Sport 24: Summer 2000
Elizabeth Knox — On Being Picked Up
The Inaugural New Zealand Book Council Lecture March 1998
When I was eleven I fell out of a walnut tree. I'd made a Tarzan swing by knotting the end of a rope in a loop, then slinging the looped end over a high limb, and threading the other end through it. What I hadn't remembered was to look up to check that the second loop was closed—it had caught on another knot. And when I climbed up the tree and swung, the loop came free, the rope went slack and dropped me, I let go of it and landed on my back. An ambulance was called. The ambulance men couldn't simply pick me up; they had to keep me flat and straight. They rolled me onto my side, slipped the stretcher under me and eased me onto it.
At the hospital I was checked for spinal injuries—several doctors scratched the soles of my feet with the sharp end of a safety-pin. I was wheeled from one place to the next, immobilised on a gurney, flat on my back, which was the nearest sensation I've had to flying—an unpicturesque flying over pipes and light-fittings and upside-down signs.
When my x-rays were developed they found a completely sound spine, ribs and hips—so they took a urine sample and promptly lost it, lost me, parked with my father in a corner of Casualty, and forgotten.
It was a very busy day: a public holiday, ANZAC Day. Just down the hall a little girl who had swallowed some household poison was having her stomach pumped—a noise I've never heard on a film soundtrack. We knew what her problem was because an old man came along and leaned on the doorframe and said, 'That poor wee girl.' He had a bloodstained bandage wrapped around his head—my first blood in Casualty. He wore a shiny dark suit and was thin, with wristbones like ping-pong balls. He told us that he'd been drinking and had fallen over in the street, hitting his head on the curb. Just below the bandage, page 29 by one ear, he had a scar, a long depression filled with smooth, snowy skin. An old shrapnel scar.
The old man started to talk to Dad about Passchendaele and life on the Salient in 1917. And I listened. Then Dad said a few things about his father, who had been there too. A nurse came by and tried to move the old guy and Dad said, 'He's all right, don't bother him.' She went away again.
And I was picked up.
Because I had been in pain and wasn't any more. Because I was hearing a story about horror and loss, the storyteller's horror and loss, with a backing of these awful stomach-pump noises, and the sight of blood, a recent injury standing in for an old one—and because my father was talking about his father, whom he never talked about—I was picked up. Inspired. A subject had got hold of me until I had it out with it, in my first published book, After Z-Hour.
However, by the time I was able to start writing, my imagination was, one way or another, occupied territory. Or perhaps my imagination was like the transit lounge of LA International Airport. I wasn't on American soil, I was in the transit lounge reading an American magazine—say—Harper's Magazine; although my reading matter then, when I began writing, ran more to Omni, the 'magazine of the future'.
There is a stereotypical experience New Zealand artists and intellectuals are said to have, a stereotype with a measure of truth to it, perhaps a problem we've outgrown, or perhaps an old problem with new outgrowths: to be an authentic New Zealand artist you are expected to have some sense of a lack of authenticity. Not only have you had to do the frowned-on thing and show off, you've had to do the obscene thing and expose yourself—you've had to get over the famous Kiwi reticence. A reticence expressed in the extreme reluctance of Kiwi drivers to indicate. Or in the way Kiwi pedestrians sidle up to crossings and then lunge out onto the road.
[Holds out right arm] I'm indicating a turn. This is how I used to see it done when I was little, by our neighbour in Pomare, driving some bomb circa 1939.page 30
Paul Holmes has an often-mimicked style of speaking that, I think, produces exaggerated examples of something New Zealanders do. Our most famous sentence is short and declarative: 'We knocked the bastard off.' That's one kind of typical. The other sounds like Paul Holmes in full flight. The rhythm of talk half tendered, then taken back, reoffered, withdrawn, modified, or perhaps softened up, moulied like baby food. In speech our sentences have these parenthetical bag-handles, are full of dependent clauses—like those family stories that start: 'We were up at my uncle's bach up at Whitianga. He's had a bach up there since, oh, I don't know, but it's one of those that's on the Queen's Chain, he can't replace it but he can repair it. Anyway, he knows everyone up there, so when they find he's got giardia in his watertanks . . .' and so on. I've always wondered whether the shape of those stories is determined by the fact that any Kiwi telling a story realises that there will be numerous places where the story touches on not only shared experience, but on private knowledge. We have a small population—this is a place where it can be quite difficult not practising nepotism when hiring, somewhere where you can bet that the latest front-page-accused crim either went to school with your niece or sang in a choir with your neighbour. And where it's always advisable to take a quick look around the café before getting down to gossip. (I asked a writer from Iceland about this phenomenon. Iceland has population of 250,000. She said, 'Why bother to gossip? Even if you got there when the café opened, if it's newsy news the person you're meeting will know it already.') What I wonder is whether our sense of social interdependence influences our speech. A top-of-the-line Paul Holmesism can sound shifty and half-baked. Bitsy. All those clauses. Noncommittal. As though the speaker is hedging his bets, and if any clause proves offensive and takes the speaker somewhere he finds he doesn't want to be, it can be packed up between its attached parentheses, its bag-handles—packed up and carried off.
Perhaps because our society doesn't have enough subcultures, or big enough subcultures, we always have to be prepared to make ourselves understood to people who don't know where we're coming from—or, perhaps, we have at least to be prepared to behave apologetically for failing to make ourselves understood. Perhaps the page 31 old myth of our homogeneity—a downhome New Zealand of taciturn farmers and suburbs where everyone dressed the same and no one drank wine—came into being in part because none of us could get into any subcultural group up over our heads, so that the group's talk, and only its talk, poured into, and stopped up, our ears.
I have a cousin who spends six months of each year guiding rich men hunting elk on a ranch in New Mexico. My cousin says he has some difficulty making himself understood to the Americans for whom he works. He says Kiwis speak very fast—which is another way of not intruding—of getting everything you want to say out of the way at speed, and not taking up too much of anyone's time. I wonder, has this very speedy, staccato, jittery style found its way into our rhetoric—although it seems anti-rhetorical? This expressive and characterising mannerism—staccato, yes, but because staccato profoundly rhythmical, and with tides in it. And here I think of Charles Simic, American poet: 'What is it that guides the eye and ear to accept what appears at first ugly or nonsensical?'
I know a man who's a great reader of literary fiction, especially what he calls 'market-tested' prize-winning books. But he doesn't read New Zealand books. I asked him why. After some consideration he said that New Zealand wasn't a place he felt he needed to know. In that way. It's too everyday—he said—he thinks about New Zealand all the time, about investments, interest rates, financial forecasts. This thoughtful individual retreats into reading in his leisure time, and to locations that seem more the proper subject of art, more yielding of wisdom and pleasure. 'Britain. The Continent.' New Zealand somehow doesn't seem sufficiently a subject. And 'not sexy'. Now, why doesn't it occur to this reader to consider his country a source of emotional sustenance or just plain reading pleasure? How is it that so much of his imagination has decided not to belong here?
I'm sitting in the transit lounge in LA International Airport—reading an essay in Harper's Magazine. I'm thinking about writing an essay on my father's anti-Americanism. I don't suppose Dad was any more anti-American than other New Zealand lefty intellectuals. Anti-Americanism was critical to the culture of this country, was possibly page 32 the only site of accord between the country's rulers—on one hand the socialist/intellectual Fairburn/Holcroft lot, on the other the more monied 'rah-rah the Old Country' crowd. Dad's anti-Americanism was perhaps less political than some—he wasn't a socialist like his friend Noel Hilliard. And Dad wasn't practising the anxious colonial pro-British snobbery, which seemed to arise here as soon as it was clear there was a meeting of influences, two tides like that seam of joined seas that runs up from Cape Reinga, with fragments of the national imagination—in the form of personal imaginations—like bodies being swept away on either side of it. British and American were binary opposites in this part of the English-speaking world. I was trying to illustrate this idea of opposition when, in Glamour and the Sea, I have a New Zealand paper reporting a British poll that saw most Americans as being childish. I found this report in the Evening Post of May 1947. And, when I was a kid, things were attributed, shared out, this way between the two: 'Britain' meant maturity, rigidity, culture, classiness (think of those BBC TV dramas); 'America' was vulgarity, childishness, frivolity, hipness, democracy.
Dad disliked American foreign policy. So that when, at nine and twelve, my older sister and I invented a game with paper dolls representing a children's United Nations, the American delegate, a boy, was played as repulsively self-righteous. (And this is funny, because we were Kiwis, and our childish grasp of what that meant was that we were somehow blameless, unstained, and exceptional. Then you're twenty, and you go to Dunedin, and see those smooth holes in clay banks that the deportees from Parihaka hollowed out as shelters while they were building roads.) My sister's Red Chinese girl doll was also an ideologue—Mary drew her waving a little red book—but her faults were faults of thinking rather than character. The American boy was a 'bad character'. After all, how many times had I heard 'American' prefaced by 'repulsive' by my father?
To be fair, I should say that I don't know how serious Dad was. Possibly he was just sounding off, and doesn't deserve an eavesdropping and retentive daughter who later attributes him with a world view based on his sounding off. Maybe. But I do know that Dad, and quite a few other people his age, had had their opinions coloured. They'd page 33 been shocked and disgusted by the sight of Marines and Kiwi girls having sex in the street during the 'occupation' of Wellington. Dad says, 'Those Marines were disgusting,' but nothing about the women who, contrary to romantic notions about female sexuality—traditional and feminist—were obviously jumping at the chance to 'do it' with someone they might never see again. Anyway—these Marines were Dad's incontinent, venal, opportunistic, vulgar Americans. My younger sister, Sara, and I were the kind of children who are naturally attracted to their parent's demons (Dad's demons, since Mum didn't seem to have any). It was bad so it was good. I asked Sara, how did she become attracted to America, apart from how bad it was? All that TV, she said—remember that program? A Family Affair? Everything was so desirable: the nice bachelor uncle, Brian Keith, the bearded gentleman's gentleman, the lucky curly-haired kids, Buffy and Jody, a New York penthouse, overstuffed furniture, an enclosed well-feathered eyrie. Whereas we had our cloudy linoleum and our cane dining chairs that creaked whenever you moved. 'I still have a thing about that,' Sara said, 'I hate chairs that join in the conversation.'
Sara is a bit of an expert on American evil; she went for the demons of the demonised. Her book, which is published in the US this month [March 1998], is called Murder, a Tale of Modern American Life. She shoots off to conferences on the gun, or trauma (staying in a motel in the Disneyworld compound). She's been a sceptic on a panel on alien abduction with Whitley Streiber—the horror writer who revived his flagging career in fiction by publicly professing his abduction experience. Sara describes walking out of a session at the Brisbane UFO conference and getting in a lift with a woman who—when the lift started to accelerate—went pale and took her arm and said, 'Oh! I hate that feeling,' then, leaning closer, 'You know, of being taken up.'
As for me, I had to get over imaginary games* about High School, movie stars and murderers—stuff like that—to get to the old man in Casualty, Wellington Hospital, on ANZAC Day. It wasn't my job to page 34 study culture, ideas as symptoms, as my sister does, it was my job to make a big deal of anomaly and the poetry of personal rationalisation. (To illustrate what I mean by the latter: novelists make a mockery and a game of legal notions like motive and sufficient cause—think about crime writer Elmore Leonard's characters, how they act on impulse, messily, then invent whole attitudes, world views, to explain their actions to themselves and others. And this self-invention is more than half the fun in his books.) I had to learn to write not what I knew, but what only I knew—which is to assume that there were things that only I knew. This is the writer-as-obsessive-egoist view that many people who know a writer would subscribe to. The writer gets a bee in their bonnet. The writer is convinced that they are the only one to ever think X, Y or Z.
My husband the publisher has another view. He thinks—and this is a metaphor not a medical theory—that writers lack a repressor gene. A gene that represses another gene's natural function; for example, that stops a certain immune system gene from teaching the system to recognise the insulin-producing beta cells within the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas as aliens, and destroying them, so that the individual then develops insulin-dependent diabetes. Fergus says perhaps everyone has the preconditions for being a writer but writers become writers because of a lack, a lack like the lack of a repressor gene. Perhaps they lack whatever stabilises others when exposed to 'environmental stress'. (I like the fact he made a medical metaphor, as if writing is a pathology.)
Anyway, there I was, a writer with a pathological urge to share her world with the world.
In the mid 80s, during one of my university holidays, I hitched around the South Island with my friend Madeline. One of the people who picked us up was an American. Another was English, just so we have a matching set, the binary opposites—a gentleman farmer from the Isle of Wight whom my friend told off when he voiced an opinion about how strange it was that New Zealand should be considering making Maori an official language. We were of an age still to be inclined to feel responsible for other people's opinions. He spent the rest of the page 35 drive into Queenstown trying to prove to us that he'd had a wild and liberal youth: summers of love, drugs, and sleeping on Greek beaches. He was very melancholy, and measured, even when nervous—talking about this marvellous golden past, while we drove along the shore of Lake Wakatipu under a high sky with mares' tails and lower sky with rain scarves, and rainbow after rainbow like one of those tunnels formed for a bride and groom out of crossed swords.
The American picked us up outside Geraldine, and drove us to the Hermitage. He had a rental car which he kept driving on the wrong side of the road. He had two weeks to do the whole of New Zealand and he'd already been everywhere else. He was a clinical description of ambulatory attention deficit disorder. He'd say, of the Mackenzie country, 'This is like some of northern California', then, of the Waitaki Valley, 'Oh yeah. This is like parts of Sweden.' At Lake Tekapo he stopped for sixty seconds, said, 'That's pretty,' and hopped back in the car. What he wanted from us was information. He'd do things like ask, 'What percentage of New Zealand marriages end in divorce?' Then sit gripping the wheel waiting for us to fumble out an answer. Maybe he wanted to talk about his divorce, and was trying to get to it. When we got to the carpark outside the Hermitage, he looked with dissatisfaction at the mountains glazed with yellow evening light, and warmed, so that while we stood there we heard an icefall—you know?—Crack, rush, boom! He went off to buy a map with travel times. He wanted to make Queenstown by dark.
That evening Madeline and I walked up from the hostel to the Hermitage. We didn't like the open bar, which was full of noisy, sunburned climbers, and had kea hanging upside down from the guttering so that they could see inside—so we snuck into the hotel bar, sat down in these nice soft, silent couches, with a view up the valley to Mount Cook. Aorangi. Near to us two elderly couples, American and Japanese, were getting to know each other. The Japanese woman invited us to join them. We did and we listened. The two men discovered they had both worked in the cotton manufacturing industry. Then they figured out that their companies had done business—that the US firm had sold cotton, through Mexico, to the Japanese firm, which was supplying the Japanese army, during the war. I don't want to page 36 overplay this, but it was a revelation for me. If I'd been a theorising person I would have taken from it—never mind politics, commerce determines how the world works. But I was more of a romantic, so I decided that the details of history often provide counter-arguments to the trends of history.
Later in the trip the Englishman drove us to Queenstown, where we ran out of money and were taken in by a Charismatic Christian youth group that was having an international Outreach to train and inspire missionaries. And I was inspired. We got money, and bused out to the West Coast. And I caught a cold. At Franz Josef I stayed in our cabin in the camping ground while Madeline went off on a guided walk somewhere above the glacier. My nose kept bleeding. So I set off along the road to the store to get some Panadol to take my temperature down. It had been raining and, as I walked along the road, light-headed, next to the crash barrier, the sun came out. The bush sparkled and the road began to steam. And a tui started up beside me—tui, tui, t—just like the roadside powerpoles in number six of McCahon's Northland Panels. I was feverish and alone and I had one of those moments of enlightenment, where it occurred to me that the road, asphalt, crash barrier, the thoroughfare, was something like a place-marker laid down along a page in an open book made of many more closed and unmarked pages.
I've published three 'New Zealand novels' (my market-tested friend is excused from reading them). They include the one with the Western Front, World War I, After Z-Hour, and Treasure, the one with Charismatic Christians in North Carolina. New Zealand books. As the news gets around about the fourth, I have people saying to me, 'I hear you've had a book picked up in America.' I haven't been picked up. Strictly speaking, to be 'picked up' the book would first have to appear, or be due to appear, here. The book in question is referred to as my 'American book,' or—more descriptively—'the magic book'. I'd been to America only three months before the deal was made. There must be a connection. Did I get my agent when I was there? There was no connection. I went to America for writerly reasons quite unrelated to my career.page 37
I went to a conference on Global Culture in the 21st Century. Not what the 21st century might be like—a conference full of futurists—but on what it should be like. The conference was held in Washington DC, deep in the heart of 'don't you wish'. It was sponsored by the Washington Times Foundation, a non-profit organisation overseen by a respectable right-wing newspaper—think glowing reports of mass rallies of 'promise-keepers', the Christian version of the 'Iron John' movement, who don't beat drums in the woods, but do want to reclaim their manhood. The Washington Times is a newspaper that fails to make a profit, but is kept afloat by a 'prophet'—the Reverend Moon of the Unification Church.
I knew all this before I went, had read on the Net cautionary tales by ex-members of the Unification Church, and I'd printed out lists of the businesses they owned. I'd got some sense of scale. I was prepared—I thought—armoured in curiosity—prepared to be co-opted so far as listening closely, taking notes, giving the conference the best quality of my attention. And once there I was delighted to find other writers either knowing and constitutionally nosy or consciously looking for material, for something suitably international—for many of these writers were from countries with, as the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse got me saying, 'soft currencies', who couldn't normally afford access to each other or to our rich host nation. I too was looking for some international experience—something from the 'real world' or, better, for something that would look like fiction the moment I saw it, something subtly sinister.
On my first day there I was sitting in one of the below-ground, shabbily magnificent conference rooms in the Grand Hyatt—at a table with water tumblers and glasses, conference packs and a headset that matched a socket that attached to a wire that ran to the back of the room and ranks of translators, sound-control technicians and camera operators, four deep like the artillery behind the infantry. The room was so full of electrical equipment it stank of hot circuitry—and during the three hours I sat there that smell became the smell of Hellfire.
First we got the more or less sinister subtleties I'd hoped for. It's so nice for a writer when the world behaves in a way that demonstrates her world view. It's very exciting—and not too much bother.page 38
Paul Johnson, former editor of the New Statesman, a leftist liberal humanist magazine, and a born-again Catholic, told us how he thought it was going to be. The twenty-first century. The return of the Gold Standard. The 'containment' or 'accommodation' of China in a 'cordon sanitaire of neutral states'—as if the rest of the world could somehow organise Asia like a table of dinner-party guests. He talked about 'Europe's costly attempts to create a federal government', a 'caste system of the federal'. He talked about the erosion of secularism—how the state had driven religion into the private sphere, from where it would boldly reemerge. (This was right after he'd said how destructive fundamentalist Islam was for Arab nations.) He talked about the natural relationship between secularism and crime, poverty and illegitimacy (not troubling himself to think how huge those ills were in the rather more religious 18th and 19th centuries). He talked about how able and ambitious women would choose to make a career of families and would generally behave with less-obvious ambition, less stress, more wit and humour and more joie de vivre.
I was sitting next to Karl Stead and Frank Moorhouse. We kept passing notes like kids in class. Karl passed me a note that said, 'He's madder than I thought. His predictions are a kind of dream or fantasy about what he wants to happen. He regrets his past politics and wants redemption.'
Then the chair introduced Reverend Moon. We were all asked to stand. We had leafed through his speech already—we had it printed in a booklet. I won't describe its contents since it is printed as part of the public record. The title—for reference purposes—is View of the Principle of the Providential History of Salvation. The Reverend Moon suggested that Gorbachev was 'spiritually changed' by meeting him, that he was responsible for 1989. The Reverend Moon had a vocal style a little like the Patriarch in a Chinese opera. He whispered, declaimed, would suddenly shout. After a time this induced in me—at least—a feeling of hysteria and fragility. He talked about himself in both the first and third person, which tended to make his identity segue with the other main third-person subject of his lecture—Jesus Christ. He read from his text, with occasional ten-minute departures. He doubled back to reread some paragraphs while the translators at page 39 the back maintained radio silence like commandos on a raid in enemy territory. They sat at the back, earphones on, heads on their hands, listening and marking time. A good third of the audience sat blinking. And Karl passed me a note that said, 'Relax. He has bought himself a distinguished audience, and we are it.'
I had been addressed, amid the general flattery, as another writer of 'moral fiction' and a 'vigilant force for the future of the world'—and I was reeling. I began to process my astonishment in the usual way. In my next novel, I thought, the elderly leftist poet, who has spent too much of his life silenced, and hasn't had the usual opportunities to travel or to be a celebrity, jumps at the chance to go to a conference in Washington. His partner has just died and he's depressed. He sets off with a minder—his partner's daughter's partner, the hero of the book. They are in a hotel with a lobby of blue watery terraces, a ten-storey atrium, with a great still stars and stripes poised like the blade of a guillotine over a spotlight-framed island on which floats a white grand piano. To the poet such luxury is unprecedented. But the conference is different than he imagined. He is told he must produce work that provides guidance, 'security for the present and seed-corn for the future'; he is told that as an artist he should demand that the arts reflect the best of us and provide 'a mighty influence in restraining the grosser appetites of the people'. He feels appalled and impotent. He sits in his room, surrounded by decorator masculinity and encroached on only by the 'flap' of a complimentary newspaper slid under the door, and wonders what he can do to save his soul. If the proper response to the generosity of his hosts is courtesy—and he has listened in good faith—does courtesy extend to putting his name down for a Writers' Federation for World Peace, a non-profit organisation founded under section 501 (c) 3 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954? A Federation with an abstract and high-minded charter—although his minder, the young man, before walking out the door with backpack and city map to look at the Mall, Lincoln, the black trench of the Vietnam War Memorial, said cynically, 'Non-profit, eh? So it can serve as a tax shelter for their businesses. End result, money translated into political influence. All with your name on it, your quasi-famous name.'page 40
Of course I didn't come up with all that while listening to the Reverend Moon. I could have listened to him, to keynote speaker William F. Buckley, Jnr, to the man running the workshop on 'teaching moral stories to your children'—and walked away. Others didn't, or couldn't. I noticed the spiritual queasiness of the academic and expert on 'post-colonial literature' who, after years at the teaching coalface, seeing the opportunity of grants and advancement, decided to lend his name to the Literary Federation. And I spoke to a young African-American professor I found crying in the toilets after the first session. Crying because, although she had known her University was funded by the Unification Church, they had never interfered with her teaching—but now she had been led to support those speakers, to lend her black, female face as a backdrop to 'those shocking ideas'.
Still, I must report that my first instinct, faced with a very well-dressed, hostile ideology, and the experience of being coopted, picked up and dishonoured, was to write about the experience of moral compromise as someone else's—and not to write about the ideas I heard aired, and what I believed the conference organisers hoped to gain by having those ideas aired. To do that required an approach that somehow wasn't available to me—an authority and objectivity that were foreign to me, were not what I'd packed and carried with me from home. And, when I came home and read the journal I'd kept I noticed that in describing the night Karl Stead and I walked out along the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial I'd written that we had 'walked under the dark trees, on a gravel path, with other families'. 'Other families'—I like that—as if Karl and I, the only New Zealanders at that scary conference, somehow constituted a family.
I'd felt vulnerable. It was all very well to find myself appreciating how accommodating American culture was of extremes—after all, I'd been nearer my end of the social spectrum in San Francisco on the way over when I went Country and Western line dancing in a gay bar with some friends—but I was very glad of the company of Karl, and Frank Moorhouse, and the two women from Iceland, and the whimsical Iranian children's writer and the native American 'earth dedicator'. And for my talisman: the manuscript of the novel I had just finished and was carrying around in my suitcase; my frivolous, page 41 beautiful, blasphemous novel, which I'd brought with me like a child carries a 'cuddly' and had never unpacked, shown, sold.
I found my agent through one of the great democratising inventions of the 20th century—which, like the jet engine, came out of the US military/industrial complex. The Internet is democratising because, it seems to me, the best basis of democracy is information, which takes best moving from person to person, as it can on the Internet, or face to face, which is where air travel gets us. After trying with the three New Zealand novels—too New Zealand I was told—my 'American book' makes an American connection. Actually, it's set in a vineyard in Burgundy in the 19th century, and has an angel in it, a triple strike of 'no personal knowledge' for me—though I had flown over the ceiling of a hospital corridor. It's not a nowhere—and I saw a nowhere before I went through customs at LA: the carpeted, capsule-like stairway to a transit lounge, as dull and innocuous and full of dead air as a gate to Purgatory. The setting of my book is not a nowhere and it's not here; it's the anywhere of dreams (the story came to me in a dream when I had pneumonia). A fantastical book with an angel in it is not only the one that sells, but that sells to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with their 51 years in publishing, their placid, old-fashioned manners, and their 23 Nobel prizewinners.
I'm happy about it all. And I feel 'picked up', picked up like a signal—I've been broadcasting for some time and they have only just moved the dial my way. But I don't feel transported. I feel like I feel when I hear my son say, 'I always want to be carried,' and he's not just telling a story about himself, but saying what he'd like to happen for the rest of his life—what happens less and less often, since he weighs 25 kilos and comes up to my nipple. I've been picked up—but I'm left with a feeling not unlike unrequited love. What about my New Zealand? Which is just that little bit different from Janet Frame's, Keri Hulme's, Pat Grace's, Karl Stead's, Damien Wilkins's, the Maurices' Gee and Shadbolt, the Barbaras' Andersen and Else, or Sue Reidy's, Emily Perkins's, Anthony McCarten's or Bill Manhire's—to name just some of the New Zealand authors who have managed to get a foreign imprint of our lives, our landscapes and the language we page 42 use. Well—it's a pity—but it isn't necessary. Maybe my New Zealand doesn't need to be transported, or translated.
I remember that, when I was still an unpublished writer-in-training, I had notions about things I needed to know—important, imported things. I didn't think, 'How liberating it is to be from the margins. What a challenge that there's no socket that fits exactly.' I was looking to add an adaptor, to plug in somewhere—Britain, the US, the Continent. At Writers and Readers Week in 1986 I went to hear avant-garde French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet speak. I needed to know what he knew; his way out must be my way on. He spoke in French, with some heavily-accented English, and, from time to time, the interpreter would have trouble interpreting him. One question asked was about the first English-language venues for his writing. He mentioned the name of a magazine. I was—like the chair—listening closely, waiting for wisdom, or strategic knowledge, what I knew I needed. He said that his stories first appeared in English in 'AaarPzare'—Harper's Bazaar—but I heard 'Arthur's Pass', and my mind gave up trying to deal with the difficulties of our differences and flew away, was transported, packed up its bags and moved. I was there, stopped on the side of the road, as I had been once, listening and looking.
Did it matter if I went unheard? Did I have to have their attention, learn a trick of making myself understood? A tree falling, or a bird calling in the forest, makes a sound whether anyone hears it or not. Arthur's Pass. You pull in at the side of the road and switch off the engine. Everything glistens. And there's a tui making a spitting, clanking noise that's better than the word 'birdsong'. It's industrial-strength birdsong. It's not commercial, it doesn't belong in the busy bazaar—but 'Pass'—what a poker player says when they choose not to buy more cards, choose to go with what they've got—when they find that they're holding everything they need.