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.
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
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...