Tag Archives: the social and cultural

Eleanor Catton, Braveheart. Copyright Robert Catto Robertcatto.com

Eleanor Catton: NZ’s Braveheart? Not just yet.

I have been writing this since Thursday, recollecting and ruminating, but it has been hard keeping up since each day seems to bring another twist in the tale that has sprung from Eleanor Catton’s uncommon, but largely unremarkable remarks, made at the Jaipur Writers Festival in India.

To sum, she felt “uncomfortable” with being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand given her feelings about how our government – and she’s careful to include the Australian and Canadian governments also – are dominated by “profit-obsessed” neo-liberal politicians who “would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want.”

And something of a media furore erupted.

Here is what I wrote on this site way back when her Booker win was announced:

“Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).”
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And also:

I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

Lo and behold. Kinda.

Catton said her thing; in response, radio journalist Sean Plunket pushed the rhetorical boat to the limit, calling her an “ungrateful hua” and traitor” for her comments about our great country/government. And of course Catton’s remarks couldn’t go reported for even one day before Prime Minster John Key’s rebuttal had to be tacked on to them. Whenever someone says something disquieting about our country, he’s where our media go to “balance” the picture.

They’re just the two highest profile retorts. There was support as well, of course, including from those already scourged, already tarred, or with nothing to lose. And there was Twitter. But Key and Plunkett are authority figures who create a great allowable arc of attacks and uninformed comment masquerading as debate, much effectively dismissing her as a silly girl, a know-nothing writer, or fanatical Green party advocate. The unthinking dismissal of someone who is not instantly and whole-heartedly celebrating the state of our society.

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Such is the bloody circus that performs as our public discourse.

This is not simple “tall-poppy” or even misogyny.  I call it our New Chauvinism, actively fostered since the Clark years as a sheepskin to bring the Right back to popularity and reinvigorate the very neo-liberal power base that Catton was criticising.

Is Eleanor Catton the braveheart to challenge this status quo? I’ll asssert, Catton is not an expert on politcal economy and power structures. Not yet. That does not diminish the value of her remarks; not in the way Key’s belated comeback attempts to suggest. She is intelligent and moral, and trusts her feelings – the latter is something our society could learn to respect a lot more. Society, elections, would be a lot different if people were encouraged to trust their gut feelings of right or wrong.

For Catton, I expect if it matters to her she will inform herself and become truly dangerous very very quickly indeed.

That is an if. She hasn’t shown her courage yet. She can still step back, although she has made a clear statement that she will not, and even pressed her point with regards to the cutting of National Library services to New Zealand schools. But she has been invited to rejoin the silent folds. She can still be politic. All will be forgiven.

And she is safe to criticise, to a certain extent. There will always be publishers willing to print her. She does not “need” New Zealand. She has a global base and can live quite well and afford to lose the outraged fans thought she was so nice when she shone for them through The Luminaries.

But Catton clearly cares about New Zealand, its people, its culture, its environment. So if she wants to continue to share her ideas, make a difference, she might talk to Robyn Malcolm, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lucy Lawless for some insight on voicing values contrary to those driving our gears of power. Or Jon Stephenson, Nicky Hager. Mike Joy. Or columnists like Tapu Misa, disappeared and not published enough. Martyn Bradbury would have some interesting things to say about the double-standards at “our” Radio New Zealand – there’s no refuge there. Gareth Morgan – he was the mainstream economic golden boy once, but got sidelined once he started musing on democracy and social justice long before cat-control.

Dissident voices are heard for one day, maybe a week, but are inevitably buried beneath the myriad others that are constantly rewarded for recycling the chauvinist and neo-liberal norms; it is a career path in itself. For a glimpse of her future, Catton might chat to Germaine Greer. Or Julian Assange – the flipside of being a hua/hoor. Create a haven for truth and you get to be a rapist with no evidence of such, liberty gone, no charges, no public outcry.

Regardless of her publishing, Catton can expect to be scrutinised through the lens, as Plunkett put it, of a traitor: someone who does not celebrate the ideas dominant in NZ society with the appropriate level of “jingoistic fervor”. As if any criticism is therefore a criticism of rugby, beer, barbeques and WWI veterans – of “our” team. Which is, in the chauvinism of the current establishment, the happy, positive, winning “Team Key”. Doesn’t she want to be on our team? Isn’t she a “”winner”? The derision reserved for losers, critics and malcontents is well bedded.

This is chauvinism in action. And conscious of their own brand and image, people will be less gushing with praise for Catton because cattontwitthey know she is tainted. In award or review, they’ll find some reason to favour some other author, or novel, or point-of-view. The door is open – they’ll say that she opened the door – to scrutinise everything she writes and says for more evidence of her treachery. She may become satirised, to the point that she exists to the mainstream only as a caricature and grotesque – “elitist”, “traitor”, and the establishment favourite, “narcissist” – from behind which none of her thoughts and truths and arguments will be heard.

It’s not a dead end, nor a lost cause. Arundhati Roy has forged her own path. George Monbiot is the model of a wise, moral and intelligent person railing impotently from within the media system. Media critic Media Lens has advocated a donated fund to free thinkers, journalists and  writers to publish free of self-censorship, something I’ve personally always contended. Plus artists. Especially artists. Look at Russell Brand. Artists reach people. Especially the young.

Because of this, Catton and those like her are a threat to the status quo. They become authorities we feel we know and trust, in the same way some people feel Queen Elizabeth is a trusted member of their own family. That’s why they get torn down. They can become leaders, if they have something to say. They need to be patronised, co-opted, sullied, or stigmatised because no amount of media whitewash can drown them out. Give them too much of a start and they won’t need a masthead, nor a media-constructed image, like a Key. They just connect and connect and connect. And then…?

That’s what makes them scared.

The Booker was Catton’s start. This furore, all over a simple statement of views not proportionally reflected in our public discourse, was the first step.

Red pill, blue pill. I’m with her if she goes down the rabbit hole. So should everyone of a like mind and the courage to say it. Fund change. Form an alliance.

But I would not fault her for going the other way, either.

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Writing in fantasy

One thing I spoke about at the launch was my experience in discussing the book with someone for the first time.
One type of response was polite interest, knowing that I had a degree in boring old politics – then the listener perking up when they heard it was a fantasy.
The other was the reverse of this – effectively, if you want to write something important, why fantasy?

Well consider the alternative, if I set a story about personal and state power and the nature of authority, in our “real world. In New York. Moscow. Baghdad. Just from those words, the reader immediately summons an entire pre-constructed world of meaning full of assumptions. Literally, cultural baggage. If the author’s reality and the reader’s do not match, communication is affected. In fact, viewpoints may differ so greatly the only transmission of ideas might be the book flying, thrown by the reader across the room.

By writing and reading in fantasy, it’s like we make a pact, giving each other permission to imagine and question in ways that might conflict with everyday assumptions. This is not so important with what I call “Tree of Life” stories; but it is essential when you are deconstructing big ideas around the “Book of the World”. Our world resists deconstruction, so you have to take that task elsewhere. If I make that new world welcoming to the reader, don’t disrupt with too-intricate world-building, tap into the familiar, keep to what I know is true, I get a chance at a clean slate, and maybe the reader can discover something new.

And also have some epic quests and cool monsters along the way.

Non-fiction essay: A Part Of Me

A little girl dashes into the fog. She’s barely two. It’s our local park; she knows the playground, and I’m following along; but it feels taboo, letting her so far ahead. The image of such a dearly loved figure, so small and alone in the white, framed by the bare blank trees – it strikes the eye like neglect, like I should be hovering at her shoulder, just in case. But there’s no one about to upbraid me. As I watch her joy the guilt fades, and a new dread settles instead.

Nothing reframes your conception of family like your first child. You’re saddled with a whole new package of “grown up” and it all has to fit immediately. With it comes a new appreciation for your own parents, and all parents. Whatever your feelings about kinship – those push-me/pull-you ties that tangle and constrain, that can tighten like parachutes or winch you to unearned heights – having a child cuts through that gnarly wadding, makes an incurable wound. News items you once skimmed past disinterestedly now touch with a visceral chill: the baby who died in her bed from overheating; or the one that survived, cushioned in the backpack, when her parents fell from a gondola. And the irrational fears, seeded in our congealed criminal folklore: yes, my daughter is special, why wouldn’t someone want to snatch her, look at Madeleine McCann – presumably this nightmare is looped in some collective parental consciousness.

Who we claim as family is significant. The world demands we make these divisions and we are herd creatures at heart. We impart trust on the ties of blood embellished with ideas of self-interest and shut out the rest, resulting in genocide, wars and sectarian violence at one end of the scale, to remarriage after a divorce, leaving one family for another, at the other. In the Royals we have a family that has succeeded in setting itself above all others, yet is embraced in the imagination of millions as if they also belong. It is a fundamental human inequality. We are forever making the statement: you are with me – and you are not.

This creates rules around family, divisions as real as whanau, hapu, iwi, maori, tauiwi, but they are not hard walls. The boundaries shift when we talk of the kinship of community, of a crowd united at an All Blacks game, where provincial foes become hometown heroes; or of a city humbled by disaster, its collective struggles almost incommunicable as the rest of the country ticks on. Even the act of asking for and sharing a smoke on the street expresses a familial bond.

Here is where family transcends the contest for power and resources. Where the stakes are low, family becomes just a feeling that might be extended to anyone, even everyone. I was perhaps nine when I realised something like this, on a sunny day walking home from school. It was just luck that made me white, middle-class, male; I could have been born into any body in any family, any place in the world. The thought was not paired with any religious belief, but the consequence, that I could have been born as anyone: I realised I was everyone. Or, at least, I should act as if everyone was part of me.

Naturally, this epiphany lasted five minutes on the rough-and-tumble reality of playground politics, but the inclination to embrace commonalities endures; and we have nothing less in common than all being only human. This does not necessarily suit a world weighted towards the fear of difference, to turned backs, to protecting one’s tribe. Our hearts reach out to Australians caught in flash-fires, but we say nothing of the fire that pours even more senselessly on Gaza. We have received the non-message, those people are not, could not, be ours; which is hard to take when I consider recent revelations from Iraq, more graphic photos swapped between US troops like baseball cards. Because when I see a young woman, surrounded, with blurred spots covering her mouth, I see with the eyes of a father. I know that she and all her family are now dead, and it’s left to me to demand that no family suffer such circumstances ever again.

It’s an old game. The Great Game. The dividing lines are imagined, but when acted upon become real, with real gains for a few and real tragedies for the rest. We see the fruits in the feudalism that emerges under every system of government: royal families, corporate dynasties, political parties and the frameworks that fund them. While real families, for so long the heart of the human economy, become “nice-to-haves”, a flag of political rhetoric, and an externality that is left to look after itself – debased by systems that promote individual self-interest above all else.

And that’s what I saw as my little girl ran into the mist: a desolate place where people stood around like black trees, silent, not seeing her or each other, only the heights to which they might grow, heedless of the collective cost. A vision of the future. And it seems like the only power I have to stop it is to have another child, just so my daughter won’t have to endure it alone.

This essay was written as an entry to the Sunday Star Times essay competition on “Family”, 2013.

Timely, and to the point.

It’s one of the ironies of the blogosphere that a lag between posts makes a blog owner look lazy and idle (“What, you’re not taking your dog for a walk? Again?“), when the truth can be entirely the reverse.

For anyone politically engaged, critically aware, or in any way oriented to the world around them by means other than the television, there has been some interesting shit going down, in NZ and abroad, and it has all been finding ground inside me, heart and mind.

So all the reading I’ve been doing over the internet about the NSA and America’s response, into the local GCSB Bill and the spying actions of the Prime Minister’s office, all the stories veering from authoritarianism to literary criticism that I pick off reliable Friends feeds – y’know, all that stuff that no one has had the incredible wisdom to actually pay me to do – that’s research. And that all intertwines with my increasingly grim reading of Listener articles (no, I do not pay for them – but it pays to know what is being read); and the books I have finished, such as Cypherpunks; and with the local culture – skirmish over the fluoridation of drinking water; and my real-life wrestling with the Inland Revenue Department and city council, and whatever, and whatever – and yes, that all qualifies as incredibly useful and as research, so long as the ideas that flow from these interconnections are recorded, filed and indexed in accurate and timely fashion. Which, you know, never actually happens.

Nevertheless! They are held in my head and will hang there, these future blog posts, fictions and miscellanea, like so many orphaned limbs until I get around to some assembling, or at least give them the dignity of text, even if it is in OneNote, which tends to be my perpetual purgatory of partially-constructed thoughts.

The upshot of which is I do intend to write a post on the implications of our growing surveillance society for the bureaucratic authoritarianism (way to link Assange to a $12 parking infringement), among a host of others; but barring the unlikelihood of someone emailing me to beg for a blog post, I thought I might whip something together for the Sunday Star Times non-fiction essay, the required theme being “family”, which I think has the potential to focus a lot of the things I’m interested – politics, culture, the hypocrisies in our public morality. Whether it catches the judge’s eye or not, I’ll post it here in November.

At the same time, I’ve got line edits from Stephen at Steam Press for Act 2 of The Sovereign Hand, plus the aforementioned purgatory to renovate. So if it seems still around here, assume that’s where I’ll be.