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A Quick Journey Through NZ Literature

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Connecting Literature To Society


Even though our first writers had come to stay in the 19th century, it was to be a long time before their imaginations made the trip. Most still had the Empire on their minds ……


Our first significant author, Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923), produced remarkable short stories which reflected the stultifying effect of Victorian values, shipped out from the Empire and yet she also struggled to mirror local speech and settings (The Doll’s House, The Garden Party, Her First Ball).


It wasn’t until the 1930’s that anything resembling “authentic” New Zealand literature emerged. Poetry and novel writing did little more than place English conventions and sentiments in an antipodean context. The overwhelming preoccupation of early New Zealand literature was the struggle of the English spirit to bring civilization to the bush and its dusky inhabitants. The best was Jane Mander’s, Story of a New Zealand River (1920). It was banned in New Zealand for making our farmers look bad.


The sea of change in New Zealand literature, the point at which we started to tell our own stories in our own way without doffing our hats to the Empire, was with the emergence of a magazine named The Phoenix at Auckland University College in 1932.


Frank Sargeson was perfecting the style with which he put Kiwi speech patterns and idiom down on paper. In 1945 he published an anthology, “Speaking For Ourselves” where he captured the rhythms and cadences of native New Zealanders. He lived a quiet life in a bach at Takapuna and suffered for being a homosexual. Janet Frame, Maurice Duggan, CK Stead and Kevin Ireland were frequent visitors.


Janet Frame who was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and spent 8 years incarnated in a mental asylum, went on to become one of New Zealand’s most remarkable writers. Jane Campion immortalized her life in the film, Angel At My Table”.


Caxton Press was founded in 1934 by Denis Glover (The Magpies) and became an outlet for dynamic New Zealand writing. Glover, who was an ex-seaman and boxer who had a serious affection for the bottle, became a colourful figure around Wellington. Caxton Press published some of the most famous New Zealand writers of the time: Alan Curnow, Rex Fairburn, Bruce Mason and in 1945 published the first collection of a teenager named James K Baxter.


The son of a WW1 pacifist, Baxter became a prophet before his time in his empathy for Maori spiritual values and communal living. He founded a commune, Jerusalem, on the banks of the Wanganui River and where he continued his battle with alcoholism. His poems looked with critical affection into the heart of the stumbling adolescent New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s – the post war New Zealand. He was one of New Zealand’s finest poets and controversial figures, often at odds with a society unable to stomach its disturbing reflection of his work.


High Country Weather,


Alone we are born

      And die alone

Yet see the red-gold cirrus

     Over the snow mountain shine

Upon the upland road

    Ride easy stranger

Surrender to the sky

    Your heart of anger


The New Zealand of that time was famously a rather joyless, conformist place: the response of its writers was gritty, “critical realism”.


In 1960, a 25 year old bloke with the down-to-earth name of Barry Crump, published, A Good Keen Man, which struck a cord with its yarns about rough and ready deer-culling types.


New Zealand literature – like many other aspects of our society – came of age in the 1970s, largely as a result of the various movements of social dissent during the late ‘60s and 70s and resulted in catalyzing our own national identity.


Witi Ihimaera’s Pounamu , Pounamu was the first collection of stories to be published by a Maori writer and Tangi the first  novel. These books coincided with a tremendous upsurge in Maori cultural activity. Alan Duff (Once Were Warriors) continues this tradition.


In 1973 Auckland’s new status as the largest Polynesian city, was celebrated with the publication of Albert Wendt’s “Sons for the Return Home”.


Another small town teacher, Maurice Gee, has been producing novels of consistent excellence since the publication of his first, “The Big Season” in 1962. Maurice Shadbolt wrote what some consider to be the definite New Zealand book, Strangers and Journeys about normal New Zealanders being New Zealanders against a New Zealand social background and history. His work present a distinctive of the whole post-colonisation era of New Zealand history.


Sam Hunt – “A free-wheeling ordinary sort of bloke – a Kiwi kind of Jack Kerouac, laconic somewhat gauche – whose poems or roadsongs are direct and simple – surprised by their own emotions”. He lived around Wellington and now lives on Waiheke Island.

Winter Solstice Song by Sam Hunt

We can believe in miracles,
easy a day like this.
For five minutes at sunrise the sun
broke through, first time in weeks,
a kiss
I took to mean arrival
and five minutes up
ran off.
                    But it is
the year's shortest day
when anything can happen,
miracles 'not a problem'.

The sun five minutes with us
came and left with a kiss.
We believe in miracles. That, love,
is all we have.

One thing is for certain: Hunt continues to do that he’s always done - bring poetry to the people. What is constant is Hunt living by his own maxim:

 Tell the story, tell it true, charm it crazy

Although there had been some notable women writers, Mansfield and Frame for example, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that male dominance of the literary scene was seriously challenged. Fiona Kidman, Marilyn Duckworth (QMC Old Girl) and Joy Cowley led the charge.


Creative writing has undergone an elevation of status from a kind of hobby to a profession with the increase in literary grants and reflects the new maturity of New Zealand society.  Whereas once we used to speak of a “cultural cringe”, a sense that New Zealand and New Zealanders were somehow second rate compared to things European or North American, in the work of writers such as Elizabeth Knox, Charlotte Randall or Sarah Quigley, you can read a self-assurance, a confident willingness to look at the rest of the world in the eye. It is the stories we share and tell to and about one another which make us what we are.


Kevin Ireland’s Top Ten Hits

  • Tutira – The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station: W H Guthrie Smith
  • Collected Stories, Katherine Mansfield
  • Collected Stories, Frank Sargesson
  • Collected Stories, Owen Marshall
  • Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame
  • Collected Poems, R A K Mason
  • The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry
  • Let The River Stand, Vincent O’Sullivan
  • The Plumb Trilogy, Maurice Gee
  • The South Island Of New Zealand, Robin Morrison


Try one of these!


Peter Wells, Margaret Mahy, CK Stead, Bill Manhire, Nigel Cox, Katherine Mansfield, Ngaio Marsh, Noel Virtue, Dan Davin, Bruce Mason, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, R A K Mason, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Kelly Anne Morey, Robin Hyde, Michael Morrissey, John Mulgan, Fleur Alcock, Vincent O’Sullivan, A R D Fairburn, Tessa Duder, Kirsty Gunn, Maurice Duggan, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Barbara Else, Ruth Park, Emily Perkins, Fiona Farrell, Elizabeth Knox, Elizabeth Smither, Apirana Taylor, Brian Turner, Anne Salmond, Hone Tuware, Damien Wilkins, Barbara Anderson, Jane Mander, Barbara Ewing, Ranginui Walker, Charles Brash, Albert Wendt, Tim Corballis, Joy Cowley, Ian Cross, James McNeish, Barry Crump, Sue Mc Cauley, Maurice Shadbolt, Allen Curnow, Ruth Dallas, Marilyn Duckworth, Denis Glover, Chris Orsman, Patricia Grace, Sarah Quigley, Frank Sargesson, Alan Duff, Roger Hall, Keri Hulme, Janet Frame, Sam Hunt, Witi Ihimaera, Kevin Ireland, Fiona Kidman, Michael King, John A Lee, James K Baxter …………………………………..



Summarised from AA Directions, 2005. Getting In, Kiwi Writers. John Mc Crystal, Paul Little, John Cranna.



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