THE EXPATRIATE MYTH: NEW ZEALAND WRITERS AND THE COLONIAL WORLD
HELEN BONES (OTAGO UNIVERSITY PRESS, $35)
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.