Essay

Simply by sailing in a new direction

IN OCTOBER 2012 several dozen writers from New Zealand appeared at the Frankfurt Book Fair where New Zealand had been nominated as the 'country of honour'. We had been gathered for a series of literary events, part of a full-throated piece of cultural diplomacy which would, it was argued, assist increased sales of New Zealand books and promote trade and tourism.

It was interesting being amongst it all – the cultural presentations, the operatic pavilion display, the anxious literary egos swelling and dying a dozen times a day – interesting and often unsettling. The gap between the writing act and the representation of one’s self and work at a festival is usually disorienting. But this was self plus work plus, somehow, the national literature at the biggest and most glamorous book sale in the world. The stakes felt both high and absurd.

The panels convened addressed key ingredients in NZ literature – the short story as a quintessential NZ form, the preoccupation with the landscape, isolation, the gothic social substrata – and a contemporary snapshot was gamely attempted, too. It was hard to know what the Europeans in the audiences made of it all. For a New Zealand writer participating and observing, it seemed both spirited and a little splintered. Sometimes, listening in the audience or expatiating on stage, I experienced an odd disassociation. What, if anything, did we and our work add up to collectively? A fluent narrative of the national literature was impossible because the writers gathered could never represent such a thing – if such a thing existed. And if such a thing existed it was liable to have the whiff of dogma…

Nevertheless, reaching for some organising principal, some cohesive description or distillation of our literature was a constant tic. More than once in print and broadcast prior to the Festival I had offered the metaphor of the braided river. The Waimakariri’s varied passage from mountain to sea corresponded very tidily, I suggested, to the history of our literature. The current polyphony of voices, themes and forms matched perfectly the river’s voluptuous spread and division across the Canterbury Plains.

At Frankfurt I developed a ruthlessly glib version of Braided River Theory even as I regretted its broad sweep submerging nuance and singularity, and as I blushed at the very Kiwi inevitability of a geographic analogy. Like all metaphors it recedes a little on close scrutiny but it did the job well enough, I suppose.

Back at home in front of the blank page a national literature is usually the last thing on one’s mind. And, despite my generally enthusiastic contributions to the collective presentation of the NZ story, the Frankfurt expedition offered a powerful reminder that one’s writing life and imaginative urges are at times only loosely connected to the grand cultural narrative. The sites from which imaginative exploration might lift off are not often where a country’s best-loved literary orthodoxies might have them. Ironically, this was pointed up beautifully at Frankfurt in a panel devoted to a celebration of the life and work of Margaret Mahy.

WHICHEVER NARRATIVE OF New Zealand literature one subscribes to, one thing about the country’s writing seems inarguable: it is a heavily realist tradition. There have been little outbreaks of surrealism, thin seams of spiritual writing, and a strain of tall story – or fable – lingers in some children’s writing; the overwhelming mode though – particularly in fiction – is realism. The novels of Janet Frame – by common consent the country’s greatest writer – have an intensity and preoccupation with language’s freighting that brings them close to a kind of altered reality but that is more a function of her own and her characters’ fevered interiority than a true departure from the world as we know it. In a Frame novel we are still in the material world, however fragile our grip.

Mid-century children’s fiction also ploughed a determinedly social-realist-jolly-pastoral furrow, and even with the maturing of children’s fiction in the 1980s and a body of work that moved beyond adventure and romance clichés or the name checking of native fauna and flora, still the imagined world was a resolutely concrete one. The brightest stars in this new wave were four writers born in the 1930s – Jack Lasenby, Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee and – the supernova – Margaret Mahy, all of whom have spoken often over the years about the powerful influence of childhood experience on their later work and the relationship between childhood reading and their own writing. There are many correspondences, too, between Lasenby, Cowley and Gee’s writing for children – small town settings, lurking threat in the natural world, unreliable adults, to name just some – and their fictions have a depth and stylistic sophistication that sets them apart from other work of the period. In particular – and this perhaps sealed their appeal with librarians, teachers and parents – their work is planted in a recognisable, often provincial, New Zealand: bush, beach, mangrove swamp, rural town, kitchen table…

At Frankfurt, though, it was the work of Margaret Mahy (who had died some months earlier) that provoked the most interest. The panel convened to discuss her legacy shared the stage with Mahy herself, who was there on film. As ever she was the best representative of her work, and flush with insights on the anarchic lives of story and language. The panel (three authors for children, including myself) on the other hand, struggled, I thought, to get out from under the usual pieties about the writer. A reluctance to wrestle with the body of work – to go beyond the facts of Mahy’s biography, or enthusiastic anecdotes about her generosity and whimsicality – has been marked amongst Mahy’s immediate colleagues: the children’s writing and reviewing community. It has always struck me as odd that the most frequently used epithet for Mahy is ‘NZ’s most-loved children’s writer.’ However true, it seems a default position and is more to do with the person than the work. So it was on the Frankfurt panel. This is in part due to a general hesitancy – or inability – to engage critically, to move beyond description, plot rehearsal and age recommendation, that bedevils the NZ children’s book world. But I think a more likely reason for the evasion is the paradox Mahy and her body of work represent: New Zealand’s most famous writer is also a writer whose work is in so many respects ardently un-New Zealand – or at least ardently not the New Zealand we have, over time, assumed is the proper subject and setting for our fiction.

Mahy’s initial efforts to be published in New Zealand tell the story most graphically. Her early subject matter (imaginative adventure, magical transformations) and settings (meadows, forests, the ocean blue; childhood); a tone that was by turns lyrical, buoyant, astonished; stories and poems with a parade of pirates, witches, giddy librarians, wild animals, monsters, kings and crumpled parents; the sheer vaudevillian energy of the whole – all these ensured that she was, in a very real sense, unrecognisable to mid-’60s trade publishers as a New Zealand writer. The cultural nationalist conversation of the previous decades had solidified to a consensus around the proper job of New Zealand literature: reflecting the country’s remoteness, its landscape, and the people moving about in it right back at the reading public. Mahy, characteristically, had a wry acceptance of the difficult prospect she presented to publishers: she was a writer with a ‘fault line’ running through her, a writer who lived in New Zealand but whose imagination had been ignited by ‘another mongrel country where the Wild West and forest of wolves and lions melted into each other,’ – in other words, Storyland.

‘I am made and formed by what I read,’ Mahy said, very firmly, to me once in an interview. That formative reading childhood was exactly what you might expect of a New Zealander through the ’30s and ’40s: an occasional New Zealand novel or poem, but, overwhelmingly, the European tradition – nursery rhyme, fairy tale, adventure story, epic poetry, nonsense verse and the classics of English literature. Later fantasy from Tolkein, Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and others were important for Mahy, but a long view of her work suggests it was the co-ordinates of fairy tale, the philosophic underpinnings of myth and legend, and the explosive power of magic that really formed her imaginative DNA. Storyland – supercharged or enchanted – was, paradoxically, the place where the important moments of human thinking and growth could be most thrillingly explored: magic was a literary agent enabling what would become Mahy’s fictional stock-in-trade: characters experiencing astonishment, transcendence and, above all, transformation.

As a reader she was ‘committed to otherness;’ as a writer, her own versions of otherness – teenage enchanters in suburbia, ordinary families with spellbound children, malevolent sorcerers come to town – represented imaginatively true ways of being. They were the most convincing vehicles for her exploration of the deeper parts of her psyche and the profound mysteries presented by ‘real’ life: love and disappointment, guilt, exaltation, small human weaknesses, the puzzle of family and the conundrums posed by talent and power.

NEW ZEALAND WRITING not being given much to this kind of form or subject matter, and largely deaf to stories without obvious local colour or geography, it is small wonder that Mahy’s initial offerings to publishers met with bafflement. A novel, story or poem, ‘dealing direct with life,’ was a more recognisable – and marketable – proposition. Direct dealing with life is one of a number of slightly imperious edicts throughout poet Allen Curnow’s introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945). This piece and the introduction to Curnow’s 1960 anthology have the heat and purposefulness of manifesto and were received as such by a writing and publishing community keen to identify and demarcate the emerging culture. We have ‘lived so long at a low intensity,’ wrote Curnow. And, ‘in New Zealand we lack capacity for the tragic emotions, pity, wonder, or terror.’ The work Margaret Mahy submitted regularly throughout the ’60s offered a startling counter to that writ. Wonder – or astonishment (a word she used constantly) – was the very fuel that powered her writing engine. But until 1969 the only publication able to accommodate her singular voice was the NZ School Journal and even its editors had to go into battle on occasions with others in the School Publications office.

The fairy tale structures and characters Mahy used so often as prompts and grids for her later novels were also the configurations she used to explain her own life. An insightful teacher was ‘the magician who gave me something to live up to. I will never forget the fairy-tale feeling of being recognised at last for what I felt I was – a writer and a reader…’ Similarly, reading in 1969 the letter from Franklin Watts in New York offering to publish simultaneously five of her stories as picture books, made her feel ‘like Cinderella entering the ballroom and being seen at last in her true beauty.’  International recognition having the peculiar hold that it does in New Zealand that particular transformation enabled Mahy’s proper entry into the reading public’s consciousness; thirty years later, with an extraordinary list of global publications, two Carnegie Medals, and scores of highly successful early reader titles, she was a household name.

In fact, by the 1980s when Mahy was able to devote time to full-length novels, a door had opened between Storyland and New Zealand. Her protagonists were planted in a recognisable geology or cityscape (Banks Peninsula; the outer suburbs of Christchurch), though on the page places are subtly transfigured – a humming animism is always just beneath the surface of a Mahy narrative. The metaphoric possibilities offered by the Peninsula’s volcanic crater and the Port Hills are superbly exploited, for example, in Catalogue of the Universe (1985) and The Tricksters (1986). In 24 hours (2000) Christchurch’s grid-patterned inner city is discernable, though the story and its subtext are riffing joyously on Alice in Wonderland. Suburbia had been a lively hunting ground for Mahy in her story collections and novellas – crowded of course with dragons, witches, magicians, and pirates – but now, writing at length, she found more gristle there: families wrangling the past, disturbed teenagers, venal public figures, feckless or disturbed parents, predatory strangers.

All the same, in customary New Zealand literary terms, and notwithstanding the absorption of the local, there is still something formidably other about Mahy’s longer fictions. They are tightly plotted and full of texture, the pyrotechnic and musical word play of the shorter fiction gives way to a more business-like sentence making. But the moments of crisis and understanding have the intensity of operatic arias and duets – with all the pity and terror and wonder allegedly disavowed by the culture Mahy lived in. And form is perfectly congruent with content – and perhaps this is the heart of the work’s difference – because Mahy’s subjects are the big existential questions. Her stories are page turning and immersive because of what is happening to the well-drawn characters, but also because they are always conducting arguments with philosophical and moral weight. And not only are these novels unabashedly intellectual – a rarity in NZ fiction for young people they also insist on the supernatural as both a legitimate device and subject for a novelist.

I READ MY first Mahy young adult novel, The Changeover (1985), when I was twenty-five and was thoroughly disconcerted by it, even faintly outraged. I still have the copy with my peevish underlinings and marginalia; I would toss it out but it’s such an entertaining example of youthful hubris and the fall-out from a heady romance with literary doctrine. Thirty years later it is so clear to me that when confronted with Laura Chant and the boy witch, Sorry Carlisle, my own internal cultural fault-line staged a major spasm.

Like Margaret Mahy I, too, was decisively formed by my childhood reading – a torrent of books from the trans-Atlantic children’s literature renaissance of the postwar period. From an early age I longed, in my secret self, somehow to permanently inhabit those fictional worlds and in time I understood that this would have to be done by writing, by emulating – in a way that was categorically my own – the subjects and sentences of those writers. My identification with that literature was so total that I shifted my 400-odd children’s titles from flat to flat throughout my late adolescence and twenties. Since my early teens I had also been hoovering up literature for adults from around the world, but it was the children’s fiction that operated as an orienting scripture, a Talmud I repaired to regularly for instruction and which, I am quite sure, shaped my true writing self. Aside from the occasional school text however, until I was twenty-one, New Zealand literature was unknown country. In the early ’80s I began studying it at university and, almost overnight, with all the conviction of a late convert, I became a card-carrying literary nationalist. This was all very fine – one should know the literature of one’s country – but, being a great one then for a binary view of things, an embrace of ‘New Zealand’ seemed somehow to require a rejection of whatever the country was I’d emigrated from. I sold all my children’s books and contemplated Frank Sargeson. And when, with my newly sovietised lens, I first read The Changeover I could only see it as fiction that failed properly to represent the apparent verities of NZ writing I now so zealously championed.

These days, when I re-read the book I see what I couldn’t allow myself to acknowledge at the time: it is a very fine addition to a strong tradition of children’s speculative fiction. Mahy, like other great exponents of the form – Jane Langton and Madeleine L’Engle in the US, William Mayne, Penelope Farmer and Diana Wynne Jones in the UK (whose work I had been bred on) – had fused the philosophic and the supernatural with the quotidian; she had let loose the unearthly in suburbia in order to explore matters that puzzled and propelled her: the nature of courage and sacrifice; the invention of self; the question of evil. Twenty years of writing has allowed me to properly understand that one’s writing genetics aren’t to be denied. One is born into – and reads one’s way into – a country of the imagination, and sometimes the topography of that place has only a little in common with the place one physically inhabits. As I have moved circuitously back to my own imaginative land – childhood – so, too, have I seen clearly and greatly appreciated the contours and morphology of Margaret Mahy’s.

OF COURSE, SOME writers have the coordinates of their imaginative world well fixed early on; they know themselves and their intent and they do without the messy business of exile and repatriation. They recognise the other inhabitants, too. When Elizabeth Knox read The Changeover, at the same age and in the same year I did, she knew at once that Margaret Mahy was a writer with immense significance for her and her own writing life.

Even if Knox had never spoken or written about Mahy as an important imaginative lodestone it is abundantly clear once you read her fiction, particularly her young adult novels, that Mahy’s voice and subject matter and the speculative form she worked within have been a powerful influence. Knox has a quite singular voice and is propelled to the page by her own unique cluster of psychological and intellectual preoccupations. On the page, though, and in her broader fictional intent, there are intriguing echoes of the older writer, not the least being Knox’s sustained exploration of the immaterial and a notion of a kind of magic that has substance, that is, in one sense, profoundly real.

Knox’s description of the effect on her of The Changeover and The Haunting (1982) is revealing: ‘with Margaret I understood I’d met a writer who was for me. She was a New Zealander and, reading those two books, I felt that she was building a room in New Zealand literature where I wanted to go, be, hang out, get comfortable.’ She had no difficulty seeing Mahy as a New Zealand writer – quite the reverse – and it was important to her that there existed in New Zealand an exemplar of the kind of literary fantasy she herself wanted to write. No fault-line for Elizabeth Knox.

Why do you think Margaret was important? I asked Knox once, when we were discussing Mahy’s effect on the writing culture. ‘Because she was there,’ she said, with immediate and characteristic conviction. For Knox it was entirely personal. Mahy was a necessary compass, an instrument of orientation within her own country that enabled her to set about her particular fictional project with confidence.

Knox grew up thoroughly aware of New Zealand literature and its exponents. Her father, Ray Kox, was the editor of New Zealand’s Heritage, a significant social history of the 1970s. Writers and Wellington intellectuals were on the periphery of her family life. Moreover, writing things down and making story was a fundamental family habit. Building fantastical worlds in a Wellington backyard or flat was a perfectly straightforward and integrated act. When Knox read The Changeover she was already at work on her first novel, a ghost story making assured use of the Nelson landscape. Recognising Margaret Mahy as a home-grown literary ancestor sealed the deal for future work.

That first novel, After Z-hour (1987), is a fascinating read in the light of the body of work that follows. The story has a persuasive realist setting: the bush and weather and buildings of rural Nelson are powerfully evoked. Six characters needing shelter for various reasons assemble in an old house with a history, their back-stories, motivations and interactions duly revealed. So far, so familiarly New Zealand. But where the novel – and I think the author’s real interest – roars into life is with the troubled ghost (a World War I soldier) and more powerfully still with the man-boy, Kelfie, a kind of medium for the ghost and the first of many dangerous and alluring young men, real and unearthly, that walk moodily through the pages of Knox’s novels. Interestingly, the house where most of the action occurs has a ‘repelling’ quality – it seems at times nearly to disappear from view, to be, in some way, unavailable to the folk who need shelter. In Mortal Fire (2013), Knox’s most recent young adult novel, a fully realised – and fully fantastical – version of both house and erotically charged boy-enchanter are at the heart of the story’s important moments of self-knowledge, courage and transformation.

Knox’s realist outings are shapely and resonant – her autobiographical trilogy of novellas is one of the most intense and haunting evocations of childhood yet published in New Zealand – but it is as if her deepest fictional propulsions meet their proper form once she launches into full-blooded literary fantasy and the roll call of unearthly characters are set free: angels, vampires, golems, magicians and young people with nascent artistic or magical potential. From The Vintner’s Luck (1998), onwards and particularly with the three young adult novels set in her invented republic, Southland – a re-imagined version of New Zealand – the Mahy inheritance is very evident.

In a sense, Knox’s Southland novels mirror and clarify and extend the Mahy project. As Mahy’s slightly angled version of Christchurch suburbia and its sometimes magically endowed inhabitants offered her the best way to move around her real subject matter, so Southland – the large Pacific island with a history and environment that echoes New Zealand’s, but where magic is part of the fabric – enables Knox to continue her abiding fascination with both what it is to be human and everything the immaterial might mean in the human world. It is as if – to me at least – having a second writer so determinedly argue ideas through fantastical fiction I have – and in a New Zealand context – come to understand better the first writer’s true endeavour. Knox has achieved that which she wished for when she first read Mahy: ‘it was Margaret’s thinking that I wanted to be able to beat into myself, or isolate myself with. Her thinking – always unusual, and always right.’

It is always hard – maybe perilous – to try and capture in words the particular music – the timbre and rhythm – a writer makes on the page. But I have been struck often over the years by a tonal similarity in Mahy and Knox. Or to put it another way, a similar musculature in their sentence making and paragraphs. I think it is something to do with urgency – the urgency of the ideas at play and the characters’ (and their writers’) most urgent need to communicate them. There are few poetical effects in the sentences; the words are less for the ear than the alert mind. It is Wagner rather than Schubert, a powerful build-up of energy rather than beautiful melody over paragraph and page; precise and elemental language that gathers a weight and force as the critical idea is pressed home. There is nothing like it anywhere else in New Zealand fiction. In Knox’s work this effect is amplified by the number of individual italicised words scattered throughout the text. It is like someone tugging harder and harder at your sleeve while they explain something very important, and from time to time pushing a finger hard into your flesh to emphasise the point. ‘Margaret’s thinking,’ indeed.

ELIZABETH KNOX WAS at the Frankfurt Book Fair, too – in person, but also in the film shown of Margaret Mahy during the panel. Knox and Mahy were in conversation – an exchange, however abbreviated, that did what the panel could not: here were two writers who understood each other in a vital way. Knox’s questions of Mahy were mindful of the general audience but still they proceeded from the inside out, from a deep understanding of Mahy cultivated by lengthy prospecting in the same territory and with the same intent.

In all the crush and fever and ambiguity of the Frankfurt/New Zealand enterprise, and the wondering then and later just what a country’s literature added up to or if there should be any calculation going on at all, it was good to think about those two New Zealanders who were writers, though not precisely New Zealand writers – in the way none of us is precisely – rather writers who have charted determinedly solo voyages, coasting in New Zealand waters but spending much time in Storyland and Southland too; and importantly, from time to time, sighting each other.

Knox’s first Southland novel, Dreamhunter (2006), is dedicated to Margaret Mahy, an acknowledgement of their shared territory and purpose, and with gratitude perhaps for Mahy being there. And Knox’s delight in Mahy and her work was thoroughly reciprocated. Mahy reviewed After Z-Hour with unqualified enthusiasm: ‘An astonishing book, full of care, concentration, insight and power.’ Concentration, insight and power are words of consequence in the Mahy lexicon, but ‘astonishing’ is the real oil. Here was a matter for wonder. A fellow traveller arrived in her writing country. When I think of that moment – Mahy reading Knox’s first novel, meeting Knox herself for the first time on the page – I am always reminded of the scene in Mahy’s novel, Memory (1987), where Jonny, hungover and bruised, first meets Sophie, the old woman who has been released to an altered reality, a new kind of wisdom, by her dementia. Wearing a long coat and a hat ‘like a crimson chamber-pot without a handle’ and pushing an empty supermarket trolley across an empty car park, she makes for Jonny as if ‘he were the very one she had been waiting for.’ Jonny watches, intrigued and a little apprehensive. He stands very still so the old woman can walk past him. ‘But instead, she came right up to him, staring at him, as if she were waiting for him to begin a conversation. Jonny remained silent. In the end she was the one who spoke first.

“Are you the one?” she asked.’

Griffith Review