Another country? Mainlanders discussing ourselves – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.

I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.

This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?

Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner
Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner (Image supplied)

Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.

Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.

As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…

Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.

Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.

Cover of The villa at the edge of the empireFarrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.

Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.

Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.

Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.

I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.

Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”

Cover of Into the wider world: A back country miscellanyThe answers were vary in the degree to which they take the question seriously. Turner, with some earnestness observes that he needs wide open spaces and “the sounds of silence that aren’t silence”.

Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.

Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.

Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.

Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.

In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?

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Middle Island or New Munster?

New Ulster, New Munster, and New Leinster, 1844.

What is in a name? With the news that the North Island and the South Island may not be the names of two of our islands, people are all stirred up. Twitter got into the action, bestowing new names on our is-lands The North Island – Te Ika-a-Maui – and the South Island – Te Waipounamu.

Then I remembered some delicious old maps that reveal names of old. This 1838 map shows a transliterated version – South Island as Tavaipoenammo and the North Island as Eaheinomauwe.

Once we showed Irish roots with the names New Ulster (North Island) and New Munster (South Island) (Stewart Island as New Leinster), 1844.

Middle Island, 1850 map.

Te Waipounamu (the South Island) was once dubbed Middle Island.

See at left the Sketch of Middle Island (New Zealand) shewing the East Coast as laid down by Captn. Stokes 1850.

See also 1880 and 1904 examples of the South Island as Middle Island.

For more map goodness, check out our digitised collection of maps.

The inside word on outsiders

Catherine Boyd and Laurence FearnleyAt the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I attended a fascinating session (chaired very ably by Carole Beu), listening to three women writers from the south who have published books in the last year – all with the theme of outsiders.

Carole entreated the audience to believe that Laurence Fearnley, Charlotte Randall and Emma Neale are some of the best writers in the world, and to go out and tell everybody else the same thing. She is certain that they will all feature in upcoming book awards this year.

All three authors are approachable, likeable and intelligent speakers. Laurence Fearnley’s book The Hut Builder is about Boden, a small town butcher’s son who also writes poetry. He’s an introverted character who tagged along with a group of people he knew from school and constructed a tramping hut  in the mountains near Mt Cook in the 1950s. Near the end of the trip, he climbed to the summit of Mt Cook with famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

Laurence donned a black beanie to help set the scene when reading an excerpt from the book, where young Boden sees the Mackenzie Basin in winter for the first time. He sees the dog with him leaping through snow ‘like a dolphin surfing waves’ and ‘walking on a field of stars’ and is moved to compose his first poem in his head.

Charlotte Randall is witty and forthright. She showed a photo of the Canterbury Gold Escort, taken at 9am 4th December 1865. Uniformed and armed men who rode on horseback, escorting gold from the West Coast to Canterbury. This photo was her inspiration for Hokitika Town, set in 1865, and tells the story of Halfie, a mixed race Maori/Pakeha boy who tells his story in a strange patois that he has picked up from the multi-national inhabitants of the goldfields.

Emma Neale has precise, clear diction and told the story of Boo, the 7ft tall ‘man’ covered in a pelt ‘like the feathers on a Golden Retriever’s tail’ who was discovered in a forest. He is the main protagonist in her latest novel Fosterling. She writes beautifully and there were many examples of metaphorical brilliance, my favourite being ‘he watched a wood pigeon that had a breast as stout as a cream jug’.

All three writers preferred to twist their non-fiction research to fit the story that they wanted to tell. Laurence Fearnley said that she always began her work with a single image in her mind, and went from there. Charlotte Randall said she only writes about what interests her, and that that changes all the time. Emma Neale has young children and is particularly affected by the thought of them going out into the world, and coping on their own.

Southern women write about southern men

logoA trio of writers from the South Island are set to take to the stage at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival to talk about their recently published books which all have the connecting theme of  ‘outsiders’.

Charlotte Randall is a novelist whose first book Dead Sea Fruit (1995) won the Reed Fiction Award and Best First Book Award in the South East Asia/Pacific section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her second novel The Curative and fourth novel What Happen then Mr Bones? were runners-up in the fiction section of the Montana Book Awards (2001 & 2005 respectively). Her latest novel – Hokitika Town – is about a boy called Halfie and is set during the gold rush in 1865 Hokitika.

Emma Neal is a poet and prose writer who has had writing published extensively and was the inaugural recipient of the New Zealand Society of Authors Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2008.  Her new novel Fosterling  is about a young man found unconscious in a remote forest, who is seven-foot tall and hairy!

Laurence Fearnley is an author and curator who has written extensively on New Zealand craft artists and has received many awards and grants for her work. Her seventh novel The Hut Builder focuses on a southern small town (Fairlie) and its most famous inhabitant – the butcher/poet who climbed to the summit of Mt Cook with Edmund Hillary.

All three novels have male protagonists, so I’m keen to listen to the authors talk about their work, and hear if they had any difficulties writing from a male point of view.  Also, the stereotypical image of a southern man revolves around beer, horses, dogs and countryside found in the Southern Alps – a far cry from downtown Auckland, mate! I have no doubt that they will offer a wholly more sensitive image – of men living in interesting times.