Sunday, February 1, 2015

Funding is not enlistment.

It's been a bizarre few days around reactions to Eleanor Catton's interview in India. I commented on that a couple of days ago. But as an extension of the wider discussion I see the Taxpayers Union (a right wing lobby group) has commented today on the fact that Eleanor Catton (as many NZ writers have – myself included) has received various funding grants for writing, etc.

I'd like to unpack some of this. Firstly, the statements carry an embedded message, using the classic binary opposition of: taxpayers/writers, or taxpayers/artists. (Writers and artists. as creative workers may and do apply for and receive funding from Creative NZ.) This binary is used as if the recipient (in this case Eleanor Catton) aren't themselves taxpayers,or that there is no flow-on tax revenue from their work . It's a discursive trick and shouldn't pass without critique. Maori are well used to it, common examples being the ever popular ‘taxpayers/Maori’ or ‘New Zealanders/Maori’ binaries, written as if the entities are mutually exclusive. And specifically that the smaller group in the binary is not only NOT a contributing part of the larger – it’s just a drain on its resources. .

Then there’s the wording ‘…the support of the New Zealand government…’ The support would come via Creative NZ, an arts funding body that operates to both keep those creatives IN the community (fund them to allow them to work) and keep such a community itself in existence, to ensure an ongoing role in the New Zealand landscape for a vibrant artistic and intellectual life. Creative NZ grants fund a great many endeavours every year. They are not gifts, or crumbs from the master's table, they are part of an arts STRATEGY.

But: arts funding bodies and their decisions and supported programmes are not part of the political arm and aims of the government of the day, as such. We all need to be very clear on this. This blurring comes from the philosophy that promotes the corporatization and potentially the identity capture of everything, including individual and national perception, New Zealand Inc, as an example. This wording about governments supporting artists often features deliberately coded language slippage in which the subtext is: funding body = government = current government’s ideology and policies. So it follows therefore that funding should buy acquiescence, or at the very least - silence. Again, this arts funding is strategic investment.

We can and should debate the points in this ongoing dialogue and perspectives on what specifically should be funded and how, that's our right as stakeholders. To make these debates meaningful it's critical to get the language and its implications as clear as we can.

An artist or any individual or organization does not actually begin working for the political party in government when and because they accept funding from arts bodies,themselves resourced from the wider NZ tax pool.

Funding is NOT enlistment, because that would be totalitarianism.


Sean Plunkett's response to Eleanor Catton this week, other than being simplistic to the point of bargain-basement jingoism feels like yet another middle-aged male determined to take back the space in public discourse from someone who isn't (a middle-aged male.) To restore what he seems to see as the rightful order of things. Eleanor Catton appears to be a lightning rod for such reactionary backlash (I’m thinking Michael Morrissey’s patronising comments in his review last year), and it's important to mention that I feel she would be a target, WHATEVER she says. I think her audacity in even speaking is as aggravating to the likes of Plunkett as what she specifically says – much of which I think should prompt further discussion and critique (in the same way as what any of us says.)

This goes to the heart of so much reaction to her, what is perceived as her sheer effrontery in claiming public space through her talent and vision, not through bestowed privilege from the self-appointed guardians of New Zealand-ness. This is the searing intersection point of several different faces of the patriarchal juggernaut, in this case the ignition point around her being a young woman, who doesn't want to tow the (male dominated) neo-liberal line. Because, let's be honest, Eleanor Catton is deeply white middle-class, her father is a university professor. She's not a Maori or Pacifica solo-mother from Southy. She doesn't face the hurdles of a recent migrant from the third world. Or some of the inmates I teach in prison. But she is still part of (what the literary critic Frank O’Connor defines as) a submerged population group, ie women (especially, but certainly not limited to, young women) who speak their mind. Her white middle-class (seeming) advantage is only there if she agrees to recognize and show deference to the power structure. That’s how power and privilege work, the power structure gives concessions, contingent upon behaviours, but does not cede power. And it gets angry if its needs are not given primacy – which is where I see Sean Plunkett’s comments are coming from.

I find it galling, and very disappointing that in 2015 a successful, creative New Zealander can speak her mind, and have her very right to speak critiqued and lambasted, rather than an intelligent unpacking of her specific points. But Sean Plunkett’s response can’t really be described as critique – words like ‘traitor’ and ‘bagging’ belong in the schoolyard, not in supposedly intelligent public discourse, and the stuff about living in a democracy is ridiculously irrelevant, and especially ironic considering he’s telling her to shut up. Make no mistake, that is a warning. Eleanor Catton is taking the hits here that we all should be taking, in the community of arts, letters, and those of us in this community that believe the life of the mind be as important as the almighty dollar. Many people have of course, taken the hits. New Zealand’s history is riddled with thinkers with metaphorical knives in their backs.

To use Sean Plunkett’s language register for a moment, I call bullshit.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Calling your name

Happy New Year.

It's been a while since I've posted - work, other writing commitments and holidays all seem to get in the way, but here is my response to one of the saddest and most moving news stories from 2014.

Five-year-old Jack Dixon was swept away by a rouge wave on October 1st 2014 while playing with his cousins in rock pools at Shelley Beach, Mt Maunganui. His cousins managed to scramble onto a rock and were rescued by Jack’s grandmother but she didn’t manage to save Jack. Searchers were hampered by big swells and wind gusts of 40 knots. His parents said they were lost by what had happened and just wanted Jack home. Candle-lit vigils were held on the beach in the evenings and the search for Jack’s body continued for five days.
On the Sunday 300 surfers and paddlers went out to the middle of Main Beach while several thousand people lined the shore. “Chanting Jack’s name, the surfers left flowers in the water while hundreds of others released balloons from the shore.” (Jamie Troughton, North and South, December 2014, p71)

(Please Note: all quotes in the text below are from the North and South article, Little Jack Lost: Diary of a Tragedy at Mt Maunganui.)

It’s easy for you to imagine little Jack crouched over his rock pool, absorbed, watching baby crabs, sun and salt water on his hair and skin – a tiny creature, playing on the water’s edge. Behind him, slabs of black rock glisten as waves surge and retreat. The wind picks up; the swell builds. The wave gathers strength – the mouth of the serpent yawns. 

The wave that took Jack “had its beginnings 4000km north-west. Tropical moisture began streaming south from the equator, fed by westerly winds blowing near Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.”  

You understand. Trouble starts a long way back and builds - travels through time and space, creates currents, simmers underground or builds tension in the air – hot and cold energies swirl and clash – storms build, trees crash into rivers, bridges fall, chunks of land are ripped out to sea. Sets of massive waves come into shore – and one wave, bigger than the rest, “poured through the channel up over the rocks onto the small shelly beach and engulfed the group.”

Against your will you imagine the moment the wave caught his delicate flesh, his bones still soft with childhood. You want the moment to be quick - one smack of his head against the black rock, his lungs flooded with water now he’s no longer a fish in the amniotic waters of the womb. And you see his small body floating on the grey-green swell like a white starfish, the current carrying him out to sea.

You don’t know this child, but listening to the story on the news you feel bereft and want to go searching for him - searching for the current, the swell, the wave that took him.  In your heart there’s an imaginary swimmer, one that wants to enter the ocean, face it down, find within its temper a patch of calm, clear water that moves like the gentlest of breaths, that holds in perfect rhythm the sleeping body of wee Jack, the starfish boy.

In reality you’re a hopeless swimmer, afraid to go out into the surf further than your knees. And on the day Jack was taken there was no calmness, no clarity. The winds had been brutal, the swells enormous, rescuers in black wetsuits and orange vests were pushed back, the rocks were covered in slippery foam. People walked the shoreline for days; they put candles and teddy bears in the sand. His body was never found.

Apart from the obvious - empathy for a lost child and for the anguish of his family – what is it about this story that affects you so much, that reaches out and hooks itself into you?  Is it because it’s a direct link to your most vivid and recurring nightmare: years of dreaming of a rogue wave, a giant wall of water washing the child you must protect out to sea?

In these dreams you walk with your child on the beach, watch her paddle, lift her to the rock pool so she can discover the mystery of a miniature world.  And in the space of a breath, just when your back is turned, the wave rises and surges and she slips from your hand and is gone. You wake unable to move, body rigid, heart jumping, breath jammed in your throat.

Trouble starts a long way off.  For Jack it started 4000km away, for you generations in the past. How far do you go back? How far do you follow the breadcrumb trail to its source? Great grandfather, grandmother, that rogue uncle. It’s their inheritance and yours: family secrets; family lies, family shame.  An upside down world - children protect adults and carry their burden of failure. Off shore winds drive the swell, the swell builds; disaster strikes and childhood is lost.

How is it possible to bear this loss? To walk the beach alone, to know you weren’t quick enough or strong enough to save the child. How do you accept you must bow before the power of such a wave, such a sea? And you know you must hold the space where the child should have been; that you’ll only keep them close by tracing the perimeters of your loss.

You realize this loss defines you, makes you dull, slow, tarnished, shameful, lost, lacking in some unseen yet essential quality, like not having enough oxygen in your blood. Those around you become impatient, frustrated, angry, bored. You are left with your hyper-vigilance, your silence, your on-going grief.

Feeling loss and feeling lost are connected: Jack’s parents’ said they felt lost when in fact it was Jack who was never found.  Grief is a dislocation, a loss of self as well as loss of the other, the loved one; a loss of the light that should be in the world, a loss of your right to call out your name to the world and be heard, and responded to.

The surfers and paddlers who went out into the bay once the rescue efforts had ceased chanted Jack’s name and threw flowers into the water. The simplicity of this so perfect, so expressive of what you do when someone is lost – you call out, hoping some part of them will hear you and call back. And even when they don’t respond, and the world doesn’t return anything to you, you keep calling, because you have to.

It now seems to you that your recurring nightmare is a version of that imaginary, mythical swimmer, paddling out, chanting your name, calling it so loudly it wakes you year after year, so you can claim a space for the child lost so long ago, but never forgotten, still out there somewhere, resting on the seabed, one more tiny starfish body longing to come ashore.

 Here is a link to the beautiful song, Calling My Children Home by Emmylou Harris.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Narratives of history.

Thinking of Mother's Day today, and how that takes me back through the narrative history of my family. How much of that history is able to be found in patches, often intersecting patches. And how many spaces there are in between.

So, in honour of Mother’s day I wish to pay tribute all the way back to my grandmother’s great-grandmother Tiraha Papa Harakeke, 1808-1885. 

Tiraha was born at Utakura, Hokianga, daughter of Papaharakeke and Kopu. Kopu (her mother), was born in 1775. Tiraha was third cousin and adopted daughter of Tamati Waka Nene, kinswoman to Patuone, Muriwai, and Hongi Hika. Tiraha’s father, Papaharakeke was killed by Tuhourangi at Motutawa Island on the encouragement of Te Rauparaha, who wanted revenge for a relative lost during Ngapuhi's capture of Te Totara pa. Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika had a patu made to avenge his death, and attacked Te Arawa at the height of the musket wars, instigated by Hongi and a tragic time for Maori, but the patu was not used. In 1933 Sir Apirana Ngata presented the patu, known as Papaharakeke, to Te Arawa as a tohu (token of friendship) from Ngapuhi. The patu is owned by the Arawa trustboard, and for 70 years was held in the Auckland Museum. In 2007, I believe, it was returned to Rotorua.

Tiraha married English Battle of Waterloo veteran, later carpenter, and then whaler, William Cook in a Christian ceremony at Paihia 13th March, 1848, though they had been together for many years as a couple and already had ten children.

They would have twelve in all.

The ceremony was conducted by Te Wiremu (Rev. Henry Williams) he of the controversial translation of the Treaty of Waitangi. A prayerbook given to the couple after their wedding is now in the Russell Museum, as is this photograph of Tiraha. Tiraha passed away 1st September,1885, and is buried somewhere in the Russell churchyard, as is Tamati Waka Nene. Unfortunately, Tiraha’s grave, though it is entered in the parish registry, is unmarked. William Cook had died at Waikare in 1874. One of their sons, George Howe Cook was born on a whaling brig – the Independence. The Cook family of Whangamumu became famous as whalers, before finally ceasing operations in 1931.

This tribute speaks through my mother, Alice June Martha Maitu,1928-1995, and my grandmother, Hannah, 1901-1994. It also honours Hannah's mother - Ada - and Ada's mother - Martha, and all the wahine toa in my whanau's history. And finally, all due respect to the descendents of the many tupuna noted in this post.

The patu - Papaharakeke. (Te Arawa Trustboard)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Flash fiction for ANZAC day

ANZAC Morning

Next door the old fella’s coughing. He’s bent over the veranda rail. One hand holds the wooden post the other touches the red poppy blooming on the lapel of his navy blazer. On the radio Vera Lynn’s singing We’ll meet again.
When I was a child a dark passage ran like an artery between my parents’ bedroom and mine. When Dad coughed he leaned against the doorframe for support. He coughed and coughed, his bony chest heaving against his cotton singlet. Mum nursed Dad, who carried a piece of the war in his lungs. Often at night he’d wake, gasping for air. I’d creep along the passage; breathe outside the door for him.
Sometimes I still wake in the night and hear my father coughing. I listen when that cough recites its whakapapa. I sprang from the desert sands in Egypt it says; in Maadi camp I wound my tendrils into his lungs; when his battalion moved out I went with him to Monte Cassino; I was full-grown when he came home on the hospital ship with nightmares and a shattered hip.
Next door the old fella spits and straightens up. His son arrives and helps him into the car.
Who holds the world up so you can crawl out and breathe in the light-filled air?
On the radio Vera’s still singing We’ll meet again to the boys.