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Water shapes us.
An archipelago, Aotearoa New Zealand is surrounded on all sides by oceans. Oceans which brought the humans here, linking prosperity and colonial violence to the water. Glaciers, rivers, and lakes are beauty, sustenance, and sustainability, fuel for the mind as well as the body and land.
Water, in all essences, is life.
The literature of Aotearoa is infused with water, often to a point that it’s woven into our understanding of our place in all things. Darusha Wehm, multi-disciplinary writer and author of Retaking Elysium says, “It's a fascinating balance between being literally in the back of the global beyond, and also in the middle of things, culturally, which brings a unique perspective to imagining other worlds.”
Comparisons of Aotearoa to Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (USA) are used as marketing shorthand, creating a flattening of or distancing effect from our actual voices. Location is not similarity, nor is history or media saturation.“
Sascha Stronach, author of the Sir Julius Vogel Award winning novel The Dawnhounds, speaks of the poetic nuance of Aotearoa genre. “Particularly through Māoritanga, New Zealand has an exceptionally rich background of poetry and song, and a lot of our speculative fiction writers come sideways from that tradition,” he says. Steph Matuku, author of Flight of the Fantail (Huia Press), says there is a “unique, dark, mystical quality that often draws on mythological indigenous themes.”
Aotearoa speculative fiction also stands in the river of time. Gina Cole, author of Black Ice Matter (Huia Press), says it “exists against the background of a society whose structures of government and law originate in white settler colonialism. [The] constant rub in this relationship ... colours the literature that we write.”
With water and distance intrinsic to our understanding of how to interact with the world and literature, we either go to the world, or the world comes to us.
The 78th Worldcon, CoNZealand, should have been the perfect platform for us to show the world our uniqueness. Anticipated for a decade, planned for two years, not even virtual delivery of a convention in pandemic times (which other con-runners have pivoted to with flair) could have anticipated how badly things went.
Most obvious was the squandered opportunity of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. While the actual ceremony was an uplifting and well-planned event, the broadcast was programmed at an inopportune time, relegated to an addendum of the Retro Hugos, and plagued with technical difficulties. It was not made apparent to international CoNZealand attendees they could vote in our local awards. Casey Lucas, winner of the 2020 Short Story SJV, gives a full breakdown of the failure in her essay “How New Zealand’s best fantasy and science fiction authors got shafted on a global scale”. Since discussion arose post-CoNZealand, the voting package was made available to attendees.
A convergence of historic macro level problems placed boulders in the flow of our river. Early in the process, I had concerns about the presence of known bad actors and heavy commodification of The Lord of the Rings as stand-in for local content, the lack of attention being given to the voices, space, and safety of marginalised creators, and the lack of inclusion of Māori and Pasifika creators. I made it known I would participate as a volunteer if these issues were given proper weight. I was never given these assurances, and my participation became less than originally hoped.
The original draft program included minimal Aotearoa based creative discussion. A lot of program space was given to fandom and the country’s place as Middle-Earth. This spoke to the whiff of embarrassment and misunderstanding that follows local speculative literature. “I feel like SFF is the ugly stepchild of the literature scene in Aotearoa,” says Cassie Hart, author of the upcoming and highly anticipated Butcherbird. Sascha Stronach speaks about how local speculative fiction has been colonised in his essay “Aotearoa is not Middle-Earth”; it’s that outsider-on-the-inside effect in play, where it’s cool if it’s science fiction from overseas, but put a Kiwi accent on it and it’s cultural cringe. Thank The Waters for Taika Waititi. Now we all want to play in his pool.
“When literary authors are praised as original for including elements SFF authors have been using for years, it's easy to feel sidelined. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge the work of what we see as literary institutions in encouraging and supporting authors who use speculative concepts.”
It’s a strange effect, harkening back to a cultural distaste for rocket ships, little green men, and elves (which makes the embracing of Lord of the Rings all the more perplexing, beyond the damage it’s done to our film industry), considering how living culture and speculative elements have been woven together. Consider, for example, The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, and the supernatural tales of Patricia Grace and Tina Makereti, Baby No-Eyes and Where the Rekohu Bone Sings respectively.
This support and encouragement is slowly changing. Elizabeth Knox is one of the beloved rare local exceptions as she writes expertly across genre and audiences. Our local literary festivals have been including speculative authors in recent years, such as Charlie Jane Anders, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ted Chiang. In 2017, YA author Karen Healey was the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury, and in 2020 Octavia Cade was a visiting artist at Massey University and Christchurch Arts Centre. Recognising the difficulty speculative authors face getting creative funding, Lee Murray, award winning author of Into The Mists, created the Wright-Murray residency in the Bay of Plenty. “There is a collective understanding amongst our speculative community that unless we raise all our voices, none of us will be heard,” she says.
Support for local genre writers can be found in Young Adult fantasy, but those seeking an adult audience find it easier to take their work to overseas publishers, lean harder on Aotearoa’s more realist literary forms, or strip away mentions of the speculative in marketing. This creates a phenomenon where Kiwis will celebrate and reclaim local genre writers once they’ve paid their dues or performed our (colonial) literature correctly, as the experiences of Eleanor Catton, Nalini Singh, Helen Lowe, Juliet Marillier, Tamsyn Muir, Jennifer Fallon, and Russell Kirkpatrick show.
The riptides of systemic failures in CoNZealand programming saw Hugo nominees and Aotearoa speculative creatives neglected or allocated events inappropriate to their knowledge and background. Cassie Hart and Mel Harding-Shaw scrambled behind the scenes to not only insert local content and appropriate contributors, but to ensure uptake of the poorly publicised Inclusion Initiative, a program to help marginalised creators participate in CoNZealand. These efforts sent ripples through the waters of the convention. The highly regarded panels Infinite Entangled Futures: Indigenous Voices in Conversation and SFF and Te Ao Māori encouraged a braided river of discussion.
“Anything you want to read, you can read it in te ao Māori.” Also from this panel, Cassie Hart spoke to how she would like to see te ao Māori speculative fiction “in other settings. Books that imagine worlds where the world and the people are working in harmony. Where we don’t have ownership of [the world], but the society is built from having respect for the earth, trees, and animals.”
This was a sentiment echoed in the Infinite Entangled Futures panel: that First Nations and Indigenous people have stories to tell about the care-taking of land and people, which twines with the themes of climate change and isolation explored in Aotearoa genre fiction. Says Gina Cole, “Pasifikafuturism is a term that marks the meeting point of multiple diaspora of Indigenous Pacific peoples who envision, dream, imagine, create, or are receptive to ideas that play with, and liquify the boundaries of technology and time and space.”
In the New Zealand Authors on the International Stage panel, in which I participated, the sense of place and connection to land and water came through as embedded in the thinking and work of all panellists. It came as no surprise how easily I had turned to water as element and magic in my novella No Man’s Land. Our borderlines are beaches. Learning to swim is often a childhood rite of passage. Kaimoana is an integral part of our food ecology and history. Pollution of and access to water are major concerns for our small country’s sustainability.
This strong connection to the environment means climate focused fiction holds good sway in Aotearoa. Speculative writers are in conversation with science to imagine and engage with possible futures. Recently, mainstream media outlet Stuff has branched out into publishing climate short fiction from Tim Jones and Octavia Cade, with another soon to come from Andi C. Buchanan. Climate and scientific literacy are major parts of Cade’s work, and Jones’ fiction and poetry delves deep into climate, as in New Sea Land (Mākaro Press). There is also a forthcoming climate change poetry collection from Auckland University Press.
Another discussion caught in the undercurrents and absent from CoNZealand was the place of small presses and the diverse magazine community. The likes of Paper Road Press (publisher of recent Year’s Best anthologies), Mākaro Press, Huia Press, and magazines Flash Frontier, Landfall, and takahē are often the sites of our local short fiction content, resplendent with local voices such as Toni Wi and Mel Harding-Shaw. Because of small population and niche interest, these local presses and magazines historically have struggled with continuation and funding, often subject to the whims of our government creative funding schemes.
Now it is time to paddle the waka into new waters. What does the uplift and decolonisation of Aotearoa speculative fiction look like?
“[We] need to dismantle the very structures through which our country engages with literature,” says Casey Lucas. “Our colonial past has impressed upon us a lot of misconceptions about what work is worthy of praise and publication, and we must unburden ourselves of these trappings.”
The waters of time ebb and flow through the speculative fiction of Aotearoa. Diverse voices share commonalities which flow through bodies and to mouths parched for representation. We do not accept that our voices should be a shiny stone polished smooth by the deluge of cultural appropriation and Empire, cleansed of all that makes us unique. We stand in the rapids of our present, looking to and retelling our multitude pasts, in order to braid the many tributaries of our future stories.
In a global literature community, invisibility is not an option; it is a drowning. We aim to sail the speculative ocean, and navigate towards better literary futures.