To outsiders, it might be Middle-Earth, or Narnia, and (the Hollywood rumours say) Azeroth; exotic imagined locales. But it gets annoying to be enthusiastically complimented on the beauty of your country by the phrase, "It looks just like the movies!"
No. The movie landscapes look like home.
Writing Aoteoroa/New Zealand, presenting it to New Zealanders and to others became something of an obsession for me as I moved from writing (unpublished) quasi-Scandinavian and Mediterranean high fantasy settings to urban fantasy set firmly at home. I worried about whether I was failing to provide enough context for outside readers, or too much for New Zealanders. And I pondered the strange double vision the process engendered; I was writing urban fantasy set in the place most solidly real to me. But I knew very well that to readers familiar with New Zealand only as the location of imagined worlds, the setting that was my touchstone of reality could come across as an exotic fantasyland, as mysterious as the truly fantastic events that made up the plot. I saw the book through strangers' eyes, and it troubled me.
And I looked for inspiration, as I have throughout my entire reading life, in the works of Margaret Mahy.
Margaret Mahy is New Zealand's most celebrated author for young people. She is prolific (over one hundred books published), imaginative, and deservedly much honoured for her work. She is a two-time Carnegie award winner, recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen award, and a member of the Order of New Zealand, of which there are never more than twenty members living. She has written realistic fiction, but most of her work is overtly fantastic, and even the "real-world" stories have fantasy touches—a girl who foretells the future for her siblings in a heroic quest story (24 Hours); a mother who cuts the lawn grass with a scythe, her naked body silvered in the moonlight (The Catalogue of the Universe).
Her first book was published in 1969, and I describe it from memory, apologising in advance for any errors. A Lion in the Meadow is a magical picture book celebrating the power and the danger of stories. A young boy told to go out and play comes back to tell his mother about the lion in the meadow—a great yellow whiskery lion. She gives him a matchbox and tells him there is a dragon inside that will frighten away the lion. Mother is considerably alarmed when the lion rushes in and hides in the broom cupboard, declaring that there is a dragon in the meadow.
Mahy wrote a book where stories can have unexpected consequences, and one of them is this: A Lion in the Meadow is the first book I can remember reading, sitting on the beige living room carpet at home in Whangarei. But I didn't know anything about meadows. To me, a Kiwi kid, open grassy spaces were paddocks. There was a weird disconnect between the world I was reading and the world outside the door.
Mahy, I discovered later, experienced the same disconnect, and it affected her work enormously. After that first book she went on to publish picture books, short stories, poems, and novels about many things: magicians and robbers, pirates and librarians, a boy who bounced, a woman whose birthday cakes were proclaimed works of art, a man who built bridges, and a wicked schoolmistress who kept a small pistol in her garter. She didn't, for a long time, write New Zealand. What she read as a child, at home and at school, was British children's literature, and it coloured her writing life through what she terms an "imaginative displacement," the result of which was "great difficulty in writing about what I knew best" ("Postscript," 283, 284).
Of course, there were stories set in what became New Zealand a thousand years before Mahy's parents arrived on the islands. The Anglo settlers marginalized Anglo New Zealand stories and culture in favour of the superior "home" product of Britain, but they marginalized Māori narratives and cultures even more. In an interview with Dr Jane McRae, writer and Mahy contemporary Patricia Grace experienced a similar imaginative displacement at school, where she read "English classics and English poety" and wrote from "reading experience, using words and phrases that we had come across in books, but had never heard spoken. We were not encouraged to think our own experience had value" (286). The school environment was inimical to New Zealand identity in general, but to Māori identity in particular; although Anglo students were using British-English vocabulary, at least it was a dialect of their native tongue, whereas Grace notes that, "Of course, I would not have dreamt of using any Māori words in my writing" (286).
Grace's first book was published in 1981, and The Kuia and the Spider/Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere emphatically includes Māori words. Mahy took a little longer to confront her colonized imagination. But the first lines of The Changeover (1984) announce a new direction:
Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.
Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find she was not only marvelously beautiful but also transported to Paris. However, there was no point if she was only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu. Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the morning with chilly ears. These were the facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another. You couldn't really think your way into being another person with a different morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy. (9-10)
As The Changeover continues through Laura's quest to save her little brother and her "supernatural romance" with male witch Sorry Carlisle, Mahy underlines that one doesn't have to go as far as Paris, nor even to Paraparaumu, to find magic. Even in factual everyday life there is wonder—in the first pages Laura is driven to school between "giant prehistoric monsters, earth-moving machines making an island of Silurian time" and around "a fairy ring of oil drums standing in the middle of the road" (20-21, 22).
Laura eventually does think herself into being another person in order to realise her own magical potential, through the "beginning land" of the imagination. However, she doesn't think herself out of being made in New Zealand. In fact, in a move I wish Mahy had made more of, though Laura's cultural experience is that of a Pākehā/European New Zealander, one of her "eight great-grandfathers" is Polynesian, and her own features take after his; through him, Laura's ties to the land are presumably as old as it gets in New Zealand (13). (A later book, Kaitangata Twitch, does make more of culturally Pākehā children with Māori heritage, and their connection to the land.) Neverthess, Laura's beginning land is not dissociated from her roots, but intimately tied to them; she travels through her own history to make a new self.
After evil is defeated comes another everyday scene, this time infused with literal magic. Sorry Carlisle shapes a farm out of nothing to entertain Laura's little brother; she adds tiny pink crocodiles. But Sorry is not going to be a caretaker of fantasyland, but of the real one; he intends to become a Wildlife Division officer and use his own powers to care for the rare New Zealand birds so discomforted by the intrusion of humans and all their scavenging hangers-on.
In the end, being made in New Zealand is no bar to magic: "Quite suddenly, Laura knew that what Sorry had once said was true. Like a holograph, every piece of the world contained the whole of the world if you stood at the right angle to it" (277). Her home city is "a labyrinth in which one could, after all, find a firebird's feather or a glass slipper or the footprints of the minotaur quite as readily as in fairy tales, or the infinitely dividing paths of Looking-Glass land" (280-281).
Margaret Mahy wrote herself home, in a work which many consider her best, and in a postscript in the reissued book, she notes that: "it was seminal in my writing life . . . the first story that adequately repaired an imaginative displacement within me," and even now remembers "the exhilaration of what was a sort of homecoming" (283, 286).
Her next young adult book, The Tricksters is even more emphatically New Zealand made, taking place as it does over the sunny holiday period from Midsummer Night to New Year's Day, and located in the steep slopes and beautiful waters of Governor's Bay. Again, both the Antipodean setting and the everyday-fantastic are in evidence from the first lines:
Any Christmas visitor looking for Carnival's Hide dropped down from the hilltops by a shingle road that elbowed its way across farmland already scrawled over by sheep tracks. The visitor would have to open a five-bar gate, close it carefully behind him and trust the crinkling road a little further still. Then, enclosed in a great, green, summer bouquet of poplars and silver birches, the steeply pitched, iron roof of the house, also green, rose up like a magician's sign. (9)
The Tricksters is intricately concerned with the power of stories to shape the world. Carnival's Hide is haunted, both by the tragic narratives of its colonial past and by the present day family secrets that Harry, a private writer who sometimes sees in her mirror the face of an enchantress, longs to tell. But these are "stories that no one else must be allowed to hear" (25). When the romance she has been secretly writing (set in, I think significantly, a vaguely European fantasyland) is brutally made open to public scrutiny by magician-brothers, Harry lashes out and reveals other truths, which prove to be the catalyst for banishing the troublemakers. Once the stories are told, happy enough endings are wrought from the until-then unresolved narratives of both past and present.
Mahy is careful not to mock Harry's own efforts to invent—though the results are as juvenile and overwrought of a typical bookish teenager, it is the act of writing itself that matters. Shamed after a night of revelations, Harry burns her exposed Euro-fantasies, but her younger sister encourages her to write again, and her older one gifts her with a new blank diary. Harry takes the book to the attic in the last scene of the novel, which, like the "scrawled over with sheep tracks" of the first line's hills, explicitly ties the powerful act of writing to the landscape itself:
The page was pure and certain, words were uncertain, but their uncertainty was what made them magical. At last she carefully wrote the words, "Once upon a time . . ." and thought that the looping line the pen made was a world line, like the one left behind by the tide, and that lines left on beaches and pages everywhere must wind up by going all around the world if only one could follow them. (332)
Interestingly, both The Changeover and The Tricksters feature a side character with a foreign perspective. The Changeover has a fellow colonial in librarian Chris Holly, a Canadian in charge of the New Zealand room. In The Tricksters, the foreigner is a coloniser—Anthony is British, and the resolution of Carnival Hide's secrets ties up his own family story. Both men become romantically attached to the stories of New Zealanders; Chris will marry Laura's mother, while Anthony seems certain to seduce and be seduced by Harry's beautiful, wild older sister. Instead of seeking romance in foreign places, these women figuratively bring foreign lands in, where, instead of imaginatively displacing New Zealand's narratives, they are absorbed into and enrich them.
So we circle back to the story of my own struggle with imaginative displacement, which is enriched by this; born in the 80s, I was in a much better position than Mahy. Margaret Mahy, Patricia Grace, Gaelyn Gordon, Witi Ihimaera, Maurice Gee, and many others dismissed the pressure that said their experiences had no value, and wrote New Zealand/Aoteoroa. And, growing up, I was able to read it.
I can't entirely rid myself of my doubled vision; to the eyes of many outsiders, my most real place is still overwritten with the narratives of other worlds. But the fantasies inscribed in the suburbs, under the mountains, on the city streets, and along the coastline can be, if I wish it, regardless of their first origins, those of my country, and of no other land.
Mahy, Margaret. "Postscript," The Changeover. Glasgow: HarperCollins. 2007.
Mahy, Margaret. The Changeover. London: HarperCollins. 2007.
Mahy, Margaret. The Tricksters. Glasgow: CollinsFlamingo. 2001.
Mcrae, Jane. "Interview with Patricia Grace," In The Same Room: Conversations With New Zealand Writers ed. Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams. Auckland: Auckland University Press. 1993.