An interesting discussion happened on Twitter today regarding Witi Ihimaera’s Festival Foreword NZ Book Council address to open the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. The theme for the speech was “Where is NZ literature going?” but reading the excellent overview on the Booksellers NZ blog I seriously wonder how this got translated by the speaker to “Where has NZ literature been?”
Bearing in mind that this isn’t based on a transcript of the speech, I have a few thoughts I’d like to put forward.
Is this 2015 or 1993? Because I did a NZ Literature paper in 1993 and literally heard the exact same arguments. When Ihimaera is still talking about “nationalist” literature, and still, STILL refusing to see that nationalism is no longer the over-riding concept that interests or even makes sense to a new generation of thinkers (and therefore writers), then I cannot understand why we are asking him to repeat his arguments instead of asking new voices to talk to us – even in addition to his.
Ihimaera is too institutionalised in the “old guard” of New Zealand writing and publishing. When he says:
Though Ihimaera acknowledged the very significant successes of Nalini Singh, Paul Cleave, Neil Cross and Nicky Pellegrino, he also asked, “is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”
I literally want to throw something. Has he not heard of Steampress, Paper Road Press, Paul Gilbert, Summer Wigmore, Debbie (and Matt) Cowens, David Hair? Remember a NZ author called Margaret Mahy? HAS HE NOT HEARD OF ELIZABETH KNOX? Who came up with a much better response to this than I:
— Elizabeth Knox (@ElizabethKnoxNZ) May 7, 2015
On much the same lines was this:
Later in his address, Ihimaera also talked about the preponderance of young writers coming out of creative writing courses, the effect of which seems to “melt” the writing into homogeneous prose that “blunted” New Zealand’s edge. “Where are the anarchic books?” he asked.
Dude. Just stop.
NZ literature and NZ publishing: we need new voices. We need better voices. We need to move this conversation on and hear new ways of thinking. I get that a Festival has an economic imperative to sell tickets and has to understand its audience but this is the same tired argument from the same tired voice. I compare this with Elizabeth Knox’s Margaret Mahy lecture and I know who I’d prefer to hear from.
On that note who would you like to hear talk about where NZ literature is going? And #WhatShouldWitiRead? Or, as suggested by a nice person than me, #WhatCountsasNZLit?