Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753

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Book Review: Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

This book is from the newest university publisher in New Zealand, Massey University Press, and presents some new research from post-graduate students and academics, mostly from Massey and Waikato Universities. It is a reminder that there is substantive research being done in social science in a multi-disciplinary context, and this is a valid attempt to get a wider audience than that within the ivory towers. The term ‘Precarity’ is derived from the work of an English academic, Guy Standing, who has written about the ‘Precariat’ as an international phenomenon. Standing provides a brief foreword to the book which explains his version of the concept, and relates it to the idea of a ‘denizen’, being those people who are marginal in the labour market, and are therefore no longer treated as full citizens. In fact, Standing’s concept of a ‘precariat’ and this book do not highlight the labour market much at all, other than in how it relates to the welfare system. This inevitably means that most chapters look at the effect of welfare policies.

Precarity is a collection of mostly very specific chapters about aspects of the welfare system, and the specific experience of certain people within it. This highlights some rather difficult material based on marginalised ‘denizens’, often from particular ethnic groups or cultural perspectives. The troubling content is presented as sensitively as possible, and most of the substantive chapters are quite brief. In fact, given that most chapters have two or more authors it seems that there has been a form of cherry-picking of the potential content from much more in-depth research. Only the chapter on media depictions of precarious work provides a lengthy contextual positioning.

Indeed, the book does not really need to focus on one particular concept like ‘precarity’ at all. It is really a very focussed critique of welfare and social policy practice. All of the theoretical framing is stated early in the chapters by referring to the now familiar concept of ‘neo-liberalism’, and the position that sweeping new policies were imposed based on an economic theory that had inevitable consequences for vulnerable individuals in the labour market, or on the fringes of it. This works at a very general level, or is presented as an inevitable international trend, and creates a large gap between theory and practice. There is a chapter called ‘From working poverty to sustainable livelihood’, in which a group of psychologists refer to the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The SDGs are intended to address the poverty trap within specific countries, and focus the use of international aid. The authors refer to critics of international aid, but reduce it to a binary choice.

Since there is effectively a consensus within the book, in which all of the social scientists accept the idea of neo-liberalism as the prevailing policy paradigm, the chapters examine its deleterious effects. There are important empirical critiques of policy here, and the sheer callousness of the Work & Income staff. One especially topical point refers to the so-called ‘social investment’ approach that the National Party has claimed is the answer to welfare dependency. The chapter on young Maori mothers on the Youth Parent Payment benefit highlights the way that the beneficiaries are obliged to undertake education and training. This is based on the financialisation of lifetime benefit costs, and utilises a Net Present Value calculation by officials that is obviously inappropriate, since there are no ‘investment returns’ to be made as an interest rate.

So there is some significant work here, but it is not an easy read, and the lack of an index does not help the reader look for specific concepts being discussed.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand
Edited by, Shiloh Groot, Natasha Tassell-Matamua, Clifford Van Ommen, and Bridgette Masters-Awatere
Published by Massey Texts
ISBN: 9780994141514

 

Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, edited by Jack Ross

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetry_nz_yearbookThe best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.

The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.

On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies.  In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.

Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’

In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not  love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).

Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’

This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994136350

Book Review: The Journal of Urgent Writing, edited by Nicola Legat

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_journal_of_urgent_writingThis book, or journal, is the first in a planned annual collection of long form essays from (mostly) academics and journalists, addressing “urgent” topics that they have been researching or thinking about recently. If continued as planned, these journals should give a snapshot about issues that were concerning us at that time – or that should have been concerning us more, in retrospect. In any case, this collection brings specialist writers to a more generalist audience. A fine idea that seems to be gaining in popularity, considering that Auckland University Press has also just published a collection of non-fiction stories and essays.

Some editorial decisions have probably been made about the order in which these essays are presented, but I could not pick up any logic in the placement. In some cases essays that touch on similar subjects are placed far apart, making me wonder whether they would have given the reader a different impression if read sequentially. I only wondered this after reading two essays that did seem to segue: historian Peter Meihana writes on how the concept of “Māori privilege” may be part of New Zealand’s national creation myth, used by colonial governments to both claim egalitarianism and to sanction Māori dispossession. This is followed by Krushil Watene’s piece on water, law and philosophical concepts of ownership. Watene argues that indigenous perspectives on humans’ connection to and responsibility to nature are among the philosophical forces that can lead us away from recent (environmentally disastrous) ideologies that privilege exploitation of natural sources for individual gain.

I suspect that, as with a magazine, these pieces should be picked up in whatever order the reader cares. No more energy for new arguments? Flick to the sole pictorial essay and marvel at diatoms! I just wasn’t feeling it when I turned to an essay about why children can’t read, so came back to it later only to realise that it wasn’t the subject that had left me cold, but the fact that the essay had none of the conversational qualities that made some of the others so engaging. Nothing wrong with a list of well-argued refutations of myths on this topic, and I’m sure the piece could have formed the basis of a good lecture, but there was no illustrative anecdote, no insertion of the authors’ voices into the narrative along the lines of “when we first looked at this issue we expected X, but here’s what happened…”.

Other readers may well differ, but the most successful essays for me were the ones that gave the feeling of a good sit-down chat with someone who knows way more than you on a particular topic and would just love to tell you about how they discovered it. The first piece – Dan Salmon on the problem of sustainable tuna fisheries and so much more – is a fantastic example of this. The next piece is a complete change of tune: an address to graduates about how to live a good life which, although containing plenty of warm and worthwhile advice, did not strike me as especially “urgent” or new. Paul McDonald’s address does, however, incorporate advice which could be a commissioning brief for this kind of collection: “Tell stories, too, especially those that exemplify our humanity. Constructive change is most likely to result from a combination of logical data and a compelling story”.

To that end, Jarrod Gilbert makes riveting use of statistics combined with shocking examples of how those stats are or are not addressed, in his essay on crime and justice. He writes like a guy who could talk your ear off about any number of maddening stories on these topics without getting at all boring.

Mike Joy is angry about the state of our rivers, and this is hardly news, but it is perhaps fitting that his subject and angle was the one I could most easily predict from looking at the author list. His essay charts his personal and professional journey to becoming “that scientist who campaigns about freshwater”, and the dramas along the way.

Teena Brown Pulu tells an intensely emotional family story to illustrate the irrelevance of rules that force people to nominate only one ethnicity to identify with. Paula Morris and David Slack also do lovely work weaving wider themes into their reflections about life stages and parents. Slack’s final essay ends the collection beautifully on a poignant and hopeful note.

Richard Shaw addresses arguments for why young people disengage from democracy and what should be done about it, in a topical and indeed urgent piece that is hard to read now without thinking ”ah, this was written right before THAT THING happened in the USA…”
Speaking of which, it’s only fair that a collection of urgent 2016 writing should allude to the political news in the USA. In the one essay that genuinely irritated me, Paul Thomas started off with what seemed like a “damn kids get off my lawn” invective against the “cult of self-esteem”, politically correct outrage and social media narcissism. He then annoyed me further by seguing into what may be a fair point, arguing that Trump’s rise to power is linked to his embodiment of extreme narcissism which is only now seen as normal. Frankly that’s an argument I was just not ready to read about, even if it contains a grain of truth. 2016, everyone.

To sum up, a quote from another highly topical essay reminds us what this compilation is aiming for. David Hall’s fair-minded discussion about the meaning of environmental politics buzzwords such as “green growth” concludes: “By taking seriously other ideas, even those we disagree with, we force ourselves to think better about our own.”

With that in mind, bring on the 2017 round of thought-provoking rants.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

The Journal of Urgent Writing
edited by Nicola Legat
Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994130068