Lydia Wevers is a literary critic, editor and book reviewer. She is the director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and she has published widely on Australian and New Zealand literature. In this interview she discusses the scarcity of nineteenth century New Zealand fiction, and the ways in which New Zealand's national literature has evolved over time.
One of the things your essay speculates about is whether the scarcity of novels in nineteenth century New Zealand might be linked to 'cultural temperament and the history of colonisation.' How did those conditions differ between Australia and New Zealand in the nineteenth century?
Well as I say in the essay, Australia is basically an eighteenth century colony and New Zealand is synchronous with the reign of Queen Victoria, which was a much more armchair age. It is no accident that the eighteenth century is the age of exploration and the nineteenth the age of the armchair traveller. And of course Australia's beginnings as a penal colony means that people went there forcibly and in brutal conditions, whereas in New Zealand it was a voluntary emigration and the settlers expected to improve their lives. Therefore they have a very different set of expectations and experiences in each place and I think these shape a kind of collective temperament.
One of the key assumptions underpinning your essay is the importance of storytelling, of people being able to read stories about themselves. I wonder if you could perhaps explain why having a national literature is so important?
If you don't tell stories about your place and all the ways in which you experience it, you don't fully inhabit it, and neither does anyone else. When the Māori writer Patricia Grace began to write fiction in the early 1970s she said she did it because none of the books she read at school reflected the world she lived in, the language she spoke, or the culture that nourished her. She wanted her own children to have books that were about their world.
In your essay you give some examples of what nineteenth century novels written in New Zealand might have looked like. There was clearly a wealth of imaginative material to draw on, so why was it that the fiction written at the time was largely poorly written, inaccurate and ridden with 'local colour' clichés?
I am not sure about this but it is the case the best things written in New Zealand in the course of the nineteenth century tended to be non-fiction (with a few exceptions of course, such as Samuel Butler's Erewhon.) But Lady Barker's Station Life in New Zealand (she is one of the people I lampoon as possible New Zealand novelists) is a marvellous book which is never out of print and which I reread. And there were a lot of wonderful travel books written in the course of the nineteenth century – I think people were busy focussing on pragmatic questions, like what was the landscape like and what kind of culture did Māori have? Ever since Cook, Pākehā New Zealanders have been fascinated by Māori.
Given the strong connection between Australia and New Zealand, historically and culturally, and the fact that this essay is appearing in a publication which will be widely read in Australia, I wonder if you think it's important for Australian readers in particular to be more aware of literature produced in New Zealand?
Yes I do think so and the reverse is also true. We have a terrible trans-Tasman history of not reading each other's books and I would love us to get better acquainted. One of the joys of my life was living in Sydney in the 1980s and discovering Australian literature, especially the nineteenth century. I am still enchanted by it.
Something I kept thinking about as I read your essay was the book by Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004). She argues that the global literary economy is structured around the principle of a centre of cultural production (Paris, London, New York) extending outwards, so that the national literatures on the peripheries, like New Zealand's, are dependent on the centre for legitimacy and value. I wonder how you think that value dynamic might have had an impact on the development of literature in New Zealand, and also whether you think it's changing?
I think Casanova's argument is entirely germane to New Zealand and Australia. For many years New Zealander and Australian authors only published in the UK, and even now, when a book has a local success it does not get distributed in the way that it does when it has an 'international success'. It is very obvious with New Zealand novels that the ones which do best are those which win the Booker, or are published by a prestigious international publisher and then recirculate in trans-Tasman markets. The way to do well is to leave NZ or Australia and come back in, via a publishing chain. We really only get Australians, or did for years, who are published elsewhere, like Peter Carey. Though as I say that, an exception has been Christos Tsolkias. But things are changing of course, and for the universal reason – the digital universe makes everything so much more accessible.
You've done a lot of work in terms of supporting New Zealand literary and cultural studies, so I wonder whether you think that a lack of nineteenth century fiction is an impetus for more contemporary writers, like Eleanor Catton for instance, to go back and examine New Zealand through historical fiction? To fill in the gap of that history, as it were.
Yes possibly. Since the Treaty of Waitangi settlements started – more than twenty years now – there has been a big new interest in nineteenth century history. I connect it to the Treaty because that process has produced such a lot of history, and each time the Crown apologises, there is an historical narrative that goes with it, and it's always very moving and eye-opening. I think if The Luminaries had been written in the 1970s its engagement with Māori would have been very, very different. So I think as a country we are engaged in a very long process of recovering history, especially history we are now ashamed of, and it has made the nineteenth century much more present to us. So it is this big cultural renewal which matters I think, not someone thinking, 'Oh my God, there are almost no nineteenth century novels, I'd better write one.'