Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why New Zealand literature deserves your support...

New Zealand literature is a necessary thing...

My parents were immigrants. World War 2 pushed them out of their home country Poland and brought them, via a truly circuitous route, to New Zealand. I was born here about seven years after their arrival.

My Polish heritage informed so much of my early life. The food we ate, the people we socialised with, the traditional folk dancing I learned, the national costume I owned and sometimes wore. To my regret, I didn't learn the language. In my tender years I didn't appreciate the value of doing so. I found it hard. And I eagerly embraced the language of my peers (I love the English language. We are always doing gymnastics together). But at school I enjoyed having this exotic Eastern European background. I was the only Polish kid in class. It felt special. So I wore it with pride.

I was a booky kid. I read a lot in school right from the beginning. I hung out at libraries all the time. The Lion,The Witch and The Wardrobe (although I started with The Silver Chair after picking up the hardback for a bargain price at a school fair), The Famous Five, Paddington Bear, The Moomintrolls, Baron Munchausen, The Moon in the Cloud, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Flambards, The Outsiders, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dark is Rising, Fairy Tales, The Odyssey, Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and many, many, many more. Are you sensing a theme to my reading yet?

The only New Zealand literature I was exposed to as a child was what the School Journal provided. There was no Margaret Mahy or Joy Cowley, Maurice Gee, Fleur Beale or David Hill back then. I read one short story by Witi Ihimaera and didn't understand it at all, because it was a single drop in a vast ocean of the European and US literary heritage I was consuming in vast quantities.

It became difficult to sustain the atmosphere of Polishness as we all grew up. We had to get on with our Kiwi lives. We didn't forget but wore it more on the inside than the outside. And the pre-war Poland of my parent's experience was unreachable, existing in memory but no longer in reality. And my empathy and understanding of people and the world learned through books filtered everything through a foreign lens. What is it to be a New Zealander? I'm still figuring it out. I can't help always feeling a restlessness that can't be answered, predicated as it is on a nostalgia for a lost heritage that can never be recovered, and a literary education built on cultures to which I can never belong.

If you want New Zealand children to understand their own culture, to feel it in their bones, then it must be provided to them in their literature. It helps ground them, makes them feel strong in their roots, connects them to this place and to each other. It reflects their experience back at them, reinforcing its value. We must embrace our own literature. It is a tremendous gift that must be protected and encouraged. We can't just measure it as a product with sales, because its impact is lifelong, far reaching and life changing. It needs to be everywhere and we need to pay it way more respect then it gets now.


Sandy Nelson said...

Very insightful Melinda. What I what to know is exactly how to say your surname (Size-man-ick? or I am so wrong it's embarrassing?) I love it that you wrote 'A Winter's Day' to reflect and represent your Polish roots.
I too was a bookish kid and I recognise and could almost recite parts of many of the titles / series you listed. However, the book that had the most influence on me as a child was set in Poland - Ian Serraillier's 'The Silver Sword,' read to my Standard 2 or 3 class by a Mrs Scott. I hated the first chapter, Dad in the prison camp etc, seeing it as a 'boy's book.' But after that I completely fell in love with that fragmented-by-war Polish family. I have two copies of 'The Silver Sword' on my bookshelf. That book hooked me on history for life. It led me to study history at High School and later University, and children / families affected by war is my own writing bone. Totally agree we need NZ literature for our NZ kids. Keep up the great writing. A have a novel on the go 9VERY part-time) but right now I'm off to school to keep preparing for another term ... Kindest regards, Sandy

Jane Bloomfield: truth is stranger than fiction said...

So beautifully said, Melinda. Almost made me 'burst-tears', as my young Jasper used to say. Lovely!

Peter King said...

That is a wonderful and valuable perspective Melinda. But it's not that there's a shortage of NZ children's writing. The shortcoming is the connection between Kiwi kids and kiwi books. We don't have an equivalent of NZonAir.

My suggestion for a cure is to beef up so that it has real prizes that kids want to win. Not only will that produce more reviews for NZ children's authors, which is a winwin for everyone, it will also generate the attention authors desperately need.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Thank you both so much :)

And oh yes, Sandy, The Silver Sword, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, I Am David, Anne Frank's Diary, The Endless Steppe and more. Such amazing books, all of them. And that treacherous and impossible seeming consonant composition at the beginning of my surname is pronounced Shi, which makes Szymanik more like Shi-manic :)


Melinda Szymanik said...

Peter, publishing lists of children's literature here in New Zealand have contracted significantly since 2008 with several publishers (Harper Collins, Pearson, Hachette) quitting our shores or amalgamating (Penguin/Random, Random/Longacre, Penguin/Mallinson Rendel) so I hesitate to say we are flush with NZ children's books. There are no guarantees that lists won't continue contracting, especially with continued competition from overseas titles which are imported in large numbers. New Zealand children's books receive little press or other media attention and none of the recent discussions I saw following the Book Council's research on NZ literature referred to NZ children's literature at all. Children's authors and illustrators make great efforts to connect with NZ children through Book Council Writers in Schools visits, Words on Wheels Tours, Storylines events and our own initiatives such as Maria Gill's tremendous efforts with the What Lies Beneath Exhibition which has been touring the country this year. But it is extremely difficult to attract media attention for these. Changes to funding for schools impact on school visits and library and class set purchases etc... Still, the disconnect between the wider public and the media, and NZ children's books, which could have the biggest impact, is the hardest to overcome.

It's true we don't have an equivalent of NZ Music Month (created under a different government and different economic circumstances) or NZ on Air (movies and tv have greater power to attract overseas and local funding). NZ Book Month started well but gradually stopped focusing on NZ books and then quietly disappeared. A greater focus on return on investment makes such programmes harder to start up now.

And yes, Hooked on Books is a brilliant initiative, but its focus is YA books. This works well as teens are more likely to review books online, but this leaves junior fiction, children's non fiction and picture books without any benefits from growing this concept.

We are still a young country maturing in a modern climate. We can't replicate how literature developed in the UK, US and Europe. Whatever the solutions are to gaining wider acceptance and respect, I don't think we've come up with any truly effective ones yet.