History is a story we tell ourselves. It is constructed. It privileges some narratives over others. Famously written by the winners, it raises up some people and events, and obscure others. It is an exercise and expression of power, but it is not a one-off or discrete act. We are constantly in a process of telling and reinterpreting our histories because the stories we tell about our past are fundamentally about our present.
The Hugo Awards ceremony held at CoNZealand, the 2020 WorldCon exemplified the current phase of the culture war going on within SFF: the divide between a (predominantly older-white-male) set of creators and fans who connect their identity to a proud tradition of predominantly American and British forebears which set and defined the genre, and a group of (generally younger, more diverse) people who keep pointing out the distasteful views of the writers being lionised, and emphasise the need to move beyond the ways they used their power as gatekeepers to deliberately exclude others—and embrace the long, hidden history of more diverse creators within SFF. Of course, it is the younger, diverse crowd that keep winning (if not presenting) those awards. (A cis white man hasn’t won the Best Novel Hugo since 2013, one of only two such winners in the last decade.) Those award winners are using their platforms to point out the inherently progressive nature of SFF, and the grave injustices in the world and within publishing that need to be addressed.
Within that ongoing conversation about our past and our present, sits No Man’s Land by AJ Fitzwater. A book by a New Zealand writer that interrogates the country’s past, and centres LGBTQIA+ and Indigenous people who are otherwise often erased from authorised historical narratives. Set during WW2, this is the story of Dorothea “Tea” Gray, who joins the Women’s Land Service. She leaves home and goes to work on a farm in North Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island. As a part of the Land Service, she is filling a role normally carried out by the men who have gone to war—in this case literally, as she is replacing her twin brother Robbie who has joined the army. In North Otago she meets Izzy, a fellow Land Girl, and Grant, the farmer’s son, who is too frail to go to war—and learns to embrace both her attraction to women and her whaiwhaiā: the shapeshifting magic that is her heritage.
The role of women’s war work in creating the conditions for second wave feminism is well known. Employment and relative independence had a liberating effect: they opened women’s eyes to different ways and modes of living and being; they directly informed demands for greater participation in public life, and equal treatment. New Zealand may have been the first self-governing country to give women the vote (in 1893), but it wasn’t until 1941 that women could become police officers, 1942 that they could act as jurors in criminal trials, and it was 1943 when the first woman became a magistrate in New Zealand. Tea is a beneficiary of this opening up of society and opportunity. Leaving home enables her to meet new friends. She learns new skills. She becomes physically and emotionally stronger, and much more independent. She earns respect for her competence within the farm community. It is no surprise that the farm and war work provide the perfect conditions for Tea to explore her identity.
There is a long history of stories about leaving home and finding oneself. But many of these stories—particularly in the West—are about the power of the urban and the cosmopolitan. The city is a sophisticated and modern place, where there are new opportunities and ideas available, a place that is more tolerant than “small c” conservative rural communities and where people can both dress differently and meet people more like them. The city is imagined as a progressive place where queer people can thrive and be accepted. Fitzwater turns that convention on its head in No Man’s Land. For Tea, it is the land that is freeing, not the city; rural New Zealand is where her sexual and magical coming of age takes place.
Situating queer identities within nature and alongside Indigenous people is a radical and political act. Like our histories, our cultures are constructed, usually in ways that have excluded queer and BIPOC people. In the case of New Zealand, the dominant culture is an artefact imported by a British colonising power that has systematically Othered LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people across the world by overlaying a colonial superstructure based on Western Christianity and British morality. New Zealand is a place of systematic discrimination against Māori people, a place where white people don’t even bother to pronounce Māori words and names properly (if only we had moved beyond such casual racism!). Lurking in the background of the novel is the constant fear of not fitting in: anything different, anything transgressive, is shunned. There are glancing references to asylums, dark hints at colonial brutality. The war that Tea’s brother Robbie is fighting in is a foreign and distant thing.
Urban New Zealand is a place where Tea grows up not even conceiving that it might be possible to be sexually attracted to someone of the same gender rather than a different one. As a mixed-race child (albeit one who can mostly pass as white), she is under a higher level of pressure to conform. Within the book, Tea’s mother is the principal voice for this attempt to constrain Tea’s identities. She is determined that Tea will marry well and shake off the “shame” of her origins. Fitzwater’s skill as a writer is demonstrated in the way they show the edges of Tea’s mother’s unspoken and unacknowledged trauma, and her strong, controlling desire that her children do not find themselves in the same position. One can only imagine the prejudice that she must have endured.
There is a strong sense of place within the book. Fitzwater’s writing powerfully evokes the seasonal rhythms of the natural world and of agriculture. In contrast to urban areas experiencing wartime rationing, the farm is a place of fecundity and of plenty. Nature continues, and there is always work to be done. There is no rest, not even on Sundays. But this is work that is not valued by society, however essential it might be. Reading this book, I was reminded of Nicola Griffiths’s novel Hild (2014), which uses language in a similar way to root its story firmly in time and place. Like No Man’s Land, Hild also centres its queer characters within the natural world and a deep-rooted material culture.
For Fitzwater, magic and sexuality are inherently bound up in what it means to be from New Zealand, and they have written for Strange Horizons about the vibrant speculative fiction community in New Zealand and the need to decolonise it. (There are layers of meaning here that are lost on this white British reviewer.) It is no accident that the language of shapeshifting magic is Māori: colonial English does not have the words to express the ideas, concepts, or experiences of the shapeshifter. Nor is it any accident that all of those we meet who possess whaiwhaiā are queer. The shapeshifting magic in the book reflects their doubled and tripled identities as Māori and queer: they have public faces and personas that pass and conform within colonial society, but playing that role is exhausting and cannot be permanently sustained. Most clearly shown in the case of Robbie, Tea’s brother, it is the shapeshifted form that is the true self, with its deep connection to the land and to strong emotions:
Tea cradled the dead eel in her hands. It was heavy, long, old, textured like fine sand. The coolness of it a reckoning, not the resistance that had sat ugly and coiled within her for so long. A resistance that nipped (unladylike), thrashed (loud), pushed and squirmed (not marriage material). Unhuman.
Tea recognises herself in the eel. She is simultaneously drawn to what she sees and repulsed by it, at a time when she is beginning to understand that there may be other paths open to her. The eel—her animal form—represents all of the parts of herself that she has been taught to suppress. We are told that in her eel form she is like and unlike a dragon or a mermaid—strong, mythical creatures that inspire as much fear and awe as they do admiration.
Tea is only able to accept and embrace her full identity because she has the friendship of Izzy and Grant. They share the shapeshifting magic and give her the help and support she needs to understand what is happening to her and how to explore her new abilities. They give her the Māori vocabulary to articulate her identity, and to envision a different future from the suffocating path laid out by her mother. This is a community that supports and protects its own. It provides shelter to those who need it, and it campaigns for the rights of marginalised people—and No Man’s Land stresses the importance of this kind of community.
Indeed, the book ends on an optimistic note about the impact that community activism and the passage of time can have. Right now, Tea’s words are ones we all need to hear:
But there’s also something fresh and clean in the air. Very far away, but … there. Do you smell it too? Please tell me you do. How the water song stretches on beyond what is here now. That there’s something ahead. Though I can’t reach it. It tells me there’s something more for us.