AWF18: Fiction and Factions – Fiona Farrell

Fiction and Factions – The University of Auckland Free Public Lecture: Fiona Farrell 

fiona_farrellWhat makes a novel political? In the salubrious surrounds of the Heartland Festival Room the expectant gather for Fiona Farrell’s lecture and settle in with their wines. What follows is accomplished, rich and moving (what goes better with wine than sweet words?).

Does the novel’s political status depend on authorial intention or because contemporary political figures are mentioned? And why is it that her most recent work, the novel Decline and Fall on Savage Street, the companion volume to The Villa at the Edge of Empire, is the only one of her works that has been dubbed political?

Fiona agrees with Carol Hanisch that the personal is political; you cannot escape it. Every imagining is inescapably political – all of her own works are political for they are the product and culmination of her Irish ancestors arriving here, having an education and the good health to write, and the readers with the money to buy her books.

Julius Vogel, flush with the success of the colonies and in his ‘gouty retirement’, wrote New Zealand’s first political novel, Anno Domino 2000 – it was ‘tosh’. There are other, better known (and simply better) examples: 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale ‘have regained currency’ in light of the Five Eyes network, mass surveillance, images of burqas and conceptions of Islam. Fiona’s point is that the ‘political is reframed within our preoccupations’.

In some novels, the political dimension is quieter. There is Jane Austen with her efficient, coded comments: by using ‘retrench’ in relation to Sir Walter’s finances in Persuasion, she alludes to the libertine Prince Regent’s response to a parliament asking him to reign in his spending. Words become politically charged. We are asked to consider ‘excellence’ and ‘opportunity’ – these are loaded, tinged with the neoliberal.

But in this sphere, absence is also striking. There are no novels about the Wahine or Erebus disasters. Fiona suggests that perhaps we feel too close in a small country, that ‘fiction is eclipsed by reality’. War novels were written long after the war. It was some 20 years before Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell, and Maurice Gee’s Plumb was written decades after the events he describes in it. Fiona contends that these imaginings are closer to the truth than the journalism of the time with its edits, omissions and political motivations.

The novel can place its ‘finger on the incident so tiny it would otherwise go unnoticed’ and can lead to a change in thinking. But in the public sphere, our divides are not critically examined – gender, race and the political, where left is set against right in a ‘fierce and visceral manner’. It is not the law that silences us, but rather what Fiona dubs ‘supermarket syndrome’ – fear we might bump into people or lose that promotion. Instead our public political imaginings are left to the political commentators, the likes of Garner and Hosking.

Finally, Fiona turns to Christchurch and its prolonged disaster – the subject of her two books. Its unsteady ground was charged with disaster capitalism and the dominant narrative that played out was that ‘it was a great place to do business’. In Christchurch, the writing is on the hoardings at the library under construction; they speak of break-out rooms, an espresso bar and so on, but no mention of books. Here, Fiona identifies a public dismissal of fiction, part of the same movement and culture that does not respect universities, that lauds money and the physical.

The novel does such important work in a nation lacking wider critical political discourse. It can locate the ‘Tiny intimate pain where all politics have their origin and end’.

I was moved to think that quietly and thanklessly, the New Zealand fiction writers carry on, boats against the current, keeping political discourse and imaginings alive.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Decline and Fall on Savage Street
Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770626

You can see:
Fiona Farrell in conversation with Alex Miller 
on Saturday, 19 May 2018, from 1.00 – 2.00pm, Heartland Room
readNZ logo red and black - final 1

Book Review: This Paper Boat, by Gregory Kan

cv_this_paper_boatAvailable on 22 February from bookshops nationwide.

This Paper Boat flows forwards beautifully like an undisturbed river. Each poem flows continuously, and feels like a narrative carrying itself forward on many different timelines, a range of pasts merging together. We are given a small history of Gregory Kan and his family, as he moves back into his own and his parents’ past, travelling great distances between Singapore and New Zealand. The poems also concern themselves with the early 20th century New Zealand writer, Iris Wilkinson, also known as Robin Hyde, and delve into her life at times. These sections do not break the flow of Kan’s poetry, but are integrated seamlessly into his writing.

And this is one of the factors that makes This Paper Boat such a pleasant read, that it flows from one page to the next, it moves forward ceaselessly while drawing on the past. The collection opens up with this merging of past and present, ‘Outside the square of land you last appeared on / seventy-five years ago, I pretend to busy / my phone. I am / taking in the way Wellington had to force itself / upwards to meet you.’ Kan not only recalls the past but places himself within it, and then draws on this feeling to talk about the present, an act of self-reflection through the lives of others. He repeats this even with his own past as he draws on his time of service, ‘Walking / through Wilton’s Bush a few days ago I was / disoriented when I cut my hand on a thorny, / overhanging branch. I realised I had no gloves. / No camouflage paint on my face, no equipment / vest, no rifle around my neck, no ammunition, / no water, no signal set, no platoon, no rank.’ These different pasts all reflect on the present for Kan, and even with his own past self there seems to be a certain amount of separation that is used to examine the present.

As you move through This Paper Boat you begin to notice the ghosts that haunt the poetry. With a subject that focuses mostly on the past it is not surprising to find ghosts coming back to haunt the writer, but Kan does this in a very interesting way. He evokes different ghosts as he moves through the past, ‘Gui Po – A ghost in the form of a kindly old woman, / who returns to help / around the house, and who was sometimes too close / to covet, and Yuan Gui – a ghost who has died a wrongful death. / He roams the world of the living, waiting / for his grievances to be redressed. He hasn’t left / anywhere he’s been’, and so on. These ghosts reflect on the subject of the past that Kan brings back into his poetry, and they add an interesting dimension, giving a lot of power to the ghosts that haunt This Paper Boat.

Gregory Kan has brought forth a very engaging and brilliant collection, and after reading This Paper Boat, I cannot wait for more work from this emerging poet.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

This Paper Boat
by Gregory Kan
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408459

The Auckland launch of This Paper Boat will happen at Time Out Bookshop in Mt Eden, on Thursday, 25 February at 6pm.  RSVP not essential but helpful for catering, email