The Expatriate Myth New Zealand writers
and the colonial world by Helen Bones
Dunedin: OUP (2017)
RRP: $27.50. Pb, 242pp
Reviewed by Brenda Allen
In her recent work, The Expatriate Myth: New Zealand Writers and the Colonial World (2018), Helen Bones writes to reveal a world of writing between 1890 and 1945 that few of us know about. In this volume of eight chapters supplemented by extensive notes, bibliography and a most useful index, Bones disabuses the reader of a persistent literary theory about authorship and expatriatism that both feeds into and reflects New Zealanders’ cultural cringe.
The main argument debunks the now passé but still commonly held notion that New Zealand authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fall into two categories: those who stayed home and wrote in a nationalist strain, and those who went overseas to become, at least for a time, expatriate New Zealanders writing from a more cosmopolitan viewpoint. Part of this idea, which underpinned New Zealand literary criticism for decades, is that expatriates were lost to us because they no longer represented a narrow kind of local identity, and those who stayed home did not write well because they lacked (European) continental polish. This body of theory cast many of our writers and their work outside the beam of literary light to the point that, according to academics and critics, a generation was lost to us. Bones shows that a significant amount of writing has indeed been lost, but only because the works were ignored by influential people with a narrow definition of literature.
Perhaps because I have also worked to debunk what Bones aptly calls ‘The Expatriate Myth’ I seized upon this thoroughly well researched and clearly expressed volume with great satisfaction. Both main ideas that form the theory are examined and found to be based in myth, supported by a partial selection of published works, mostly books, and mostly written by men. Bones first balances that body of works with the significant collective weight of New Zealand writers who published but did not publish books. As an academically trained reader, I fell on these accounts first with enthusiasm and amazement. As the list grew I became ashamed to realise that there are so many writers who I might regard highly if only I had ever met their work. Although it is not her main point, Bones demonstrates that there is plenty of work still to be done to bring these works out of the archives to give easy access to a side of our past that has been all but suppressed.
The notion that writers who did not travel, or who stayed home most of the time, were isolated from the wider world, is also thoroughly debunked. We forget that generations who grew up before the magic of the internet kept in touch by writing and reading. Bones quotes some surprising statistics to support her point, for instance, referencing work by Lydia Weavers she tells us that in 1903, incoming mail to Brancepeth Station included over 40,000 letters as well as copious numbers of newspapers, parcels, samples and the like. Furthermore, the numbers of libraries, book sellers and newspapers in the early parts of the twentieth century are surprising, to say the least. Bones argues that while distance from the main centres of publishing was a hindrance, that hurdle has been overestimated. A more realistic view is that distance presented time delays and inconvenience but was surmounted by more writers than we commonly acknowledge.
Writers who published overseas make up yet another group whose work was, for a long time, seen as less than worthy of inclusion as New Zealand literature. While it is true that changes had to be made for the British market, this seems a harsh and narrow way to categorise our writers and their work. Those who published in Australia have also been excluded, as were works set outside of New Zealand. It is not difficult to understand that such ideas both give rise to and feed into the cultural cringe that recent writers and film makers (e.g. the very cosmopolitan Taika Waititi) have satirized.
Bones establishes that it was not necessary to go overseas in order to be successful. About half of the writers she identifies did so, and the majority of those returned, some after having a miserable time. Overall, gender closed more doors than being from New Zealand, and those who did find a niche in London’s literary world did not need to dissociate themselves from their New Zealand culture. In her concluding remarks, Bones explains that some who could not wait to leave New Zealand were soon longing to return to the place where their culture felt personally authentic.
As Bones points out, the form used to demonstrate, develop, feed and nurture the myth is almost exclusively made up of published books and she links this to the long-held spectre of the Great New Zealand Novel, which was hovering, begging to be written – yet remains as elusive as every writer’s pipe-dream. I am left with the conviction that significant strength is to be found in the works of the unsung, and I hope this writer or her students will go on to compile collections or anthologies of these smaller forms so they can be read and taught as part of New Zealand Literature. Clearly, when gathered together they are a weighty body of evidence that pre-World War II New Zealand identity was never as narrowly parochial as many of us have supposed.
Brenda Allen studied, taught and published essays about narrative texts (including films) at the University of Auckland Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau. She retired in 2016 and now lives in Waihi, where she reads, gardens and thinks about writing something in the near future.