Book Review: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879

 

 

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Book Review: Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good-bye_maorilandOver the past few years, we have remembered many of the events during the Great War, 100 years on. Each battle is commemorated, medals are displayed, letters rediscovered and exhibitions opened to the public. The influence of the Great War on our distinctive New Zealand music was a story waiting to be told. I was delighted to find Chris Bourke has contributed another book to help chart the growth of music in our land. In his previous book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of Popular Music 1918-1964, he covered a huge range of styles and developments over 50 years. In Good-Bye Maoriland, he looks at the individuals and influences on our New Zealand music as a result of the Great War. Chris Bourke is a writer, radio producer and editor. He is meticulous in his research and I always appreciate the thorough notes that support his writing.

Bourke begins by describing the place of music in the family home. In 1916, 40% of New Zealand homes contained a piano. This is a staggering statistic when you consider the pianos were imported, heavy and very expensive. Music shops flourished selling the latest sheet music and music making was an important part of life for towns and cities. This was the era of Brass bands, the local Choir and Vaudeville Shows, which often travelled the length of the country and included visiting celebrities. However, the idea of making a living from music was still undeveloped for most citizens and the part played by music during the war shows how important it was as in uniting and entertaining the troops. Add to that, the patriotic nature of many songs and we begin to see the influence on the war to the development of New Zealand music.

The chapters follow a logical progression as they include the songs to stir recruits, the memories of soldiers lost, the Concert Parties, Waiata Maori and returning home. Each section shows the changes that occurred as the war advanced. It also charts a maturing of a distinctly New Zealand music. I can see Bourke writing Blue Smoke and realising that the Great War was a rich story on its own. Often it is not until we begin to seek answers that other questions arise.

This book is not just a well-researched history. Every page is illustrated with appropriate photographs. I found these fascinating as formal and informal shots allowed the reader to see the high standing in which music making was held. The cover artwork of many New Zealand written songs could actually make another book in the future. Especially, because so much of this music will be lost as families move and downsize.
This book will inform those interested in both war and the cultural history of New Zealand. It is a source book for anyone working with music of the period and a fascinating read for the generally curious, like me.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War
by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408718

Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732

 

 

 

Book Review: Vanishing Points, by Michele Leggott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vanishing_pointsVanishing Points is a poetry collection that brings a unique perspective to visual art. The collection itself is divided into eight parts, my favourite being a section titled ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story.’ In this section, Leggott depicts two different paintings in an exhibition, hanging opposite each other. The way Leggott describes each piece of art is a whirlwind of description that is incredibly evocative, even without the presence of the physical paintings themselves. It feels like Leggott herself is the artist, creating brush strokes as she moves from describing the background of the painting to the foreground, and then to smaller details.

When Leggott describes one of the paintings in a poem titled still life: self-portrait with lacewing, she starts by portraying the sunlit view of ‘swimmers no bigger than dots’. She then moves through a set of French doors and into a domestic scene before pinpointing even smaller details, such as flour and pink dough upon a table. Leggott presents a beautifully precise description of the scene. She describes how ‘pink stars are arranged on a baking tray to one side and the leftover dough shows the negative field of stars’. Leggott then picks out other details within the home: an apron, a measuring tape, a full-skirted sundress.

These details reappear throughout other poems in this section. Leggott delves deeper into the world of the painting by describing the possible life of the woman who inhabits it. She depicts a woman who is a creator, ‘a composer, an arranger, a sculptor of the bright air and light permeating surfaces visible and invisible’. She is also a woman who plans to bake pink stars and wear a new dress on Christmas Day.

Finally, Leggott turns to her own experience of these paintings. She talks about how these two pieces of art were part of an exhibition by Elva Bett. ‘I have no recollection of Elva Bett’s show’, Leggott tells us, but she knows that she must have been brought there. This is because she finds the exhibition as a diary entry in her mother’s journal. In this way, Vanishing Points talks about art while being a piece of art itself. These poems not only describe the paintings themselves, but they also portray the lives and experiences surrounding these paintings.

However, a wide array of images can also be overwhelming. In the final section of Leggott’s collection, ‘Figures in the Distance’, Leggott continuously puts forward one image after another. Some images are well connected enough to keep the piece flowing at a steady pace, allowing each image to take its turn in the spotlight. However, other images clashed and culminated to the point that they ended up creating clutter.

Nevertheless, Vanishing Points is a beautiful and unique collection of poetry that looks at visual art through the art of poetry itself. In the collection, Leggott also explores scenes captured through photographs and describes memories surrounding her father’s paintings and drawings. Using poetry as her lens, Leggott is able to reveal the other facets, interpretations, and lives that can be found within art.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Vanishing Points
by Michele Leggott
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408749

 

Book Review: Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885, by Michael Belgrave

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dancing_with_the_kingGrowing up with the late night time sounds of the steam trains puffing their way around the Raurimu Spiral – a sound interspersed with the melancholy cry of the Ruru (Morepork) – I had no idea of the significance the main trunk railway line had to the politics of the post Waikato War and the shaping of New Zealand politics. That is until I read Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885.

Author, Professor Michael Belgrave, from Massey University, has an extensive list of titles, many of them related to the Treaty of Waitangi and has also has carried out much research and written many substantial papers for the Waitangi Tribunal. Understanding this background is to understand why this book provides an extremely authoritative account of the post-Waikato War, rise of the sovereign authority of the Māori King within Rohe Pōtae and then the gradual loss of sovereignty and influence 20 years after its birth. The fall was symbolised by the first sod being turned for the main trunk line at the aukati – the boundary – between Māori controlled King Country and the Victorian Empire conquered Waikato. As the main trunk line pushed into the King Country, it served not only to open up the Rohe Pōtae but create a wholly new relationship between Māori and Pākehā eventually leading to united New Zealand Aotearoa.

The story of what happened after the sod was turned is well told in Vincent O’Malley’s, The Great War for New Zealand, which traces the political consequences of the Waikato land confiscation, or Raupatu, right up to 2000. Within Belgrave’s 428 page masterpiece of research is an illuminating account of how the Kīngitanga established itself strategically, economically and politically and prospered in peace – for a time.

Dancing with the King opens with an account of the defeat of Rewi Maniapoto and his small band of supporters of the Māori King at the battle of Ōrākau, marking the end of the Waikato War. The second Māori king, Tāwhiao, led the defeated Waikato tribes into armed exile within the Rohe Pōtae, where the Queen’s writ did not extend and Pākehā dared their lives to cross the aukati.

They established towns such as Te Kuiti and Ōtorohanga. While there was much hardship and deprivation among the Waikato refugees, these towns had a degree of prosperity, even without the aukati, with trade from local Māori in wheat and kumara, even without the aukati and with Pākehā.

The book’s title is a reference to what happened next, described by Belgrave as “diplomatic history”. War gave to a long period of negotiations. “Māori leaders and colonial government negotiators both adopted, however reluctantly on the European side, the language of sovereignty and diplomacy in their dealings with each other”. But it was not just negotiations between two sides: there were many layers of interest on each side. On the Māori side, Tāiwhiao could only move as far as the many iwi, hapu and whanau would let him. The political structure of Tāwhiao’s kingdom can be likened to a federal structure with each different iwi chief having a part to play. Over time Tāwhiao’s power to call the shots became subdued.

On the Pākehā side, there were in fact two governments, the New Zealand Government in Wellington and the British Government in Westminster, and they were not always in agreement with regard to Māori issues While the British parliament had given the colony self rule in 1852 by way of the New Zealand Constitution Act, Britain was still the ultimate power. Tāwhiao quite often stirred the pot of argument between the two, especially when he and his band went off to see the Queen in London. He didn’t actually see the Queen but made a very good impression as to the rights of Māori with the people and government of Britain. The story of that visit is one of the highlights of Belgrave’s work, as it is a good example of how the British Empire was managing issues with indigenous peoples in many countries they had conquered, rightly or wrongly.
It is the detailed accounts of the negotiations between the various layers of the Māori side which for this reviewer proved fascinating. Belgrave’s research brings to full view the impact on traditional Māori land ownership. This was based largely on the establishment by an iwi by war of occupation, food gathering or conquest with collective ownership imbued within the authority of the chief.

On the European side, land ownership was established by survey and registration, sale and purchase with individual rights of ownership. The colonial government set up the Native (later Māori) Land Court essentially to establish, the European method of ownership by deciding among competing chiefs as to which iwi owned which areas of land. But within the Rohe Pōtae, no trig stations were allowed to be built for some time. Any attempt to erect them often met with them being destroyed. And there was great resistance to allowing the Māori Land Court to operate within the King Country. Much of this resistance was due to the involvement of lawyers and surveyors in establishing tribal boundaries.

This reviewer, as a young newspaper reporter attended a Māori Land Court hearing in Tokaanu in 1966 where the process of deciding on a dispute of 600 acres on the side of Mount Ruapehu was decided by the judge on the authenticity of the waiata (chant) carrying the iwi’s history. Whanganui and Tuwharetoa were the claimants. Tuwharetoa’s waiata was considered to be the most accurate and thus the title of the surveyed block of land was awarded to that tribe.

And so the dancing and feasting went on and the accounts of the four hui held between, former Governor and now Premier Grey and Tāwhiao between 1878 and 1876 are as colourful as any court ball.  “The dancing that took place did not involve traditional Māori haka or poi, but waltzes, Schottische, polkas and quadrilles.” But in the meetings before the dancing there was also the deep seriousness of political dancing with high stakes. Tāwhiao, as he always did, demanded the Waikato be returned wholly and Grey responded that that could not happen. But Grey did offer a settlement which according to Belgrave “Grey immediately went on to make what would be a substantive and detailed offer of peace, to settle the issues of King and Queen.”

There would be three more hui involving Tāwhiao and Grey and it would be a spoiler if the outcome was revealed here. Eventually though, the first sod for the railway at the boundary of the King Country was dug with three spadesful by Chief Wahanui on behalf of Māori loading them into a former children’s’ toy barrow which Premier Stout wheeled down a short plank “turning the sods onto the grass”. While the ceremony signalled the start of the opening up of the King Country it ended the independent sovereignty of the King Country.

A disappointing footnote: Having grown up in the Ohakune, this reviewer has always proudly stated as being from the King Country only to discover, while reading Dancing with the King, that the southern boundary of the Rohe Pōtae crosses westward over Mount Ruapehu’s highest peaks, Te Heuheu and Paretetaitonga leaving Ohakune on the wrong side of the aukati.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885
by Michael Belgrave
Published by Auckand University Press
ISBN 9781869408695

Book Review: Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_totaraThe ‘mighty tōtara’ has been central to life in New Zealand for thousands of years. It was used by Māori for carving and building, and when the white settlers arrived in New Zealand they found it a perfect wood for cutting into fence posts as they divided up their farms.

Botanist Philip Simpson shares his knowledge of these trees in his book Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History, which is well illustrated with many excellent photographic examples of trees still to be found around the countryside.

New Zealand has four recognised species of tōtara: lowland, Hall’s, needle-leaved, snow and one distinctive variety (South Westland). The biggest trees being the lowland tōtara and the smallest ones the snow tōtara being found among the alpine rocks.

Growing up in the Takaka Valley, Simpson recalls second growth tōtara was a major feature of the valley, as settlers had cleared the earlier forest, and in this boyhood playground his love of the trees began.

In the Foreword Maui John Mitchell says, “Philip has written a history of Aotearoa/ New Zealand from the tōtara perspective. He has seen it as part of the primeval natural world, he has clearly portrayed why the tōtara is the leading rakau rangatira-‘chiefly conifer’-to Maori, and he has shown how critical the tōtara was to successful European settlement.”

Throughout New Zealand, tōtara trees have been honoured by inclusion as place names, for example just south of my hometown of Oamaru there is a small rural school called Tōtara. Its name came about because of a lone tōtara tree growing on a limestone outcrop.

This excellent publication is a book for all to enjoy, the well written text is supported with a variety of photographs in colour and black and white. The cover has a stunning photograph of Pouakani, the largest tōtara tree in New Zealand at 3.88 metres, found at the northern end of the Hauhungaroa Range in the King Country. It can be picked up time and time again to be reread and devoured. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Where tōtara lives and who lives with it” which discusses climate and environmental factors which influence distribution, and the author also discusses the importance of the tōtara to wildlife including spiders, butterflies, lizards, microsnails and birds.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History
by Philip Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408190

Book Review: The Truth about Language, by Michael C. Corballis

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Truth_about_language.jpgThere are wonderful variations in the way we tell our stories, seen even in the smallest parcels of language. In Turkey, there are over two million forms of each verb – each word-form a complex interplay containing not only tense but the subject, object and indirect objects of the aforementioned verb. Walpiri, an Australian aboriginal language, can be scrambled: you can shuffle the words and it does not change the meaning.

How does this work then? Is it first things, then words? We have been looking at these sorts of questions for some 3000 years, beginning with the linguistic traditions in India and then in Ancient Greece. The Truth about language –what it is and where is came from adds to this ongoing conversation, one that has been dominated in recent times by Noam Chomsky, who argues that language arose suddenly and ‘in a way that cannot be explained by ordinary evolutionary process’.

In this engrossing book Professor Michael C. Corballis tames an array of findings, theories and disciplines to provide context for his take on the matter. What results is a highly digestible and enjoyable account of language for the general reader.

A look at our current world reveals that there are some 6000 languages spoken, over one hundred of which are spoken in Vanuatu alone. Our open-ended means of communication is far more evolved than that of other animals; it is a ‘Rubicon’ that our species has crossed. These things we know. But this gives rise to more questions and the central themes of the book: What do all of these languages have in common? What is language? Is it something we are born with or something we learn? Or both? And where did it come from?

Corballis tells us that any person can learn any languages ‘in spite of the extraordinary differences between the languages of the world’. Regardless of what we speak, we follow rules of how we put language units together to form meaningful content. We can recognise something is correct on an intuitive, but cannot tell you why. So how did we get to here? This is potentially the ‘hardest problem in science.’

Cleve-van_construction-tower-babel.jpg

Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve, from Wikimedia Commons 

Detective-like, Corballis pieces all the parts together, accommodating the findings of various disciplines – from anthropology and archaeology, through to zoology, linguistics and genetics. He guides the reader through this vast puzzle by laying out his points in a series of stepping-stones: physical characteristics, grammar, speech, how children learn, and how animals differ and are similar in communication, to name a few.

Then there is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a general linguistic principal. Chomsky argues that there was first a new way of thinking, which was available only to humans (the I-language), and that the languages we speak or sign are secondary and external (E-languages). The way we form language is an unbounded merge where elements (such as phonemes or basic sounds) merge into larger units (such as morphemes or elements of meaning) and those larger units merge into still larger ones (phrases and so on). ‘The merges occur within I-language, the language of thought itself, but are manifest in the external languages we actually speak’. He explains language’s emergence in the human experience as a miraculous leap in evolution, due to a change in brain size or a minor mutation.

Enter Corballis. He argues that it came to us by ‘incremental process of Darwinian evolution, and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.’ He guides us through the precursors to language and the gradual changes along the way, tracing the transition from gesture to speech. Our ancestors achieved bipedialism and the hands were freed; gesturing accommodated the need to communicate information effectively in more dangerous surrounds, such as the exposed savannah. We needed to be social for survival.

Then there is speech – a triumphant culmination of fine motor skills, breathing, and the larynx. And don’t forget grammar. Corballis also takes us via the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to understand scale and has a generative capacity to mind wander or to ‘time travel’ by imagining future possibilities – something other animals also demonstrate. This shared capacity lays the groundwork for the unique generative property of thought processes that language communicates. So, as Corballis concludes, it is the ability to communicate our mind wanderings, not the mind wanderings themselves, that makes us different from animals. The difference is one of degree not of kind.

Corballis writes ‘Language thrives on variation. And so does evolution’. It is a pleasure to read about the intersection of the two.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Truth about Language
by Michael C. Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408633

Michael C. Corballis will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival at 10.30am on Saturday, 20 May.