Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Would like the chance to try for a little cultural cringe...

Are we an endangered species? The Kiwi writer? The other day chatting with some folk, one of them asked me what I did for a job and I said I wrote Children's fiction. As we talked on she called what I did a pastime. I don't think she meant anything by it. Certainly it wasn't meant as an insult. But when I consider what I earn from my career and the regard in which I am held by the general populace in New Zealand, most of whom wouldn't know me or know of me, I feel a growing concern. We sometimes talk, as a community (of writers), about wanting to rise above the cultural cringe, as music did when the local industry first started NZ Music Month. But I'm beginning to think we haven't even reached the level of public interest where cultural cringe can be applied. I know there are an intensely passionate group of people who do care; who love, support and encourage local writers and illustrators; who share our work with their children, their pupils, their customers and their friends. Who buy our books. But unfortunately a large sector of New Zealand are indifferent. I don't think they see the value in having a NZ literature, for children or adults. Literature from other countries is more widely available and sells better. We revere visiting authors and illustrators.

And yet if you have ever had the opportunity to travel outside New Zealand you quickly discover how different we are culturally from other predominantly English speaking nations. And socially, emotionally and geographically too. Growing up here makes you different. It makes our literature different too. Even if we don't include local landmarks in our books; the way we use language, our idioms, our preoccupations, the things we are parochial about, are recognizably unique. You don't have to be a Kiwi to appreciate them, just like you don't have to be American to get American literature or Irish or Australian, or Swedish, or Indian, or  Afghani etc... But our way of looking at the world is just as important as any other country's. I am interested in other cultures but I don't want to be absorbed by another culture - that we tried to emulate Keeping Up with the Kardashians with our very own Ridges is evidence enough that we should believe in our own strengths, not adopt the weaknesses of somewhere else. Our Kiwi perspective is something we should be proud of, that we should utilise and take advantage of. We do so when it comes to sporting endeavours, wine, music, medical research and a whole bunch of other stuff we applaud as uniquely Kiwi. Our literature is good enough. In fact it's great.

Government funding and support for the PLR and Creative NZ seem fragile. Government funding and support for iconic institutions like Learning Media and the NZ Book Council seem fragile. These are sources of income that help New Zealand authors and illustrators survive. If these sources are compromised, many authors and illustrators will be compromised too. Market forces are being viewed by many as the arbiter of what succeeds and what doesn't, but our marketplace can never be big enough to make this alone the answer. Succeeding overseas would help, but one of the barriers to overseas success is the overseas country's support for its own indigenous literature (perhaps this is the part of an overseas culture I would like us to absorb). Creative pursuits are viewed by many as pastimes, or hobbies or indulgences. I worry that some view us as expendable. I worry that this is the government's position. Our books are good enough people. New Zealand, don't abandon our literary point of view.


I think... said...

Hi Melinda
I think it is hard for all creatives to be heard, wherever they are. The publishing (all media) industry is dominated by big players whose key focus is making money.
My personal opinion as a mother, wannabe writer and having worked in creative media, is that New Zealand'small population make local companies risk adverse, they know there is not a large amount of money to be be made by anyone.
The answer? Be creative in terms of reaching markets here, there and everywhere. Use the web, retain rights and find some global partners.
But yes, there is a need for local voices to be heard by local kids, it's our culture. Should it be given a higher priority by the government, with better funding and not driven by business? Probably.

Jane Bloomfield said...

I think changing this mindset needs to start in school libraries. Often NZ author books sit alone on a stand wearing a huge "NZ" sticker, which acts more like a wart than a gold star. Get our kids worshiping our writers,'our literary pov', from the get go, alongside our sports heroes.