Dunedin Festival Foreword: Witi Ihimaera explores ‘Where is New Zealand literature going?’

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2015 DWRF image

The 2015 Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival opened officially tonight with the Festival Foreword. The audience were treated to a haka powhiri from the combined Kings and Queens High Schools kapa haka group, before the chairperson of the Festival, Alexandra Bligh, opened proceedings. After an opening mihi from Professor John Broughton and an introduction from NZ Book Council chairperson Peter Biggs, special guest Witi Ihimaera delivered the NZ Book Council address, on the topic “Where is New Zealand literature going?”

 Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo by Gregor Richardon, copyright ODT

Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo copyright Gregor Richardson, from the Otago Daily Times 

In a wide-ranging, entertaining and provocative speech (which I hope was recorded or transcribed, as it deserves repeat listening), Ihimaera’s address circulated around questions of nationalism and the current state of affairs in writing and among the younger generation. He pointed out the two forces that have apparently defined New Zealand literature – the nationalistic urge, or the aspiration to write the nation, and the individualist urge, with an author fighting to keep his or her own sense of self, citing Katherine Mansfield, “New Zealand’s first literary exile”, as an example of this (and tracing a direct line from her to Eleanor Catton). The same two forces work on readers as well: as Ihimaera put it, “we want our writers to stay New Zealanders but are still dazzled when divinity is conferred from elsewhere”.

After Ihimaera asked the audience to discuss amongst ourselves what qualifies as New Zealand literature (a little interactive trick he used to charming effect throughout his address), Ihimaera considered where New Zealand literature was now – or rather, “where it’s wallowing”. Though in his eyes the nationalist literature of previous generations gave New Zealand literature “great bones”, the nationalist imperative “lost its mojo” somewhere along the way, and New Zealand writers now are writing without that imperative on their minds at all. He mentioned Anthony McCarten (screenwriter for the film The Theory of Everything), who talked about being in “the post definition period” i.e. that we no longer need to define who we are. Ihimaera seemed on the whole to disagree with this assertion, pushing for a renewed focus on New Zealand and our lives here on the Pacific Rim. Though Ihimaera acknowledged the very significant successes of Nalini Singh, Paul Cleave, Neil Cross and Nicky Pellegrino, he also asked, “is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”

Later in his address, Ihimaera also talked about the preponderance of young writers coming out of creative writing courses, the effect of which seems to “melt” the writing into homogeneous prose that “blunted” New Zealand’s edge. “Where are the anarchic books?” he asked. This was a theme he returned to several times, saying that he “missed the sense of risk” in today’s literature. In the later Q&A session, Ihimaera also said that, though today’s writing was beautiful, it was “so pared back” that it doesn’t allow for “elbows jutting out” – while also acknowledging that “today we don’t go for that kind of imperfection”. Having said that, Ihimaera also pointed to a generation gap between himself and these younger writers, asking “What New Zealand do we see? What New Zealand do the mokopuna see? Is it the same?” Ihimaera was questioned about these two main themes by an audience member who pointed out that the nationalistic urge is a collective one, while young people today are increasingly individualized and internationalised in outlook. Ihimaera responded by accepting he might not be right, but noting that there seemed to be a “dysfunction in the whakapapa”; he noted the intense interest surrounding Gallipoli, especially among young people, which indicated that the interest in history and research was there, and yet, no novels appeared about Gallipoli itself. He further asked the audience, “What is Pakeha culture? What are you sharing with your mokopuna?”

Nevertheless, Ihimaera didn’t seem to be bereft of hope for the future. He talked (withsome fascination and excitement) of his mixed-race grandchildren, wondering what stories their genealogy might throw up, and acknowledged the importance of getting the younger generation reading. And finally, when a nineteen-year-old writer asked Ihimaera what he would say to any other young writers out there, he advised her very warmly to “believe in yourself, and don’t hear other voices” – that is, other voices except your own – and to try to get yourself into the most natural (artistic) position possible to enable your voice to come out fully and naturally. He also asserted that the aim of artistic endeavour is “to achieve excellence” and to “go for longevity, and go for broke”.cv_Maori_boy

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Witi’s latest book is the first part of his biography:

Maori Boy
Published by Vintage (Random House NZ)
ISBN 9781869797263

4 thoughts on “Dunedin Festival Foreword: Witi Ihimaera explores ‘Where is New Zealand literature going?’

  1. “Is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”

    If it it is written by an NZer, then yes. I think the definition of ‘NZ fiction’ shouldn’t be restricted to books set in NZ. If it’s written by a kiwi, then it’s NZ fiction.

  2. Pingback: What should Witi read? - BookieMonster

  3. Reblogged this on NZ Poetry Shelf and commented:
    So where is poetry going? A thousand ways to view this. What hapens when you filter poetry through Witi’s speech? Do we have poems with elbows jutting out, going for broke, achieving longevity, homogenised by Creative Writing courses, along with schools, both primary and secondary? Do we still need to define versions of ourselves within poetic forms? Are there signs of anarchy in NZ poetry? Has NZ poetry ironed out all traces of imperfection? Can we sight threads of Pakeha culture in our poetry? Interesting.

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