This special Aotearoa issue of Overland is not about who we are. It is not about the experience of living on the other side of the ditch or being of this place. It is rather the continuation of the intellectual project that Overland has undertaken – to engage with contemporary questions and ideas, to look outward rather than inward – by a different set of writers, driven by the belief that this difference, this shift in perspective, can be a value in itself.
Australia appears to have become a nation governed by people who proudly engage in legalised child abuse, torture and neglect. Both the ALP and the Coalition conspired to make that happen, and we now have the brain-bending spectacle of a Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse ruthlessly laying bare the predatory practices of nearly every significant institution in the country that has ever had care of a child, while the institution of government continues to blatantly torture the children it has care of on Nauru and elsewhere.
It’s not that it’s easy being an artist anywhere. Materially speaking, it might even be easier to be an artist in Australia, where the standard of living remains high. And France hasn’t escaped the worldwide trend for savage cuts to arts budgets. I’m talking about something more subtle; an assumption, seldom spoken but manifest in countless mundane ways in daily life, that art is a crucial part of the intellectual life of a nation.
In Australia – and elsewhere – writers navigate a literary landscape marked by a colonising ‘centre’ and colonised ‘periphery’. While AA Phillips coined the pervasive term ‘cultural cringe’ in 1950, the phenomenon itself is older. Prefacing his 1894 Short Stories in Prose and Verse, Henry Lawson wrote bitterly that a writer from the periphery might produce excellent work for years, yet be dismissed as ‘an imitator of some recognised English or American author’ until he or she succeeds in the US or UK.
For a man who has lived through almost one third of New Zealand’s modern history, Prime Minister John Key seems to know very little about it. ‘New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully,’ he said a few months ago. ‘Maori probably acknowledge that settlers had a place to play and brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital.’ Many New Zealanders will nod gently while whispering to each other in conceited agreement: ‘Yes, we were not nearly as savage as those Australian settlers.’
If there is one theme encompassing the various protest movements over the past several years, it is that of occupation. The revolutions and Occupy collectives that sprang up between 2011 and 2013 were a manifestation of a very basic idea: in occupying public spaces, the people are fashioning it into a place of alternatives, of other possibilities. In this sense, occupation is a progressive, often non-violent movement that acts on behalf of the majority of people by laying claim to what has been appropriated, privatised or exploited by a small number of bankers, politicians, elites, etc.
This is a picture of my mother. It was taken in 1944 in Santo Spirito, Italy, when she was working at New Zealand army headquarters. During the Second World War, the role of women was changing. They began to do work previously done by men – in education, in health, in factories, in transport and on the land. These women often became more independent as their experiences took them beyond the world of their mothers. As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney said, ‘in a life the nucleus stays the same but with any luck the circumference moves out’.
When I was a young lawyer researching a case in the law library, I overheard two lawyers discussing strategies for a rape trial. The lawyer defending the accused said that his client wanted to use alibi evidence as his defence, and argue that he had been in a different town at the time. The lawyer told his colleague that he had advised his client to use a defence of consent. The shocking thing about this conversation is that those defences are utterly incompatible.
In February this year, Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, dropped a bombshell: announcing his resignation from the paper, Oborne claimed that its owners and senior staff had systematically suppressed negative coverage of the banking conglomerate HSBC in order to attract its advertising. Oborne’s convincing account, backed up by his own experiences and multiple interviews with Telegraph writers, was a shocking reminder of the power of corporate interests and of the very real threats to free speech.
On 2 October last year, five detectives and a police computer expert spent ten and a half hours raiding my home. They took all of the phones, computers, hard drives, USB keys, CDs and other electronic devices, as well as an assortment of files. They were trying to uncover the identity of a confidential source who had given me information for my recently published book about New Zealand politics. The book had revealed a campaign of dirty tricks being run out of the prime minister’s office, including an organised system for smears on political opponents.
When I worked at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a small and poor university on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, the capital and indeed only city of the Kingdom of Tonga, most of my Friday evenings began the same way. I would come home from my last class of the week, shower and change into a fresh tupenu (Tongan skirt) and then walk out to buy a bag of drugs with my employer’s money.
I knew, too, that I was different to most boys. I had little interest in sport, preferring instead the lunchtime activities of the girls – hopscotch, elastics, knucklebones. My latent homosexuality felt like a grubby secret that set me apart. I was fearful of other boys and yet desperately wanted to be near them, to be part of their world.
Why look to fiction to take the temperature of a country? You might as well ask the canary to issue a detailed report into working conditions in the coalmine. The task of the writer is to sing her own song, which may be entirely at odds with the atmosphere in which she finds herself.
It came out of the sea on a Saturday morning, heaving its body onto the rocks beside the boat sheds in the darkness before dawn. It sat in a shallow pool potted with black mussels and a slick of seaweed while it took a few breaths, then drew itself up the stairs. It could smell rust and exhaust fumes.
The arrangement was, that if Ava didn’t turn up at school by four, Daisy was to walk over to after-school care. But she was to wait until four because the after-school care was expensive. Until four she was to go and play. But try and stay out of sight of the teachers. Ava had to watch how she explained the bit about staying out of sight. Daisy was frustratingly moral.
Someone had been there. Halfway across the clearing, sooted rocks were in a circle, charred branches. Bones of a possum or bird heaped up. A snack for some late-night traveller – a thief, perhaps. Hidden in tī kouka and undergrowth at the clearing’s edge, Van watched. No movement. Nothing down by his hut or the mine face. He scanned his camp a moment more, then went on round its edge under cover.
This group of poems by New Zealanders has a variety of voices, dispositions and worlds. Tulia Thompson describes a fruit bowl’s jostling points of origin. Airini Beautrais creates a soundscape and a flowing life-world. Nicole Hawkins takes us to a young man’s high school graduation as he takes and heals the mantle of his people.
Here, in the first world
in the North,
We buy a fruit bowl woven out of cane
To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,
to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,
to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,
When they announced his name
his Koro swelled onto the stage
to pass on his korowai
You call me Careo, from far down the path that was
less-travelled once: following it now
I tread in the mud made by others since, pushing
Bought a red tiki
in a Wanaka souvenir shop for
a mere six dollars eighty but
bloodgirl lived in a sleepy how town
(with up all few bird words down)
bloodgirl cleaned her skin with their bones
We are less than a sliver.
Our bilge keel chipped,
I am a girl
with nothing to hide
My head is stuffed full of you
‘I don’t know about the poetry,’ his uncle had said to him, and he could tell that his uncle did know i.e. he didn’t like it. This wasn’t just a family thing. Lots of people didn’t like his poetry. Smartarse. Wanker. Poofter.
thank you for the nails
thank you for the blankets
thank you for the rum
the red flower
and does the pukana
I dug out the porcelain bust of a doll, first;
her cheeks the tickled-pink of rosehips,
her nose, so small yet broken. Frost bit