of place.

As I warned at the beginning of this notice, reviewing a book of essays is a hellish task, but I’m methodical enough to believe that the right way to go about it is to take note of all the contents, as I have done here. I hope this gives some idea of the collections variety, and of the fact that there is more to savour than regret.

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