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

 

 

 

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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: 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. 

Book Review: Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, by Jonathon Boston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_safeguarding_the_future

Given the context of our world, with its 24/7 news cycle and incessant need to be ‘current’, the rise of populist politics that pander to reactive tendencies, a desire for quick ‘fixes’ (whether this be wall-building or oil drilling), and ‘perpetual election campaigning’, one could argue that we live a little too much in the now (which, as it happens, passes pretty quickly). The ever-widening gaps in society (both ideological and economical) and climate change mean that how we think about time and subsequently plan for the future could result in unprecedented consequences.

It follows that good governance is vital for keeping short-term thinking in check. In Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, public policy expert Jonathon Boston makes a well-argued case for wise stewardship and ways to achieve this with economy and clarity. He starts by asking ‘How . . . can the chances of short sighted policy decisions – ones that threaten or undermine citizens’ long-term wellbeing – be minimised?’.

In response Boston proposes a design-based approach – one that is ‘more practical than ethical and more applied than conceptual’. He lays out the concept of safeguarding the future and does not shy way from the difficulties involved in achieving such an approach in the face of competing interests, before examining ‘The attributes of anticipatory governance’.

He goes on to assess how New Zealand is faring in light of this; it is a performance that is cause for both ‘celebration and lament’. Although there are some good frameworks and structures in place to protect long-term interests, such as Treasury publishing a report (independent of the Ministry of Finance) on the country’s long-term fiscal position, Boston emphasises that attempts to address environmental and socials issues have failed, grounding his argument in research and analysis.

The major hurdle he identifies is the ‘presentist bias in policy-making in the democratic world’ and the ‘excessive weight given to short term considerations’. This presentist bias plays out in a series of ‘Politically salient asymmetries’ or the time difference between the flow of costs and benefits. Yet this presentist drive is not the reserve of politicians alone, but shared across society: ‘On the whole, when individuals are confronted with intertemporal choices . . . biases tilt their preferences and behaviours towards the present.’

Both citizens and politicians find it difficult to pay for something now, when they personally might not see the benefits later. This might not matter as much for something like roading, which can be fixed at some point in the future, but it does matter for those long-term impacts that cannot be undone, such as the extinction of a species. This seemingly wilful refusal to heed massive long-term costs ‘reflects deeper pathologies within our democratic institutions, civil society and political culture.’

He illuminates the discord in our accounting, and what we, as a society and through our representatives, attribute value to. The types of costs and benefits typically reported on have the same old themes: capital, manufacturing, finances. But natural resources, as well as human and social cost-benefits, are not given the same treatment. Auditing these assets is important to ‘affect how policy-makers and citizens perceive the world, assess progress and judge governmental performance.’ Accountability is key. As Boston points out there are currently no requirements for government to consider whether their policy frameworks are intergenerationally fair – even when long-term impacts are highly likely.

In his agenda for reform, where the ‘aim is to shift the political context in which decisions are made by incentivising forward thinking and countering the presentist bias’, Boston sensibly advocates for change that is ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ because this is cheaper, politically more expedient and less time consuming.

Crucially there is a need for durable, cross-party agreements for any meaningful change in policy and institutions to take place (otherwise things are undone, done poorly or stalled) – Boston cites superannuation as the most successful to date; political leaders need ‘to frame policy problems and proposed solutions in ways that can attract broad public support – perhaps because they appeal to long-standing cultural narratives and deeply held values’. Our parliamentary system needs examination (ones similar to ours show a similar lack of resolve) – he recommends commitment devices, the stating of long-term goals, and the strengthening of monitoring. And extending the term of governance to four years.

As Boston himself concludes in the book, the aim is not perfection, but betterment and this certainly available to us, not to mention critical. There is an implicit call to action for citizens within this – after all, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but obligations too.

Boston’s case for an intergenerational duty of care and ways to enable and better this are convincing and clear. Future generations are not able to advocate now, so we should. After all, as the philosopher Rawls is quoted in the book, ‘The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not in itself a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World
By Jonathon Boston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518257

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974

 

Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946

Book Review: Japan – From the Source

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_japan_from_the_sourceLike any traditional cuisine, Japanese food evokes its culture, environment and history. The ingredients available, the presentation trends, the methods of preparation, and the people making it and their belief systems all inform the food. These elements integrate and culminate upon the plate in a series of flavours, scents, textures and look. Yet this is perhaps achieved with more awareness in Japanese cuisine. There is much care and consideration involved in each step; there is a gentleness to it.

It is both wonderful and intimidating to consider each part of the process – from available ingredients (affected by trade or climate) to the plating – as being essential to the end result, not unlike a haiku. The search for harmonious balance, the blend of elements and senses eloquently expressed on the plate, the ideas associated with Japanese aesthetics – a subdued, stark or cutting beauty – can leave one feeling under-confident when considering whether to attempt to recreate this style of food.

Enter Lonely Planet’s Japan: From the source, which seeks to honour many of these elements. The idea behind this series is to present local dishes, with the chefs’ original recipes and methods, the way they have been practiced for centuries. Lonely Planet is tapping into a need for authenticity and place via the celebration of regional fare, or in other words, the dishes people have been making in places for ages.

But respecting authenticity requires time and practice. The editor acknowledges the difficulty of finding some of the ingredients in your average supermarket (Okinawan island tofu, katsuobushi and so on), but even with stand-in ingredients it can turn into a timely affair to create one dish.

Recipes are arranged by region. The book moves from northern Japan with its stews and soups that have developed in response to a cooler climate, through Tokyo and central Japan with its modern influence and fusion style, on to Kansai – the imperial heart of Japan – with its refined dishes, and ends in southern Japan with its subtropical climate, which, according to the editor, renders the food ‘distinct from that of other parts of Japan’.

The book is a visual pleasure and the photos of the dishes evoke the refined Japanese presentation style. Each recipe is accompanied by the story of the dish and the chef who has offered the recipe. Indeed many have shared their signature dish or one they have been polishing for years.

Accordingly the reality of making recipes from this book, for this cook in any case, was quite different – given my lack of practice and time. I made one of the quickest dishes – okonomiyaki or savoury pancake. The main ingredients are cabbage, pork belly and flour – whatever is readily available. Hence its fame in Hiroshima: ‘During the post-war era, okonomiyaki kept people’s stomach’s full’. My results were mediocre, far from the crisp, dense pancake containing finely shredded cabbage in the picture.

Japan: From the Source offers welcome insights into the culture, history and tastes of Japanese food, but you need time and patience to recreate the ‘Authentic recipes from the people that know them best’. And this should come as no surpise, given the aspects of practice, specialisation and refinement inherent in this cuisine and culture.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Japan – From the Source
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781760342982