e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
I was surprised, over the course of one week not long ago, to encounter two online conversations in which the International Institute of Modern Letters was described as elitist. Despite immediately brushing this off – can’t waste too much time over online arguments and rants when work and family and, if I’m lucky, writing demand focus – the seeming prevalence of such opinions seemed out of proportion to the reality I’ve experienced in my years studying at the IIML. Perhaps I simply felt defensive as a graduate of the place. But perhaps somewhere in the background I was worried – all those years – was I part of an elitist organisation?
Well, yes. But only in as much as any tertiary institution is elitist. And it’s becoming more so, but not due to anything the IIML is doing. By abolishing student allowances for postgraduate students, the Government continues the nonsensical attack on higher education, practically sending our greatest academic potential to other shores. Tertiary education is not easy, and it’s not cheap, and you have to have the right kind of cultural capital to make it work. It is true that certain pre-requisites are necessary to study at a place like the International Institute of Modern Letters – facility with the written word and comfort with predominantly Pākehā institutional practices among them (and let's not forget the money). But even in terms of tertiary courses, particularly postgraduate ones, the IIML is not particularly elitist. All you need to get in is a good writing sample – for undergraduate courses no previous tertiary study is required; for the Masters course the need for a previous degree can be waived. Other tertiary institutions commonly require an honours degree or similar for admission to a Masters in Creative Writing. The main prerequisite for entry to the IIML is the ability to write well, and any rudimentary survey of the writing styles accepted will reveal diversity. This last point is important: there is no writing assembly line.
It may seem elitist when a high proportion of ‘successful’ (published and award-winning) writers in Aotearoa/NZ went through the IIML at one time or another, though that thinking is slightly skewed. If a course has a long history, a good reputation, attracts hard-working new writers with a lot of potential, and allows entry to only a small number in order to ensure excellent teaching and learning, the outcome is going to be high quality. Even then, a degree from the IIML is no guarantee of either publication or awards, and contrary to some opinions, graduates do not develop some kind of umbilical feeding tube attachment to VUP. Every year twenty students complete the MA prose and poetry, but there are not twenty new writers published each year. Graduates will go on to do a variety of things.
But none of this is the most interesting thing that came out of my consideration of this question of whether the IIML is elitist or not. For me it is difficult to see how it could be when I’ve witnessed the kinds of people who find a voice and encouragement and yes, legitimacy of one kind or another by taking an IIML course. When I began the MA and PhD, I was a single parent. There was no way I would be able to find the time, support, community and income (thank you scholarships) to write in a sustained way if I had not entered the IIML. Since then I have written about colonisation, single parenting, being old, being neglected, being young, being Māori, being mixed-ethnicity, Māori spirituality, Moriori spirituality, colonial history, postcolonial history, family violence, family healing, and the power of stories. I have seen my friends write about gender and sexuality and radical protest, jail and culture and different underworlds, historical figures, colonial and contemporary frontiers, pain and things that make us laugh. Sometimes these are worlds we know well, and sometimes these are worlds we imagine, but they are not elitist worlds (following my diversity argument, the odd elitist world may come into view, but certainly does not dominate).
And if none of that convinces, there was another thing that happened the week I saw those references to the IIML and elitism online. In a Real Life conversation with a colleague, we discussed how many mothers of young families were studying towards doctorates in Creative Writing. Two of us have already finished; one is nearly done. At present there are at least three more women with quite large and quite young families who are working on creative theses (and possibly more in the MA). It’s great for women with young families, I enthused, it’s so hard to say to your family, I’m just going to go in here and write now. It means you’re not wasting everyone’s time, that you’re working towards something legitimate. My colleague agreed. Just look at J.C Sturm, he said, she stopped writing for twenty years because of family and children. And I think that’s when I decided to write something about this, because when women have young families there are few ways to continue the writing life – it’s impossible to obtain writing residencies that insist you come alone, and difficult to prioritise the importance of writing over the importance of every other important thing that your children require. When you are a single parent, double those impossibilities. But the IIML made it possible and continues to make it possible for some of us. And if it didn’t our voices would be lost, at least for a time. We work hard, and they work hard, and it is a belittling, inaccurate thing to characterise what we may have achieved as elitism.
One thing I learnt and wrote about while researching my PhD is the continued lack of real diversity in New Zealand fiction. What we have now does not yet even approach a proportional representation of our national ethnic make-up. The IIML may not be the perfect place for all writers, and no one would want all our writers to come from only one place. But I do think that, without it, New Zealand’s writing scene would be a smaller, less colourful, less vibrant place, and possibly just a little bit more elitist than it is now.
I have had some interesting conversations with people since writing this, and some of the responses are more ambivalent than the comments below suggest. That's okay. I said it in the original piece but I'd like to re-emphasise it here: This pathway won't work for everyone, and for some there will be barriers to entering a place like the IIML that perhaps shouldn't be there. There are many ways to go about this business. This way has helped me and others I know. But I know it is only one way, and not accessible to all. I also haven't gone into the negatives of this, which for me at present include trying to find a way to make a living! So it can seem very grand, but in the end can still be difficult and fraught. There is always more that can be done. Kia Kaha e hoa mā.
I gave this talk last week at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. They were having a Cultural Difference Week for the Creative Industries students, and were focusing on te reo Māori, so that they could create stop-motion animations about the importance of te reo. I've posted a few of my favourites below (made in only 7 hours). At first I was a bit worried about whether I was the right person to comment, because I write in English and don’t speak Māori fluently. But then I thought about how integral te reo is to how I write in English, how integral it is to our identities as New Zealanders, and what a cultural and creative wasteland Aotearoa would be without our indigenous language. So, I found I did have something to say...
Let me begin by way of some examples.
Here is a word of some contention. Many of you, as contemporary young New Zealanders, will be completely comfortable with this term, while perhaps your parents or grandparents are not. There are still those that find the term offensive, though I have long wondered why. There are various versions of stories about the origins of the word Pākehā, including that it is an onomatopoeic word for the language Cook and his men spoke when they first arrived, and that it’s meaning, when broken down, could mean those of different breath or language. One indication that Pākehā is a term still not acceptable for many New Zealanders, is that on the recent census form, ‘NZ European’ was still the only term available to white New Zealanders to describe their ethnicity. I am half Pākehā. After I wrote in my iwi, I ticked the ‘other’ box on my census form and wrote in ‘Pākehā’.
The reason for this is that I am proud to be Pākehā, just as I am proud to be Māori. New Zealand European doesn’t mean anything to me, and most Pākehā I know are not very European at all. Pākehā only exist in this place, in Aotearoa, and the Pākehā culture was forged on these shores. The name, given to the second people of these lands, says something about relationship to this place and its first people. No one else in the world gets to claim that heritage, no one else gets to have the unique relationship Pākehā have with Aotearoa and Māori. To be Pākehā is to claim ownership of a position in the most extraordinary country I know. There are responsibilities that come with that position, of course, but I don’t want to stray too far from my point. ‘NZ European’ carries none of the rich heritage and history that comes with the word Pākehā. It is part of the story of what makes us, us.
Here are some more terms. My apologies to any speakers of te reo, as I’m going to go over some basic things that are immediately evident when you learn the language, but I’m guessing that many of you haven’t. Last week I asked a class I teach at Victoria University how many knew another language. Two out of around eighteen students put their hands up. I was not even asking if they spoke Māori. It’s a shame our education system doesn’t insist on some level of bilingualism, as is the norm in many overseas countries. Only by learning another language can one gain a clear insight into how a language embodies a different world view, a whole different way of perceiving and being in the world.
Some basic interpretations:
Sub-tribe / kinship group (the main form of societal organisation for Māori – villages were centred around hapū). Also, pregnant.
Tribe – larger kinship group descended from common ancestor. Also, Bone. Strength.
Family – extended family. Also, be born, to give birth.
Looking at the various meanings of these words, we can learn a great deal about Māori culture. That your iwi is your strength, the structure that holds you upright, as deep and eternal as bones, which remain long after the rest of you has passed, just as your people will. That being hapū, creating new life, is intimately connected to the main group through which Māori society is organised – perhaps that each needs the other. That we are attached to the land in much the same way that a babe is attached to her mother’s placenta – that it feeds and sustains us.
As a writer, this means that te reo is indispensible to my writing, even in English. There are certain concepts and ideas that can only be expressed in te reo. English approximations cannot give the sense of place or meaning that Māori can.
An example: I recently sent a query to an American agent. She wanted to see the first 50 pages of my novel, which was thrilling, but I had a dilemma. In those first fifty pages were scattered many Māori words. Some could be exchanged for their English equivalent without too much loss of meaning, but most could not. Is family really the equivalent of whānau? In my first book, I very purposefully did not include a glossary (more about that later), and I did not want my American reader to constantly interrupt her reading to look up the Māori words if I did supply one. For a NZ reader, I can assume a certain amount of prior knowledge, and make context give meaning for the rest. Here I was less sure.
In the end I compromised. Unless I could be sure the context of the sentence gave the meaning of the word, I used the English translation. But this made the story somehow less than it was. For example, I discovered that I’d used the word ‘whare’ frequently. Many New Zealanders will know that a whare is a house. But in this context, the whare were being built for a summer hunting and gathering expedition. It was the 1880s, so timber houses also featured, but here the whānau were travelling to tribal lands and building makeshift whare to camp in. A New Zealander might easily imagine one – made from punga and flax, raupo or driftwood – whatever materials were available.
I couldn’t use the word ‘house’ which for English speakers means a certain solid thing that takes months to construct and contains many rooms. I couldn’t say ‘tent’, because obviously that is a cloth construction. In the end I substituted ‘hut’. It was entirely unsatisfactory. Huts bring to mind buildings in other countries, and colonial descriptions of them. They might be made of mud and cow dung, be painted bright colours, or be thatched with palms. The landscape outside of huts might be desert or tropical island. Everything I wanted my reader to know about the constructions I was referring to was contained in the word ‘whare’ – the materials, the manner of construction, shape, the landscape outside. I did describe the materials, but so much of what I wanted to say was embodied in that word – a word that stands only for something that belongs irrevocably here.
And that is what te reo gives us, not only through meaning, but sound. I love to read writing by Indian and Chinese writers, which are often scattered with words I don’t know. Invariably, context gives meaning, though I know that what I imagine might not be the fullest sense of the word. But what these words also give me is the sounds of the culture and the place they come from. I value these words because they carry a cultural resonance that cannot be gained by description or explanation in English.
Consider this poem by one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary poets to his friend, one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary visual artists:
by Hone Tuwhare
When you offer only three
vertical lines precisely drawn
and set into a dark pool of lacquer
it is a visual kind of starvation:
and even though my eyeballs
roll up and over to peer inside
myself, when I reach the beginning
of your eternity I say instead: hell
let’s have another feed of mussels
Like, I have to think about it, man
When you stack horizontal lines
into vertical columns which appear
to advance, recede, shimmer and wave
like exploding packs of cards
I merely grunt and say: well, if it
is not a famine, it’s a feast
I have to roll another smoke, man
But when you score a superb orange
circle on a purple thought-base
I shake my head and say: hell, what
is this thing called aroha
Like I’m euchred man, I’m eclipsed.
In the second to last line, Tuwhare plays on the 1929 song by Jazz musician Cole Porter “What is this thing called love?” It’s a magnificent poem, Tuwhare’s trademark colloquial wit mixed with an astute tribute to his friend’s art. Throughout, a tension between more formal abstract descriptions of the art and the warm, loose moments of friendship is maintained, until that resounding question: What is this thing called aroha? It’s a good question – what is aroha and how does it differ from love – because by changing one word of a well-known line, Tuwhare draws attention to the inability of the word love to encompass the world suggested by the word aroha. It’s much more than that, of course, but in the context of this discussion, his choice to use one Māori word in a poem in English shows how no other word would do.
Aroha is not romantic love, of course, it is not parental love or familial love, though it could encompass all those things. Perhaps empathy is the closest English word to aroha. Compassion. Aroha says I see you, I know your pain, I’m here, I understand your world. You understand mine. I stand beside you. I don’t know what it meant for Tuwhare when he placed it in this poem, but it seems to say, there is no greater thing than this.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve had one of those great experiences where things that occur in everyday life inform what I’ve been thinking about, namely, this talk. A lecture I recently attended addressed briefly the topic of glossaries and why a writer might choose not to use them. This is something I’ve already touched on and thought about a lot in relation to my own work, but the lecturer, Dougal McNeill, had a succinct and eloquent way of putting it: A glossary, he said, creates a hierarchy of the familiar and unfamiliar. It highlights an area of ‘foreignness’ that ‘normal’ people won’t understand. He was referring to the work of the late Chinua Achebe, who did not glossarise Nigerian Igbo words in his English language novel Things Fall Apart in 1958.
Thus, if we make glossaries for Māori words or italicise them, we separate them as abnormal, foreign, and not part of our literary landscape. We make them secondary to English. Patricia Grace is perhaps the writer most well known for refusing to explain or highlight her use of Māori words in English language texts this way.
But what responsibility does this present for the rest of us? One reaction is for non-Māori-speaking readers to say they feel excluded when Māori words are not translated. This is almost never the intention of the writing, but perhaps it does perform the function of prompting or discomforting the reader enough to act (or complain). If a New Zealand reader cannot understand simple words or phrases in one of the official languages of his/her country, should he or she not attempt to learn? If there are things that can only be said in Māori, should the writer be compelled to act as translator as well, even knowing the translation is likely to be inadequate?
And should we want them to? What do we lose if we constantly want things spelled out for us, if we refuse to just listen to the sounds the words make, and absorb their meaning from the story around them?
The use and acceptance of te reo Māori in English language writing has the same purpose and effect as choosing to call yourself ‘Pākehā’ rather than a ‘NZ European’. We create a new English that only belongs to this place. Chinua Achebe wrote of the same thing in Africa in 1975. He had been given this English language, he said, and he would use it to communicate to a wider audience. But in doing so the English would not go unchanged. It would be made to commune with his ancestral home and carry the weight of his contemporary African experience. When we incorporate words like ‘whare’ and ‘aroha’ into our writing, we do so recognising that ‘hut’ and ‘love’ would not encompass the wholeness of our experience. We make our most common language carry the weight of our ancestral and contemporary realities.
My offering here today is small – I can only tell you why te reo Māori is important to my practice as a writer in English. I have given you a small handful of words. But if anything I have said today has prompted you to think about the substantial richness of those few words, consider then what would be gained from achieving some fluency in te reo. If the word ‘whenua’ can show the symbolic relationship Māori have with land, consider the insights that might be gained from a thorough knowledge of all aspects of Māori communication. Imagine how your point of view, or our collective relationships with each other, might be transformed by a deeper understanding of the indigenous language of Aotearoa. Imagine then, if someone asks ‘what is this thing called aroha?’ Perhaps the answer would be, in whatever language: ‘I get you mate, I understand.’
The other animations that were made during the Cultural Difference Week at NMIT can be viewed at
Our literature is not whole, it is not showing fully who we are in this country
– Patricia Grace
In my creative work, I’m looking back to understand and possibly heal and possibly rewrite history, so that I feel better about it really – Kim Scott
In a less than two weeks, I'll go through the final stages of examination for my PhD. The entire process has taught me much more than I could have anticipated, particularly about the value and possibilities of fiction and Indigenous writing, and about craft. I haven't been able to say or write much about the thesis because, right up to the latter stage of writing it, I think I was still discovering what it was really about. The fictional project began early on, but the big picture took some time to nut out.
To celebrate the upcoming conclusion of this project, here is an edited excerpt from the introduction that explains a bit about the subject matter of the thesis and why it was written.
My thesis consists of two parts. Part One is the critical component, called ‘Grappling with Space: Going Beyond Historiographic Metafiction in Baby No-Eyes and Benang (From the Heart)’. Part Two is the creative component, which consists of a novel, Rēkohu Story. My work in this thesis addresses questions I had about how to write a novel that both reveals a history that has not been well understood or represented in the past, and also explores the complexity of contemporary Indigenous cultural identity. Conducting a close reading of specific texts by two Indigenous writers, Baby No Eyes (1999) by Patricia Grace, and Benang (2002) by Kim Scott, using the characteristics of historiographic metafiction as a frame, provides greater insight into how these texts operate as fiction and explore wider issues around cultural/historical identities.
This thesis engages three possible audiences: writers; Indigenous People (engaged in the project of cultural reclamation / decolonisation); literary scholars (with an interest in Indigenous or historiographic metafictional literature). Of course these groups are not necessarily distinct and are best envisaged as overlapping spheres. To varying extents I am situated within all three groups. In addition, as a New Zealander of Māori, Pākehā and Moriori descent, I had questions about why certain histories in New Zealand had been misrepresented over long periods of time, and why, even after these representations were revealed to be erroneous, they still continued to hold precedence. For example, I contend that despite comprehensive historical writing and work by the Moriori people, Michael King, The Waitangi Tribunal and others, distorted understandings of the history of Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) persist.
Finally, the thesis asserts the potential of fiction to challenge and enrich understandings of history and self (personally, culturally and nationally). The creation of stories that investigate history from different points of view and different time periods allows for Indigenous perspectives to continue to gain new cultural and societal life and replace long held national myths.
(The following article describes myths still prevalent: http://www.stuff.co.nz/archived-stuff-sections/archived-national-sections/korero/498166/Moriori-revival as does this article that describes the necessity of producing new school journals to refute the inaccuracies expounded in older editions: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/4789044/Rewriting-the-history-of-Moriori. Scott Hamilton, on his studious blog Reading the Maps, has written several long pieces on the myths that persist, including: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2009/04/myth-that-wont-go-away.html, http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2008/06/pseudo-history-in-onehunga.html)
I can't say too much about the novel yet, but it consists of three intertwined narratives: a contemporary young woman of Moriori, Māori and Pākehā descent seeks her family’s origins; a Moriori slave and his Ngāti Mutunga mistress run away together in 1882; and the spirit of a man who died during the invasion of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu) is stuck in the realm of the living, watching his people suffer slavery and the loss of their lands and waiting for the time when his descendants will discover the truth of their origins and reclaim the powerful legacy that has been buried by multiple colonising forces.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to write this thesis. And more passionate about the subject matter now than when I began. As usual, there is an extensive list of people and organisations who made the project possible, including the International Institute of Modern Letters, Maui Solomon and Susan Thorpe, the Hokotehi Moriori Trust Board, my supervisors and workshop mates, and of course my whanau.
ME RONGO - IN PEACE
In March of this year I got to have this amazing conversation with these two blokes at the NZ International Festival of the Arts. The conversation between them was so dynamic I often got to just sit back and listen - and their words have stayed with me ever since. Here are a couple of my favourite moments from the conversation. (This has been recorded for Radio NZ so I won't quote too extensively. Hopefully the session will air at some stage).
Juan Gabriel Vasquez: Since I began writing I’ve always been obsessed with this place where individual destinies and private stories cross what we call a public world, or history with a capital H, or big events, and this is what my fiction deals with. History and Politics are very difficult things to write fiction about. There’s this sentence I love by Milan Kundera who says that the novel’s sole reason for being is telling things that only the novel can tell.
So this is the first problem for a writer dealing with historical known facts – that his obligation is not to be redundant. To tell a story about, let’s say, the French Revolution, and tell readers what they already know through Simon Schama’s book about the French Revolution, through documentaries, through myth… it’s just stupid. It’s a waste of time. I mean in order for a novel to be worth my while as a reader, it has to tell me things I can only thereafter find in that novel. This is what Tolstoy does. We can read a thousand books about the Napoleonic Wars, but they will never tell us about what we can learn about in War and Peace. That obligation not to be redundant, to give you something else, to make yourself indispensable. It’s a quite arrogant thing to say.
This is the first thing, and then the other thing is politics. Mario Vargas Llosa said politics and sex are the two most difficult subjects for a writer. Perhaps the reason is that if you’re writing about politics you run the risk of your language becoming political. When your diction becomes political diction, the novel is lost, because political diction and political language and novelistic language are as opposed as you can get. Political language almost always is incapable of illumination, it’s incapable of saying something new. When politicians speak, they want to tell you something you already know, or they want to simplify things. Whereas a novelist wants to make things complicated, wants to tell you things are not as easy as you think. So there’s a tension.
You can have good political novels. Some of my favourite novels could be thought of as political novels, but it is because they assume another diction, another language. They don’t carry messages obviously. They don’t break the essential contract between the reader and the writer, which is – I shall not try to convince you of anything. The writer should say: this novel is not a way of talking you into anything. Whereas obviously with politics, that’s the only thing that matters.
Kim Scott: Perhaps one of the strengths of literature and fiction is – Vladimir Nabokov talks about the importance of enchantment in literature, in the reading and writing relationship, and I think that’s the precious part. One is inevitably political if you’re dealing in the sort of stuff we deal with I think. And people are very keen to put you in one camp or another and to tell you off if you haven’t met their political ends, or if you haven’t been accurate in your social history.
My concern is the possibilities of intimacy and enchantment and emotional engagement, without being soft and sloppy and self-indulgent… So again that enchantment thing - in many ways that’s what I want to get. That’s what I think is special, that’s what I value when I’m reading, and the complexity of that special relationship, as you were saying. It can’t be reduced to a political or power game. Also through doing that you can provoke people to decide their own position politically, or to go and find out more about the history of a certain situation.
Often I find in my writing, you find the juice in a political situation. So in Benang – when I came across an historical tract that talked about the need to uplift and elevate a despised people, and to breed out all signs of Aboriginality, and to create the first white man born in the family line - when I used the phrase I may well be the first successfully white man born in the family line – the political energy that came from using that phrase... I thought, oh I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to use that. But just to use that energy touched all sorts of historical and political buttons. To unpack and sort that kind of energy, and that motivation, not knowing where you’ll end up, or who you might or might not appease, that’s what interests me.
If you haven't read Scott or Vasquez, go now and find some! (not that I'm trying to convince you of anything...)
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...