Review of the Pacific Highways event , Wednesday 12 March

cv_griffith_review_43A “first” in cross-Tasman literary collaboration was claimed by Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways co-editors Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones when opening a discussion on the anthology at the Wellington Writers Festival.

Pacific Highways is a collection of pieces by 43 New Zealand and Pacifica writers designed to reflect culture of New Zealand through its literature.

This “culture” according to Jones, was now far more interesting than it used to be when New Zealand had 1.5 million people and a rather “homogeneous” look, we are now up to 4.5 million people from “100 different ethnicities”. It wasn’t so much the difference between ethnic groups per se that was important to Jones but “think how connected we now are”.

He said islanders saw the waters of the Pacific Ocean as “highways” which had facilitated the movement of peoples bringing “not just themselves but new cultural themes and memories”.

Jones described this as a “soup of exchange” which made for the “most exciting period of New Zealand’s literary history”.

Six of the 43 authors presented short cameos on their work for the Review including: Steve Braunias, Harry Ricketts, Bernard Beckett, Kate De Goldi, Ashleigh Young and Kate Camp.

A number of the speakers made mention of the different attitudes Australians and New Zealanders have for each other and their respective literature.

Brauniaspp_steve_braunias (right): “New Zealand literature is famously unavailable in Australia. It’s easier to buy a slave there”.

Schultz however, while making a similar point, did it more politely, but still with colour: “So while Australians were busy looking north and west, to the east something changed. New Zealand not only made a virtue of its environment, but became home to some of the best wines, movie directors, writers, footballers, sailors, scientists, educators and female leaders in the world”.

Certainly the current diversity and depth of New Zealand’s culture as a nation unto itself was a common theme of the discussion.

Braunias maybe had an unusual way of looking at things. But if anyone wants to walk the 30 kilometres from their home to the airport they would need to be a little strange at least. He did it in order to prepare for his piece in Pacific Highways entitled On My Way to the Border.

Braunias’s spoken capsule describing his walk was as quirky, sad and funny as the longer written report. But if you thought he was knocking New Zealand, then the last line spoken and written, reveals the truth of his feelings about the country.

pp_harry_rickettsHarry Ricketts (right) spoke from experience of the development of facial masks to hide the real persona – in particular aspects of new immigrant’s experiences as they struggle to fit in with the lore of the new homeland  – using Jacob Rajan’s 1997 play Krishnan’s Dairy as a backdrop to his theme. He spoke of how his children quickly and with success, “…were switching accent and idiom between school and home as neatly as Jacob Rajan switched masks.”

Bernard Beckett’s essay School Report: Cracking the literacy code is indeed an attempt to see beyond the statistics of educational achievement. Instead of looking at the ratings of New Zealand against other countries, he looked at the social and demographic structures of New Zealand to seek answers to questions relating to underachievement at school and in life.

“…it’s not the case that all our underachievement can be laid at the doorstep of the broken,” he writes.

“Over the years I taught many students who have struggled to acquire academic skills and only a small proportion of them fit the profile of the damaged child”

In exploring literacy, Beckett (right) identifiespp_bernard_beckett the differences between children learning to speak and learning to read and write.

“Children quickly cope with grammatical structures so complex that even the experts struggle to explain them. ….They’re language geniuses, each and every one of them, although by the time they reach secondary school, very few of them believe it. They’re more inclined to think they’re not very good at communicating, because in schools the currency of language is not the spoken word, but the written one. And unlike speaking, a facility for reading and writing doesn’t emerge spontaneously.”

Kate De Goldi while “marinating in [her] mind” the question of “where as writers we find the story” sets the focus on New Zealand literature and the many kiwi authors at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair as a stage for asking the question “what if anything, did we and our work add up to collectively?” And then the search for the answer – The Search for Storyland – becomes a deep analysis of what New Zealand literature is through the writings particularly of Margaret Mahy and Elizabeth Knox.

I wonder if a translation of the Japanese word hikikomori could be Social Anxiety Disorder or SAD. Poet Ashleigh Young spoke to her essay Sea of Trees: The Road Not Taken, of the utter sadness of hikikomori – “a young person, usually a man, who has shut himself into a bedroom or a flat for six months or more, sometimes years, sometimes decades.” There could be 700,000 or more hikikomori in Japan, although a reluctance within Japanese society to discuss the condition makes it hard to know the numbers. It’s finding a pathway out of the isolation of a hikikomori that Ashleigh explores.

Kate Camp (right)  finished the selection opp_kate_campf pieces from the book with a lurid prēcis of her memoir of the slaughter of a whale in Iceland – another small remote island nation, whose culture, as depicted through its literature, is also being recognised on the world stage.

Aside from the 43 pieces in the Review itself, there are another 17 on the website , also a free e-book.

Pacific Highways has been promoted strongly in New Zealand by the New Zealand Book Council and certainly it is interesting for a kiwi to read, by way of getting a refresh on what this country has become.

However, Schultz felt that it would be Australians who would benefit most from Pacific Highways in terms of changing their stereotypical view of New Zealanders as people they “still tend to talk down to”.

The two countries have now diverged “in ways that to Australian eyes are unexpected and rewarding and truly original.” It is now “…an emerging polyglot nation of four and half million people where all children learn Maori in school, where cultural diversity has taken deep root, where the natural environment is a resource to be treasured and there is water everywhere.”

By Lincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ


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