THE EXPATRIATE MYTH: NEW ZEALAND WRIT­ERS AND THE COLO­NIAL WORLD

HE­LEN BONES (OTAGO UNIVER­SITY PRESS, $35)

North & South - - Review -

It’s prob­a­bly worth men­tion­ing that this is about Pākehā writ­ers, in par­tic­u­lar those colo­nial scribes and their suc­ces­sors who (the cul­tural na­tion­al­ists have had us be­lieve) strug­gled to be heard, pub­lished, read or oth­er­wise taken se­ri­ously.

Not so, says Bones, a Syd­ney-based ex­pat her­self, who com­mences her icon­o­clas­tic story with an ac­count of the lively lit­er­ary scene that sprang up here in the very early days of Euro­pean set­tle­ment. It was com­ple­mented by a trans-tas­man com­mu­nity of writ­ers and read­ers, in which New Zealand and Aus­tralia’s south-east coast to some ex­tent func­tioned as one mar­ket. Even the re­put­edly parochial Aus­tralian Bulletin was in fact ex­tremely wel­com­ing of New Zealand con­tri­bu­tions.

There was also a wider colo­nial lit­er­ary world that gave New Zealand writ­ers ac­cess to Lon­don’s pub­lish­ing in­fra­struc­ture, without re­quir­ing them to re­lo­cate there. It was not nec­es­sary to go abroad to be a suc­cess­ful writer. Bones cites Eileen Dug­gan, who had a pros­per­ous in­ter­na­tional ca­reer without ever leav­ing New Zealand.

Blame the myth on Allen Curnow and his con­tem­po­raries: their cre­ation of a lit­er­ary his­tory fo­cused on the nation, and na­tional iden­tity in­evitably ex­cluded writ­ers for whom these were not is­sues.

Kather­ine Mansfield was the epitome of the writer who needed to es­cape this stul­ti­fy­ing realm in or­der to free her imag­i­na­tion. But the myth of the suf­fer­ing mar­tyr, Bones main­tains, may have been based on se­lec­tive use of Mansfield’s per­sonal writ­ings. As it turned out, her freed imag­i­na­tion set its best sto­ries in her home­land.

In later years, some who went “Home” to suc­ceed did so; oth­ers lan­guished and failed. The best writ­ers, such as Frank Sarge­son, did in­deed spend time over­seas, not to es­tab­lish a ca­reer but to find a per­sonal iden­tity. Time spent ob­serv­ing Europe made it eas­ier to see New Zealand clearly.

This is a wel­come and provoca­tive re­vi­sion­ist ac­count of much that our lit­er­ary con­scious­ness takes for granted.

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