Book Review: Migrant Journeys: New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

I finished this book feeling that I had just met a series of interesting strangers and cv_migrant_journeylistened to them summarise their life stories.

It is in some ways a simple book: a collection of interviews with fourteen migrant taxi drivers. These have been unobtrusively edited into first-person narratives that cover each person’s journey from their home country to New Zealand, through various changes in circumstances that eventually led them to take up taxi driving.

Each section starts with a brief profile of the participants, including some background about their country of origin and the reasons that they left. Those who became refugees or migrated in response to instability in their home countries have had some harrowing experiences. The fact that they are willing to talk about their pasts now indicates that they have some distance: the writers note at the start of the book that some of their potential interviewees pulled out of the project after finding that old memories were too painful for them. Others pulled out because they felt participating would not be acceptable to their communities, or would reflect badly on them professionally.

I appreciated the fact that the authors explained this at the start of the book: it acknowledges that their participants are not necessarily representative of the whole taxi driving sector (there are only two female participants, for example), although they are still diverse in origin and in their motivations. The introduction to the book also incorporates a helpful summary of New Zealand’s immigration context and the challenges currently faced by new migrants.

These are typical migrant stories in many respects: people move somewhere relatively safe, knowing that their own career prospects are uncertain but figuring that their children will have better opportunities from being educated here. Taxi driving is not a bad option for many, and some of the people who tell their stories here are proud of their own entrepreneurship in this sector: several owners and managers of taxi companies have been interviewed. A number also express frustration about the apparent unwillingness of New Zealand employers to take on people with foreign qualifications or names.

The participants all have their own theories as to why their preferred jobs are difficult to come by, and most seem very philosophical. There are some very sharp intellects on display here – people who are well qualified, well informed and bring interesting perspectives about social issues in New Zealand and in the countries where they have been. Reading the accounts together, I got an overall sense of how overseas-born taxi drivers see New Zealanders: we’re mostly kind, honest people, to the point of being slightly naïve. Sometimes ignorant about the rest of the world, and unaware of how good we have it here. Not at our best when we drink.

Although I felt the book ended somewhat abruptly – there is no conclusion, the stories just finish – upon reflection I don’t think it needed a conclusion. The stories speak for themselves.

A couple made me laugh out loud, others were compellingly dramatic and some have some very quotable soundbites. Every narrative gave me the impression that follows a good conversation with a new person: That person seems cool. I am glad I heard their story. I learned something. The authors’ stated aim in publishing this book is to “contribute to a wider understanding of what it is like to leave your home country and work hard to settle in a new land”. These stories remind us why it is so important to listen to each other.

Migrant Journeys: New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories
by Adrienne Jansen and Liz Grant
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277331

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray, author of The First Door that Opened

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