Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In the Field

I'm honoured that the Spinoff Review of Books is devoting itself to The Stolen Island this week. I've done an interview with Spinoff books editor Steve Braunias, and he's commissioned a couple of reviews - one of them, by veteran Pacific journalist and historian Michael Field, appears today - and taken an excerpt from my book.

When my wife and I visited Samoa in 2009, on our first tentative venture into the tropical Pacific, Michael Field's book Mau: the tragic story of Samoa's Freedom Struggle was our guide, as we visited sites like the parliament improvised by Samoa's nationalists in a band rotunda, and the seaside road where New Zealand cops machine gunned a protest march.

Field has always been at home in Samoa, but he has had a difficult relationship with Tonga, whose authorities have several times banned him. In the chapter of his 2010 book Swimming with Sharks dedicated to Tonga, Field makes clear his exasperation with the kingdom's hierarchical social structure. He records seeing Tongan commoners crawling on their stomachs towards members of their royal family, and suggests that only the unambitious and untalented avoid emigrating to more meritocratic societies like Nu'u Sila and Amelika.

But Field's review acknowledges the other, apparently contradictory side of Tonga - the tradition of critical thinking and cultural eclecticism most famously represented by Futa Helu and his 'Atenisi Institute...

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Reclusive, and a genius?

There are few things more intriguing than a reclusive literary genius: somebody who sends out a flow of captivating words, and fills the shelves of bookshops and libraries with volume after volume, but refuses to participate in the rituals of celebrity - refuses to appear at book festivals, to read in bookshops, to sign books for fans, and even to be photographed and put on dust jackets.

New Zealand has been short of reclusive geniuses. We have had no Thomas Pynchon, no JD Salinger. It is true that Frank Sargeson worked for decades in isolation, behind the buffer of his overgrown vegetable garden, but he never cherished obscurity, and was happy to become a celebrity in the last decade of his life. Janet Frame was intensely shy, but she struggled through interviews, and never turned away a photographer.

Now, though, Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books and its offshoot Atuanui Books, claims to have discovered a reclusive genius living and writing in Auckland. Brett has a manuscript and a global publishing deal to support his claim. He has written about his discovery at The Spinoff.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Shocked by slavery

I'm grateful to Sarah Hayward of Booksellers.co.nz for this review of The Stolen Island.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Roasting Von Tempsky

[Paul Janman, Ian Powell, and I are holding an exhibition about the Great South Road - or, as we increasingly call it, Ghost South Road - in the middle of this year, an exhibition which will include panel discussions and theatrical performances as well as art. Paul has set up a facebook group for the actors rehearsing for the exhibition; I left this message there last week.]
I commented here recently about theatrical performances that took place during the Waikato War. But there was an intriguing play that was performed for the first time at the beginning of the 1870s, and which presented, in a very dubious way, one of the most famous parts of the New Zealand Wars - the death of Gustavus Von Tempsky, the brilliant and brutal commander of the Forest Rangers, the colonial army's counter-insurgency unit, during the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu in Taranaki.
Launcelot Booth was a Durham-born immigrant to the antipodes who became involved with Auckland's fledgling theatre scene soon after arriving in the city in 1870. In February 1871 a review of Booth's play Crime in the Clouds appeared in both the New Zealand Herald and the Daily Southern Cross. The anonymous reviewer explained that the play had attracted a large audience to Auckland's Theatre Royal. The reviewer praised Crime in the Clouds for 'providing some very good scenery', and was particularly impressed by the 'view of Fort Britomart and the North Shore'.
Later in the 1870s Booth would bring Crime in the Clouds to Christchurch, and a newspaper report suggests that in 1898, decades after he had left New Zealand for Australia, he was performing the play in Sydney.
The reviewer for the New Zealand Herald and the Daily Southern Cross promised to provide a 'synopsis' of Booth's play in a later article, but never obliged. His review does give us a rough idea of how the play unfolded. All but one of the play's acts were set in England. In the first act a passenger in a balloon is murdered high above Buckinghamshire; in the third act the action moved to Taranaki, and Booth portrayed the death of Von Tempsky, who was shot while hacking furiously at the undergrowth of the Taranaki bush during the rout of his men by the army of Titokowaru. Booth's play featured 'real Maoris' and a 'real war dance'.
Crime in the Clouds seems never to have been published. In 1888, though, the Hawkes Bay Herald published a memoir by someone named JF Graham, who had helped to run a theatre troupe in 1870s Christchurch. Graham's reminiscences are quite well written, if you can forgive his casual racism and the orotund prose style that was common in the nineteenth century, and they give a good deal of information about Crime in the Clouds. Graham explains how he and his colleagues created a 'large transparency' for Booth, and how they tried to simulate the flight of a balloon against it.
If Graham's memoir is to be believed, then Booth's portrayal of the death of Von Tempsky was ludicrously and luridly inaccurate. Graham says that a group of 'aboriginals' from Banks Peninsula were persuaded to take part in the play in return for whisky, and that they were obliged to tie the actor playing Von Tempsky up, and dangle him over a fire, as if they were about to cook him. According to Graham, the 'aboriginals' got too enthusiastic, and Von Tempsky got burnt. Here's a link to Graham's text.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The loneliness of Donald Trump

President Trump's first fortnight in power has taught us three lessons.

The first lesson is that Trump is an economic nationalist. He was serious when he talked, on the campaign trail, about scrapping free trade deals and keeping American companies from migrating to Mexico and Asia. He was serious about building new infrastructure, like roads and bridges and his notorious border wall, that will create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Last year Boris Kagarlitsky argued that Trump represented the declining manufacturing sector of the American capitalist class, and was opposed by the financial sector of the country's capitalist class, as well by new high tech industries. Trump's first fortnight in power suggests that Kagarlitsky was right.

Wall Street, which had hoped Trump's denunciations of neo-liberal capitalism were unserious, has begun to admit it was wrong. The financial sector and high tech sectors benefit from the relatively free movement of labour as well as capital; they have been unimpressed by Trump's talk of tariffs, and also by his attempts to ban the citizens of seven mainly Muslim nations from entering America. It is no coincidence that tech companies are joining forces to challenge Trump's ban.

Trump's economic nationalism makes him careless about alienating traditional allies like Australia, and reckless in his dealings with China.

The second lesson Trump has taught us is that he wants to conquer and reshape the American state.

Before Trump was elected, observers disagreed over whether or not he would be content to govern within the limits the American constitution traditionally gives to presidents, or whether he was interested in ending the separation of powers between congress, the courts, and the presidency and concentrating power in the White House. We can now see that Trump is keen to control the innermost parts of the American state, and contemptuous of the limits that have traditionally been placed on presidential power.

Trump has pushed members of his family and his political advisers into parts of the 'deep state', like the National Security Council, that have traditionally been off limits to political appointees. He has sacked an Attorney General who questioned the legality of his ban on visitors from seven Muslim majority nations, and has condemned a federal judge who considered the ban unconstitutional. He has attacked congressmen like John McCain, after they queried his authoritarian style.

Some critics of Trump's reach for power point at Stephen Bannon, the former boss of Breitbart News who has been making himself comfortable in the White House over the last fortnight. Bannon's politics have been characterised as fascist, but he isn't necessarily responsible for Trump's authoritarianism. America's new president has spent his life as a corporate dictator, sacking staff and buying and selling companies at will; it is perhaps not surprising that he is still acting like a dictator.
The third lesson Trump has taught us, albeit unwittingly, is that he is isolated, and unlikely, given the present balance of forces, to succeed in turning America towards economic nationalism and in conquering the state. Trump's chthonic nationalism and his contempt for the rule of law have convinced many observers that he is a fascist. But Trump lacks the support of the most powerful parts of America's capitalist class, and he lacks the organised and menacing street army that has traditionally helped fascists take and consolidate power.

In capitalist countries, the ruling class traditionally only turns to fascism when it sees its own power threatened by another class. The German capitalists turned to Hitler because they were traumatised by the Great Depression and terrified that the country's massive Communist Party would take power and seize their factories in the name of the working class.

America is not suffering a Great Depression, although isolated parts of the country, like the Trump-voting coal counties of Kentucky, are suffering an apparently endless economic decline, and no mass radical movement threatens the assets of its elite. A large majority of Republican lawmakers will baulk at Trump's economic nationalism, and will be unimpressed by his attempts to undermine the powers of congress and the courts.

Trump could try to overcome the opposition of the courts and of mainstream Republicans if he had a streetfighting army behind him. If he had such an army he might call on its members to intimidate judges who defy him, to flood airports and make sure that his ban on Muslims is maintained, and to blockade any state legislature that opposes him.

But although Trump won millions of devoted supporters during his election campaign, he has not tried to turn these supporters into brownshirts. He may fulminate against 'so-called judges' and other enemies in his tweets, and his followers may angrily retweet him, but indignation is no substitute for force. It is Trump's opponents who have created, in an extraordinarily brief time, a large and impressively mobile protest movement. Trump is, at present, a lonely figure: a general without an army.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, February 04, 2017

About that trilithon

I know that parents are the very worst art critics when they are viewing the work of their offspring, but I was quite impressed with the painting that my oldest son did at kindy the day before we jointly showed some slides of the Ha'amonga a Maui and other Tongan landmarks associated with the demigod and anti-hero of Moana. Let me go completely hyperbolic and suggest that there's a Rothko-like quality to those rectangular slabs of paint.

I recently ran into 'Opeti Taliai, my old boss at the 'Atenisi Institute, at Auckland hospital. I was there to pick up a new-fangled drug; he was getting his new liver tested. We'd lost touch, and got to talking about his recent efforts to develop his PhD thesis, which is called The Legitimation of Economic and Political Power in Tonga, into a book. I mentioned that I'd raided the thesis when I was reviewing the Tongan New Zealand artist Sione Faletau's remarkable flesh and blood reconstruction of the trilithon for EyeContact.

Ha'amonga a Maui translates approximately as burden of Maui, and 'Opeti links the structure with the centralisation of power in Tonga, and the extraction of a regular 'inasi, or tribute, from farmers. He suggests that the trilithon, which stood beside Heketa, Tonga's earliest capital, might have been designed as a gateway through which commoners had to bring their 'gifts' to a nascent monarchy.

'Opeti Taliai's explanation for the Ha'amonga is surely more plausible than the late King Tupou IV's claim that the monument was designed as a sort of open-air observatory, or Gavin Menzies' theory that it was raised by Chinese interlopers.

You can read 'Opeti's thesis here.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

In defence of Maui

Morgan Godfery has written a long and fascinating  review of Moana, Disney's blockbusting excursion into Polynesian history and myth.

Godfery talks about how he, like many other Polynesians, grew up hearing two versions of his people's history.

The first version, which came from whanau, described the heroic and skilful settlement of the Pacific, and the development of complex cultures on often inhospitable islands.

The second version, which was broadcast in classrooms and through televisions and other media, insisted that Polynesians drifted desperately across the Pacific, were wrecked on random islands, and established primitive ways of life that were rendered obsolete by the arrival of Europeans.

Some reviewers of Moana have praised the film for making its heroes Polynesians, and for showing off Polynesian tattooing and vaka. The film's eponymous protagonist is a sixteen year old girl with an appetite and aptitude for adventure; she has been acclaimed as an 'anti-princess' and therefore a feminist hero.

Godfery, though, finds himself unable to join the chorus of praise for Moana. He points out that Moana is an invented character, not a part of Polynesian mythology, and that the supposedly feminist movie debases a real feminist hero of Pacific folklore, the fire goddess Pele, by portraying her as Te Fiti, a wretched 'lava witch'.

And like Jenny Salesa, the Tongan New Zealand MP for Manukau East, Morgan Godfery is upset by the depiction of the demigod and hero Maui in Moana. Stories about Maui's strength, cunning, and imagination have been told for many centuries in almost all of Polynesia's thirty or so cultures, from Rapa Nui to Tonga to Tikopia. When tales are told in marae, or beside a campfire, or around a kava bowl, it is Maui who is credited with pulling islands from the sea, with holding up the world, with stealing fire and sharing it with mortals.

In Moana, though, the legendary Maui is turned into what Godfery calls 'an American jerk'. Maui is obese, obnoxious, ignorant, a comic sidekick to the film's teenage hero.

Last week the kids at my oldest son's kindergarten watched Moana, and loved the film. My son came home from kindy laughing about Maui, and acting out some of his scenes.

I didn't want to detract from the kids' enjoyment of the film, but I thought I could broaden their appreciation of Maui by showing some images of the demigod's exploits in Tonga. This morning I put on my tupenu and ta'ovala and headed down to kindy.
When the kids saw the bulky mat tied around my waist with coconut fibre they were intrigued; one of them decided that I was wearing a 'Maui skirt'. I described how Tongans make ta'ovala by taking the bark off paper mulberry trees, soaking it in the sea, then beating and weaving it, and explained that on formal occasions in Tonga everyone must wear a mat.

I showed a series of pictures of sites associated with Maui on a laptop. My son, who was wearing his own tupenu, had visited all of the landmarks, and added his own commentary on them.

Even as I talked to my audience of three and four year olds, I realised how much I was simplifying the tangled network of tales that are told about Maui in the Friendly Islands. Some stories, for example, attribute Maui's deeds to a family, rather than the individual I described. Maui fusi-fonua, or Maui the puller of land, brought islands out of the sea; his nephew Maui Kisikisi was the thief of fire. A 1921 article by EEV Collocott introduced English-language readers to some of the Tongan stories about Maui.
The Ha'amonga a Maui, or burden of Maui, stands near the ruins of Heketa, Tonga's first capital, in the far east of the island of Tongatapu. Some stories say that Maui, with his prodigous strength, quarried the monument's three slabs of beachrock, dragged them to Heketa, and forced them together. In an essay for the art journal EyeContact I looked at other theories and versions of the Ha'amonga a Maui.
Scientists say that the boulder that stands near the village of Kala'au, in the west of Tongatapu, was ripped from coral rock and thrown inland by an immense tsunami about ten thousand years ago. But old stories speak of a giant chicken that was terrorising the island of 'Eua, which lies twenty or so kilometres from Kala'au across a deep and stormy Tongatapu Channel. Maui ran the chicken down and threw it across the water, away from 'Eua. When the bird landed on Tongatapu it turned to stone.
Maui's boulder almost qualifies as a mountain on an island as flat as Tongatapu, and during the wars that divided the island early in the nineteenth century the rock was used as a lookout.
A sign in the middle of Kala'au directs curious palangi to Maui's boulders, and to some of the other historic sites that cluster around the village.
It was hard work throwing a giant chicken across the sea, and as he struggled with the bird Maui sunk one of his feet into the porous earth of 'Eua. Maui's footprint is a giant sinkhole, and a favourite destination of the hikers who explore the 'Euan highland.
Lianga Huao a Maui, or Maui's archway, is found at the southern end of 'Eua, and is considered a monument to the demigod's mischievousness. After his mother forced him out of bed and into his kava plantation, and gave him a stick to dig with, Maui rebelled. He stamped his foot; the ground shook. His exasperated mother, who had as much strength as her son, grabbed the digging stick and threw it away: it stuck into a cliff. When Maui pulled the tool free, it left a hole that tourists like to photograph.

My oldest son's classmates seemed to enjoy seeing Maui's handiwork, and hearing about his feats. I hope that they now find the 'American jerk' of Moana more complicated, and interesting.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]