Is-land for youthful is-landers.
A Made-Up Place presents a set of essays on New Zealand adolescent fiction, written by five members of the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, all engaged in teaching and research in children's literature. Each contributor is responsible for two pieces; their essays are quite strongly linked, but do focus on different topics and different texts. On the whole, this makes for a useful collection--or project--centred on the problematic notion of New Zealandness as it arises in stories by New Zealand authors, writing for a first audience of New Zealand adolescents, but also concerned with an international readership. That division of audiences, to which many New Zealand writers have turned their minds, implies divided purposes, or at least some sense of divided understandings. For collective, critical discussion of what has gone on in this fictional territory in recent years, then, a common subject like New Zealandness promises much, not just for the local reader, but also for an international audience. While there certainly are real benefits from such a coordinated undertaking, there are obvious problems. Individual essays stand alone, going about their individual business, but each refers to others in ways that make the collection read at times like an in-house conversation, when, perhaps, individual contributors often would have profited from talking to somebody else! Furthermore, repeated internal reference does build a sense of collective self-endorsement, however unintended, and does mark a limiting engagement with many of the same novels as exemplary texts. Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee, in particular, are discussed repeatedly. That is no great surprise; nevertheless, a greater range of texts would perhaps have made for a more complex set of arguments and a more attractive collection.
In her introductory essay, Anna Jackson seeks to problematise the notion of place, in the interests of underlining a sense of this New Zealand place as 'made-up', one way or another. The essays that follow, then, consider a range of cultural issues that arguably go into the making of the New Zealander, collectively constituting a project: 'the first study of national identity in New Zealand young adult fiction' (p. 8). Nevertheless, if 'place' largely disappears from the New Zealand that is 'imagined in some of the most significant books for children and adolescents' (p. 7), 'national identity' itself tends to contract into a catch-all term for something as nebulous as New Zealandness. Jackson refers to Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities to support her argument that, whatever it is, this New Zealand identity may be perceived in YA literature, since it is also performed by the books analysed and discussed here. Even if they do not add up to national identity, many of the cultural issues taken up by contributors to this volume do indeed relate to Anderson's much-quoted view on the national community: 'It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship'.1 The list of chapter rifles makes this clear: 'Maori and Pakeha', 'Englishness', 'History', 'Utopia', 'Money', 'Religion', 'Sport', 'Futures', 'Maori Gothic'.
Only the last of those rifles does not speak of social experience, inviting us to appreciate from the outset a common concern with social cohesiveness, as represented in or challenged by the texts discussed. Even that last title, moreover, which speaks of genre, still allows the author, Geoffrey Miles, to couple textual communities together in ways that address the one social issue that finds its way into every single chapter: the relationship between Maori and Pakeha. This question--for Kathryn Wails it becomes, more urgently, 'the predicament of the Maori in New Zealand' (p. 7)--has historical and contemporary interest, but also demands to be understood as turning a community into a nation, when it becomes, as it does here, a ruling social policy--biculturalism. Miles concludes his essay--and the collection as a whole--by a more nuanced version of Jackson's large claim for the volume, arguing that, despite his reservations about the legitimacy of defining Maori Gothic as a genre, in this loose category 'we currently find young adult writings grappling most explicitly with the definition of New Zealand's national identity and the ways in which that identity is [...] shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves' (p. 217). What then of the essays within the frame, where the real business goes on?
The first essay, Kathryn Walls on 'Maori and Pakeha', cries out for argument to lift it away from the textual particulars with which it is largely concerned in critical summary of plot and situation. Nevertheless, it is important in establishing the interest all contributors share in dealing with social experience, out there, rather than with the personal histories that seem the first business of adolescent texts, viewed individually. Walls reads three novels (Patricia Grace's Mutuwhenua, Gee's The Champion and Jack Lasenby's The Conjuror), all of which 'would be construed (by their authors at least) as "anti-racist'" (p. 28) and all three written by novelists who lived through the long period of ideological shift from assimilation to biculturalism. The essay displays an emphatic concern with placing texts in specific historical contexts, related to this shift; it is also underwritten, less persuasively, by Walls's own commitment to biculturalism, displayed in her reduction of textual moves to social goals, 'a loving partnership'.
The collection ends, as I have noted, with an essay that also treats historical relations between settler and indigenous society, Maori and Pakeha, but very differently. In this case, Geoffrey Miles deals with New Zealand versions of Gothic, in which the 'antiquated space' (p. 195, quoting Jerrold Hogle's introduction to Gothic in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction) where terror arises is located not in a Pakeha past, but in a 'deep time' discovered in Maori culture. It is a fine essay, teasing out a variety of positions taken by different Maori and Pakeha writers who employ this racial and cultural divide for their singular purposes. Inevitably Miles's survey is incomplete; it does not, for instance, include Gaelyn Gordon's bicultural pair of novellas, Stonelight and Mindfire; but it does discuss a considerable range of texts, while concentrating on David Hair's Taniwha series and Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead. Miles discriminates sharply between 'Gothic' performances, partly by registering a common recognition of different attitudes towards the past. He also insists on a general conclusion that these texts, for the most part, share 'an underlying political purpose,' their concern with 'defining a bicultural New Zealand identity' (p. 215). Maybe. In any case, it surely is true that in this local Gothic something remarkably New Zealand is going on, just as Miles shows in his second essay, on 'Utopia'--the strongest in the collection--where he paradoxically charts the local passion (it seems) for dystopia, which 'springs from specifically New Zealand anxieties', not 'international fashion' (p. 110). However much I miss the kind of textual comparisons that might support this conclusion (and reference to the work of international scholars, like Kimberley Reynolds in Radical Children's Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformation in Juvenile Fiction), I do get a kick out of something like Miles's final sentence: 'Perhaps, in a strange way, the predominance of dystopias shows how much we as a nation are still possessed by the dream of utopia' (p. 110).
The essays that appear to deal most directly with material experience that, by its difference, seems to provide readiest access to New Zealandness, are those that take up issues like 'Money', 'History', 'Religion' and 'Sport'. Things don't quite work out that way, although each of these essays has considerable interest. In the case of Tatjana Schaefer's discussion of religion, two conclusions emerge. Firstly, that religious institutions in New Zealand adolescent fiction tend to be destructive and threatening in their power to repress individuality, worked out in antagonism to the development of the child protagonist, but secondly that the religious impulse that issues in imagery is 'constructive and stimulating' (p. 158). In this case, the fiction itself provides the evidence for an understanding of New Zealand religious experience, leading eventually to the conclusion that New Zealand is a secular society, 'reluctant to endorse any particular spiritual or religious belief' (p. 158). Schaefer's reading of religion in adolescent texts (Gee's 'O' trilogy, Beckett's Genesis, Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter Duet and Fleur Beale's I Am Esther) seems fair to me: in most instances, religion is bound to authoritarian programmes. What remains unclear is how this range of texts can be shown to engage with religion as it actually functions in New Zealand society; nothing suggests much acquaintance with what religion means for New Zealanders at large. On the other hand, in Kathryn Walls's essay on 'Money', local, material culture is abundantly in the record, although that record is so focused on the one author, Margaret Mahy, that again the sense in which this essay takes up a national story seems weak. Walls offers a strong sense of Mahy's deep interest in material culture, useful as a counterweight to readings that ignore such aspects of the text, in pursuit of interior lives--and valuable for its insistence that material experience does in fact leak into the interior--but once more, she delivers a view of the work that stops well short of reflecting anything significant about the national community. Walls offers bits of Marx as tools for analysis of urban domestic and consumer relations, as well as reference to local legislation on welfare and marital property; the local references surely are instructive; Marx, for these purposes, surely is not.
Both Schaefer and Kathryn Walls, then, give us canny readings of local YA fiction that open up questions about matters that are deeply implicated in New Zealand culture. They look hard for different centres of textual energy than those that conventionally get explored in discussions of adolescent fiction, but the results, however interesting, are not exactly persuasive as accounts of a shared culture with which adolescent fiction engages. This sense is still more marked in the case of Harry Ricketts's pieces on 'History' and 'Sport'. At times, Ricketts on sport is truly fascinating, not least when he draws attention to passages from the novels he reads that give expression to the sensations enjoyed (or suffered) by the sportsperson, where fiction suddenly supplies information about sport that one would be unlikely to find in, say, sporting journalism. On the other hand, faced by the materials that he must treat, Ricketts is obliged to tackle the fact that those sporting activities that seem to quicken the hearts of most New Zealanders are largely absent in YA literature. There is no adolescent All Black; not even a hero who is tripped up by such a dream. The problem with 'History' is very different: there is just too much to deal with usefully in a short essay. Ricketts's answer is to take up adolescent fiction as a mode of making sense of history, although, unlike the British parallels upon which he draws, New Zealand representation of history seldom takes popular form--except in the case of television (which Ricketts does not discuss). It's hard not to feel that his discussion of history as a 'romance with the past' would have profited from acquaintance with Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory, or the work of Valerie Krips, who explores the character and function of an informal, fictional historiography that works with multiple timelines and slippages between them, effectively giving history the sharpness and weight of memory. Ricketts is very interesting, however, on a specific history: the switch in national focus from Great Britain to the local scene. He places Gee's historical novels at its centre, as 'a kind of unofficial history lesson' (p. 80) that provides the adolescent reader with an engaged understanding of an historical moment, including recognition of the ideological work that can be done in a novel like The Fire-Raiser--'a subtle depiction of emerging national identity' (p. 79).
The same switch, in effect, from orientation towards British culture to a dominant concern with Pakeha and Maori relations is the subject of Anna Jackson's essay, 'Englishness'. It's a provocative title and, indeed, a rather provocative essay, taking from the fiction Jackson discusses (largely novels by Margaret Mahy), the conclusion that, as New Zealanders, we should 'reinvestigate our history and, crucially, not whitewash or avoid the truth for that would only give rise to imaginary guilt overcompensating for any real wrongs that might have been committed' (p. 65). There is some powerful critical writing in this chapter, lining up with Jackson's earlier expressed questioning of a literature where adolescents seem engaged most intensely with an anterior English literature, rather than their own, an argument that looks most compelling when she couches it in terms of cultural memory. For the most part, however, cultural memory here seems to be a textual resource, something that gets figured in the few novels that Jackson is able to address. The second, more significant problem is that this take on culture seems doomed to being left behind, as anachronistic as the 'Englishness' Jackson calls into question. Mahy has compellingly raised the question of her own cultural references; it is much less evident that her youthful readers should be troubled by the same anxiety. Already they are, as Mahy herself long ago recognised, a 'mixture' (p. 62) in ethnic terms, and the evidence of recent writing, literary and filmic, suggests that the cultural stabilities of first-generation writers of YA fiction have become radically complicated by other cultural sources and other cultural interests.
What is missing? A great deal, of course. Many of us reading this book will wish that this or that novel had been taken up in discussion of this or that issue; many of us will fret about the thematic itemisation employed to organise discussion of fictional engagement with national identity. What bothers me more is the absence of international reference that might clarify difference. I take it that this was a policy decision, but it seems to me more than a little bizarre that, in a book on this subject, there is no engagement with international scholarship and virtually no mention made of any work of adolescent fiction beyond that from the relatively small pool of New Zealand novels. This suggests that the contributors to this book have collaborated on a work that they expect will largely be of concern to the local academic reader, at whatever level; if so, that seems to me wrong-headed. Tatjana Schaefer notes in her essay on futuristic fictions a clear sense of the 'importance of physical isolation' (p. 188); this collection seems to me to take 'To the Is-land' much too far! At the same time, I cannot help regretting the lack of any effort to look closely at the islands themselves. Anna Jackson goes out of her way in fact to make it clear that, when she and her fellow authors speak of an 'imagined' New Zealand (this made-up place) in 'significant' adolescent fiction, they are concerned not with how this place New Zealand is imagined, in all its is-ness, but strictly with the community of its inhabitants, whose relations give it identity. Who can argue with that? Nevertheless, in taking this line, these authors denied themselves the opportunity to deal with the place itself. Perhaps, if they had thought more along lines suggested by modern discussion of spatiality and practised space (rather than place), they might have felt able to include the land as well as its dwellers--and those issues that both divide and bind them together. Nevertheless, in taking up textual engagement with the experience of the New Zealand adolescent as a member of this national community, rather than dealing with the maturational or psychological adventures on which the local adolescent necessarily embarks by virtue of membership in the international band of Young Adults, the authors of A Made-Up Place have undertaken a significant task and carried it out, sometimes, if not always, with striking Success.
(1) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991), p. 7.