Lisa Samuels Reviews The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature

1 May 2014

The literary inclusions have the sort of thematic match in the entries that you might expect. ‘Hardcore’ is the section where you read about vaginas and see curse words, for example. If you divide the number of organising sub-headings (81) by the number of authors (195), every author gets about 2.4 topics that are presented as framing their works. That calculation may seem flip, but it’s worth noting that even at that ratio, the imaginative writing slips its singular categorical bind more than it matches that bind. If you add the overarching 11 main categories, the writing is even more unsettled in its containers.

There are 185 pages (20-205) of material published before 1915, and some of this material reaches beyond its anthology headings to give a taste of what an anthology really interested in pre-twentieth century writing might have done. About 55% of the inclusions are published between 1962 and 2012, so the majority of this book is interested in the last fifty years of literary writings. These kinds of points are worth making if we are assessing what the book claims and what it performs, what it desires and what it achieves. Given the focus on the last fifty years, the absence of multicultural Aotearoa New Zealand is a real problem. There is attention to bicultural Aotearoa in inclusions from Māori writers, and a couple of Asian-New Zealanders included, but little Pasifika writing graces these pages, and a Fijian-Indian-New Zealander would have little way of recognising herself in this book. In addition to the topical binding visited upon the writing that is included, this bias toward Pākehā New Zealand is another sign of the old fashioned nature of this anthology. Its categories and exclusions make it look a lot like anthologies of the mid-twentieth century.

The end of the editors’ introduction points out the unfortunate omission of Janet Frame, Vincent O’Sullivan, and Alan Duff, three writers whose impact in Aotearoa New Zealand writings cannot be left out without damage to a claim of definitive import, as other reviews have pointed out. Given the anthology’s approximately 85% focus on 20th and 21st century writing, there are a number of other writers whose omitted work makes one pause about the anthology’s claim to include all of ‘what’s worth reading’: Renee, Eric Resetar, Martin Edmond, Toa Fraser, Jack Ross, Diana Fuemana, Stuart Hoar, Iain Britton, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Jean Betts, David Kārena-Holmes, David Geary, Simon O’Connor, Scott Hamilton, Vaughan Rapatahana, Joanna Paul, Doc Drumheller, Sugu Pillay, Mike Johnson, Hone Kouka, John Adams, Jen Crawford, Dave Fane, Bill Direen, Lorae Perry, Stephanie Christie, Sonja Yelich, Ted Jenner, Harry Dansey, Olivia Macassey, Tony Green, Richard von Sturmer, Oscar Kightley, Vivienne Plumb, Victor Rodger, Karl Wills, Ya-Wen Ho, Gary Henderson, Kelly Malone, Dean Parker, David Howard, Stephen Sinclair and Sarah Laing are all examples of writers whose inclusion could have provided broader genre, cultural and locational circuits.

The astonishing absence of stage drama (barring three pages each from Maurice Shadbolt and Greg McGee, and eight pages from Jacob Rajan), radio plays, comics (barring five pages from Dylan Horrocks), overt language experiments (barring two pages from Alan Brunton in The Word is Freed and one page from Wystan Curnow), and cross-genre work is another thing to note. Those absences and parsimonies point to the extent to which this is an anthology of some creative prose and poetry mostly from the last 50 years and mostly from Wellington-area or Wellington-educated writers. If the title and presentation had laid claim to those choices, this review and perhaps others might have been quite different. One way of imagining this book is simply that it is mis-labeled. It’s like a guide to a certain few restaurants sold as a comprehensive cookbook.

Still, it’s important to note that many writers here often light up their pages, among them, for this reviewer, Kate Sheppard, Robin Hyde, Kendrick Smithyman, David Ballantyne, Keri Hulme, Ian Wedde, Dylan Horrocks and Cilla McQueen. Blanche Baughan’s haunting narrative poem ‘A Bush Section’ presages the attention that Geoff Park will bring to a physically ravaged landscape a century later. Much of the literary fiction presents fetchingly realist considerations of the deep human entanglement with identity, place, fear, desire and death that makes imaginative writing an effective way to consider our places in the world. If you can suspend attention to the thematic editorial apparatus, the omissions, and the claims for definitive treatment – large suspensions, to be sure – you will find many pleasures of direct address, lilting language and human stories in this book.

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About Lisa Samuels

Lisa Samuels’s recent books are Wild Dialectics (poetry, Shearsman 2012) and Anti M (memoir, Chax 2013), and her experimental novel Tender Girl (Dusie Press) will be out in September 2015. She is based in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, where she teaches writing and theory at the University of Auckland. For the first half of 2016 she’ll live back in the U.S., working on new books, essays, and sound art in Seattle.

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