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On Being a Kiwi

There are two things people think of when they find out where I’m from.

There's this:


OMG! Lord of the Rings scenery! Pretty!

And also, there's this:


OMG! Scary badass rugby players!

But what does it actually mean to be a writer from New Zealand? And what does it mean to be a writer from New Zealand who wants to be published overseas?

It means being pulled in a lot of directions at once.

For a start there’s the overwhelming question of whether overseas publishers and readers can connect with a story from New Zealand in the first place. It’s a scary question. When you spend weeks and months and years of your life writing a novel, and you know there’s a fairly good chance that people will say no to it, you don’t want the sole reason to be where it’s set. I’ve spent hours trawling through the archives of agent blogs, trying to find clues. What if I want to write New Zealand fiction for everyone to read, not just New Zealanders? Should I tone the kiwi factor down? Should I hype it up? How do I take what I live and make it relevant and alive for people all over the world?

I don’t think there is a straightforward answer. But we can do our best to write strong stories, with fascinating characters and beautiful words and compelling plots. Coming of age is a universal experience, as is love. If the story is good enough, it doesn’t matter where the story happens, as long as it’s right for the story. We just have to write it well enough.

But does that fix everything? No. There’s also the question of what people expect from a New Zealand novel. And what a New Zealand novel even is. And what being a New Zealander means in the first place.

As a Pakeha*, I don’t have hundreds and hundreds of years of history to define my world from. New Zealand has a bunch of histories, and they’re all tangled together. Some are painful. There’s the Maori one, which stretches back a long way; most New Zealanders know don’t know as much it about as we should. There’s the European one, which mostly started in the 1800s. And there are all the other immigrants, from Polynesia and Asia and countless other parts of the world too, with histories beginning all over the place. We’re a small country, and in many ways we’re still working out who we are. The rest of the world doesn’t always know who we are either. Sometimes they think we’re part of Australia.

But nonetheless, we have to try.

There’s this fear that us people from small countries have. A kind of local freakout. If we don’t write about our corner of the world in the fullest way possible who will? You’re writing a book set in New Zealand? Quick. Cram in as much New Zealand as possible. Get all those cultures in there. And the sport. And the beaches. And the history. And the scenery. And the wildlife. Make everyone wake up to tui song! Make tiki fall out of every paragraph! Quick quick quick. Cram it all in. Write The Great New Zealand Novel.

So there’s this whole scary sense of responsibility. And it’s particularly scary when you don’t always write things set in New Zealand. When I write novels set in New Zealand, they tend to be kind of quiet about it. And also I love inventing places, places which are sometimes nothing like my country. And that makes me worried and, well, guilty. Like I’m letting the side down.

But does Hamlet being set in Denmark make it any less an English play? When Katherine Mansfield chose to set some of her stories in Europe, were they any less New Zealand stories? What about Margaret Mahy and Sherryl Jordan’s YA fantasy settings? Can you be a true New Zealand writer if you write stories which happen elsewhere?

Every writer faces this question in one way or another. What does it mean to be a New Zealand writer? A New York writer? An English writer? A Nigerian writer? How do I deal with this place I come from?

I think that where we come from is a starting point. Whatever I do, wherever I go, New Zealand is like a parent to me. My small, weird, beautiful country influences I am and how I write, whether I want it to or not. But the beauty of a starting point is that we can use it to go wherever we like. There are as many ways to be a New Zealand writer as there are New Zealand writers.

Whoever we are, wherever we’re from, it’s something to be proud of. Whether or not it’s dramatically on show, one way or another, it comes through.

Because home isn’t just a place you go back to. Home is in who we are. You can write yourself away from home, but one way or another, it finds its way in. Because that’s what home is. It finds you wherever you go.




*Pakeha: European New Zealander.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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10 comments:

  1. Awesome post, Leila! I feel very similar being from Pakistan. Coming of age and love are universal feelings, and if we write it well enough, readers will connect. I also write stories situated in USA (and even NZ, actually), and I feel the same guilt about not writing about Pakistan and its cultures.

    And just on a random note, I LOVE KIWI'S! =D

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  2. Great post, Leila! It's funny (aka sad) that writing a story set in NZ, whether obvious or subtle, might hinder your chances at being published. Personally, I'd love to read some YA set in NZ...or Australia, or Guam, or Singapore, or China or anyplace!

    I hadn't considered the "guilt" factor you mentioned, that's really fascinating. It makes complete sense, although of course you're entitled to choose or invent any setting you'd like!

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  3. This is really interesting to me. I love reading about other cultures, so I would love to read books set in NZ (in fact, if you have a few to recommend, I'd love to read some!).

    It's hard for me to relate from the writing perspective because I am living in the US, where so much of literature is set. But on non-writing level, I can understand. I ride horses, and I dream of riding in the Olympics someday. I feel torn between riding for Canada (where I was born) and the US (where I grew up). I know it's a stretch (because my chances of riding at that level are even less than my chances of getting published), but because I have this constant conflict going on in my mind, I can understand how that would relate to nationalism in writing.

    They say to "write what you know", but I think you should "write what you love". If your passion influences your writing, I can guarantee someone, somewhere will want to read it.

    Like me. Sign me up.

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  4. This was a great post. I especially agree with the last paragraph. Home always follows you wherever you go.

    New Zealand is a great country, and I'd love to read about it more in novels. The country is beautiful and I'm sure many would like to see it, but traveling is expensive, so why not take a trip through a novel?

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  5. Great post, Leila :)

    I love the two NZ responses. haha. Classic.

    I am from and even though we're bigger than you guys, I know what you mean in regard to selling a YA book to the rest of the world. My writing is distinctly Australian. I know it may be easier to get into a market with a more universal setting/slang etc, but I know I love to read Australian YA. It just resonates with me in a way that imported stuff often doesn't. I'd love to read NZ stuff too :)

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  6. I've read the series by James Marsden, and I think he succeeded in writing books that have so many universals (war, teenagers struggling with the pull of responsibilities and still wanting to be kids, love, and so on) that they transcend Australia.

    I'm sure many of the things the characters dealt with were shaped by the locale, but the setting just complemented the conflicts so well that I didn't find myself distracted by elements outside my own experience (California).

    In fact, his books are totally unlike what I usually read, but I happened to pick one up at the library and was sucked into the whole series.

    The only other book I can think of that I've read from that corner of the globe is Whale Rider, of course. And I liked the movie better than the book, which rarely happens!

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  7. I HEART YOU!

    I'm from Barbados. Which is also where Rihanna is from. And every time she does something edgy, Barbadians complain that she's not representing us well. But is she a Barbadian first? A singer first? Or a Barbadian AND a singer?

    I feel the same way about writing stories set in Barbados (esp. YA since our school system is so different). Will people get it? Should I water myself down? Should I play it up? Should I go after the British market? The American? Australian? Canadian? Sometimes, I feel like I don't know which way is up. :(

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  8. Thanks for your comments! Lots and lots of food for thought :-)

    I have a long running love affair with Australian YA. It has all the sophistication of YA from the US, but it often hits deeper for me, I guess because it's that much closer to home. And I would love to read YA from Barbados!

    I'm thinking one of my future posts will be a look at YA from all over the world, including NZ.

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  9. Great post Leila. One of the biggest reasons I love reading is getting to "visit" places that are so out of my area of expertise. How would you like to live in a small community outside a small town(5000 pop)? It is the ideal place to raise a family but I'd sure hate to try to write a book set in this area.

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  10. I'm really late to the party and just came across this post. It's great! From one Kiwi, to another - Kia ora!

    I too struggle with this debate... if I set my novel in New Zealand how will I be able to shop it overseas... will anyone even understand, will they be interested?

    I guess when it comes down to it if the story is best fit in NZ then roll with it. It may even end up drawing more people in...

    I'm determined to set one of my novels in New Zealand... but the story has to fit with the setting I think. I'm saving it for an idea that will really do Aotearoa justice...

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Item Reviewed: On Being a Kiwi Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin