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Global Voice; Local Release

November 13, 2015

In a brief essay, some 10 years ago, Margaret Mahy explored the situation of writing fiction from New Zealand to both New Zealanders and the world (a topic she returned to regularly). She begins this discussion with an 1891 quote by Kate McCosh Clark, then goes on to explain what this quote highlights of the New Zealand scene for her. Mahy wrote (and quoted):

[McCosh Clark:] “The scenes of Christmas tales read by English-speaking children have been for the most part naturally laid amid winter, snow, and leafless landscape. The Yule-log and the holly-berry have been time-honoured “properties.” But there are, growing up under the Southern Cross, generations of children, with English speech and English hearts, to whom the Yule-log at Christmas is unmeaning and the snow unknown.”

[Mahy:] “The author of this assertion was Kate McCosh Clark in her New Zealand children’s book A Southern Cross Fairy Tale, published in 1891. It’s worth mentioning because it reveals that the search for an adequate New Zealand identity in children’s books is over a hundred years old, and because simply declaring that children should find their wider identities affirmed by the stories they read does not necessarily ensure that reflection automatically takes place.
New Zealand is a country looking energetically inward, defining and redefining its own identity, yet simultaneously longing to be recognized by the wider world. So the recent success of the film Whale Rider leads to a curious mood of local self-congratulation. See! We too, just by being who we are, can be up there with the best – a mood that is currently encouraged by curiosity from the outside world. Whale Rider! Amazing! What else is going on in New Zealand?
Whale Rider exemplifies oddities that attend books in general and the New Zealand situation in particular….” (italics in original, p.213)

Whale Rider focuses attention on the curious situation of children’s literature in new Zealand: writers must produce stories that offer imaginative dimension to local children leading local lives, but it is advantageous if those writers also speak with global voices, thereby increasing their chances of making a reasonable living and buying time to write again. There is resistance in the United States and the United Kingdom to books embodying background and idiom other than their own. “Our readers will be alienated by the difference,” editors can declare (though admittedly we have progressed past the stage when British editors used to ask me not to mention summer Christmases since the paradox might confuse their readers, though there was no suggestion that stories featuring a winter Christmas might confuse ours).” (p.214)

Whale Rider is a story by a Maori novelist, a story with an essentially Maori essence made available to the world through European technology.” (p.214) [Mahy went on to discuss Maori literature further, but I do find this particular sentence provocative.]

Ref: Margaret Mahy ‘Looking Inward, Exploring Outward’ The Horn Book Magazine March/April 2004 pp.213-218

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