New Zealand: cultural values

I’m a girl who likes a challenge. So when Nadine stopped by the blog to share her thoughts on what my NZ choice should be, I couldn’t help but be struck by what she had to say. One comment in particular caught my eye:

‘Of course many might say the New Zealand book to read is “Once Were Warriors” by Alan Duff. It was made into a chilling film in the mid-nineties that had a ripple effect on the country that we still feel today. And for all of that the film wasn’t a patch on the book, written in a kind of vernacular. But if you read Once Were Warriors, you would have to read “Tangi”, by Witi Ihimaera (of Whale Rider fame) lest you be left with a completely skewed impression of our indigenous heritage.’

Nadine’s words made me think of several things: she reminded me of the dilemmas I’ve had choosing books from countries that are home to several cultural communities and what this has taught me about the short-sightedness of thinking that one book can speak for an entire group, let alone a nation. She also made me curious: what was it about Once Were Warriors that might skew my perception of Maori culture? And why had this book and film had such a profound effect on New Zealand society? At the risk of permanently warping my perception of the nation’s heritage, I was going to have to take a look.

Set on the grim council estate of Pine Block, Once Were Warriors follows Beth and Jake Heke and their children as they lurch from crisis to crisis. Alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, unemployment and crime are all facts of life in their urban Maori community, where books are non-existent and most teenage boys’ highest aspirations are to be accepted into the brutal Brown Fists gang. Yet, as Beth discovers when overwhelming catastrophe strikes, the greatest enemy she and her peers are up against could be themselves.

Alan Duff is a master of the thousand ways we humans have of justifying our failings to ourselves. Writing in a roaming monologue, which flows in and out of the thoughts of each of the Heke family, he lays bare the contradictions, self-delusions and false promises by which the characters navigate through their days. We see Beth repeatedly touching her bruised face to reassure herself that she couldn’t have made it to her son’s court hearing and Jake telling himself that he is interested in far more things than sport and violence, ‘though he couldn’t name specifics’, while their eldest son Nig begins to learn the same process of compartmentalising emotions his parents have used for years so as to be able to present the steely front demanded of local gang members.

Each locked in the lonely labyrinth of his or her own narrative, the Heke family members grope desperately for something to allow them to connect with one another and the world. They and their neighbours seek it in the blur of alcohol, the rush of fighting – ‘the only taste of victory they get from life’ – and clumsy physical encounters.

Maori heritage presents a possibility for bonding too. Yet the urban group’s grasp of it is weak and slanted – fixated on the physical prowess of previous generations and devoid of the celebration of legends, rituals and culture that binds the community in the town where Beth grew up. Intimidated by the Maori language that they cannot speak and practices they do not understand, the Pine Blockers are a lost tribe, for whom cultural background is little more than a further justification for the cycle of abuse and disadvantage in which they remain – until Beth is forced to explore what it might take for this to change.

It’s easy to see why this book was made into a film: Duff is great at raising the stakes and racking up the tension, and the episodic style of the narrative already reads like a series of scenes. At times, this cutting in and out of events can feel a little abrupt, with certain key episodes glossed over or skipped out altogether, so that you have the disconcerting feeling of being in a lift whisking past the floor you expected to stop at. I also wasn’t convinced by the star-gazer who appears at a couple of key points in the narrative, presumably to put events into a sort of cosmic context.

But these are little things. On the whole, this is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Far from being a negative account of indigenous New Zealand cultural groups, it is a passionate argument for engaging with and cherishing that heritage. It is essentially a story about identity and the stagnation that sets in when people are cut off from their roots – a theme that resonates all over the world.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Vintage, 1995)

Switzerland: a secret recipe

The internet has been a breeding ground for weird and wonderful literary ventures since it stretched its tentacles into most of our homes somewhere around the mid nineties. Whether you want to talk about, swap, write or analyse books – or even cut them up and make them into something else entirely – there is a site out there for you.

Few people, however, have been more dedicated to exploring the possibilities of marrying web and paper pages than Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users. He is also General Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Culture, a daring project that capitalises on the fact Switzerland has no official ministry of culture (as its government members are known as federal councillors instead) to highlight the power of domain names.

Mazenauer gave me a fascinating list of Swiss titles I could read for this project. Several of the books on it were so tempting that I had to ask a colleague to help me choose. In the end, what made us decide on Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta was the intriguing and tragic life story of its author, Aglaja Veteranyi.

Born into a family of Romanian circus performers, Veteranyi spent her childhood travelling Europe performing tricks until she and her relatives were granted asylum in Switzerland, the country she came to adopt as her home. Illiterate because of her nomadic life, the teenage Veteranyi taught herself to read and write German before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in 1982. However, the abuse and exploitation of her early years had taken a lasting toll and the author drowned herself in Lake Zurich in 2002.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an autobiographical novel in which a child narrator describes the life of her itinerant circus family. In addition to walking the tightrope of childhood and adolescence, she must also negotiate the nightly fear that her mother, ‘THE WOMAN WITH THE STEEL HAIR,’ will fall from the winch from which she hangs in the big top, as well as the violence and sexual menace of her father and the risk that the family may be identified and sent back to Romania to be executed. She and her sister do this by masking one horror with another, creating a gruesome story about a child cooking alive in a vat of polenta, which they tell themselves for comfort when the world becomes too frightening.

The subject matter sounds grim, yet the narrative voice is light-hearted and even funny for much of the book. Filled with quirky insights and descriptions that capture the cadences and preoccupations of childhood to a tee, the novel fizzes with life. There is the car trip that ‘lasted several years’ and musings on knotty problems such as whether God speaks other languages, all of which make the succinct expressions of suffering all the more telling when they come: ‘I don’t scream. I’ve thrown my mouth away,’ says the narrator at one point, expressing more in eight words than pages of description could do.

The narrator’s striking perspective on the world is enhanced by the bold structural and formatting choices that run through the book. There are phrases picked out in capital letters, lists of repeated words, one-sentence chapters and even blank pages, which make the work feel more like a baggy poem at points and underline perfectly the disconcerting nature of a childhood where nothing can be relied upon and the most basic of rules do not apply.

At the root of this unease is the search for home and identity. To the narrator, ‘every country is in a foreign country’, and the family’s history and allegiances shift depending on who they are speaking to:


‘We’re Orthodox, we’re Jewish, we’re international!

‘My grandfather owned a circus arena, he was a salesman, a captain, traveled from country to country, never left his own village and was a locomotive engineer. He was a Greek, a Romanian, a farmer, a Turk, a Jew, an aristocrat, a Gypsy, an Orthodox believer.

‘My mother was appearing in circuses even as a child so she could feed her whole family.

‘Another time she runs away to the circus with my father against her parents’ wishes.’

Out of this melting pot of conflicting accounts, Veteranyi concocts a rich and subtle meditation on childhood, belonging, nationality and truth. Wistful, tart and witty, the book achieves that fine balance of pathos and humour that only the very best childhood narratives share. It left me wanting more.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta (Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from the German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)