Monday, May 11, 2015

David Eggleton on CK Stead, anthologist

The 78th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue: David Eggleton’s review of CK Stead’s anthology The Faber Book Of Contemporary South Pacific Stories. This reprint marks CK being Honoured New Zealand Writer at the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival. It’s a free event: no ticket required.

I had forgotten how much fuss this anthology caused, with five big-name writers pulling out at a very late stage. Another denied permission to be included right from the start – with admirable consistency, he didn’t allow his work to appear in the 2012 AUP anthology either.I had also forgotten what a good book reviewer David Eggleton is.

LOADED
David Eggleton
The Faber Book Of Contemporary South Pacific Stories
edited by CK Stead (Faber, $39.95)
This book comes to us as a loaded weapon, an artefact of the culture wars. Four of its commissioned writers – Keri Hulme, Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace – chose to withdraw their stories at the last minute, leaving a rather large Polynesia-shaped hole in the centre of the text. In the editor’s introduction Stead says the collective decision was as unexpected as it was unwelcome, and he’s still not sure why it happened. By implication, their studied absence is intended as a vote of no-confidence in someone with a purported track record of cultural insensitivity being given the right to help shape cultural hegemony in the South Pacific. In the battle for intellectual property rights, Polynesia is reclaiming itself and will not accept continuing ghettoisation. (Hone Tuwhare also withdrew, in a dispute over fees, and it is reported that Vincent O’Sullivan refused from the outset to be included.)

Stead acknowledges that he is a cultural engineer engaged in the invention of tradition but does not concede he is an unsuitable person for the job and, as if to disarm his critics, has ended up constructing a multicultural mosaic of fiendish ingenuity with almost every constituency catered for, though the book leans heavily on Wendt’s comprehensive 1980 anthology, Lali.

Perhaps the only major omission, given the boycott, is the Maori radical writer Bruce Stewart, who should be here. Over two dozen writers are represented. Other writers could have been included of course, but Stead is an eclectic individualist and though some of his choices might be considered dead-ends others, notably Apirana Taylor, are given (over)due recognition.

The first story, Marjorie Tuainakore Crocombe’s “The Healer”, is the colonial paradigm in miniature - pure politics: a Foucaultian textbook example of organised hierarchical power, with the poorest Cook Islanders on the receiving end.

John Puhiatau Pule’s “Letters” is a self-contained chunk of his novel, The Shark That Ate The Sun. The letters are a two-decades-long exchange of correspondence between Nuiean immigrants and would-be Nuiean immigrants to New Zealand and in their epical way these missives carry a sobering sub-text about racial discrimination in the 40s and 50s.

Tongan writer Epeli Hau’ofa’s “The Glorious Pacific Way” is also about cultures clashing but his take on it is an absurdist comedy of manners. Aid for underdeveloped nations becomes the endlessly available bankrolling largesse of the former European Colonialist turned Bureaucrat.

Papua New Guinea is powerfully presented by the Papuan novelist Vincent Eri. In his story “Village, Church And School” he organically reveals the blurred boundaries between beliefs imposed by the missionaries and the core beliefs of the indigenous order, as a village holds a funeral feast and the different factions compete for the soul of the departed. By contrast, John Kolia, a British Australian living in PNG, tums in a clumsy camped-up piece on inter-racial cross-dressing that reads like bad Patrick White.

Other attempts at cross-cultural integration do work. In “Farvel” Yvonne Du Fresne creates a delicately flecked, aesthetically satisfying pattern by weaving together the Viking and Maori spirit worlds. In “Outlines Of Gondwanaland” Janet Sinclair uses Rabuka’s 1987 coup d’etat as a springboard to dive down and recover, like handfuls of treasure, childhood memories of Fiji.

Shonagh Koea, however, serves up a tropical cocktail with a twist of schmaltz – two parts Somerset Maugham to one part Judith Krantz – and Bill Manhire’s vision of the Pacific has the sterile and synthetic perfection of a computer game package: its closed circuit doesn’t illuminate anything except its own formalism.

More pertinently, Janet Frame’s “The Headmistress’s Story” is a kind of witty, perverse commentary on New Zealand’s British-style provincialism of the 50s, and revolves around that totemic ancestor figure, the family patriarch.

With “Paradise”, Ian Wedde provides a parable about the writing life in a boxed set of paradoxes. His Baudelairean-sounding South Sea idyll is actually set in a small southern city in frozen, slushy mid-winter. The story’s main character is the postie as poet – accompanied only by his Joycean interior monologue – making sure the mail gets through. For Wedde language is not so much a tool as an atmosphere, a plasma, it surrounds us, we are products of language, saturated in it.

Others have a more overtly didactic programme‘ to implement. Stead’s own “A Short History Of New Zealand” fits in here, with its savagely Goya-esque role-reversing Maori antagonist and Pakeha protagonist framed by the civilised discourse of two Pakeha workers in the media industry. Vili Vete’s pointed sketch about Tongan village life encapsulates an entire world-view; while Joseph Veramu provides a lucid picture of the stultifying customs which have grown up around land tenure in Fiji.

Subramani’s “Kala” brilliantly, if sometimes incoherently, finds Fiji’s ethnic tensions mirrored in the oppressive climate. Fellow Indo-Fijian writer Raymond Pillai presents a fragment of family life with the fastidious detachment of an RK Narayan or the early VS Naipaul.

These last are among the best stories here. Honouring the book’s title, they offer the shock of recognition. They remake our perceptions of what it means to live in this region by shaking out anew the kaleidoscope of the South Pacific.

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