Lloyd Jones is an award-winning writer of fiction whose work includes the short fiction collection Swimming to Australia (Victoria University Press, 1991), the memoir A History of Silence (Text, 2013) and the novel Mister Pip (John Murray, 2007), which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Lloyd co-edited Griffith REVIEW 43 with Julianne Schultz and commissioned the writers that appear in its pages. In this interview he speaks about the inspiration behind 'Pacific Highways.'
You commissioned the writers in Griffith REVIEW 43. How did you go about that process – what kind of writers, themes and ideas did you feel were important to include?
Well, over forty writers were commissioned. There is a bias towards essay. With essays there is an opportunity to be more thematically prescriptive and circle the wagons accordingly. I was keen for this edition to engage with the theme of connection, so I went to those writers whom I felt confident would get the job done. On a different topic, I could have probably commissioned another forty writers. Ideas and approach were developed in conversation with writers. Names were passed along. And the collection slowly built.
In your opening essay there is emphasis on the exchange of people, language and culture in New Zealand, as well as a sense of the environmental forces that connect it to the Pacific. It is a theme carried right through the edition. What led you to focus on the idea of 'highway' in speaking about the Pacific region and New Zealand's place within it?
Fatigue and boredom with the traditional idea of New Zealand as a couple of rocks parked at the edge of the world, and the ocean as some kind of buffer between here and there and us and them. The reality is, as Polynesians have shown for millennia, the ocean comprises currents that are transport routes. If we begin to think of New Zealand at the centre of a navigator's stick chart then a different picture emerges. It is possible to see ourselves as part of a complex system of people and cultural movement. Never more so than in the past decade. The face of the country is changing. In Auckland, alone, there are now more than one hundred and sixty ethnicities. Where once New Zealanders had to travel to find the rest of the world, the world has decided to come to us and as a result New Zealand is a much more interesting place. In 1960, when I was five, the population was a nudge over two million. No one asked what New Zealand might look like in a decade or two. We knew. But from where we sit in 2014, it is impossible to predict what kind of country New Zealand will be in 2034. So, the purpose of 'Pacific Highways' is to take a quick reading of where New Zealand is currently at.
Your own work has dealt with the ideas of exile and identity in different ways, in particular I'm thinking of Mister Pip and Hand Me Down World, but also your memoir. I know you have travelled widely, and spent periods of time in Berlin and France. Has time away from New Zealand impacted on the way you see yourself as a New Zealander, or made you more conscious of what New Zealand looks like to the rest of the world?
I think everyone experiences a kind of concentration of self whenever out of one's own country. I'm probably never likely to feel more 'me' than when I am in Outer Mongolia or in the Sudan. The most dramatically altered view of home – New Zealand, and by extension, Australia – I ever experienced was in India. Everything I valued as a New Zealander – space, amenities, opportunities, fairness – meant nothing. Sharing the streets with a billion other human beings, my home-grown values felt like bizarre entitlements. India, I felt then, and to some extent still do, was more representative of what it is to be a human being. How the rest of the world regards New Zealand, I suspect, is still the stuff of posters – geysers, mountains, the haka, rugby players, sauvignon blanc, a few opera stars, Ed Hillary, hobbits and Peter Jackson. The ambition behind this edition of Griffith REVIEW is to enlarge the view and to speak intelligently to the place where we live.
The Christchurch earthquake seems to represent a breaking point in the NZ collective consciousness. Certainly many of the pieces in the edition hint at this, either directly or indirectly. I wonder whether that sense of 'banding together' that follows national disasters has some influence in the process of re-assessing who and what NZ is, and where it is going?
I'm not sure I would describe it as a 'breaking point'. If any good came out of the disaster it was the discovery that the idea of community is still as strong as ever. People across the country pitched in to help in whatever way they could. Perhaps it is true to say, post-quake Christchurch is, strangely, a more interesting city. It has the potential to be a much-needed counterweight to the run-away growth of Auckland. Its re-build represents a new start in thinking about who gets a say in what is built, how it is built, and where. In 'Pacific Highways' Sally Blundell has done an excellent job of describing the collaborative process between the city and local iwi, Ngai Tahu, and some of the thinking and cultural values behind the construction of the new city. It might be thought of as a conversation indefinitely postponed from 1840. Well, as a result of the earthquake, everyone who should be at the table is finally there.
Why is it important that New Zealand connects with Australia in a form like this edition of Griffith REVIEW? And how important is it that Australians have a better understanding of New Zealand?
It's one thing to talk among ourselves, it is quite another to talk about ourselves to the neighbours. I don't think we know each other as well as we generally think. The tendency is to fall back on tired old jokes or to let ad agencies speak on our behalf with generalities aimed at delivering tourists. I hope this edition of Griffith REVIEW will change some of the tired old stereotypes and out-of-date ideas about what makes New Zealand tick.