Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand – a vibrant, heart-boosting, head -juddering collection

 

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‘To investigate something properly we need all three: archives, dreams, memories …”

Martin Edmond

 

Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand (VUP, 2016), edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey, is a collection to linger over. That the essays are in debt to the personal heightens the effect on the reader because place matters to all of us. One reviewer suggested that New Zealanders are obsessed with place to an unusual degree. I find that hard to believe. We may all have different relations with place whether shaped by cultural, familial or historical factors. We may talk about place in different ways and how it shapes who we are as both as individuals and nations. But place matters.

What I love about this vibrant, heart-boosting, head-juddering collection is that it heads off in a thousand directions—both in view of what is said and how it is said. The recent (and not so recent trend) to filter scholarly thinking through the personal tethers abstract thought to the gritty real world we inhabit on a daily basis, and intellectual thought is all the better for it (although the sublime joy of following abstract argument is still an appealing option).

I love the feel of the book in my hand, the shape and internal design.

 

Ashleigh Young’s opening essay, ‘The Te Kuiti Underground’ revisits a place from her past and it is like refreshing a home page in your head. When she was young, Ashleigh thought, despite her father’s forensic knowledge, that this home place was vacant. The essay opens on a gravel road with a view of paddocks, a sewage pond and the airport. Ashleigh bumps into Paul McCartney, a mutable figure who morphed into George and then later Beck. This warm, wry account of teenage yearnings and adult returns finds effervescent detail to make the threads between home, place and people glow. Yes, the writing is lucid, and that is a certain kind of glow, but the essay delivers such an open and moving insight into familial roots, I got a readerly glow. And that’s gold, if you will forgive the pun.

Other writers take different tacks. Sally Blundell uses quotes from children’s books and characters (Alice, AA Milne, Dr Seuss, the Mock Turtle, Where the Wild Things Are) to structure a moving account of the revival of Christchurch, post-earthquakes: ‘There should be a place where only things you want to happen, happen’ (Sendak). Place and space are questioned and are participants in processes, proposals and discussions that both disconnect and connect the city. This essay is an essential reminder that this place is rebuilding and the grassroots activity is extraordinary. The gap between blueprints and the people is equally so.

Lydia Wevers approaches the Brancepeth Library archives through dirt (they arrived at Victoria University Library in a filthy state!). Much to think about. That image sent me reeling upon the purity of the archives and our relationship with what we read. Lydia sees the drive to find ‘original archival truth’ as somewhat deluded (she borrows this notion), but underlines the way the archival dirt of the Brancepeth collection established a flash of overlap between past and present. This essay was compulsive reading with my current status as researcher. I loved her admissions. This is the final sentence: ‘At some points of recognition, it would be untruthful to remove yourself from the narrative you are trying to make.’

Ingrid Horrocks goes out walking with Creative Writing students on campus and near campus  as part of a research project set up by Massey University ‘in response to a perceived “thinness” of place within the 21st-century multi-campus university.’ The project asks ‘how experience in a particular place might be “thickened” by making connections to that place’s contested histories, its topographies, its inhabitants and uses, its origins.’ Fascinating.

Cherie Lacey was a discovery and I can’t wait to read her memoir (of a failed psychoanalysis). She takes us to reclaimed land behind her dad’s place in Napier. She had been studying psychoanalysis in Melbourne and felt a real aversion to key underpinnings. Chiefly, that ‘we are not the authors of our own texts.’ She ached to be poet rather than poem. The essay, in the spirit of what essays ought to do, puts things on the line in a risky way:

‘This text-that-was-not-my-own didn’t work when it was overlaid on this place. It demanded a different story be made, one that included dog’s brains and a taniwha and a buried lagoon, an earthquake, shards of ceramic and the complicated life of a family.’

Glorious!  ‘This place only exists for me, as me.’

 

Alex Calder stayed in a small Southland lodge, miles from anywhere. He wanted to work on a piece on classic new Zealand fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Harry Ricketts, having lived in numerous places, admits he doesn’t have a standing place of his own. He has imaginary places (borrowed from Rushdie) and reminds us of the ‘here’ hidden in elsewhere. Lynn Jenner places two texts side by side, in pieces, with dialogue and sideways tracks, in  a way that feels like poetry, uncertain, drawing on the past, with a taniwha hovering. This: ‘I think the place and time of one’s birth act like anchovies in a sauce; not discernible as themselves but present as a salty essence, deep and influential.’

For Alice Te Punga Somerville, place ‘folds and unfolds dynamically.’ The essay is both personal and political as it keenly draws close to the names of places, and then to Māori writers, not just where they come from but where they have gone. This essay is essential in the way it mourns the lack of visibility of Māori writers in all our media and publishing platforms.

Annabel Cooper looks at childhood haunts and lives that lived and loved them: ‘In all these lives, places were “passings that haunted” leaving their imprints in the adults who were one children there.’ Annabel makes the vital point that places are impermanent yet conversely act as anchors.

Tina Makereti responds to the insistent question: ‘Where do you come from?’ Tina cannot give ‘a direct or simple answer’ to the query so the essay, in its pathways through, is fascinating, moving, vital. She returns to a place where her tupuna are. ‘I can’t remember who said it first. We could live here. We should live here. Look at the hills. Look at the sea.’

 

I haven’t finished the book. I have still to read Giovanni Tiso, Martin Edmond, Ian Wedde, Jack Ross, Tim Corballis and Tony Ballantyne. Ha! Looks like I picked out all the women first reflecting my current focus on women’s writing.

This is a terrific collection of essays and I cannot recommend it highly enough. An absolutely productive reading experience for me. Bravo Victoria University Press for publishing it.

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