Chatting with Glasgow-based New Zealand writer Paula Morris on Tuesday ahead of her recording an extract from her New Zealand Post Book Awards fiction finalist Rangatira for next month’s Listener Book Club, talk turned to New Zealand’s Guest of Honour programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair, for whose launch to German media Morris was a part.
It seems criticism of New Zealand’s deputy ambassador to Germany, Lisa Futschek, for focusing on travel, food and drink to the exclusion of literature was misplaced and unfair, since Futschek had been asked to cover those areas, while Morris had spoken about literature.
And spoken very well, as the transcript below testifies:
Guten Morgen, kia ora. I’m Paula Morris and I’m very happy to be invited here today. Last night when I arrived here in Frankfurt, my contact, Diana, took me out to drink beer and watch the football. We sat outside in the street, and she made it clear which team I should be supporting – not Denmark!
It’s not difficult to persuade a New Zealand writer to support Germany this year, when Germany is doing so much to support us – and when this is the year so many New Zealand writers (of fiction, drama, poetry and non-fiction) will be welcomed to numerous festivals, residencies and literary events across Germany. Many of us will have our work translated into German for the first time.
Last year Witi Ihimaera quoted our best-known writer, Katherine Mansfield, talking of how she wanted “to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world”. Coming from “the edge of the universe”, to borrow the words of poet Bill Manhire, New Zealand writers are used to having to leap very high to get noticed. We’re used to travelling long distances, across vast oceans. We’re used to feeling jet-lagged and energized, dislocated and inspired, by our encounters on the far side of the world.
We’re a nation of seafarers and explorers, settlers and dreamers, adventurers and misfits and optimists. As I said, we’re used to travelling and many of us – like Katherine Mansfield before us – end up living for a time a long way from home.
But while we explore the world, the fruits of our creativity are, all too often, forced to stay at home. For those of us from a small island nation deep in the South Pacific, it’s hard to make it past the gatekeepers of publishing in English – in London and in New York. Almost a century after Katherine Mansfield spoke of our “undiscovered country”, we are still undiscovered. Not our pristine beaches or our beautiful countryside or even, these days, our lively, vibrant cities – but our voices. This year, in Germany, we have the opportunity to be heard.
I’ve been thinking about Frankfurt as a door to Europe in many ways – and not just because I’ve passed through this airport many times in my life, often en route to other places in Germany and beyond. For centuries the Frankfurt Book Fair has been a place of creative and intellectual – as well as commercial – exchange, at the centre of ideas, revolutions, reformations. So we come here to listen and learn, as well as speak.
Germany to us is a place that’s both familiar and new – a place of great natural beauty, as well as of industry and enterprise; a place of fairytales, literature, art and music; and of my absolute favourite thing in the world, the Weihnachtsmarkt. And it’s shadowed, as all countries are, by the dark stains of history.
New Zealand, too, has its tales and its dark histories, but we have different stories to tell, of course. In Auckland this May, a German journalist asked me how I’d describe New Zealand literature, how I’d characterize it. I found that a hard question to answer. Writing in New Zealand ranges restlessly, voraciously across the spectrum of experience.
You could argue, I suppose, that the large number of cookbooks produced and sold each year suggests how greedy we are! But our literature isn’t all about food, wine and sport, however important they are to our daily lives in New Zealand. Our national literature has all the necessary ingredients for a feast: a rich history, political dissent, social problems, identity crises, an evolving society – and a sense of humour. New Zealanders and New Zealand writers don’t live in a state of splendid isolation. We look back. We look forwards. We look outwards. Like all writers everywhere, we like to complain, and joke, and investigate, and to try to make sense of what we experience and observe around us.
I’m from Auckland, which is a European city, and a Maori city, and an Asian city, and a Polynesian city – it is, in fact, the largest Polynesian city in the world. I’ve lived overseas for most of my adult life, traipsing from one city or country to the next, trying my hand at things, seeking my fortune, dreaming of home – but New Zealand remains my first landscape, physical and psychic. It’s my turangawaewae, my place to stand. The unique identity of Auckland, the way it’s like no other city in the world, informs much of my work.
And in my restlessness and fragmentation, my moving away and returning, I think I’m a very typical New Zealander. My most recent novel, Rangatira, tells the story of one of my ancestors, Paratene Te Manu, travelling to England in 1863 to meet Queen Victoria – and being confronted by both the familiar and the alien in this far-away world. The novel grew out of a short oral history Paratene gave in the 1890s, looking back on his life (which spanned the 19th century). Like so many New Zealand writers, I’m drawing on all our traditions – the spoken story, passed down through generations and changed, reinvented and augmented along the way – and the great European tradition of the novel, which helps to give those stories a permanence, and to send them out into the world.
This is what we writers hope to do this year in Frankfurt and throughout Germany: to launch our words into the world, so our stories can travel. Thank you very much for inviting us here, and for making it possible for our stories to be heard.
So there you go. A little ungallant of the NZ at Frankfurt team itself not to speak up for Futschek and the integrity of the launch, I can’t help but think.