Monday, 27 April 2020

Letter from Auckland by Oscar Mardell

On Saturday 11th April our New Zealand correspondent Oscar Mardell delivered his first Letter from Auckland at the fourth Leap in the Dark, a twice-weekly gathering of musicians, singers, poets, authors, performers and other creatives. The straight-to-camera piece of impeccable social commentary was followed by a dramatic recreation of that manliest of Antipodean activities, sheep-shearing. Oscar was dressed as a ram throughout, and the vigorous shearing was undertaken by his partner Briar, who now has a cult following.

Oscar has kindly sent me a copy of his original text, which appears in full below.

Dear Leapers,

Kia ora koutou na Aotearoa: Hello from New Zealand, where we are fortunate enough to have the Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern at the helm, where the advice of the medical authorities has been followed from the outset, where we’ve been on full lockdown for two weeks, and where the population has been told unambiguously:
  • Keep your distance
  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t leave your homes except for necessities
  • Don’t even think about leaving the country
And it’s working: the number of new cases is actually decreasing. As a headline in the Washington Post recently put it: NZ isn’t just flattening the curve, it’s squashing it. The prevailing mood here right now is simply one of gratitude: for an unusually robust government at such an uncertain time. And there have been stipends available to artists and freelancers, books printed for children without access to computers – the sorts of things unimaginable under the previous government. 

Government aside, the New Zealander’s first-hand experience of the pandemic might not seem particularly unique: the items on our daily agendas down here are doubtless the same as those on yours up there. But, of course, it’s the items which are absent from agendas that define our days in days like these - items like:
  • Visit friends and family
  • Enjoy the outdoors
  • Go travelling
Such fun is simply not scheduled. It’s the abundance of negative space which gives these times their strange shape.

Again, the feeling is not unique to New Zealand – people are cooped up the world over, distancing and isolating and wishing that they weren’t. And yet, I think, the experience of having to stay at home, of being unable to go ‘Overseas’ or even ‘Outdoors’, weighs uniquely on New Zealanders– or at least, on Pākehā New Zealanders, New Zealanders of British or European descent – for whom the categories, ‘Overseas’ and ‘Outdoors’, are, I think, unusually loaded. 


Pākehā start making their homes in New Zealand at the end of the 18th Century. But for more than a hundred years afterwards, they continue to call Britain ‘home’ – even if they’ve never set foot in Britain. It isn’t until well into the 20th Century that Pākehā writers such as Katherine Mansfield begin to describe the country that they actually inhabit as their ‘home’. And even then, the very notion remains radically unstable, plagued by the feeling that this ‘home’ is still foreign to Pākehā and they to it, by the feeling that we do not belong to the land in quite the same way as Māori – the indigenous people of New Zealand. In a 2011 book called The Settler’s Plot, the New Zealand literary critic Alex Calder gave this feeling a name – ‘Pakeha Turangawaewae’ – Turangawaewae being a Maori word meaning ‘a place to stand’, a deep-seated and fundamental sense of absolute belonging. Crucial about Pakeha Turangawaewae’ explains Calder, is that it ‘is an oxymoron’:

Pākehā turangawaewae…is the sort of belonging you have when you don’t have turangawaewae. We Pakeha are at home here, we identify as New Zealanders, this is our place, we belong – and yet, without denying any of those things, there is another degree of belonging that we do not have that is available to Maori (or perhaps to the Maori side of you).

For Calder, this belonging/unbelonging constitutes an important – perhaps the defining – strain in Pākehā-written New Zealand literature. I would add that it’s most obvious in the institution which Pākehā call ‘The Overseas Experience’ or ‘The Big O.E.’ – the Pākehā rite-of-passage, the Kiwi equivalent of the Amish Rumspringa on which you earn the right to call New Zealand ‘home’ by spending time away from it, the journey there on which you prove that you belong here.

How on earth does this work? In her 2011 song ‘Overseas’, the New Zealand singer Princess Chelsea provides what remains our best explanation of the paradox:

Life in New Zealand is pleasant enough
When we turn twenty two it’s not violet enough
When we go overseas to a much bigger place
We’re still doing the same things, but without all the space

Much of ‘Overseas’ is laugh-out-loud funny - even its title is hilarious, a mocking nod to the fact that, within our national psyche, New Zealand and not-New-Zealand occupy equal territory. Go into any bookstore here, for example, and all of the stock will be stacked in two categories: New Zealand and Overseas But the song’s diagnosis is acute: when we exchange our lives in New Zealand for those on foreign shores, we invariably discover that the two are largely the same. The goal of the Overseas Experience, then is twofold: on the one hand, to discover the familiarity, the homeliness, of not-New-Zealand; on the other, to discover the strangeness, the foreignness, of our own homeland. ‘Life in New Zealand’, in other words, isn’t just ‘pleasant enough’; it is textbook unheimlich. It is for this reason that a trip to foreign parts can bring us closer to home: for Pākehā ‘home’ and ‘away’ are mutually constitutive categories. Locked in our homes, we Pākehā are, in a weird way, locked out of our ‘home’. Denied access to ‘Overseas’, we are barred from Terra Familiaris. The second mood in Pākehā New Zealand right now is a legitimate homesickness – albeit, for foreign parts


But the place where Pākehā feel most at home is not ‘Overseas’ but ‘Outdoors’, not in the strange familiarity of foreign shores, but in Nature. 

If things get so bad here that we have to sing from our balconies, we won’t sing “Bella Ciao” or the Marseillaise or even God Defend New Zealand. We’ll sing our unofficial national anthem, which is a song called ‘Nature’ by a band called ‘The Fourmyula’. And the bit that people will sing is the bit that goes: ‘do-do-do doo doo do-doo, do-do-do-doo. Nature enter me-ee-ee.’ Why are we so fond of this dreadful ditty? Calder has a good explanation:

Whenever  Pākehā have rejoiced in their physical presence in these islands, have felt a special sense of dispensation, of simple rightness in being here; whenever it seems the sun shines especially for us; whenever person and place are in propitious alignment, we have reached beyond inarticulateness to the simple formula: feeling good about nature equals belonging.

Locked in our homes, we Pākehā are, in a weird way, locked out of our ‘home’. Denied access to the ‘Outdoors’, we are barred from the one experience that can assure us that we might belong in this country after all.

Virtually everything about this is problematic. Ideas of Promised Land and Manifest Destiny cast a dark shadow over New Zealand’s history, and too many of its current events. But the particular problem which has occupied me recently is this: since the arrival of the first Pākehā settlers, New Zealand’s ‘Outdoors’ has been coded as masculine, and ‘nature’ has been understood as a giant boy’s room. Early colonists were all lured out here with the same myth: New Zealand was not just a pristine country, but - in the words of the historian Jock Phillip’s – ‘a man’s country’. It was not just a place where nature had remained intact but a place where nature could be mastered, and where even the most desk-bound bureaucrat could come to fulfil his wildest fantasies of masculinity. It’s a myth which remains doggedly persistent.

Hence, for New Zealand writers and artists under lockdown, one of the most pressing questions facing us is this: how do we reimagine the outdoors when we cannot go outdoors? How do we continue to make ‘nature’ available to people other than Pākehā men, while ‘nature’ is unavailable to everyone?

One of the most typical demonstrations of New Zealand masculinity, of unambiguous mastery over nature, is the sheep shearing competition. I thought we’d host a bastard equivalent of the vile demonstration – an indoor, domesticated version, in which the New Zealand male is not simply doing the shearing, but being shorn. 

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