By Peri Miller
Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed two books back to back. The Chimes by Anna Smaill, and The Suicide Club by Sarah Quigley. The Chimes is set in a dystopian future wherein music is law and memory is fleeting. The concept is original and the book is beautifully written in a lyrical style that would probably annoy more pragmatic readers, though I personally enjoyed it. The Suicide Club, meanwhile, follows three 20 year olds on a journey through their own heads and to a therapy retreat in Bavaria. Despite the heavy subject matter (the title doesn’t lie), the quirky and oftentimes humorous style and tone of the novel keeps the reader on their toes — because with mental illness, you never know when everything will come crashing down.
These books are different on the surface, but not lacking notable similarities, which have very little to do with the books themselves. They’re both written by New Zealand authors; this is the most important feature. Despite this, they’re both set in England.
The fact that these novels would both be written by Kiwi authors but set in England really struck me, and not for no reason. Throughout school, oftentimes if we were assigned a New Zealand book to read, it tended to heavily concern and involve Maori culture and mythology. David Hair’s The Bone Tiki is one I specifically recall. I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing, and it’s entirely understandable that set readings in schools would be focused in such a direction. However, because of this, my understanding of books set in New Zealand came to be associated with an unspoken rule that such books (especially books with fantastical elements) must incorporate native culture and mythology.
Should the integration of Maori culture and mythology be a prerequisite for writing set in New Zealand? Do New Zealand Europeans even have the right to write about such things? Personally, I think any writer is entitled to cover any topic they wish, so long as they do the proper research. But I’m certain there are people who would disagree with me. Perhaps the bigger question is: is it acceptable to set a book in New Zealand without featuring or referencing Maori culture or mythology? How about a book which doesn’t even have a single Maori character, even just as a token? Is tokenism worse than exclusion?
Furthermore, you can’t discuss culture in New Zealand without acknowledging how much of a cultural hot-pot our nation is. Offshore Polynesian cultures have a notable presence, as do Asians. There are, however, areas of the country with very little cultural diversity, specifically the northern part of the Auckland region—which is where I’ve just so happened to have lived my entire life.
‘It’s a highly complicated issue’ is a sentence that I can’t type without evoking a heavy sense of déjà vu, because apparently I’m allergic to covering simple topics with clear-cut answers in this column. I did some research about New Zealand books and found that while there are — of course, as there should be — plenty of books set in New Zealand which do concern themselves with Maori tradition, there are also plenty that are set offshore, and others set in New Zealand without making a big issue out of Maori representation. Because it simply isn’t the focus of the novel. I mean, after looking all this up, I can quite safely conclude that I’m overanalysing this whole deal, but I still think that, for anyone who cares about literature in New Zealand, it’s worth thinking about.