Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood & Susanna Andrew.
Auckland: AUP (2014).
Reviewed by Erin Harrington.
Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 opens with a bold and welcome statement: New Zealand is home to some great writers of creative non-fiction, but this work may not be where you think it is. Editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew highlight the fact, known to many who spend a bit of time online, that many of New Zealand’s best writers, be they essayists, poets or writers of fiction, are working in what might be called ‘non-traditional’ formats. While blogs and other online forums seem to retain an unfortunate sense of ephemerality, this speaks more to our lingering biases towards the authority and supremacy of print media than anything else, for work in magazines perhaps disappears much more quickly from the public eye than its online cousins. In any case, the decision to bring together essays from a variety of media, including magazine and newspapers, speeches and events, and online work both personal and public, works to give a present of broad group of voices working in a range of genres and modes of address. The first piece, in particular, highlights this slippage between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media; Anthony Byrt concisely highlights the importance of social media platform twitter as a space for interaction and expression, both literary and quotidian.
From there, the collection continues with a two pieces on New Zealand: Eleanor Catton’s intimate rumination on the intersection of land and identity in “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, which was first published in a supplement in an Italian newspaper, sits cleverly against Italian-born Giovanni Tiso’s “My Own Private Aotearoa”, which juxtaposes the New Zealand that he’s constructed in his head out of fragments of cultural expression with the New Zealand he experiences as an immigrant. Perspectives on the Canterbury earthquakes that shift between humbling and upsetting open up into essays that range from the comic and wry to the troubling and moving.
The essays are well-picked, and highlights of varying flavours abound. Megan Clayton’s thoughtful piece about the potential ethical implications of amniocentesis (“The Needle and the Damage Done”) is an uncomfortable read, both because of its intimacy and the way that it highlights the value that we place on human lives. Similarly, Keith Ng’s barbed piece on climate change (“The Sound of Thunder”) and Rachel Buchanan’s nuanced, complicated piece on land rights (“There’s a Buried Forest on my Land”) ask us to think harder about the shortness of cultural memory and the impact of our actions upon people and the environment.
Comic pieces, such as Steve Braunias’s “About an Egging”, sit against more lyrical offerings, such as Sarah Bainbridge’s beautiful and poetic account of an echocardiogram (“Speak Up Small Red Thing”). I am particularly taken with David Winter’s “On the Origin and Extinction of Species”, which demonstrates the potency of good, accessible science writing – albeit, in this case, writing that highlights the horrendous fragility of ecosystems and some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of scientific practice.
This is a well-presented book, and its 29 essays serve as an apt snapshot of the sort of diverse work that is being undertaken by New Zealand authors. It’s both a matter of record and a great bit of bedtime (or bathtub) reading that will be worth regularly revisiting.
Erin Harrington is a lecturer in English at the University of Canterbury, where she teaches Cultural Studies with an emphasis on popular culture, visual culture, gender and critical theory. Erin is also Cultural Studies editor for takahē magazine.