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Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast – Mercer

March 30, 2013

Floating WorldsI bought this book because I like Anna Jackson’s work and because I like the cover. However, there is more to it than that and I was just enjoying Erin Mercer’s essay, ‘Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast‘. Her argument is really nicely made and I want to record part of it for (later) work on Paula Morris’ adolescent fiction…. Mercer considers Morris’ exploration of identity in the current, global and hybridised climate (writing partly in response to criticism that Paula Morris’ fiction is not New Zealand enough because it is mostly set elsewhere). Mercer asserts:

The fact that Morris writes novels set in other countries and other cultures disturbs critics not only because she does it, but because she does it so well. Although no one comes out to say it openly, there is nevertheless an accusation of betrayal implicit in such comments [which she cites and discusses in earlier paragraphs].” (p.125) However, Mercer asserts, “Morris’ use of international settings is part of her fictional strategy.” “In Hibiscus Coast,” she continues, “Morris presents Shanghai as a city marked by the signs of globalisation and commodification.” (p.125) “Shanghai is a palimpsest, a city on top of a city. Its identity hinges on the modern and the technological yet Morris suggests that behind this globalised shopping mecca lies another Shanghai, a ‘floating world’ of transient spaces that reflect different socio-economic realms.” (p.126) “The representation of Shanghai […] depends on the cultural and social position of the subject. A city is divided into clearly marked areas which are not just spatial but also represent a socio-economic divide.” (p.126)

Hibiscus CoastMorris illustrates how the urban environment, even within the same city, differs based on the socio-economic and ethnic categories of those who inhabit them.” (p.127) “In Morris’ Shanghai, the desire to transcend social and economic boundaries relies on the movement from one urban space to another. [The protagonist] Emma’s life as a student living in a shared flat in the French Concession is very different from the glamorous life she leads with her expatriate boyfriend at expensive restaurants and bars. With Greg, Emma ‘could pose as one of the moneyed class of outsiders, but when he wasn’t there she couldn’t pretend’ (311). Like Emma, Shanghai’s karaoke hostesses use their relationships with expatriate businessmen as a way to transcend their environments and gain access to a different urban space. Gaining entry to a new urban environment not only changes the subject’s location but also the socio-economic group to which they belong: a new urban space both reflects and creates a new personal identity, an identity based not on authenticity but on performance and pretence.” (p.127)

Morris’ use of an international setting in Hibiscus Coast is not the betrayal to a specifically New Zealand literature that it might seem at first glance, nor is it simply a matter of broadening the appeal of her work to a wider audience. Setting part of the action in the floating worlds of Shanghai and demonstrating the symbiotic relationship in place between China and New Zealand is actually a method of suggesting the potential inherent in identity as performance or creation rather than in notions of authenticity. Shanghai can be seen as a self-made city, a location that is undergoing a process of constant reinvention. In this space, […] we find a dynamic urban environment that challenges notions of a cultural identity created through fixed authenticity.” (p.128)

I really enjoyed this essay.

Ref: Erin Mercer (2009) ‘Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast‘ pp.124-141 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.

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