Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Nigel Cox on Patricia Grace

The 99th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
As modest as she is talented, Patricia Grace doesn’t wage public campaigns, engage in literary debates or air her opinions on The Edge. She simply writes fiction. “That’s what my job is,” she tells Nigel Cox.
The best writers, they say, are the. ones who concentrate on the work. So when you ask Patricia Grace about, for example, what she thinks of Alan Duff’s books, or for some background on her withdrawal from CK Stead’s recent South Pacific anthology, she pauses for thought, then says carefully, “I like to concentrate on the writing. I consider that that’s what my job is. I leave commentary and reviewing to those who make that their work.”

You get the sense that being subjected to interviews is something she would also like to see as being beyond her brief. A patently sincere person, she makes a clear effort to summon a worthwhile answer to even the most mundane question. So when you ask who she reads she says, “I’m inclined to enjoy work by writers who write about communities and inter-relationships within communities, whether they be family, or village or inner-city groupings. I’ve recently enjoyed Maps by Nuruddin Farrah, and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Writers like Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King. I like all of those.”

In the face of such an immaculate response to the basics, it seems pushy to try for answers to more awkward questions about, for example, the place of magic and kehua (spirits) in her work. After all, though she presents herself with enormous modesty and (you can’t help recalling her surname) grace, she is one of our most highly respected and successful writers. Since her first publication in 1975, the superb Waiariki, Grace has produced 11 further books, an outstanding achievement in itself. But what sets her apart from most other New Zealand writers is that all her books have remained in print. And in print they’ll stay. Her publishers, Penguin, are in the process of preparing a uniform edition of her work.

Her reputation continues to rise; her most recent collection of stories, The Sky People, was greeted with phrases like “a touch of magic here and a quality of timelessness”, “goddess ability”, “to be treasured”. A fulltime writer, she says she puts pressure on herself to always be coming up with new projects, which perhaps accounts for what she calls the “different, experimental” qualities that distinguish each book. But these new directions haven’t affected her popularity; quite the opposite. Her popularity with Maori audiences is not hard to understand, but the Pakeha audience has proved perhaps even more enthusiastic.

Grace’s writing depicts spirit presences that subtly challenge materialist assumptions. So is there a difference between Maori and Pakeha realities? “Yes,” she says, “I kind of live in both worlds, been brought up in both and there’s more difference than most people realise.”

Discussing a story in The Sky People, where a child’s boils seem to be burst by magic, she says, “There are two ‘anecdotal’ stories within ‘Boiling’. They’re both true, things that actually happened.”

There’s no trace of defensiveness here, no insistence, merely a clear statement of difference. This difference isn’t the main reason that we read her — we read her because she’s a wonderful writer — but when Pakehas consider how they know what they think they know about Maori lives and values, the writing of Patricia Grace must be seen, I think, as a major influence.

At the interview’s end she gives me a card so I might ring and check any facts. “Patricia Grace, fiction writer”, it says. Going down in the lift, perhaps slightly disappointed not to have got anything from her on the hot topics of the day, I reflect that she is one of the tiny handful of people in the country who might honestly give that as their job description. A hard-earned position, and one worth protecting.

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