Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ian Richards on New Zealand literature, Japanese whaling, and the economics of exile

[EP Thompson used to argue that the lives of individual men and women were worth studying in detail, because they could be 'keyholes' through which a broader view of the past could be glimpsed. In 1997, the scholar and short story writer Ian Richards published To Bed at Noon, a book which made the short and tragic life of Maurice Duggan into a 'keyhole' through which New Zealand society in the middle decades of the twentieth century could be examined in all its complexity. Richards' book quickly won enthusiastic reviews, and has established itself as a New Zealand classic.

Richards, who has lived for many years in Japan, has complemented To Bed at Noon with studies of Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, and Duggan's old mate and drinking partner, Kendrick Smithyman. In recent years he has maintained a website calledNo Frills New Zealand Literature, on which examples of both his critical essays and his short fiction are reproduced. I chatted to Ian recently about exile, silence, cunning, flying, and whaling...]

Your biography of Maurice Duggan is extraordinarily rich in details about that writer's historical and social context - it opens a series of windows on subjects like the history of the North Shore, the relationship between sports and the arts in New Zealand, and the relationship between the Roman Catholic community and the rest of the country. Were you conscious of writing about social, as well as literary, history?

No, I had nothing so grand in mind. Mainly I was aware of an intimidating responsibility to real people--and to a real life, which I had somehow to assemble from thousands of bits of information. On the first day I sat down to write, as opposed to gathering research, I spent all morning working away at an opening paragraph and by lunchtime I had completely failed. I had no idea what to put in and what to leave out. At that point I got so panicky--because I was heavily committed to this project--that I started suffering heart palpitations. This sort of thing went on for several days of struggle until I reached the paragraph where my subject was finally being born. Then it dawned on me, at last, that what I was writing was a novel, and that I had a character and I had to tell his story. And that’s what I did--I wrote the book as a novel, with a timeline, characters, motives etc. I was surprised later to discover that not all biographers do this. But I guess that there’s a naturally novel-ish inclusiveness to the form of biography that may explain its current popularity, because I think it’s possible to write an interesting life of absolutely anybody.

With his ornate prose style and unabashed intellectualism, Duggan was perhaps seen as the odd man out, or one of the odd men out, in Kiwi literature during his lifetime. How do you see his reputation now? Do you think your book has helped spur interest in his work?

I think To Bed at Noon did stimulate some interest in Duggan’s work for a while. Elizabeth Caffin told me that AUP even sold some backlist copies of the Collected Stories. But all the male writers of mid-twentieth century New Zealand literature are neglected at the moment. It’s a situation no one could ever have imagined when they were active, and it’s thoroughly unbalanced our view of our own literary past. They’ve become like the ‘fly-over’ states in America. People study the late-Victorian writers and deconstruct them and show why they couldn’t handle this or that, and then…whoooosh, we’re in the seventies and it’s all about women and Maori. Now, I’m not about to put down the emergence of women and Maori writers. But Duggan is a perfect example of why it’s a mistake just to ignore the mid-twentieth-century males and not apply to them the standards we use for the writing of the present. ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’, for instance, would make a wonderful case-study for a feminist critic: Fanny Hohepa is plainly a lot more empowered by Duggan than she appears to be in the eyes of Buster O’Leary. And to fail to ‘get’ Duggan is to fail to get his contemporary, Janet Frame, because both of them were stylists who spent a great deal of time matching the form of what they were writing to its content. You wrote a long, wonderfully well-researched essay on Kendrick Smithyman's 1966 poem, 'Flying to Palmerston'. What made you want to write about this text, rather than about one of Smithyman's thousands of other poems?

It wasn’t really supposed to happen at all! I got to know Kendrick a few years before his death, when I was researching the Duggan biography. Kendrick’s occasional outward bluster did nothing to conceal a heart of gold, and he was immensely kind and helpful as the book grew into shape. I think he also supplied a lot of behind-the-scenes assistance to the Michael King biography of Sargeson and the Keith Ovenden biography of Davin. Anyway, being from Palmerston North myself, I remember teasing Kendrick on one occasion about the poem ‘Flying to Palmerston’--that’s a bit like poking a bear with a stick--and when Peter Simpson published the Smithyman Collected Poems online I re-read ‘Flying to P’ and made the acquaintance of a lot of other Smithyman poems. I’ve probably only read a small fraction of Kendrick’s oeuvre--as who hasn’t?--but it dragged me in and I thought I’d like to write something. William Broughton and Margaret Edgcumbe were both very forthcoming with background information.

You have created a website and placed a generous amount of your writing there. What is behind your decision to publish in this way? Do you feel that the book and the offline journal are becoming less important, in the twenty-first century?

The reason why I placed my material online was simple survival--no more than that. Living overseas kills any chance you may have of making the contacts necessary for publishing, and it ruins the ones you may already have. But over and above that, the economics of publishing in a market as tiny as New Zealand’s is pretty screwy anyway. Without government grants almost nothing would be published and with no library purchasing almost nothing would be sold…so everything starts to look uncomfortably like vanity publishing after a while. I think the Internet is one natural solution to this problem. My own little website is completely homemade and costs me nothing at all--even though I’m very un-web-savvy. But I rather like the cheek of its obvious amateurishness. There’s a long tradition of fine printing in NZ that’s always struck me as a bit precious, and it seems to me that if One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is photocopied and stapled together, then it’s still a great novel. Anyway, to be completely honest, I just meant to put some unpublishable literary essays on the website, and then egotism took over and I thought, why not put unpublishable fiction on there too?

When did you take up residence in Japan, and what motivated the shift? Is living in Japan a help or a hindrance to your literary endeavours?

I gave up a lucrative career as a waiter to come to Japan in the early 1980s, then went back to NZ and spent time on the dole and a number of years working for less income than a primary school teacher. Finally I came back to Japan again in 1996. I work at a university here, and that means I get long holidays which are good for writing activities--although the glory days of the Japanese economy are gone, and I suspect that if I was starting out now I’d be going to China. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed at how disconnected I am from the life around me in Japan, but I suspect a part of that is my personality anyway. Being resident in Japan does hurt any sort of literary career in a way that, perhaps, being in Britain or America might not, but…all right, I’ll say it: I think there’s a certain visceral resentment in NZ towards expat Kiwi writers wherever they live, unless they manage the trick of success overseas. But I know that if I’d stayed in Palmerston North I never would have written another word, and yet oddly, from a distance, I can write about it as home.

Do you take a strong interest in Japanese literature? Are there trends in the writing of your adopted homeland that New Zealanders ought to know about?

No…and I think not.

Was it tricky being a resident of Japan during the Peter Bethune trial?

No, not at all. I think there’s a strong fund of goodwill towards NZ in Japan that seems very resilient. Also, I think Japanese people feel they can’t influence the politics of their own government very much--certainly, not in the direct way we do. Active involvement in politics can come at a high price in a country were you may be stabbed by a rightist, there’s little social welfare and the law is erratic. As a result, for better or worse, ordinary Japanese people often seem very disconnected from politics, which may explain all those Japanese tourists who happily go whale-watching in Kaikoura and then casually watch the minke sushi going round on the conveyor belt in the sushi-bar in Tokyo. It’s often been said that one of the reasons why ordinary Japanese people are honest, intelligent and well behaved is because the Japanese authorities take care of being corrupt, stupid and immoral for them.

What are your current research interests and plans?

I’m working on a novel, and have been for a long time, which means that everything else in life is just displacement activity.

Footnote: since we've been talking about whaling, I wanted to recommend an opinion piece which Dougal McNeill, another Kiwi writer who has sojourned in Japan, published recently in the Japan Times. Dougal's argument that the anti-whaling movement has a 'racist undercurrent' seems all too credible to me, especially given some of the nasty rhetoric that the anti-whalers used back in 2006.


Anonymous Keri H said...

"and whoosh it's the '70s and it's all about women and Maori'

-o no it's not -

in the 1970s, there are VERY few women & Maori being published to any extent - Ian Richards is confusing the 1980s with the earlier decade.

6:21 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Fair point Keri. I was just recently reading an excellent review which John Newton did of the anthology of 60s-70s poetry Big Smoke which focused on what a hard road women writers had in that era (I think the review appeared in Landfall 200).

6:39 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Will check that out - thanks Maps.
On racism as reguards opposition to Japanese whaling:
I've encountered very little of it, mainly because my anti-whaling mates (who include people from waybackwhen (Project Jonah)) are very careful to exclude general citizenry from politically-originated biz committment. Doesnt quite work that way with people from Norway (or the Faroes) where they insist people abide by their cultural norms*, or with Icelandic folk who are more concerned as a tiny nation with a large sea-hunting culture to keep their place against other fishers they see as agressors. Nor was it the point of view of the only Innuit captain of a native shorewhaling craft (yes! still made traditionally, but using deisel engine as well as oar propulsion) that I met in - of all places - Montana: he said, We've been doing this for over a millenium. We take enough for our (very limited population) needs.We'll welcome you, host you**, so you can see how we do things. We'll look after you-

*to the strident Norwegian woman who said 'Our culture allows us to whales' I responded, somewhat cheaply but correctly 'My culture allows me to eat humans. Somehow I resist.'

**They were not rich people. He was completely sincere.

7:32 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Newton's review made me want to track down and read Hilaire Kirkland and Vanya Lowry, but this seems to be no easy task! For all its supposed radicalism, the boomer generation seems to have been pretty old-fashioned in its attitudes to gender (well, the men were old-fashioned, at least!).

When a few of the smaller Pacific nations made a bloc with Japan to frustrate anti-whaling measures back in 2006, both New Zealand politicians and some environmentalists got quite nasty. Winston Peters, who was then Foreign Minister, accused the pro-Japanese nations of taking money for favours, which was pretty rich!

The response to the arrest and trial of Bethune has sometimes dredged up 1940s-style anti-Japanese racism. The popular centre-left blog The Standard ran an hysterical piece called 'Prisoner of the Japanese', which likened Bethune to a World War Two POW, and which was illustrated with the flag of the Imperial Japanese government that was defeated in 1945. Would The Standard illustrate an article critical of the government of Angela Merkel with the swastika flag which Hitler's regime flew? I rather doubt it.

I think whaling should be legal, as long as the whalers use pre-industrial technology. The Tongans were apparently quite good at it, but they seem keener on promoting their country as a whale-watching destination these days.

11:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm. Can Ian Richards explain why he is so dismissive about Japanese literature today? He seems mighty confident - for an outsider.

3:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous you refer to this:

Maps: "Do you take a strong interest in Japanese literature? Are there trends in the writing of your adopted homeland that New Zealanders ought to know about?"

Richards: "No…and I think not."

I thought that was a strange response but by 'not taking a strong interest' doesn't mean one dismisses. It means I suspect that his interests are concentrated on other literatures. I myself haven't read much of any Japanese literature and being in Japan might not even make me read more of it..or perhaps he simply didn't want to "got there" as they say."

But I want to read more Japanese literature if time permits in the future. I suppose Richards if he is teaching and writing a novel finds he needs to concentrate on a certain time frame.

As kind of touche!...I don't know much about Duggan's stories - I have read the 'Along Rideout Road..' and some long stories he wrote but I prefer Owen Marshall and such as Mansfield and Sargeson as short story writers...but I haven't read the book of his real short stories so perhaps I cant really judge...

Maps is interested in Smithyman much more than I so hence he has done though!

BUT - the second prat of the answer "..and I think not." is strange.

Perhaps he is simply being honest. We expect a long answer about how Japanese literature is (very?) different and how we can learn and so on ...but such answers often involve dubious seems hat every country (more or less) has the same experiences and ideas to write about.

I don't know how they got onto the subject of whaling though!! I'm all for whale burgers!

7:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I suspect Richards is bullshitting about his reason(s) for being in Japan though - I mean who would want to be in that strange fockin' place?

7:59 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

A couple of comments- Maps, the boomer generation was why (I think) Maori & women finally got a word in...
we're the ones born from 1945 onwards (to 1960?), and that includes the ones who revitalised feminism, here and elsewhere. And the ones who were motivated to resurge as Maori (whether politically, as writers, or land activists.)

It was the generation *before* the bloody baby boomers that made life difficult for both Maori & women writers.

And, apropos whaling, why, if humans went back to pre-industrial technology - that's OK by me (Kai Tahu used to hunt dolphins.) The Innuit bloke was wonderful - he was, by virtue of his captaincy, also the harpoonist, and explained the the diesel motor was absolutely useless *except* to get you into the general area - it alerted both the grays & the beluga you were hunting...his harpoon/s were hand-hurled.

With pre-industrial tech, cetaceans have a very good chance of getting away, in open sea hunts - which I would limit cetacean-hunting to-

Richard T - there are so many things I love about Japan! But there's no way way I could ever live there, and, like you, I do wonder why Ian Richards chooses to-

11:45 pm  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Thanks for your blog Maps, great topics, opinions and discussions..

I was quite reassured by the very hesitant and measured response by the New Zealand environmental community towards Pete Bethune.

I think Mr Bethune (and Sea Shepherd) are seen as quite dangerous outliers by those wary of the fine line between environmental activisim guided by social justice and non violence and what enviromentalism can become when taken over by the right.

I'm not sure if Mr Bethune garnered much sympathy from "mainstream" New Zealand. But who knows, it could become appealing for the deer stalkers and libertarians to head down to the Southern Ocean with bows and arrows to fend off the Japanese....

5:10 am  
Anonymous Sea Shepherd said...

Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson has responded to Dougal McNeil's sterile, academic, Marxist-anthropocentrist smears on our website
What a disgrace it is that some people choose to act as propagandists for the Japanese whaling industry. Dougal McNeil's apologies for the actions of Japan during World War Two are also noted.

8:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is anyone who criticises Sea Shpherd in the pay of the whaling industry?

5:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I've got a book by Roland Barthes about Japan and he says that it is a very very very strange place (I think - don't really understand much of what he says - but he says it well - whatever it is)).

I am of England where there is kindness and goodness. NZ is a terrible and heartless place.

Mongolia is my special place.

8:09 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

"Mongolia is my special place."

Well & dwell, each to their own...

I -found England - totally uncongenial. The body language was wrong. Their caste system - entirely weird. Much of the bruited-abroad superiority just equalled slacko sicko. Their fishnchips were horrible.
And, by and large, kindness & goodness were entirely absent in my experience(found them in Scotland however.)

My father's parents came to ANZ in 1912. He was born here, in 1917. I dont really think he was a New Zealander...his viewpoint & ambitions were in another land.

I am of&fromANZ. This archipelago is where I was seeded, grew, became- and joyfully, productively, live-

and will die. Bones back to earth, earth owning bones, bones being earth-

10:40 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

keri - my England is mine - I have never been there. My parents are English. My England is in MY mind. It is a place of decency and scones and kindnesses and the Cotswalds and thatch cottages. Nothing bad ever happens there. There are only kindly people there. Germany is a savage alien gutteral place that started wars. Mongolia I inhabit - but I know nothing about it - or very little - I don't want to know.

I never finished Barthes book on "Japan" but I like the cover of it.

I have never been to "Japan" and don't intend to go. It probably doesn't exist.

"Mongolia, I love you Mongolia because you are Mongolia."

1:13 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Keri - I was just pissing about - that is my "poetic" persona. It reflects a "truth" but has nothing to do with this discussion!!

Maps would talk about "language games" ...

No when I said about Richards I was being a bit silly.
I actually did think of going to Japan to teach for the money once...but I never got around to it.

I would be interested in Japan but I would struggle with the language...I often think how it must be for people here from Asia or China or wherever...

In principle whaling seems unpleasant and unnecessary to me...but the world is pretty knackered ..we are maybe too successful as a species.

I love Japanese (and Chinese) art - did read two books by Ishiguro - although he lives a lot in Britain.

I should join Green Peace and get a free tour of the world! Good for an old bludger like me.....maybe I could blow up a ship ... doesn't matter what or whose ... it could be exciting...or I could machine gun an Israeli or something...blow up a public building...

But the Greenies are all a bit too wet and goody goody for me... but my daughter is very keen on I have to be careful what I say!! I don't dare argue with her!!

1:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The real question is:

"Could a polar bear beat a tiger?"

{and could a single whale beat twenty man-eating rhinos ? )

1:30 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

O, zen-type questions which I can answer in my makar way-cool!

***polar bear v. tiger?
Depends on the environment.
Always bet on the bear however - way more intelligent & adaptable than the cat.

***single whale versus 20 man-eating rhinos?
Depends on the environment.
If we are talking 'toothed whale' however, always bet on the whale. Rhinos are astonishingly dumb (even when paramount in their rather restricted environment.)

Richard, I dont think poets are privileged by stupid insight(some of your's have been less than brillant): I think we ignore science at our peril (and to the detriment of what we do.)

What we do is catch moments and feelings in words *that are - or can be - accessible to a lot of other people.*We can make people FEEL what they dont necessarily know-

Keri Hulme, makar


8:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

keri - but the polar bear can beat a tiger so that's o.k.

But I still love cats.

11:04 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"What we do is catch moments and feelings in words *that are - or can be - accessible to a lot of other people.*We can make people FEEL what they dont necessarily know-"

I agree in principle. I am not sure what the role is but I think we need to keep on "working" or making if we can. Reading in any case..

Art certainly enriches life.

I have always taken an interest in science - I wanted initially to be scientist - but I wasn't very good at the practical work (or even maths - I was reasonable but not very astute there...) at the time (ca. 1966). My uncle was one and my brother is an Industrial Chemist.

We all say and so silly things.


1:27 am  
Blogger Richarquis de Sade said...

@Maps - Yes, finding some of Hilaire Kirkland's work is not so easy. I did one of my 3rd year essays on her poems, as part of Michelle Leggott's class, and it was the most enjoyable essay I ever did in my entire degree. Her poems are amazing. They are wonderfully musical and textural works, and many are quite complicated in their nuances, and will have you circling back again and again, trying to figure out exactly what alludes to what. Auckland University Special Collections has both "Blood Clear & Apple Red" and "8 Poems" (if I recall the 2nd title correctly.) "Big Smoke" and the rather weighty

Here is the opening of my favourite of her poems, "Clothos, Lachesis, & Atropos." Visceral, brooding, and absolutely gorgeous.

"I learn you were hurt my sweet, and hurt again/ From loving too much/ And of this wound and loss, regretted nothing.../

/ A slave in subject to voluptuous pain/ which caused you such an ecstacy/ of soft bewildered weeping.../

/ And I the animal whose quick teeth nipped your vein, now seize a bolder clutch - / Lie down, my whore, you are not finished bleeding..."

Good luck tracking them down, they're worth all the effort. (Vanya Lowry was also fantastic, too.)

5:59 pm  

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