Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Nigel Cox on Patricia Grace

The 99th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
As modest as she is talented, Patricia Grace doesn’t wage public campaigns, engage in literary debates or air her opinions on The Edge. She simply writes fiction. “That’s what my job is,” she tells Nigel Cox.
The best writers, they say, are the. ones who concentrate on the work. So when you ask Patricia Grace about, for example, what she thinks of Alan Duff’s books, or for some background on her withdrawal from CK Stead’s recent South Pacific anthology, she pauses for thought, then says carefully, “I like to concentrate on the writing. I consider that that’s what my job is. I leave commentary and reviewing to those who make that their work.”

You get the sense that being subjected to interviews is something she would also like to see as being beyond her brief. A patently sincere person, she makes a clear effort to summon a worthwhile answer to even the most mundane question. So when you ask who she reads she says, “I’m inclined to enjoy work by writers who write about communities and inter-relationships within communities, whether they be family, or village or inner-city groupings. I’ve recently enjoyed Maps by Nuruddin Farrah, and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Writers like Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King. I like all of those.”

In the face of such an immaculate response to the basics, it seems pushy to try for answers to more awkward questions about, for example, the place of magic and kehua (spirits) in her work. After all, though she presents herself with enormous modesty and (you can’t help recalling her surname) grace, she is one of our most highly respected and successful writers. Since her first publication in 1975, the superb Waiariki, Grace has produced 11 further books, an outstanding achievement in itself. But what sets her apart from most other New Zealand writers is that all her books have remained in print. And in print they’ll stay. Her publishers, Penguin, are in the process of preparing a uniform edition of her work.

Her reputation continues to rise; her most recent collection of stories, The Sky People, was greeted with phrases like “a touch of magic here and a quality of timelessness”, “goddess ability”, “to be treasured”. A fulltime writer, she says she puts pressure on herself to always be coming up with new projects, which perhaps accounts for what she calls the “different, experimental” qualities that distinguish each book. But these new directions haven’t affected her popularity; quite the opposite. Her popularity with Maori audiences is not hard to understand, but the Pakeha audience has proved perhaps even more enthusiastic.

Grace’s writing depicts spirit presences that subtly challenge materialist assumptions. So is there a difference between Maori and Pakeha realities? “Yes,” she says, “I kind of live in both worlds, been brought up in both and there’s more difference than most people realise.”

Discussing a story in The Sky People, where a child’s boils seem to be burst by magic, she says, “There are two ‘anecdotal’ stories within ‘Boiling’. They’re both true, things that actually happened.”

There’s no trace of defensiveness here, no insistence, merely a clear statement of difference. This difference isn’t the main reason that we read her — we read her because she’s a wonderful writer — but when Pakehas consider how they know what they think they know about Maori lives and values, the writing of Patricia Grace must be seen, I think, as a major influence.

At the interview’s end she gives me a card so I might ring and check any facts. “Patricia Grace, fiction writer”, it says. Going down in the lift, perhaps slightly disappointed not to have got anything from her on the hot topics of the day, I reflect that she is one of the tiny handful of people in the country who might honestly give that as their job description. A hard-earned position, and one worth protecting.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Rob O’Neill on Renato Amato

The 98th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Rob O’Neill on Renato “Michael” Amato, 1928-1964. The first in an occasional series.
Neglected Writers
If, like me, you spend a lot of time rummaging around in second-hand bookshops, you may have come across the name Renato Amato. If you’re not, then the odds are that you wouldn’t have.

It was 30 years this April since Amato died from a brain haemorrhage in Wellington at the age of 35. His single volume, the collection of stories The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo, was posthumously published in 1967. Since then he has been almost universally, and quite unjustly, ignored. Perhaps because of the dominant strain of literary nationalism at the time, ironically a movement often associated with his friend Maurice Shadbolt, Amato just didn’t seem to fit.

Born in Portenza in southern Italy in 1928, Amato fought on both sides during World War II. First he was co-opted into the Fascist Black Brigade and later, using forged papers, he joined the partisans — where he saw many of his former officers taken prisoner and executed.

Filled with a general disgust after the war, Amato tried to build a life for himself. He attended university but did not finish a degree. He began writing and had some pieces published. Moving to Rome, he acted, wrote, took labouring jobs and waited on tables. He met several more-established writers, including Cesare Pavese, but they made little impression on him.

Working for a refugee organisation in the early 50s and learning English, Amato began to think about emigrating. New Zealand was virtually off limits to Italian migrants so, perhaps out of some sense of perversity, he decided that was where he wanted to go.

He arrived in Auckland in 1954 and renamed himself Michael. Again he found a succession of jobs — labouring, selling linen door-to-door — and virtually abandoned writing until, in 1958, he met his future wife, Sheena McAdam.

She was a student at Victoria University and, with her encouragement, he enrolled there himself and began writing again. Between then and his death in 1964, Amato had numerous stories published in local literary journals and his talent and promise began to be recognised.

To his contemporaries, Amato always seemed a writer of another order — internationalist when nationalism was a strong force in literature, cosmopolitan in a relatively closed and insular society, never prepared to pander to his new countrymen’s need of positive affirmation.

Robert Chapman described him as “the one adult in an adolescent generation”. And Maurice Shadbolt, in his introduction to Amato’s collection (where much of this information comes from), remembered him as “contemptuous of all special pleading for New Zealand and New Zealanders in literature”.

Another who knew him, John Parkyn, an occasional writer and one-time editor of the Victoria University journal Argot, says he was “one of the kindest men l have ever known. But he also loved nothing better than a good argument, taking an outrageous, taunting position on some literary or non-literary matter. ‘Come in, Johnny Parkino!’ he would bellow as he opened the door of his Kelburn house. ‘Why is your country so bloody boring?’”

New Zealand and New Zealanders do not get off lightly in his fiction either. In stories like “An Evening’s Word” he often used a fine sense of irony to display all that was provincial, crass and hypocritical in our society. Perhaps it was this that has led him to be little anthologised since. Amato’s unwillingness to heap praise on his adopted country, and often his willingness to do the reverse, hit us where it hurt the most: in our fragile sense of national pride. We could take such criticism from a fellow New Zealander — just — but from an outsider, a foreigner, an immigrant, it was too much.

But in the end, the only question that really counts is quite simple: Could he write? And the answer is equally straightforward: yes, and very well. His recent inclusion in Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford Book Of New Zealand Short Stories is totally deserved.

The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo is, for me, one of the best collections of short fiction published in this country. It should still be read.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bernard Brown on walking

The 97th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Browne and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists, art curators – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

Bernard Brown
I cherished no schoolboy ambition to be a perambulator. But my hero, Ned Ludd, with his wrecker mates, hadn’t seen the job through. He’d let down the Simple Society. Me especially.

The problem, for 60 years, has been my nervy relationship with machines, even bicycles. Motor vehicles unerringly failed me. They could be induced to go forward smoothly, but only convulsively the other way.

My last driving test – in ]ohore Bahru, 1958 – promised success, until the Hudson Terraplane leaped back onto the examiner.

So walking became the chief and safer alternative, taking me from Boulogne to Paris (three weeks), through Malayan jungles and into a Singapore cricket match (where I was bowled by a chinaman, by a Chinaman), around and about the 20 suburbs in search of the city of Canberra, down bumpy parts of Borneo and, for a few years, New Guinea too (all for malaria, an arrow wound and sweaty tales of Errol Flynn). After which, I turned to Auckland as a pedestrian academe (“Here comes Associate Professor Plod,” the neighbours’ kids would call).

However, the pleasures of walking do outweigh the embarrassments, the inconvenience and the varicosity. You come to know your routes, the dogs and cats (by name), the children, gnomes and concrete bunnies on front lawns, as well as the dapper adulterer who tipped his hat to all he thought might know.

Garbage – yes. You become an authority on who puts out the really classy stuff. The rich are mean with rubbish. And in times of milk in bottles, you were alerted at gates to illness or death –  followed, alas, by For Sale signs, then quick-buck gentrifications of the nice old homes. Even sadder, the last five or six years have introduced this walker to the poor souls who used to be cared for, but who now traipse the streets probing litter bins. Somehow, they miss the odd coin or note dropped at the morning bus stops, but not the fag butts.

Along my ways I have found a homicide knife, numerous booties, a Rasta beret, corsets, lecture notes on Leavis (from which I lectured for a while), photos of a friend’s holiday and, intermittently, myself.

Pavement mores change. Exhausted condoms have become a welcome sight. Indeed, in mid-winter, one marvels.

You learn to smile at all oncoming pedestrians. Even to say hello. One ped, thus greeted, punched me in the throat. Thousands haven’t.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #73

From the edition of Friday 16 September. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Monumental ideas
I have been wondering where the council is going to put the waterfall?
Wairere, wai is water, rere is falling. There’s no point having Wairere Drive if there’s no monument.
Instead of replacing Founders Theatre, build a “cultural” waterfall. It could be incorporated into the Wairere/Cobham Drive intersection. Ten million dollars would be cheaper than messing around with Founders.
In a strategic location, everyone passing would see it making it the most looked at monument. That should be worth something.
My earlier brilliant ideas were to turn the Hillcrest cycle stadium into an ice rink, and put a mural of an International Airport on the Anglesea Wall – “The steepest airport in the world”.
Both were beyond the combined brainpower of the councillors at the time.
Laurie Polglase

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Reader attitudes and behaviours

A timeline of responses to the NZ Book Council’s Report on reader attitudes and behaviours.

9 September
The NZ Book Council releases Report on reader attitudes and behaviours by Catherine Robertson and Paula Morris, two novelists with experience of how to conduct surveys. You can download the PDF here. Quote unquote:
According to Nielsen BookScan, in 2014, New Zealand fiction comprised only 3% of all fiction bought in this country. Based on available sales data, estimates suggest that New Zealand fiction comprises more like 5-6% of all fiction bought here. Our research aimed to discover the reasons for the comparatively low consumption.
13 September
The Listener publishes “Why aren’t adults reading New Zealand fiction books?” by Elizabeth Easther, based on the report. The subhead is: “A survey reveals we have a crisis on our hands, with adults reading almost no New Zealand fiction.” Quote unquote:
The results showed deeply ingrained negative impressions towards New Zealand writing. When asked to quickly describe “New Zealand fiction”, about 75% came up with negative words including “dark”, “grim”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “overrated” and “boring”. […] Younger readers were especially down on local fiction, summing it up as growing up in the backblocks “with pohutukawa and jandals”; “everything happening really slowly, no action”; Kiwiana, “a slice of not-very-enjoyable life, plodding and dull”.
14 September
Peter King posts a response online, headed “NZ books needs a better story”. Quote unquote:
So while the Book Council can pretend it isn’t an agency of Government the fact is, it’s board are largely there for the wine and cheese, and it is almost entirely taxpayer funded agency delivering Creative New Zealand programmes. […]
Catherine Robertson’s book club ladies interpreted the Creative New Zealand’s “High quality art” thing as a grim, actionless, literature with too many Pohutakawas and jandals in it.
This means the problem isn’t really the Book Council, or even Creative New Zealand, it’s that state support for literature in New Zealand is forced through the association with Creative New Zealand’s emphasis on “High quality art” to be what many New Zealanders would consider to be pretentious and arty farty.
What King doesn’t make clear here is that he is a genre writer so has, as they say, some skin in the game.

15 September
National Business Review doesn’t often comment on New Zealand literature but Nevil Gibson in his “Editor’s Insight” column, headed “Why Kiwi writers hate John Key and people don’t read NZ fiction”, has a view. Quote unquote:
Why the lack of entertainment value in Kiwi books and films?
I think the reasons are obvious. Too many writers ignore what’s happening around them or don’t like it. We know from studies such as Roger Horrocks’ Reinventing New Zealand (2016) that most of the academic and much of the artistic community think the post-Rogernomics era has been disastrous.
This, of course, is the opposite to the view of the majority, particularly those who read a lot and have access to everything available on the global scene.
The Horrocks view is that neo-liberalism has created a commercial environment run by “ruthless bean counters” and has removed the arts from the “public sphere.”
In this view, profit-making enterprises in the arts detract from the socialist goal of publicly-funded work that has strong political messages.
Copyright NBR. Cannot be reproduced without permission.
17 September
Peter King posts again online, this time under the heading “#NZbooks – how to start a better story”. Quote unquote:
For example New Zealand’s New York Times bestselling romance author Nalini Singh cannot be found on the Book Council’s writer files. She’s been writing for over a decade so it’s not that they haven’t had time to put her there.
You see what I mean? An organisation set up to promote NZ writing to New Zealanders doesn’t even recognise one of our top international bestselling authors, and then runs research showing New Zealand readers haven’t heard of her and find what they have heard of as grim etc etc.
19 September
Peter King’s 17 September blogpost is republished at The Spinoff  with the advisory:
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that the NZ Book Council receives half a million dollars a year in funding from Creative New Zealand. The council in fact received $350,000 in 2016. It also claimed that the Book Council provided mentorships, grants and travel opportunities. This is not the case. For a number of years the council ran the CNZ International Travel Fund for Writers but the fund is now managed by the Publishers Association of New Zealand. We regret the errors.
Catherine Robertson, co-author of the report, responds to the general hoo-hah on her blog under the heading “What it’s like when you inadvertently unleash a shit-storm”. Quote unquote:
We are attacked by the literary establishment! (They obviously decided to give genre fiction writers a break and turn on us instead.) A renowned publisher with a beard tweets: ‘If for years you tell people they think NZ books are boring then ask them if they think NZ books are boring…’
Strangely, because we are not actual cretins, we didn’t ask them that. And is the logic weird, or is it just me? Who’s the ‘you’ who’s telling people they think New Zealand books are boring? FIND THEM! HUNT THEM DOWN! IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT! […]
On a lone Facebook comment thread numerous people decide the furious blogger’s rant is formless and weird, and his comments about old ladies are sexist. They wonder why Paula and I would want to diss genre writers when we are genre writers (I write commercial women’s fiction and Paula writes fantasy YA). Paula and I want to hug these people.
 In the comments – there are many, and Catherine has patiently replied to them all – is this from Paul Gilbert:
The single best “advocacy” for all NZ writers would be something like a Gazette that records all NZ publications released that month, with simple blurb, publisher and author, where to buy, etc – a genuine one-stop shop for anyone wanting to follow new NZ writing. That way readers can see what catches their fancy rather than have their choices filtered by industry. And their perception of NZ writing will duly widen.
20 September
Paula Morris joins the debate at her blog in a post on a different but related topic, “Do New Zealand books need special treatment?” Quote unquote:
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Catherine Robertson and I were being chastised online – which is the contemporary version of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with hypocrisy and manufactured outrage, except with ‘comments’ instead of bonfires – for daring to be women who ran focus groups of (mainly) women asking about their book-buying habits. We were sure, being women and all, to have done it wrong; we were sure to have had no experience running focus groups; we were sure to loaded the groups with women over 35, just because they buy books; we were sure to have asked leading questions, and goaded people into trashing Important New Zealand writers; we were sure to have excluded genre fiction, and tried to further our Industrial Literary Complex agenda; we were sure to have locked men out, and ignored library statistics, and to have kept the sample wilfully small, and proclaimed an end to all further research ever – even though our report explicitly addresses the next step, and that our key finding was about visibility rather than boringness, and so on.
22 September
Booksellers NZ has the bright idea of getting Rachel O’Neill to ask some booksellers what they think. As I always say, if you want to know what is going on in the bookworld, ask a bookseller. Quote unquote:
The report points out that “People discover new books in numerous ways” and that “Older readers cited mostly local sources for book news and reviews”, while younger readers look to international sources. David Cameron keyed into this area of the report, “We do sell a number of overseas literary journals but the NZ journals such as New Zealand Books and Landfall are too infrequent to influence book sales significantly. There is so much competing for people's attention and I have no answer to this.”
25 September
Susan Strongman brings it all to newspaper readers’ attention. Quote unquote:
Critics of the report took to the internet, calling the work a “big pile of anecdotes” and saying the council was failing at its role of promoting New Zealand literature.
Others took to social media; after several tweets critiquing the report, Victoria University press publisher Fergus Barrowman told the Herald on Sunday he thought the survey didn’t have anything new or useful to say.
Romance writer Brynn Kelly tweeted she thought the problem was that “mainstream and genre writers are largely ignored by media, festivals, etc. [and] readers aren’t aware of diversity.”
New York Times bestselling author, New Zealander Nalini Singh, writer of wildly popular paranormal romance series agreed, saying she thought New Zealand fiction was narrowly defined.
Robertson said the overall reaction left her feeling depressed and beleaguered.
“We wanted to shed a little light on the barriers that might prevent readers enjoying terrific New Zealand books, of all genres.”
In the Listener story that kicked all this off, Paula Morris said that a large part of the problem is the lack of information about our books and writers. Quote unquote: 
“We can do a lot more to get clear, useful information about new books to readers and to make good reviews of new New Zealand fiction more accessible and visible.”
Why, it’s almost as if someone should start a magazine, perhaps a monthly, aimed at the mainstream book-buying market – not books only, obviously. Perhaps movies, food, theatre and visual arts to broaden the appeal, but books mostly. Not just NZ books of all genres but putting them alongside overseas books which book club members would be interested in. You’d maybe have reviewers who were knowledgeable and could write entertainingly. You’d have photos of NZ authors on the cover to make it look like a normal magazine. And you’d work hard to get it displayed in supermarkets, which is where normal people buy their magazines. And it could do what Paul Gilbert suggested and list books published in New Zealand that month but not reviewed in that issue by title, author, publisher and ISBN. As a service to readers, booksellers and librarians.

Once upon a time there was a magazine that did that.