Friday, December 29, 2006

Home for the holidays

This is our climate. We have grown up in this air, this light, and we grasp it on the skin, where it grasps us. We know this earth, this polished red stone with the soles of our feet. We will never be ourselves anywhere else. Happier, perhaps, healthier, less burdened, more secure. But we will never be closer to who we are than this.
~ Ivan Vladislavic, Portrait with Keys

I'm at home for a week or two, where the air is still full of smoke from the bushfires and eucalyptus oil, even after a day or so of rain.
It was 35 when I got off the plane and the dams are empty - the taste of summerfruit in drought is that much more intense - but it snowed in the mountains on Christmas Day. Weird.
It takes a while to adjust my eyes to the light, grey leaves and brown grass after green and lush NZ. But then I came face to face with a koala near the river opposite our house (I'm not sure which of us was most surprised).
I'll be back in Auckland in time to watch the fireworks.
Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who owns history?

Yes, I know I promised to post about this weeks ago, but I had to think about it, and thinking takes more time than has been available lately. But that's another story.
First up, I've read the two books du jour: Kate Grenville's The Secret River and Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip; both centred on interaction between races at the fringes of Empire, in very different ways and set in completely different eras/worlds, and both climax in episodes of brutal horror.
Neither was the brilliant read I was expecting after all the build up, but that might be more about the antipathy of anticipation than any flaw in the novels. Mind you, I must have missed something in Mister Pip, since everyone in NZ raves about it. Indeed I did nearly miss the climax because I blinked at the critical sentence and had to retrace my steps - the earth-shattering event is only a tiny blip of a phrase. I hate that.
The Secret River, though, held a particular disappointment specifically because of the huge debate it, and Grenville, have generated about the ways in which fiction can be used to explore and reflect historical events.
Grenville, you may recall, regrettably held it up as being somehow more insightful and "real" than works of history, and precipitated a rather heated discussion on the Left about the role of fiction in history, rather than the expected furore from the Right about whether any of the colonists ever committed atrocities.
But setting the debate aside for a moment, I was expecting to read something I had never before encountered: new ways of addressing the history of invasion and conquest, and the impact of early Australian colonisation on both indigenous and imported communities.
But I didn't. I certainly didn't learn or understand anything new about the time or the violence or the people that I hadn't read years ago, in history by Manning Clark or Robert Hughes, let alone the historians of the last two decades; in novels of a generation before Grenville - say, Herbert or Stow; or even in the poetry and essays of Judith Wright.
So I'm not sure why the fuss. That's not a criticism of the book, but about the framing of it as a whole new way of looking at the past. Sadly, it's now almost impossible to separate the debate from the work, which is, almost incidentally, very atmospheric and memorable fiction.
To return to the debate: it's been taken up in a fascinating article by Inga Clendinnen in a Quarterly Essay, Who Owns The Past? Clendinnen's main thrust is actually nothing to do with Grenville or the debate about whether novelists or historians are better equipped to write about history.
In fact her central theme is about the cultural or political appropriation of history (teaching, writing, or as received knowledge) to shore up ideology, such as Australian Prime Minister John Howard's insistence that everyone share and be taught his own gung-ho progress-driven neo-Victorian vision of the world. Who Owns the Past? might just as easily be How Does History Make a Nation?
Clendinnen delves into the varying roles of history, story-telling and memory, the part emotion plays in writing and remembering, and the ways in which history - and historians - react and interact with the present. She is, as usual, insightful and apposite:
Our memories are essential: our memories are unreliable. Most of us live with that discomforting paradox. The serious social and political problems begin when stories cease to be personal possessions and come to be owned by a collectivity ... There is comfort in that, but there is a cost, too. Henceforth stories which impugn the now-official account will have to be suppressed.
It is as part of this broader discussion that she takes on Grenville's position of story-telling as a somehow more accurate view of the past (I feel sure Grenville regrets ever having said that her book was the closest we'd ever get to being there).
Clendinnen comes out of her corner fighting, and although I find myself largely in agreement with her, it does seem like a bee in the bonnet which sidetracks us from the main thread of the essay.
She weaves it back in, though, by reinforcing the role of historians as defenders of those who cannot speak for themselves, and whose voices tend to undermine the official chorus.
We have to know the world as it is if we are to change any part in it, and to map the span for human agency so we do not acquiesce in what we could change. Good history might also help us count the cost of inflicting present pain in the expectation of uncertain future benefits.

Funnily enough, I'd suggest that's just the sort of thing Grenville was trying to achieve.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The true story

The Three Wise Men are visiting the Child lying in the manger. One of them was exceptionally tall and smacked his head on the low doorway as he entered the stable.
'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed.
'Write that one down, Mary,' said Joseph. 'It's better than Alphonse'

We've put our specially commissioned knitted Nativity scene out. It was made for us earlier this year by an extremely clever friend of a friend in South Auckland.

My tips for Nativity stories for children:
Wombat Divine by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent.
Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman.

And I just read that Ian Serrallier's The Silver Sword has been re-published for its 50th anniversary. No real link (although I read it one Christmas many summers ago flat on my stomach on the beach - incongruous given that its characters are mostly freezing throughout this World War 2 narrative). But I re-read it this year and it's as moving as I remembered - might help cast light on the modern refugee experience for young readers now.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In the post

Just got a huge stack of letters from everyone in Grade 5 at Aitken College, which I visited a couple of months ago. Fabulous letters, all decorated with pirate ships and flags, and lots of pictures of the chalice that appears in Ocean Without End and which surprisingly seems to have captured everyone's attention. It's fascinating to read how they all see the characters.
One of my favourite comments comes from Jake, who is hedging his bets like a true pirate:
This is the first pirate story I have ever read and I think it will be the best. Everything in the book sounds so cool. I haven't started reading the second book but I think it will be the best. But then again the third book might be even better than 1 and 2.

Now, that's cool. Cheers Jake - and everyone at Aitken.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The counter-counter-counter Reformation

The book I’m working on at present is set in the 17th century, amidst the Church’s crackdown on the dreaded printed word.
Should you wonder what relevance this might have for young readers of today, think again:
In August 2003, two Michigan pastors, T.D. Turner Sr. and son T.D. Turner Jr., took a stand against sorcery by burning a Harry Potter book outside their Jesus Non-Denominational Church. The younger Turner, Tommy, says that while he hadn't read the book, the cover alone showed him it promoted wizardry, adding that Potter-related Web sites were gateways to harder stuff. The last straw came when a local girl tried to perform a magic spell. (She was unable, as far as we can tell, to turn anybody into a newt.)
"Parents [have to] realize this is more than a fictional book," says Turner. "It's attached to the occult."

Read the entire sad story of "Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire" over at Forbes.