June 15, 2010

Interesting Questions about New Zealand Poets and Identity.

I recently finished writing a review for Todd Swift’s Eyewear of Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets: An Anthology edited by Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the anthology and I sympathised with some of the problems that New Zealand poetry has faced, its literary tradition being like so many others, overshadowed by English Literature. Reading around the subject, I came across Eileen Duggan and I was interested to read her take on New Zealand’s situation. Duggan, talking about the reception of texts produced by New Zealanders, says: ‘The books are hallmarked as failures or successes before they reach us. Occasionally some daring Colonial wets a dissenting pen but in the majority of instances the overseas verdict is accepted’ (1994: 120). The devaluing of New Zealand literature is reflected by the poet Fiona Farrell, who comments that ‘There were no New Zealand poems in childhood’ (Farrell in Johnstone and Marsack 2009: 143).

To make matters worse, Nina Nola has described the New Zealand literary mainstream as ‘predominantly white, Anglo-Celtic, male New Zealand voices’ (2000: 204) One of the main tensions in New Zealand literature seems to be the binary between Māori writers and Pākehā writers (New Zealanders of European descent), though, as Nina Nola points out, not all of New Zealand’s cultural identities fit this binary:

The polarisation of debates between competing bicultural and multicultural ideologies in New Zealand in the 1990s is predicated on the dynamics of Maori sovereignty, and the success of reparations claims. In order to shift the balance of power in both the political and cultural spheres from the domain of British-descendent colonisers towards that of the tangata whenua, the nation’s energy seems to be directed towards one goal: a fully functioning biculturalism. Biculturalism is envisaged by policy makers as a partnership between the country’s first inhabitants – the first migrants, Maori – and Pakeha. The constitution of this group ‘Pakeha’ is open to debate; but it is highly pertinent to this study that European migrants from countries other than Britain, such as the Dalmatians and the Danes, do not in general feel that the term, or the bicultural partnering it describes, includes them. Other migrants such as Asians and Pacific Islanders … are still further removed from being represented in the bicultural mode. A prescriptive, rather than a descriptive definition, official biculturalism in New Zealand marginalizes the ethnic groups who do not see themselves represented under the umbrella term ‘Pakeha’, while at the same time presupposing a homogenous ‘British’ culture as the binary opposite to Maori. (Nola 2000: 207)

Duggan, Eileen (1994) ‘New Zealand Poetry’, Selected Poems, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 120-121.
Johnstone, Andrew and Robyn Marsack (eds) (2009) Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets: An Anthology, Manchester: Carcanet.
Nola, Nina (2000)‘Exploring Disallowed Territory: Introducing the multicultural subject into New Zealand literature’ in John Docker and Gerhard Fischer (eds) Race, Colour and Identity in Australia and New Zealand, Sydney: UNSW Press, p. 203-217.

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