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A Double Tradition: Margaret Mahy on NZ literature

March 23, 2012

In an article on the development of children’s literature in New Zealand, Margaret Mahy describes her own experience of local publication, then writes: “The first New Zealanders, the Polynesian Maori, had no specifically juvenile literature, and the myths and trickster tales they told belonged to their whole community. Children of European descent, on the other hand, inherited books containing stories especially written for them, but largely set in another country. These children also inherited the idea, dominant for many years, that true culture lay somewhere on the other side of the world, so both Maori and European children experienced imaginative displacement through the stories they were given to read, and it is common for middle-aged or elderly New Zealanders to feel that the country in which they lived was never comfortably endorsed by books and stories. Fortunately, these days attitudes have changed.” (np)

Consumer enthusiasm increased during the 1970s, as teachers and parents took an increasing pleasure in the idea of stories that reflected New Zealand’s own experience and idiom, and during the 1980s a new group of writers burst on the scene. With the advent of Tessa Duder, William Taylor, Joanna Orwin, Jack Lasenby, and the late Gaylene Gordon [not to mention Mahy herself!], children’s fiction began to show a different kind of depth and authenticity–a new freedom, too, as writers became more confident and powerful.

The slightly didactic responsibility of being New Zealanders on behalf of New Zealanders became modified by humor and innovation, for by now the time of self-consciousness has been lived through, and though the preoccupations of the child characters in these books focus on the pleasures and alarms of lives that are very much New Zealand lives, they are unassertively so. Elements of defiance and self-congratulation fade out. The lives of these heroes and heroines are lived out in individual, almost incidentally New Zealand worlds.” (np)

“It is encouraging to see the regular appearance of stories featuring Maori characters and themes. Maori legends and folktales were published as early as 1896, and one book that remained a basic reference book for many years was Myths and Legends of Maoriland (Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1961), compiled by A.W. Reed, which won the Esther Glen Award in 1946. Maori myths and folktales have formed the subject of most Maori books for children and, in the beginning, stories featuring Maori myths and characters were often written or retold by interested European writers. This area has been reclaimed over the last twenty years, beginning with books featuring illustrators like Peter Gossage and Katerina Mataira, in the belief that European authors have no right to usurp a tradition that is not essentially their own.

It seems, in many ways, a pity to separate those books with Maori authors and Maori themes from other books published in New Zealand, for the two traditions mentioned at the beginning of this article integrate well. However, the emergence of this Maori voice–a voice largely disregarded in my own childhood–deserves a separate mention as does the work of Maori illustrators, whose distinctive images, fluid rhythms, and stylizations belong uniquely to New Zealand. Some European New Zealanders, like Joanna Orwin, have written books for older children featuring Maori characters and traditions, and Witi Ihaemera’s The Whale Rider (Auckland: Heinemann, 1987) is likely to be enjoyed by young adult readers, as is his first book of short stories, PounamuPounamu (Heinemann, 1972). However, it is in the area of picture books that Maori writers and illustrators are most strongly established.” (np)

I myself, though a New Zealander in every meaningful way, count as an expatriate these days, for my books originate, for historical and financial reasons, in the United Kingdom. My picture book texts are only subversively New Zealand books, and I have become sharply aware that the alteration of a single word–for example, the substitution of “Tornado Valley” for “Earthquake Valley” in The Rattlebang Picnic (New York: Dial, 1994) can change a story from being a New Zealand one to being one set in the more universal and ambivalent land of folktale. One can read The Haunting (London: Dent, 1981) without knowing it is set in New Zealand, but from The Changeover (Dent, 1984) onward, my novels have had a specifically New Zealand setting, though it took me some years to achieve this to my satisfaction. Childhood reading made an unconscious expatriate of me, a fate that is unlikely to befall young readers today. Imaginative fulfillment in terms of their own country is freely offered.” (np)

Children growing up in New Zealand today no longer feel, as I did (and Patricia Grace did, too), that their own country is not an appropriate place for fantasy and poetry and adventure.” (np)

Ref: Mahy, Margaret. “Country Survey: Finding Your Reflection in a Small Mirror: A Developing Children’s Literature in New Zealand.” Bookbird 37.1 (1999): 50-56. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Dana Ferguson. Vol. 155. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

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