Sunday, 2 March 2014

Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways Co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones 2014
(more stories and poetry available at for free)

When I first opened this collection of new writing that discusses the history, people and critters of the Pacific I felt a bit disappointed about the lack of new fiction and the over-abundance of essays and memoir, but by the time I had finished the collection my thinking was totally transformed.  I found myself wondering whether it needed the fiction at all.  Not that the fiction is unsatisfactory, they are good stories by incredibly well renowned writers but perhaps the fact that there is only three of them, and the quality of the essays, memoir, and reportage is so high that I think they completely over shadow the stories.  But the essays, memoir and reportage – I felt such joy and excitement about the non-fiction.

Steve Braunias walks to Auckland airport, a journey those emigrating make for the last time and new New Zealanders make for the first, and notes Auckland’s cultural diversity as he goes.  He comes across a sculpture of a giant kiwi on the roof of an airport hotel and notes how, “The setting sun shone on its fat arse,” - probably one of my favourite lines in the whole collection.  Harry Ricketts also talks about migration and the masks immigrants use to fit into a new culture.  Alongside the movements of people, readers also learn about the migration of eels (O’Brien and Fell), sea pumice (Priestly) and the lengths people have gone to communicate with each other across the Pacific Ocean (McDonald).  Finlay MacDonald writes about Auckland, and how rather than it being a separate entity from the rest of New Zealand, it is in fact “becoming New Zealand”, the word ‘becoming’ seems especially pertinent when thinking about the collection as whole, which is about the becoming of the Pacific. 

 The ‘becoming’ also makes me think about Alan Curnow’s ‘state of the nation’s writing’ essay in the introduction of A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945) which Kate De Goldi makes reference to in her essay.  Curnow says that while nineteenth century colonists came to New Zealand physically, their spirit only adjusted to the new country several generations later; it was several generations of settlement “before poets appeared who could express what it meant to be, or to have become, a New Zealander” (20).  While Curnow may have had a point, the word ‘become’ suggests that the job of being a New Zealander is done, and perhaps limiting the ‘become’ to New Zealand is too narrow a frame, and ‘becoming the Pacific’ is a more accurate description; this collection certainly makes me think so.  The Pacific is a big pond which holds within in, and ebbs and flows through, a multitude of diversity and perspectives.  Curnow’s poem The Unhistoric Story ends with these lines:
And whatever islands may be
Under or over the sea,
It is something different, something
Nobody counted on.

The word ‘islands’ is the one that catches my eye.  I imagine in writing the poem that Curnow meant the islands of New Zealand, but if we think of the islands as those in the Pacific (and the continents at it edges), we are presented with a literature and perspective that perhaps even Curnow didn’t count on.

While the collection discusses literature (De Goldi, Weavers), it also gives social commentary; I found Bernard Beckett’s and Rob Oram’s pieces particularly illuminating.  David Burton talks about hunter-gathering on the South Coast of Wellington, and sport gets a look in too, as well as Damien Wilkins’s reflections on Stan Walker.  The subject matter is as diverse as the cultures represented in the narratives.  There is poetry too, which I think works well interspersed within the non-fiction.  I have seen murmurings on social media that there are only a few female voices represented in the poetry, which is true, however, overall the collection has 18 female contributors and 24 men, and people who I think of as primarily poets (Baker, Young, Jenner) are represented in the non-fiction rather than poetry.

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection, enjoyed reading so much creative non-fiction.  I found it inspiring; I was driven to write poetry about the Pacific. 

Buy the book. 

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