Monday, October 05, 2009

Lydia Chai on New Zealand Writing

Lydia Chai very kindly agreed to guestblog a post for us :
October is New Zealand Book Month.

Like Sharon Bakar, I have become an unlikely champion of my adopted country's literature. The only difference is that Sharon is a Brit living in Malaysia whereas I am a Malaysian living in New Zealand; and while Sharon promotes Malaysian books through her widely read blog, my sphere of influence extends to only a very small circle of friends in Auckland.

A few New Zealand friends have mentioned to me that it is unusual for an immigrant like myself - Asian, no less - to have such an interest in New Zealand literature. One friend remarked that I put her to shame because it never before occurred to her to read New Zealand writers - a result of the 'tall poppy syndrome', she said.

The tall poppy syndrome, for those of you who thankfully do not know it, is supposedly a social phenomenon particular to New Zealand and Australia, whereby the locals think it necessary to cut down to size their fellow men and women who succeed internationally. As a result, according to my friend, New Zealanders are more likely to pick up hipper novels by the likes of Julian Barnes or Jodi Picoult than ones by Lloyd Jones or Charlotte Grimshaw.

Pity, that; as New Zealand boasts a lot of talented writers. Perhaps the fact that New Zealand Book Month exists at all is evidence that the tall poppy syndrome still persists and must be counteracted.

Being a recent immigrant, I read New Zealand authors to make myself feel more at home here (another way I go about this proverbial nesting is by planting a vegetable garden to feel more connected to the land, literally letting it nourish me), since I learn more about a nation's psyche from its literature than from its history books.

I learned, for instance, that New Zealand's literary identity was not always so unique and assured. Writers from earlier generations tended to borrow their voice from the English tradition. It was only relatively recently that writers had begun shedding their hang-ups about living in a country so remote from the rest of the world, and developed their own voice.

The notion of 'looking back' interests me, for I am always 'looking back' to my tanahair: the distance provides a tension that is useful in my creative life. Moreover, I find it comforting that New Zealand writers have found a way to articulate the New Zealand experience without overly exoticizing their home - I'm hopeful that Malaysian writing will similarly evolve. It always thrills me to read a piece by a Malaysian author that has obviously been written with Malaysian readers in mind. Likewise with a piece of New Zealand writing.

Tall poppy syndrome or no, New Zealand does heavily support its writers, as can be seen from its various annual literary festivals, heavily funded residencies and monetary awards. I do so love living in a country that highly values its writers.

Here are my favourite blogs on the New Zealand literary scene:

Books In The City (maintained by Auckland City Libraries' staff)
Book Notes (the New Zealand Book Council's quarterly magazine)
Trendy But Casual (author Paula Morris' blog)
Chinglish (writer Renee Liang's blog; she organises the local poetry slams)
The Elam Fine Arts Library blog

Lydia Chai is a Malaysian artist residing in Auckland.


Greenbottle said...

hipper novels like...jodi picoult?

gnute said...

Can lah. I appreciate your grizzle but I had to put Picoult in there, seeing so many of my friends read her. This is not a list of high brow books only, it's a more inclusive view on New Zealand writing.

Greenbottle said...

yeah...i notice a lot of beautiful young things read sophie F kinsella, nora roberts and jodi P.

i wonder why? i guess young girls easily get headache if they read berlin alexanderplatz or something.

i guess 'bad girl' by mario vargas llhosa could be included in the 'hipper novels" catergory but please, not Jodi P!

do your friends a favor...ask them to read better....

gnute said...

I'd lose a lot of them that way, greenbottle.

Greenbottle said... true it is! i was almost punched by an american collegue once because i said what he was reading will never find it's way to my bookshelf.

one thing i learn about americans (and i work for an american co so I should know) ... never insult them even if they are complete retard. who are you a puny malaysian to teach me the master of the universe eh? that kind of mentality.

but that's the problem... bibliobibuli is a terrific blog which exposes people to good writings but i dare say a substantial minority of people milling about here probably won't know the difference (of literary merits) between harry potter and nabokov's writings . (they'd enjoy both in equal measure).

there are a lot of efforts and programs to encourage people to read but are there any that teaches people to cultivate 'good taste'?

composer said...

What's 'good taste' greenbottle? And why the quotation marks?


Greenbottle said...

because i too don't exactly know what 'good taste' is..but who does?

but i mean, ok spongebob is funny but i won't put it on the same shelf as my say, coen brothers' movies.

same thing with books....

composer said...

I agree but ... I guess what I am wrestling with, how do you draw the line between having 'good taste' and being elitist. Especially with something as subjective as literature and art, and especially where tastes change over time. There is a line somewhere - but is it more an imaginary line than a real one, and what does it mean if it is an imaginary line when art is imaginary anyway ...


Greenbottle said...


don't worry being considered an elitist or a snob when it comes to 'intellectual pursuit'..and nobody should either.

what saddens me is when there so many well meaning young people out there who want to read but ended up reading nothing but silly books all their life and never 'graduate' to the 'real stuff'. such a waste of time.