Friday, March 30, 2012

Books from other places

The next topic on Aotearoa Affair’s April Blog Carnival  is books from other places.   For most of my  life, I've been reading books from other places as a matter of course.  It's difficult to do anything else when you live on an island at the bottom of the world which has a much smaller literature than the big guns overseas.

Admittedly many of the books I've read have been from England or America, and in some ways these places aren't that different, culturally, from the world I know.   But the reality is that any book that's written outside your coastline is going to be give you a different perception of the world: the language used will be full of slang and expressions you have to learn in order to read the book; things will be talked about that are common to the writer but not to you.  Places are not your places, and have a different feel about them.

In these days of widespread television and movies, it's easier to have an appreciation of what British and American places look like (and I've actually travelled to the British Isles more than once, and once to a small part of the States).  But all this is still within my cultural (Anglo-European) reach - it doesn't step outside it and give me any huge cultural shock.

So what books from other places have really changed my perceptions?   I think one of the strongest was Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.  I'd come across a list of books* that someone wrote about in a magazine; they were books that had influenced him greatly.  Things Fall Apart was one of the two from the list that I actually got on and read.  Set in Nigeria, here was a world in which humans appeared, and behaved like humans, but everything beyond that was alien.  Furthermore, the story of the father and his three wives and the way they interacted was like something out of the Old Testament.  I kept thinking: this must be how Jacob had to deal with his two wives - and two concubines.  It's all very well to say that the Old Testament is patriarchal, but in fact the women in Jacob's family would have had similar concerns and feelings and hurts and pains to the three wives in Things Fall Apart, and patriarchal society or not, they were as vividly human as the rest of us, and just as strong-natured as the women in this story are.

The other book from the list was V S Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas.  This brought me into a strange world (a world that no longer exists, I think) in Trinidad, in which large families of husbands, wives, innumerable children and grandparents all lived together.  The ongoing consequences of being the one person - Mr Biswas - who rebelled against the enclosing and oppressed feeling was the subject of the book.  When I first read this book, I found it a delight.  I read it again recently, and what had delighted me the first time seemed sour and gloomy.  Mr Biswas, for all his ambition, never manages to get far up the ladder; something always knocks him down, and it's very unsettling.  It's the antipathy of those books that state we can achieve whatever we want to achieve, if we put our minds to it. (I read this quote by Emmanuel Katongole the other day: "The idea that we can be anything we wish to be is one of the most insidious lies we can ever entertain." Mr Biswas is hampered by his family, particularly his wife, and by his circumstances.  The second reading turned out to be quite depressing, in spite of the humour and wit that pervades the book.

I said above that New Zealand has a small literature.  That's true to a point: in the last few decades there have been hundreds of books published in New Zealand that show the culture from the eyes of those who live in it.  And we've been a publishing nation for quite some time; it's just that we didn't always mange to see ourselves as different.  In recent years the fiction that's been published that features New Zealand has tended to take a fairly gloomy tone - this is particularly true of those books that aim for the 'literary' market.   Sometimes this is satisfactory, but there are times when it's nothing but depressing.  (Stuart Hoar's The Hard Light is a prime example of this that comes to mind.)

However, thinking about books I've read from New Zealand that have changed my view, I guess one would be The Matriarch, by Witi Ihimaera.   I read it a number of years ago.  While the characters inhabited a landscape that was familiar, the characters themselves were not.  Partly this was because they were Maori, and because they were seen through Maori eyes.  It was also because in the part of the country where I live (the South Island) we see a relatively small number of Maori people; most of them live in the North Island.  Consequently we South Islanders have a different view of Maori people; we don't tend to be involved in things that are specifically Maori, down here, anywhere nearly as much as people up north.  The Matriarch opened my eyes to the difference culture that exists in my own country - a different culture, yet it's one that's well and truly mixed up with the culture that predominates, a culture that is Anglo-European in tone.

So books don't have to be from other places to give you a different perspective.  In fact, my feeling is that the closer a book is to home, in a country like ours where we still find it strange to read about street names that we actually know, the more strange it seems.  This is a process that takes place as a country grows to understand itself.  We're still in the middle of it.

*25.10.12 I've just found the original list. 

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