Book Review: Tuai: A traveller in two worlds, by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins

­­­­Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tuai_traveller_in_two_world.pngIn 1817, a young Ngare Raumati chief from the Bay of Islands called Tuai boarded a ship and set off into the unknown with his friend and companion Tītere. Their journey to England would expose them to a succession of exotic ports, foreign customs and industrialised cities, where they would share their knowledge of Māori language and culture, hope to learn new skills and acquire goods to take back home. Tuai’s story is extraordinary, as is his character  – an open-minded traveller adeptly navigating different cultures.

And yet we would not know of his story without the efforts of Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins, who have written Tuai: A traveller in two worlds, released by Bridget Williams Books. The handsomely illustrated book, which includes portraits that Tuai and Tītere sat for while abroad, weaves an engaging biographical narrative through the wider historical context of the first encounters between Māori and Pakeha, both here and overseas.

The book begins in the Bay of Islands, where European traders, explorers and missionaries are arriving more frequently, and where tension and intertribal rivalries are on the rise. Tuai is both pushed and pulled to be one of the early Māori travellers who went to Australia and Europe. He wished to escape intertribal rivalries and ongoing skirmishes, but he was also attracted by the quest for goods, technology and knowledge. Opportunities and the perils of the journey hung in the balance: there was the risk of not returning home, of succumbing to some illness or injury in an unknown and strange land.

But Tuai did return in 1819 with great plans to integrate the discoveries of his travels into Māori life. He and his hapu also wished to establish a more permanent and mutually beneficial relationship with Pakeha. Tuai desired trade, prestige and access to things that would give his hapu the upper hand over rivals. In exchange, his hapu would provide safety, knowledge of resources and trade items. Such a relationship was also now essential to survival due to the spread of guns. Pakeha had already upset the balance of the Māori world– one powerful tribe was armed: ‘Upheaval resulting from the Pakeha settlers’ loyalty to Hongi Hika would soon affect all the Bay of Islands’ hapu and the surrounding tribes.’

It was a difficult time for Tuai to navigate – not only between competing agendas, but also between the world views of Māori and Pakeha. The latter generally did not respect the hierarchies and customs of Māori, which unsettled Tuai and many others. So too did the missionaries, who were in New Zealand with their specific mission to convert and ‘civilise’. But ‘The missionaries wanted to possess their souls and their love, not their country; they failed to see how these things were inextricably linked.’

Tuai served as a channel between these two worlds, as a translator for both language and customs. But this was not without its challenges and quandaries: ‘It seemed that if was to earn the respect and admiration from his Pakeha friends, he would be forced to distance himself from his own people.’ As is sometimes the case with intermediary roles, the person may end up feeling no real sense of belonging to either group, which is a lonely place to be. Tuai is not only a fascinating insight into a person, but also a time.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds
by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518806

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Māori at Home, by Scotty and Stacey Morrison

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_maori_at_home‘Ko te kāinga te Māori o te reo (The home offers the vital essence of language)’. These words from Sir Tīmoti Kāretu articulate the inherent potential of a language that lives through daily life. Everyday communication provides the wellspring of relevance and development that ensures a language’s future.

Yet according to the last census, there is a decline in people who speak Māori on a day-to-day basis across age groups, with the exception of the older generation (those aged 65 or over). It follows that, although there is increasing public awareness of te reo thanks to its presence on RNZ and in our schools, in place names and common words, its use in the home remains fundamental to its well-being and proliferation.

Scotty and Stacey Morrison believe that this is the place to learn a language in the context of busy modern lives. In their new book Māori at Home they encourage the use of te reo through an ‘up-and-go, quick survival guide to help you use te reo Māori with your family’.

Learning any language is a discipline, where at first we are subject to the seemingly dry and dusty tasks of memorisation, repetition, grammar, set discussion pieces and so on, This can feel like learning in a vacuum – or an abstract experience, devoid of texture. But when language rubs up against the everyday, it is brought to life because there is an immediate application for it. That is not to say it is easy to learn this way, but that the learner can start using the language straightaway.

Māori at Home is a guide to the informal language of the household and focuses on the use of functional language – the vocab that is used most often – because the book is fundamentally about ‘using the reo, not just learning it’. Scotty and Stacey have devised this approach as a response to challenges that they’ve identified facing adults who wish to learn te reo in the home: they often don’t have linguistics background from schooling; grammar can be off-putting with its jargon; and we are a time-poor society – people need to be able to fit language acquisition into their lives. The idea is that by using it immediately and learning by example – in some ways similar to how a child would learn – the reo is reinforced through practice and context.

The scope of the book ‘covers the basics of life in and around a typical Kiwi household’. It is divided into eighteen different settings – from ‘Before School’ to the ‘Digital World’ and ‘Gardening’ – where terms and vocabulary that are relevant to that environment are explained. While this book does not have a grammar focus, it does begin with an introduction that provides an overview of basic phrase structures. These are then repeated and built on throughout the book, so the reader has a chance not only to learn the relevant terms, but patterns in how to construct phrases too.

Although the Morrisons hope to cultivate an experience where one learns the way one might have at home as a child – not understanding the ‘why’ but instinctively learning as kids would – there is a key difference. For most there will be no experienced speaker of te reo in their household for guidance, further exposure, pronunciation and the feel of the language.

This is where ample amounts of commitment and energy are needed to learn all the words and phrases included between the covers and to seek out supplementary material – there are a number of online resources for the motivated. Setting goals and planning is suggested in the book as a means of providing structure and incentive to work.

There is much promise in te reo: Māori language and culture are unique to this place; learning another language brings new ways of understanding the world and expands our thinking. Speaking and hearing the reo fosters and strengthens a collective identity as a bicultural nation. And maybe, one day, with enough commitment, we might become a bilingual one.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Māori at Home
by Scotty and Stacey Morrison
Published by Raupo
ISBN 9780143771470

Book Review: Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century, edited by David Hall

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_fair_bordersMigration has been a consistent practice across the plains of time. We were a nomadic species for the majority of our existence, before eventually settling in areas of abundant resources, and then supporting permanent settlements through agricultural innovations and the domestication of animals. Relatively recently – in terms of human history – the Westphalian concept of the nation state emerged, and with it a new system of borders.

We live in a time that has witnessed the biggest movement of people to Europe since World War II and the return of fervent nationalism (Brexit and Trump). The latter has been emboldened by facile rhetoric where concurrent events are mistaken for causation –  immigration is painted as the cause for job losses and a host of other ills. Borders, migrations and how these are treated in the public sphere deserve critical attention.

With our geographical isolation, in our nation that is removed from the continuity of continents, this might all seem very far away. Yet even with our natural boundaries, our history has been imbued with arrivals. We are a nation of immigrants. And migration continues to grab headlines on these shores.

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, a welcome and topical BWB text edited by David Hall, petitions us to consider our own policies and attitudes to migration in Aotearoa. So, what do we talk about when we talk about immigration in Aotearoa and how is this reflected in policy? Surely a confident culture is one that is open to self-critique. David posits a simple yet essential question: are our policies and attitudes fair to recent arrivals and to those who arrived a long time ago?

As Hall states in his introduction, a border is not simply ‘the end of one thing’, but is also the crossing over into another. And who gets to cross involves an interplay between access and control. There are many administrative boundaries one must navigate – first the flurry of passports and visas, and then those deeper, hidden borders that ring fence access to welfare, health services and labour rights. We have ‘come to expect that different people deserve different rights’.

‘Fairness isn’t just about how we manage our borders. It is about how we talk about our borders and the impacts they have.’ To date public discourse has been dominated by numbers and statistics (which are open to interpretation), and confusion about impacts – notably an oversimplification of a myriad of factors that have developed over many years.

The contributors respond to this concept of fairness, ‘New Zealand’s characteristic political virtue’, from a variety of disciplines, giving the topic much-needed expansion – complex issues demand a range of views as no one person is ever the definitive expert. Here we hear from those with backgrounds in politics, development studies, geography, policy and advocacy. Collectively the authors contribute critical discussion and respect the human stories involved in these movements, whether they are of those arriving or of the communities into which they settle.

There is a wider colonial context we need to be aware of in New Zealand when we begin to talk about migration. In their important piece, Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata examine the dominant Pākehā model that migrants are crossing into: ‘the substance of citizenship is wholly geared towards one Treaty partner’. They suggest a system based on manaakitanga –  one that respects mana whenua and recognises the need to improve how we look after those who arrive. They also point to the opportunity for Māori and newer migrants ‘to work together to create constitutional arrangements that are better suited to our diverse citizenry’.

Another striking contribution, by Francis Collins, looks at New Zealand’s reliance on temporary workers and examines the implications of this growth. Those who are charged with ‘Milking cows, cooking dinners, providing health care, waiting tables, building houses’ do not have the rights of residence, and cannot vote or access ‘social resources’. We have effectively created an underclass. The processes of immigration are not only riddled with uncertainties, but remain ‘fundamentally exclusionary’. The means of exclusion has shifted from ethnicity to economics, where those who earn more have a greater chance at residency. Collins suggest several measures, including a time-based accrual system, to redress policies at such remove from an equitable New Zealand.

In addition to contributions that show how lines run through identity and communities too, the book also considers forced migration. Nina Hall challenges the concept of climate refugees, because we end up invariably drawing another line by using the term. Instead she calls for us to do more to help all of those forced to move, and to be wary of the discourse of threat – security, identity and otherwise – that so often follows conversations about refugees.

National borders and the nation state will be here for some time. Fair Borders? offers critical reflection and encourages conversation about this ‘perpetual interplay between division and union’, ‘both beyond and inside a nation’.  The accident of birth defines so many of our rights, and there are many migrations to come. If we are to remain fair, we need to examine our policies and improve public discourse, so that our nation can see our borders not as bare and exposed to the sea, but open to arrivals.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the 21st Century
edited by David Hall
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518851

Shifting Points of View: Race and Extremism, with Reni Eddo-Lodge, John Safran

Things are not as simple as they first seem. When you think of racism, chances are you conjure images of skinheads, not institutions at the heart of our society. When you think of the head of an extreme-right movement in Australia, you probably don’t think of someone whose parents are Italian and Aboriginal, and whose wife is Vietnamese. Two sessions at WORD Christchurch and Christchurch Arts Festival’s Shifting Points of View series, Why I am no Longer Talking to White People About Race and Depends what you mean by Extremist, explored some of the complex currents expressing themselves through racism and in extremist movements in Australia.

Reni_eddo_shiftingPOV‘Whiteness is a powerful ideology, which you can you see more clearly when it hasn’t been working for you.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge, at just 28 years of age, presented her fresh articulations of racism and white privilege in conversation with playwright Victor Rodgers, when they discussed her book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

cv_why_im_no_longer_talking_to_white_people_about_RaceThe book stemmed from a blog post she had written ‘out of fatigue’ from her experiences in leftists and activist circles, where she was labelled as divisive for questioning the groups’ discomfort with addressing racism. Finding it very difficult to have conversations with people who were unwilling to acknowledge that racism still existed, and that it benefited them, she wrote a book to have the conversation in her own terms.

While the extremist edge to racism is highly visible, other parts of the dominant white ideology – ‘a political project of hundreds of years’ – have less of a profile. We don’t talk about it nearly as much; we are less critical of it. Reni is an astute diagnostician: structural racism is supported by bastions of silencing, wilful oversights and the fact that conversations about race have been led by those who haven’t been affected by it (at least not in a negative way). Reni underlined that it is critical to talk about how racism manifests and how it is justified, because otherwise we fall into complacency. She explained to Rodger that she wanted to include context, history and how race shapes power in her book to respond to this.

Applying her journalistic skills, Reni showed how racial biases are embedded into society’s structures to the benefit of white people. She used data from government resources, which clearly evidenced that black students were much less likely to get into the top schools and more likely to be marked lower at school (these same students received higher grades when marked by independent moderators who did not know them). People with Afro-Caribbean or Asian names were much less likely to be called in for an interview even if their CV showed the same the qualifications and experience.

In a great example of silencing, she talked about omitting parts of history – how UK school students were taught about US civil rights, but nothing about British civil rights or the slave trade. And an example of who was leading the discussions: the Brixton Riots were generally understood to involve two equally weighted sides, but there was ‘no understanding of the daily slights that led to this, why one community felt over policed’. The Metropolitan Police, after an inquiry into the handling of a 19-year-old case where an 18-year-old black teenager was killed, recently found that the police force displayed institutional racism, through their practices of unthinking marginalisation and stereotypes.

The way we talk about race in wider culture has been led by white racial identity. The white ideology is held up as ‘objective’. Reni spoke of writers to illustrate her point. ‘White people don’t have to think about representing other white people’, whereas a black writer, for example, is seen as speaking on behalf of the half of the community. This, Reni points out, is a silly generalisation, an assumption that black culture is something ‘homogenous, as if we went away to some black persons’ conference and decided these were the talking points’. She refuses the label of ‘a representative’, not only because she has no constituency, but also because ‘it strips away individuality’.

The goal is a meritocracy, but for white people to talk about it now (a particularly favoured trope of conservative politicians), is to assume that it exists. Comments such as ‘You don’t work hard enough’ are wilful misunderstandings because it is not a level playing field. Words such as diversity can be troublesome, because the validity of the word depends so much on who’s setting the agenda: ‘I am often on the menu but never at the table’.

It will be an incremental, long slog on the path to change, she warns, but we need to be vigilant and critical of racism, or else we will continue to unwittingly reproduce it.

Australian satirist John Safran with Te Radar
Sunday 10 September, 1pm

The complexities, layers and sub-groups in extremist movements in Australia were up for discussion on Sunday, as Te Radar spoke to satirist John Safran about his book Depends What You Mean by Extremist.

It all began at a far-right protest that Safran turned up at in Melbourne. Expecting skinheads, he was surprised to find the protest to be quite a multicultural example of ‘anti-multicultural protest’. John spotted a Sri Lankan evangelical priest up on a ute with a white nationalist, addressing the crowds. These strange bed-fellows were ‘providing each other moral cover’ in their shared anti-Islam sentiment: one could claim his evangelical messages were not so ‘out there’ as they were being received at this rally; the other could claim he wasn’t racist. These complexities and ironies instantly piqued John’s creative instinct.

pp_john_safran

Photo by Donna Robertson, Chch City Libraries

He started an investigation into the world of extremists and fringe elements in Australia: the far right, ISIS supporters and the hard left. He started writing about them in the eighteen months pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, and he found that over the course of that time ‘the world started to meet up with fringe groups’.

cv_depends_what_you_mean_by_extremistHe had entered a complex world, which he compared to gum stuck in the carpet, gathering fluff, hair and dust – impossible to pick apart. There were many layers to the extremist groups and a bizarre, incongruous mix of messages and agendas to suit purposes. The far right appropriated feminist arguments to promote their anti-Islam agenda; the hard-left leveraged anti-bullying of Muslim messages to bring traction to their own agenda, which was ‘to pull the rug out from society’. There was the Muslim fundamentalist who was also a Monty Python and MAD fan. And then there was an unsettling movement of ideas. Claims from the far-right that atheism was the true Islamophobia eventually turned up and were repeated in leftist circles.

The extreme ideologies held by these groups were bleeding into public discourse and being repackaged into the mainstream, under waving Ausssie flags and calls for the right to freedom of speech: ‘Aren’t you sick of political correctness?’ These groups have successfully paved the way for what John calls Pauline Hanson’s second coming. He had the chance to talk her a few weeks ago, and the conversation aptly illustrated the absurdity of these strange times in which we find ourselves. You couldn’t write it.

John questioned her about being aligned with Asian groups against Islam, in what was a complete about face. When she denied this (in spite of extensive television coverage of her anti-Asian immigration views), Safran asked her how the public could be sure she wouldn’t do another turn around. She replied ‘You will never see me in a burka’. A promise, Safran drily noted, one would have thought would have been easy to keep.

Attended and Reviewed on behalf of Booksellers NZ by Emma Johnson

Why I am no longer talking to white people about race
by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408870556

Depends what you mean by extremist
by John Safran
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9781926428772

 

 

 

Shifting Points of View: Things that Matter, and Fight Like a Girl

Emma Johnson attended these sessions at WORD Christchurch’s Shifting Points of View season on behalf of Booksellers NZ. All books mentioned are listed at the bottom of the page, and available from booksellers nationwide.

To the victor, history. To the dominant culture, the narrative. Under the dense coverage of those tales, others remain hidden. In the Shifting Points of View series, which WORD Christchurch is presenting as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival, other perspectives are brought to the fore for us to consider. The centre of the story moves – a centrifugal force of discussion spins us around to look outwards, to see things differently, to consider others, to empathise. Or even to act.

Set within the context of this age of efficiencies and disconnection, two very different sessions called for us to move beyond the insular to more connection – in the Galler session, as a means to change our modern healthcare system and in the Ford session, to counter both the furious eddies of misogyny online and perhaps the more pernicious ‘everyday’ sexism.

Things that Matter: Dave Galler and Glenn Colquhoun in discussion
GallerColqhoun-photoFine words, ‘nuggets’ of experience, and two medicine men came together on Saturday 2 September in an eloquent affirmation of humanity at the sold-out ‘Things That Matter’ session. Dave Galler, an intensive care specialist at Middlemore Hospital, wrote the book after which the session took its name, which sets out to demystify healthcare and encourage patients to play a greater role in decision-making. Here in conversation with Glen Colquhoun, a poet and GP, he called for a rethink of the modern healthcare system by widening the frame of reference.

Asked to consider how his growing up in Jewish culture in New Zealand informed his medicine, Dave was cautious in seeking cause for effect. His mother, an Auschwitz survivor, married his father in Israel, and they immigrated in the 1950s – leaving behind something that they wanted to forget, which pushed their children into assimilation; the celebration of Jewish culture was to come later. He traces his belief in medicine’s need for kindness to his parents’ profound warmth, in spite of their experiences. The Jewish traditions of scholarship, healthy debate and the expectation that your view will be challenged are apparent in his role as a natural advocate for change.

Recognising the interconnectedness of social systems and myriad factors that come together to express themselves in illness in Aotearoa, both Glen and Dave advocated for a holistic perspective and a need to look beyond the nexus of doctor and patient – both as a means to better identify the health system’s failings and to ensure its improvement. Glen put the questions on the table: ‘Is it the role of doctors to be political? Where does the duty of care extend to?’ As a GP, he sees the social causes of disease every day. Dave pointed to North American first nations people, and to Māori, as having the broader perspective that could vastly improve modern health care – one that is inclusive of spiritual wellbeing, of whanau, and of community. And having a purpose.

Our focus on technology and the body leads us to overlook other elements that are fundamental to our wellbeing. And this can be critical. ‘Those that recover in intensive care – whether they recover is determined by many things, but is heavily weighted in who they are.’ He also illuminated the broader costs of a healthcare system with a singular focus – those of lost opportunity and potential for many in deprivation, ‘the environmental equivalent would be our rivers’. He gave an example of a 19-year-old patient who had contracted pneumonia early on in life due to bad housing, who arrived at the ICU with an illness that would have given most people nothing more than a runny nose. Here he was on death’s door (thankfully he recovered). He was on oxygen at home – his life restricted, because of a bad start in life.

So, what do we need to do? Glen and Dave were in agreement. Start by moving beyond the ‘efficiencies’ of 35-patient rounds at the hospital and ten-minute doctor visits. Start rewarding kindness and empathy, because fundamentally medicine is about people. Create a system that rewards these values, that allows doctors to build up a body of knowledge and a broader awareness of community and family situations – these could save time later on. At the very least we need an honest sizing up of the need, and an acknowledgment that we do not have the resources to meet this.

Dave also called for a sense of purpose, because it gives you a way ‘to marshal your resources’, and then align policies across seemingly competing interests – ‘so that they do not cancel each other out’. His call to action was unequivocal: ‘We’ve got to demand this. If you wait for the government to solve your problems, you’ll be waiting a long time.’

In health, it is ‘values, empathy and kindness’ that we need more of. Connecting the parts to make a better functioning whole; shining the light on the bigger picture.

Clementine Ford: Fight Like a Girl

clem-photobook.pngBut sometimes shining the light on the smaller parts of a system is just as important. The formidable and funny Clementine Ford, journalist and feminist writer, called for this as a means to make visible seemingly innocuous systemic sexism, and as a means to undermine it.

Her book Fight Like A Girl looks to address the imbalance of power between the sexes, by taking power, because asking nicely won’t affect the system. And as in any power dynamic, the imbalance is benefiting one group – so men need to give up some of theirs. Her critiques, arguments and journalism have been dismissed (to put it kindly) by ‘men’s rights activists’ as ‘degrading to men’.

But this is exactly the crux of her point – this preoccupation with how men feel about feminism needs to go; they have been hogging the light for too long. In her second sold-out session at SPOV, she used ‘Hate Male’ – the deluge of abusive messages she has received over the years –  to ground her talk on the need to place women firmly at the centre of the feminist story. Unapologetic and unwavering, Clementine calls for us all to stop relating the discourse to men: there is no need to reward them for engaging in the dialogue, as it should not be about them.

The Hate Male collection aptly illustrated her point that women’s increasing agency is being met with a wave of vitriol in some places, most often by men who feel their worldview is threatened. Hardened, reactive stances emanate from behind the safety of their screens. The messages Clementine has received reveal that the current of misogyny runs thick and that there is a profound disconnect in this online world; but it also gives an opportunity to galvanize, for feminists to connect and to respond to these men with humour ‘by taking the rug out from under them’ in a very public forum. Clementine used humour extensively and extremely effectively to turn the tables on the abuse, draining it of its power.

cleminactionMany of these ‘men’s rights activists’ abuse her for getting upset about words – the old ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ is often lobbied in her direction. Yet, as she astutely points out, their words come in response to her words, ‘So who is really the oversensitive one?’

What is in a word then? The use of certain words aligns those who use them with a power structure and a rape culture, and other words empower others to stand up and call it out. Clementine calls for society to stop excusing behaviour and insults – the minimising tactics were seen here with the ‘boys will be boys’ approach to the Roast Busters. When the narrative makes such instances seem small or insignificant, it forms part of the cultural scaffolding that has made this okay, in service to patriarchy and rape culture (where those of privilege are not punished when it could impact their future potential).

It all starts on the small scale, an incremental chipping away at the power structure. Clementine furnished the audience with tips to combat this subtle, systemic sexism, which can be much harder to challenge than the ‘big ticket items’. When faced with a sexist joke, ask someone to repeat it several times or to explain why it’s funny. This shifts the spotlight onto them, and the onus to justify it.

Both sessions opened up new perspectives and possibilities to act. Both called for us to look beyond ourselves. Too often there is a tendency to place the self at the centre in the insular modern experience. But people like Clementine Ford, Dave Galler and Glen Colquhoun breathe life into the promise of empathy.

Attended and Reviewed by Emma Johnson on behalf of Booksellers NZ.

Things That Matter
by David Galler
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505645

Late Love: A BWB Text
by Glenn Colquhoun
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947492892

Fight Like a Girl
by Clementine Ford
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292362

Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

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“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

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.