Monday, May 20, 2019

Something New

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

“WEST ISLAND – Five twentieth-century New Zealanders in Australia”, by Stephanie Johnson (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95)

            Beginning as a poet, Stephanie Johnson is now a very well-established New Zealand novelist, having published eleven novels, one of which (The Shag Incident) won her New Zealand’s highest literary award. (On this blog, look up Stephanie Johnson to find reviews of her novels The Open World, The Writing Class, The Writer’s Festival, and a very brief note on her earlier novel Belief.) West Island is, I believe, her first full-length work of non-fiction. I’ll cut to the chase before I analyse this book. West Island is a well-researched, engaging, accessible, very enjoyable piece of cultural history, written with both wit and understanding and showing a great deal of mature wisdom. I loved it in the same way I loved Peter Hoar’s (very, very different) The World’s Din, because both books shine a light on parts of our shared past that have been sorely neglected.

            As many Kiwis will know, “West Island” is a jocular New Zealand way of referring to Australia, our big neighbour across the Tasman – the type of jocularity that covers a sort of inferiority complex about being the much smaller and junior partner of the Anzac connection.

            Stephanie Johnson examines the lives of five people who were born and raised in New Zealand, but who settled in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century and made their reputations there. They are the painter Roland Wakelin, the novelist and political activist Jean Devanny, the poet and playwright Douglas Stewart, the party girl (and author of trash fiction) Dulcie Deamer, and the loudmouth journalist Eric Baume. In examining them, Stephanie Johnson is also examining the whole attitude of New Zealanders to Australians and of Australians to New Zealanders.

In a sort of post-modern impulse Johnson, a sixth-generation New Zealander of English ancestry, brings herself into the story, giving details on her own family and personal connections with Australia.

A section called “Out in the World” reflects on how young New Zealanders of her generation, including herself, reacted to their first landing in Australia. This section is also a very interesting self-reflection. An older and mellower Johnson is as much repelled from, as amused by, her own youthful behaviour when she went through various relationships and adherence to once-fashionable causes before marrying an Aussie and having three children. In a coda called “A Comedy Really” she tells a personal story – both very funny and very sad – about how different from  New Zealand Australia seems to Kiwi visitors. She often notes the more overtly racist and macho culture of Australia. Nevertheless, it was in Australia that her first collection of short stories was published – and more recently she has written, under a pseudonym, two novels with Australian settings specifically to woo the Aussie market.

In her Afterword, she says that before Otago University Press took up West Island, it had been rejected by two commercial publishers. “ ‘It’s a New Zealand book’, said the Australian publisher. ‘It’s an Australian book’, said the New Zealand equivalent. Australians don’t want to read about New Zealanders, said the Australian. Vice versa, said the New Zealander.” (p.257) One of her chief contentions is that New Zealand writers, critics and general public tend to ignore, or be unaware of, New Zealanders who made it big in Oz – either they don’t know about them at all or they assume that they are Australians (just as the Australians do). Of course she does note contentions over which side of the Tasman should take credit for Phar Lap and the pavlova (and she could have mentioned how delighted New Zealanders were not to take credit for Joh Bjelke-Petersen). But she is referring to “invisible” New Zealanders. Another of her contentions is that Australia and New Zealand used to be closer culturally than they are now. Often Oz was the first stop for ambitious young New Zealanders who wanted to see and work in the wide world. Now ambitious young New Zealanders are more likely to catch a plane to New York or London. Once upon a time there were closer literary links. New Zealand writers sought first to have their work accepted by Australian publications such as the old Bulletin. Now they’re more likely to seek New Zealand publishers first.

After a prelude in which she draws a vivid, fictitious picture of all five of her subjects attending an event in Sydney in the 1940s; and after a preface; Johnson organises her book by giving accounts of the New Zealand formation of the five, and then circles back for longer chapters on how each fared in Australia.

Roland Wakelin came from a relatively prosperous Wairarapa family. Dulcie Deamer came from an affluent but eccentric family in Featherston. Douglas Stewart was from Eltham in Taranaki, and his family was also well-off. Eric Baume was from Auckland and his family were very rich. All four headed for Australia in their early twenties. The exception was Jean Devanny. Not only was she (the eighth of ten children) from a hard-scrabble working class family, but she did not leave for Oz until she was 35, by which time she had already written and had publshed five novels, one of which (The Butcher Shop) had earned her great notoriety by being banned. Johnson sees her as a courageous working class woman and activist, but does note (a subject she returns to later) both the casual racism of some of her work and her sexual obsessions. Commenting on a passage in one of Devanny’s New Zealand novels, she remarks “her fascination with sex was boiling over” and adds “the young woman who wrote this, it seems to me, is in the grip of unrelieved horniness.” (p.84)

In both the New Zealand and the Australian chapters about his life, Johnson expresses – it seems justifiably – a very low opinion of Eric Baume. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, he got to edit newspapers in Australia, acted as a war correspondent and ran a number of hugely-popular radio shows. But his populist and racist views, his personal abuse of other people, his gambling and many unsavoury habits mar his record. Johnson calls him “a self-mythologiser, a teller of tall tales who despite (or perhaps because of) his training as a journalist never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” (p.91) She adds that he was “perhaps not a son of New Zealand whom we’d like to reclaim.” (p.172)

Her views on Dulcie Deamer are more benign. Like Eric Baume, Dulcie Deamer wrote some trash fiction, but her main concern was partying. To free herself to live a flashy life in Sydney from the 1920s to the 1940s, she dumped her children on other people. “A true narcissist”, Johnson calls her. (p.136) Deamer was the “Queen of the Bohemians” who regularly appeared in gossip columns and other people’s memoirs as the woman who would year after year come to Arts Balls wearing a leopard skin and doing the splits. Gentle reader, most of what we learn about her sounds to me like the tiresome tomfoolery of a self-obsessed “character” who wants to be noticed. It is hard to see what she ever achieved, although Johnson gamely connects her with the sexual liberation of her age. For some time she was associated with another NZ expat, the “Witch of King’s Cross” Rosaleen Norton, who traded in black magic and the occult and (apparently) sex orgies. Norton’s paintings were once considered shocking and obscene, but as Johnson remarks, they now look “like bad record covers from the 70s”. (p.144). (I know this is an accurate assessment as I looked them up on line.) There is an interesting addendum to Dulcie Deamer’s unedifying life however – and it has to do with how her daughter (raised by her grandmother) turned out. In character and seriousness, the daughter proved to be the complete opposite of the frivolous mother.

Thus for the negligible ones, well-known though they were in Oz.

Roland Wakelin, Jean Devanny and Douglas Stewart deserve – and get – far more serious treatment, and it is in dealing with them that Stephanie Johnson’s good nature, common sense and tolerance shine.

It is quite clear that Wakelin and Stewart were essentially conservative figures, both of them stable and dedicated family men living quiet domestic lives. Wakelin supported his family by working as a commercial artist between painting the things he really wanted to paint. Johnson notes that families of artists often have to struggle with an artist who is insolvent, drinks or takes to drugs. But “Roland Wakelin was never that kind of artist. He was temperate, gentle, generous and reliable. Many of his students adored him and he made friends for life.” (p.124) Similarly, the long chapter on Douglas Stewart shows the poet, playwright and editor to have become a mellow older man who had acquired both a sense of humour and much perspective on his own work and the work of others. Johnson does not “talk up” either of these men. Wakelin may have been a modernist painter in terms of his own era, but his work now seems staid and almost conventional. Stewart began as conventionally romantic in his verse, and when he wrote poems of his New Zealand childhood, it was almost in the English Georgian vein. His later verse plays (for radio) are often declamatory and also of his age. Even so, Stephanie Johnson does not belittle either of these men and she takes their artistic intentions seriously.

By contrast, Jean Devanny was sexually over-active, a firebrand, sometime Communist, zealous feminist, agitator and rowdy ideologue. Johnson is fully aware  that while some of her novels stand the test of time, many are potboilers and she was always falling into the trap of going didactic. Johnson also chronicles the way Devanny’s idealism about Communism was often up against the boorish and macho behaviour of male Communists. Nevertheless Johnson judges Devanny as an “extraordinary, brilliant, highly sexed, maddening, ferocious, inexhaustible woman” and declares that of the five people in this book “she is the one I would most like to have met.” (p.213) Again, for all Devanny’s naïvete and the flaws in her writing, Johnson takes her political and artistic aspirations seriously.

There is an interesting theme that Johnson picks up in considering some of her selected ex-New Zealand Australians. It is the matter of how the writers in this bunch depicted Maori. She compares the racial element in an abominable novel by Eric Baume with Ruth Park’s 1951 novel The Witch’s Thorn; and notes that while some of Park’s comments on Maori might now make us cringe, nevertheless Park had the honourable intention of depicting Maori sympathetically and her novel has to be read in the context of its time. It is foolish to apply to it standards that did not then exist. From this Johnson argues that it is as foolish now to forbid non-Maori to write about Maori (in fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation”) as it once was for Pakeha to write demeaningly of Maori.

She returns to this theme in the main chapter on Douglas Stewart. After she has been discussing his romanticised stories and plays relating to Maori, she says truly: “Top-ranking New Zealand writers of that period had no cultural anxieties regarding the creation of Maori characters. In contemporary [i.e. present-day] New Zealand, non-Maori writers are discouraged from writing about Maori. This is understandable, given the sometimes painful errors made by Pakeha writers, but has resulted in the peculiar phenomenon of a raft of books over a period of decades that completely ignore the very presence of Maori. If there were to be a world-wide apocalypse and all that is left for future readers are literary works from the late twentieth / early twenty-first century New Zealand, survivors could suspect us of an extreme, institutionalised racism – the opposite, in fact, of what we are trying to do.’ (p.235) In effect, good intentions have made Maori virtually invisible in books written by Pakeha.

Much as I like Johnson’s good sense and good humour, there are a few things I would quibble with. I think in her preface (called “Why?”), she overdoes the idea of Pakeha New Zealanders not feeling at home in New Zealand and longing to live in their ancestral countries. Also, there are moments when she goes dyspeptic. Comparing the Australian literary culture with the New Zealand literary culture, she writes: “Even now there is a sense, when one lives and works in New Zealand, of existing in a parallel universe. Books are published and fade away; they are not often championed by fellow writers…. Nothing has much impact unless it wins a prize overseas, no matter how unreadable the book.” (pp.221-222) That last phrase makes me wonder whom she could possibly have been thinking of…

On the other hand, she has passages of robust wisdom. Opening the chapter on Eric Baum, she writes: “Go out into the street in New Zealand or Australia, and ask anyone under 30 about the significance of the year 1939 and chances are he/she won’t know. In universities around the world history departments are shrinking. The subject is less and less popular even in high school, suffering the twin effects of the market imperative for vocation-driven courses and a narcisistic desire of the so-called ‘selfie’ generation. History is boring because someone else did it.” (p.153) Having taught history at both secondary and tertiary levels, all I can say to this, shaking my head wearily, is “Quite!”

Personal note: I have to admit that, while I was conversant with Jean Devanny’s work, I had never read anything of Douglas Stewart’s before I read West Island. But searching my overstuffed bookshelves, I found the following publications that include work by Stewart

(a.) A copy of Best Poems of New Zealand 1935, a small book with rusting staples holding it together, edited by C.A.Marris, the conservative editor whom young upstart larrikins like Denis Glover and A.R.D. Fairburn ridiculed richly. But dear reader, note that as well as including verse by forgotten nobodies, the little book does also have poems by A.R.D. Fairburn himself, Robin Hyde and John Mulgan. And two by Douglas Stewart, one of which (‘Mending the Bridge”) isn’t half bad.

(b.) A copy of A Book of Australian and New Zealand Verse, (OUP), 4th edition 1950, the New Zealand section being edited by another conservative figure, Alan Mulgan. Although he had already been resident in Australia for over a decade, Douglas Stewart is in the New Zealand section, and is represented by what look like three pieces of rhapsodic juvenilia.

(c.) Dan Davin’s well-known 1953 anthology New Zealand Short Stories (OUP), which includes Douglas Stewart’s short story The Whare. This, as Stephanie Johnson reports, was the story that apparently infuriated the young Witi Ihimaera for what he saw as outrageous stereotypes of Maori as indigent, dirty and lazy. Most interesting, however, is

(d.) Stewart’s poetry collection The White Cry, published in London in 1939 when he was 26. I read (correction – I made myself read) my way through it. There is a reference in one poem to “toi-toi plumes”, a poem about gorse, one line that says “Maoris” have lost their land, a poem about godwits and the long poem called “Triumph” which, says the young author’s note, is based on a Maori legend – but you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. For the fact is, these poems are written in a thoroughly English idiom with references to larks and eagles and English fauna and flora. Some of these things might have been acclimatised to New Zealand, but unless you were advised otherwise, you would still assume that these poems were written in the Home Counties. The title poem “The White Cry” is an image of the Lamb of God against the wood of a moss-covered tree. There is nothing as easy as ridiculing the poetic conventions of an earlier age, but the poems in this book are simply unrevivable. I turn, however, to

(e.) Harry Heseltine’s The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (1972) and find Douglas Stewart represented by nine poems robustly and unmistakable Australian in flavour and references. Based on this admittedly very limited sampling of the man’s work, I conclude that Douglas Stewart went from being a hesitant and immature young New Zealand poet to being a confident Australian poet – and it is probably just that he is best remembered as the editor of the literary pages of the Bulletin, and a long-time editor for Angus and Robertson.

Something Old

 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.

“A DRAMA IN MUSLIN” by George Moore  (first published 1886)

            It must be the historian in me, but sometimes I find very imperfect old novels interesting, because they reveal things about the age in which they were written. Case in point – George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin.

You will find elsewhere on this blog comments on other, and better-known, works of the Irish-turned-English author George Moore (1852-1933). They include Esther Waters (1894) and The Lake (1902), generally regarded as his best work, and his gossipy three-volume autobiography Hail and Farewell (1911-1914), which mainly concerns the Dublin literary scene of his age. These were all written when George Moore was well-established as a literary figure. But I also looked at his lesser-known early Zolaesque novel of alcoholism A Mummer’s Wife (1884). This was his first novel to make any real impact, and A Drama in Muslin followed two years later.

How does A Drama in Muslin reveal things about the age in which it was written? Because it deals with that nineteenth century phenomenon of the “marriage market”, in which gentry and middle-class arrivistes attempted to marry off their debutante daughters to the most eligible, and preferably richest, bachelors. Special interest comes from the fact that this novel is set largely in Dublin, and its characters are ambitious wealthy middle-class Irish Catholics, a minority among the largely Anglo-Irish Protestant socialite elite. Given that it was both written and is set in the 1880s, there rumbles uncomfortably in the background, as an ominous “noise off”, the agitation of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Land League and the tension between Irish peasants and their rack-renting landlords – many of the latter being exactly the social class that seeks spouses in the “marriage market”.

The novel follows the fortunes of three convent-educated girls in the marriage-stakes, Alice and Olive Barton and May Gould. Most important of these girls is Alice Barton, who develops as the novel’s main character.

Active, social-climbing Mrs Barton and her ineffectual-but-wealthy husband Arthur want their daughters to marry aristocratic titles. Into the Dublin debutante “season”, they thrust both plain, intellectual Alice, and her beautiful, frivolous sister Olive. Mrs Barton prevents Olive from marrying a penniless beau, and dangles her before a wealthy aristocrat, darkly hinting that the peasant agitation will rob him of the lands that provide his only income, so he would be wise to marry a middle-class girl who has wealth. But Mrs Barton’s plan backfires. The aristocratic feller chooses to marry another debutante. Not only does Olive not snare a husband (as well as injuring herself in a botched elopement), but late in the novel, still unmarried, she reveals to her sister Alice that she has fled to London because she was sick of the marriage-mad atmosphere among her social set in Dublin and the way she had been feted as the “belle” of the season.

Meanwhile Alice, the novel’s real protagonist, has been growing intellectually. In the Dublin “season” she befriends a flashy novelist who has what were then considered as advanced ideas. Her views are changed by him – among other things she drops her Catholicism and becomes the type of superior agnostic that George Moore himself became. (Indeed, given some of her judgements, she becomes something of a prig.) But Alice’s novelist friend proves not to be a potential husband. Instead, Alice begins to earn an independent income as a writer. Against her parents’ objections, she marries a doctor who is a practical solid citizen and who shares her intellectual interests. The obvious irony of this tale is that the feted belle Olive remains husbandless while the overlooked, plain Alice has found a solid marriage with a man who admires her for her mind (a touch of the Jane Eyres here?). In her marriage, she finds domestic peace and a space in which to pursue her writing career. A good marriage is a matter of choice, not a matter of being pushed into something by your parents for the sake of social advancement.

To say Moore is hostile to the whole idea of debutante-ism is an understatement. Clearly the novel is telling us that putting up young women for what amounts to an auction is no basis for happy marriages. As for the parents and hangers-on around such social occasions as debutante balls, Moore becomes vitriolic. He speaks of one debutante ball at Dublin Castle – seat of England’s Viceroy in Ireland - as containing “another band of underlings who swarm about this mock court like flies about a choice pile of excrement”. (Book 2, Chapter 3)

He does, of course, fire off shots at some of his favourite targets. There are two strong subplots – one concerns the debutante May Gould, who gets pregnant to a debutante’s delight during the “season” and has to go away to have her baby in secret. Here is revealed the hypocrisy of a decorous social event which is often a cover for illicit sex – and, despite the period euphemisims and rows of dots eliding sex-scenes, it is heavily implied that Mrs Barton herself is having an affair with one of the Anglo aristocrats. Then there is the matter of religion. The other subplot concerns the hunchback Lady Cecilia Cullen, who develops into a religious fanatic. From being a self-righteous tract-distributing evangelical Protestant, she becomes a Catholic and enters a convent. The implication, underlined by Cecilia’s vindictive man-hating stance, is that it is sexual frustration and hysteria which drive her to take the veil. More persistent as an attack on religion is the characterisation of Alice Barton, with her repulsion from the Catholic mass and her equation of the Catholic religion with the ignorant peasantry.

The novel has many highly satirical passages contrasting the social frivolity of the gentry and upper-middle-classes with the poverty of the peasants and the urban lower classes. Ultimately, the courtship rituals of the “season” are trivial in comparison with the agitation over land. And yet, typically, Moore’s views are compromised. He is fully aware of the injustices that were done to the peasants and the rottenness of the social system under which they laboured, and he deplores these things. But at the same time he despises the peasants for the “superstition” of their religion; generally depicts them as a dirty rabble; and comes close to saying they are irredeemable. This is the view expressed by Alice’s doctor husband late in the novel, when he sees the peasants kowtowing to their hated landlords once the agitation has come to nothing. One remembers that George Moore was himself a landlord, in his early thirties when A Drama in Muslin was published; and his liberal impulses stand against his material interests. This cements for me the image I have long had of Moore – that he was essentially a “clubland rebel”, willing to wave the flag for social reform so long as it did not affect him in any way.

It may be superfluous to add that, typical of its age, this novel has a few moments of pure melodrama, but they are generally kept in their place. And, despite Moore’s tendency to overstate his case, there is a real sting to some of his comments on the way young women are used as currency to gain wealth. The anarchists were wrong when they said all marriage was simply long-term prostitution, but the 19th century “marriage market” provided some limited vindication of their view.

Something Thoughtful

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.


Forgive me if, for the second consecutive posting, I draw on my recent time in Europe to give you a tale with a sort of message.

In Amsterdam in early December last year, my wife and I went on our third visit to the van Gogh Museum. As always, it bewitched me with its chronological survey of the great artist’s development, from his early, sombre paintings of Dutch peasants to his impulsive images, with sturdy brush-strokes, of crows in the cornfield and (his last completed painting) tree roots.

But this time, there was a special exhibition in the basement. It concerned van Gogh’s French friend Paul Gauguin. In 1887, long before he headed for Tahiti, Gauguin made his first major trip outside France spending four months in the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, an island (the placards told me) 70 kilometres long by 30 kilometres wide at its widest point. With him, Gauguin took his friend the painter Charles Laval, who was later to die at an early age.

As my photos now remind me, a placard near the entrance warned us (in Dutch and English) “Some of the letters by Gauguin and Laval quoted in the exhibition contain terms with a racist, colonial and disparaging basis. We are fully aware of this and disassociate [sic] ourselves from the use of these words.”

We walked slowly around the exhibition, looking carefully at the two painters’ work. I found myself thinking that, at least at this time, the unknown Laval was, as a painter, almost the equal of the well-known Gauguin. Both artists often used solid blocks of colour to depict large parts of their landscapes.

Although the term wasn’t used, a reproof of “cultural appropriation” was implied in some of the exhibition’s placards. It was noted that Gauguin (much more than Laval) tended to portray the female indigenes – especially the “porteuses”, or women who were carriers – rather than the males. His Martinique women, even when carrying heavy loads or harvesting, are presented in languorous poses, as if they are taking their rest or playing. This image was far removed from the toilsome work on colonial plantations, which by this time really occupied most of the inhabitants of Martinique. To me it was very significant that Gauguin chose to linger near the shoreline, while it was Laval who ventured into the interior and painted its mountains and rough country. Gauguin’s Martinique was sun, sand, luxuriant growth (especially palm trees) and women.

In both Martinique and Tahiti, Gauguin saw himself as visiting and immersing himself in nature pure and uncorrupted, and getting away from the polluting constraints of European civilisation. But he created an idyll of an unreal world. He forgot that he, as a Frenchman, was part of the French “civilising” process. He was the serpent in the garden.

Now you will note that in what I have written so far, I have skewered Gauguin by presenting him as we are now currently encouraged to do.

But, as I admired his paintings,  here is what I really thought of him. I thought – doesn’t every painter create an unreal world, made of his own imagination as much as of objective reality? I thought – unwitting colonial or not, wasn’t Gauguin as least refreshing and finding himself as an artist in this new environment? And, more important that any other consideration in this context, aren’t the paintings themselves, at their best, brilliant things, indeed masterpieces of early modernist art? To train ourselves to despise such works in terms of a current social critique is to justify being a philistine or a propagandist – and probably both. I have no objections to the placard advising us of some language which is now unacceptable – yet in fact I found very little of such language in the few letters that were quoted. But I do object to the push to belittle an artist in terms of ideas that were, quite simply, out of his range of consciousness.

As we rode the elevator, away from the exhibition and up to the permanent van Gogh collections, I though how ironical that it was that the Frenchman found his soul and identity as a painter by running away to the exotica of the tropics; while the Dutchman found his soul and identity as a painter by running away to the South of France. And I thought how good their work was and how I wanted to celebrate it.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Nearly two months later, in late January of this year, we were in Paris. The day was grey and rainy but we had checked first which galleries and museums were open (unwary tourists are sometimes frustrated to find that in Paris, some galleries and museums are closed on odd weekdays). Then we walked down the Blvd.Madeleine, through the Place de la Concorde, across the river and up the Quai d’Orsay to the very modern museum called the Musee du Quai Branly / Jacques Chirac. Once upon a time, such a museum would have been called “ethnographic” and would have revelled in pointing out “scientifically” the primitive customs of inferior peoples. But this museum was very careful to distance itself from such an approach, and to explain each exhibit and artefact with respect.

The museum divides into four great halls – Oceania, Africa, Asia and the Americas. At various points we were advised that some exhibits had been acquired from older – and now defunct – museums that celebrated the old French Empire. But most of what the Musee du Quai Branly / Jacques Chirac contains has been more recently acquired. We hired English-language audio-guides and headed for the Oceania hall, which covers everything from the Malay archipelago and what it calls “Australasia” (by which it means New Guinea and the islands north of Australia) to the easternmost Pacific. Here we lingered long, at first hunting out every number that the audio-guides promised to explain…. A fascinating collection, but I was amused by the way the English voice mispronounced the names of Maori gods when it came to the New Zealand section (Tane rhymed with pain; Rangi rhymed with mangy). Of course this sort of thing made me wonder how many words from other parts of the Pacific had also been mispronounced without my knowing it.

We spent an equally long time in the Africa hall, the artefacts and art-works in which range from the Sahara to the furthest south, by way of Madagascar and the Congo. We were particularly taken by the life-sized statues made in Benin at the time French colonial rule was beginning to be imposed – statues which related chiefs to their totem animals; and by the elaborate and big wedding garments worn by North African women; and by the wall paintings which decorated Ethiopian Christian churches (not frescoes, but paintings done of canvas and hung on the church walls). In fact, in the Oceania and Africa halls there was so much to see and be intrigued by that we began to suffer, after about four hours, from that most shameful of tourist deseases, “culture fatigue”. We were wearying. We made only the most cursory of tours of the Asia and Americas halls before we left, fully understanding that nobody can appreciate in one day all that a really great museum has to offer.

But in the midst of our too-brief survey, also spent some time at an upstairs special exhibition called “Paintings from Afar”. And here comes my second comment for this post on cultural sensitivity.

The exhibition consisted of paintings by European (mainly French) artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The paintings were of exotic places like the Sahara, Egypt, Algiers, Tahiti, Mauritius, Martinique and Madagascar, most of which were at that time part of the French Empire. Placards and our audio-guides explained that many of these works had been, and continued to be, kept in storage rather than displayed, as they reflected old colonial attitudes and a contorted view of “the other”. There were the expected warnings against the crime of Orientalism and carnal white men’s daydreams about odalisques in harems and dusky maidens in the Pacific. As in the Gauguin exhibition in Amsterdam, the term “cultural appropriation” was never used, but it was implied in the reminders that many of these works were commissioned by steamship companies and colonising agencies in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, and some had appeared as part of the great exhibition in Paris in the 1930s vaunting the French Empire.

So we walked around and looked carefully at this exhibition, enjoying the amusing irony that the curator on duty was a black African, leading us to wonder what he thought of the pictures. There were a handful of offensive and blatantly racist canvases – two in particular. One was a near-pornographic full-frontal nude of a “native” woman bathing; another was of a French doctor treating African patients who were depicted in cartoonish stereotype. There were many picturesque scenes, many depicting very Europeanised “noble savages” and many more gentle incitements to erotic daydreams.

But, as I have so often found in this sort of chastening exhibition, the worst that could be said of most paintings was that they showed things that were not inauthentic or demeaning, but things that were atypical, such as noble Arabs posed on their steeds against the desert sunset. There were huge canvases which, my wife correctly remarked, looked like old-fashioned travel posters. But there were also excellent landscapes and – as the 20th century advanced – admiring and realistic portraits of non-Euopean people.

The cautions against racism and misrepresentation were fair enough. But I do wonder how modern post-colonial critics actually expect artists from one culture to depict another, for, even if the style of art was old-fashioned, a good part of this exhibition struck me as perfectly honourable and unprejudiced depictions of real things. Desert landscapes soaked in the deep pink of sunset. Steamships in the harbours of North Africa.  Stalls in an Egyptian market.   Tribesmen gathering at a river. Take away the very few really offensive images, and all that is objectionable about these paintings is the fact they were made in the age of empire.

Sometimes sensitivity about other cultures can be simply too sensitive.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Something New

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

“THE BRAIDED RIVER – Migration and the Personal Essay”, by Diane Comer (Otago University Press, $NZ35) 

Here’s a problem – finding a book on an important topic, noting the good intentions of the author, and yet, reluctantly, having to point out the book’s many flaws. This is the penalty of writing honest reviews, as opposed to puffs.

Diane Comer’s The Braided River is concerned with the experience of immigrants coming to New Zealand. At the moment, few topics are as important to New Zealand as the dynamics of migration. New Zealand is now a truly multicultural society, with citizens having come here from many countries. According to the 2013 census, 25% of New Zealand citizens were born overseas, which means a far higher proportion of immigrants than in most countries. Worldwide, only 3.4% of the world’s population live outside their birth countries.

Frequently, Diane Comer uses the image of a braided river, like those wide, shallow South Island rivers with (except when they are in flood) their many small streams running separately in the same direction. This is a fairly obvious metaphor for migrants being different strands coming together in one country, as in the statement: “The idea that identity is a confluence, something that flows together like a braided river with different channels, is particularly well suited to migrant identity informed by more than one language and culture.” (p.218) Diane Comer rightly celebrates the richness and variety that a multicultural society entails. (For similar sentiments, see my post How Guilty Should I Feel?)

Many things that piqued my interest are said in Comer’s lengthy Introduction, “The Headwaters of the River”, despite its verbosity and repetitions. As she does elsewhere in the book (as well as the Introduction, see also pp.77, 146, 157 etc.), Comer spends some time narrating her own migrant experience. She was an American army child who moved from place to place with her parents, living briefly in a number of countries. She came to Christchurch, with her husband and two children, in 2007. Having had a university position, she was at first dispirited that she could find only low-paying work in New Zealand, but she discovered her metier in conducting classes for immigrants “who wanted to write about their experience in coming to New Zealand” (p.17). Later, because of the Christchurch earthquakes, she and her family moved to Sweden, but it was in Sweden that she realised New Zealand was her real home, she came back here to settle permanently, and she resumed her teaching of immigrants. She encouraged the writing of personal essays, which she sees as vital in helping immigrants to understand both their new environment and the nature of the transition they had made in moving from one country to another. She notes:

The course was inexpensive and drew adult migrants of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds and many parts of the world. The random demographic of each term’s class challenged the assumption that the personal essay is the province of the middle class, well-educated older writer: the course attracted migrants from their twenties to their eighties, and while it included doctors and lawyers, it also included individuals who had left school at 16.” (p.15).

I was particularly interested when she writes that this book “details the experiences and thoughts of 37 migrants who between them wrote 200 personal essays.” (p.18) I looked forward to their many insights.

In my usual tiresome and flat-footed, bibliographic way, I can run through the book’s structure and development to show how Comer’s ideas are developed.  

“Roots” (Chapter 1) concerns the points of origin of immigrants and the wrench they feel in leaving their countries of birth. “Routes” (Chapter 2) concerns where immigrants come from, how they arrive in a new country, and what immediate pychological adjustments they have to make. “Closing the Distance” (Chapter 3) deals with the effects of distance (particularly relevant to an isolated country like New Zealand) as immigrants realize how far they are from their points of origin – hence the pull of nostaligia and the desire to contact relatives and friends overseas (although, on p.138, one Chilean immigrant admits to feeling a freedom from social contraints in New Zealand, and hence was reluctant to contact people back in Chile). Chapter 4 concerns what it is like to learn how to live in a new country. There are the difficulties, for many, of a foreign language, and of an alien (physical) environment. There is the need for “reciprocity” – that is, connecting with people and learning the positive things about the new land. All this tends to be harder for those older immigrants who have already acquired so many memories, and absorbed so many mores, from their countries of origin. “The Migration of Identity” (Chapter 5) is about the way immigrants negotiate finding their own identities – being at once New Zealanders and people whose formation happened elsewhere. Finally “The Gift of Return” (Chapter 6) recapitulates – somewhat windily, alas – the major themes and ideas of the book.

            I cannot emphasize how much I applaud the aims of this book – it is an attempt to make us aware of the experiences and perspectives of immigrants to New Zealand. But it is a truism that the good intentions of a book are not the same as its achievement or impact. Having read in the Introduction that The Braided River would deal with “the experiences and thoughts of 37 migrants”, I expected to hear the raw and sincere voices of the immigrants themselves. And that is not what we get.

Each chapter trundles along as a sort of continuation of the Introduction. The author theorises about immigration in general, speaks of her own immigrant experience, and discusses the methodology and accomplishment of the classes she conducted.  Yes, statements of the immigrants themselves are quoted – but they are only quoted, usually as a single paragraph here and there; and then they are subjected to lengthy analyses by the author, commenting on the implications of their word-choice, the imagery they use and so forth as if we, the readers, would not be able to interpret these things for ourselves.

Take the opening chapter “Roots”. The author gives us lofty ideas on the nature of memory, roots, origins and the immigrant’s sense of dislocation, heavily buttressed with quotations from the likes of Susan Sontag and Paul Ricoeur to show her intellectual chops. The prose, and the frequent use of academic quotation, make it read like a thesis rather than a book for the general public. Instead of being allowed to speak for themselves, the immigrants are embedded in this copious commentary. The middle-aged English immigrant Amelia speaks for a paragraph about the sensation of coming to New Zealand and what it was like for her children. Whereupon the author spends pages interpreting for us what Amelia meant, and then comparing Amelia’s experience with her own experience in coming to New Zealand with children. Then it’s the turn of an Irish doctor in his sixties called Hugh – first his one paragraph of his own, then he gets the business, with the author citing Joseph Campbell and  Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes and God wot.

The frustration of reading this is our growing awareness (a.) that it adds very little to our appreciation of what the immigrants are saying; and (b.) that it ends up smothering the immigrants’ insights. If we are so often told how good it is for immigrants to write essays, then why can we not have some at least of these essays reproduced in full? Or is the author tacitly implying that the immigrants’ essays are really exercises in therapy rather than interesting pieces of writing in their own right?

There is, after all, clear evidence that some of the authors’ students have a way with words. Take, for example, the words of the American sculptor Doug has he re-lives his first landing in New Zealand;

I think it’s about 5:00 A.M., other side of the dateline. The sky is blood red. Thomas has been asleep on me for three hours. I haven’t slept. My shirt is soaked. It feels wonderful. There it is in all its splendour. The green hills rise up to meet us, then fall to the sea. The distant land. Look at it, Kathleen. Our new country. Is this a fairy tale? This moment of descent carries all the seeds yet to flourish. We’ve landed. It’s September and spring again. We haven’t even suffered a winter.” (p.83)

Or take the words of Suk, the Korean woman, as she discovered the alienness of a New Zealand city and its strange language, and briefly had second thoughts about having migrated:

When the morning went and the evening came, the nip in the air was filled with the quietness and darkness like a dead city. Where were the people? Where were the vehicles which boomed with hideous noises and a cloud of dust? The evening approached upon me, I turned on TV. The voices were flying over me like a ghost. I shuddered at the thought of the decision I’d made. There would be other tials waiting for us.” (p.92)

This is vivid writing which does not have to be “explained” to us. But Diane Comer explains it to us anyway, and at wearisome length. I sat up energised when the immigrants spoke, and slumped back into indifference as the academic commentary took over and padded along. There is much repetition in the whole book, just as there is in the introduction. There are numerous statements that read more like platitudes that original discoveries made after research.

Two moments in this book particularly delighted me. They are the words of the two immigrants who appear to have been most unambiguously happy about coming to New Zealand.

First there is the Irishwoman Daisy, who says:

 “I was introduced to pick-your-own strawberries, honesty boxes, pot-luck, bring-a-plate and of course, the bottling of fruit. I loved the lot: it was all so sensible; I took to the new ways of doing without hesitation. I made friends and was befriended; I picked up new words and new ways of saying words – bach, veges and shopping-‘mawl’. I gave things a go and got on quite well – so well that we had to up sticks and go home to explain to the family that we intended to return in due course to  settle.” (p.107) (Although she does note later [on p.144] and more sombrely her sense of separation from Ireland.)

Then there is the Indian nurse Theresa, clearly aware of the greater freedom New Zealand offers her:

When your social system has a way of looking at citizens differently you are not eligible to criticize a country that at least legally tries to treat its citizens equally. New Zealand is a country of my imaginations. People really try to make you feel at home. (Don’t count the small minority.) Friends make you feel welcomed, forget about the few who ask why did you come here? Love the landscapes (keeping in mind some part of India has great landscapes, which no one finds time to enjoy).” (p.176)

I could have done with more from each of these writers and from all the others who wrote essays. Apart from the immigrant’s voices, this book is a humane undertaking, but unfortunately over-long and overwhelmed by its own theoretical commentary.