Out to the world and back home

It all began with Narnia: the first books I re-read obsessively, finding hidden meanings long before I realized their roots in Greek mythology, Christianity, astronomy, and in the best one, The Magician’s Nephew, C S Lewis’ childhood.

Like C S Lewis I did Classics: Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Peloponnesian War. Other courses were American literature and Shakespeare, equally remote from my life as a middle-class kid from a former British colony in the South Pacific. Literature was not written by locals, but by men from Europe or America.

The furthest I got from the canon was French and Japanese literature: Camus, Sartre, A Rebours, and The Makioka Sisters. Even in rebelling, I was trying to be highbrow.

My first job after university: Yatsushiro, Japan. Long before the internet, the nearest English language bookshop was a forty-minute train ride away. When I’d run out of my own and borrowed books, I gained a perplexing view into North American culture through reading all the English texts in the high school I was teaching in, and the manifesto of a French-Canadian soi-disant guru, preaching that human life was an guided by aliens and our future was extra-terrestrial, sent to me anonymously in the mail. Japan’s fascination with American culture inspired my young adult novel, Bluest Moon, published in New Zealand in the early 90s.

In Yatsushiro, I realized books could be written by people from the Southern hemisphere. Illywhacker is not Peter Carey’s best-known book, but it was unashamedly Australian, full of bad-temper and balls, another world from the genteel books I was reading. People talked and swore and made jokes like people I knew back home. I’d been uninspired by classic New Zealand novels at school, but the Australians seemed much more confident, the expatriate experience so familiar: the feeling of being guided by a culture foreign to your own. Novels by David Malouf, Andrew McGahan and Ruth Park (a New Zealander in Sydney) showed you could write about places not at the centre of the “civilized” world.

The Runaway Settlers, by Elsie Locke, is a New Zealand classic. Most people aren’t aware the author was a lifelong Communist who wrote a book that reflected her feminist beliefs, disguised as a fun romp for middle grade readers. Similarly, The Sugarbag Years, by Tony Simpson, an oral history of the Depression, showed the voices of working-class New Zealanders. They were real and they were part of my culture. I heard echoes of my background in the Plumb trilogy by Maurice Gee, The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones, and All Visitors Ashore by C K Stead.

There are, however, a lot of blokes on this list. Which is not surprising: there are a lot of blokes about, writing books. But I was missing half of the puzzle. Despite differences between Elizabeth Pym’s English villages, and Jean Rhys’ ramshackle existence on the edge of sobriety, they both wrote about being “othered” by male voices. New Zealand authors, like Barbara Anderson, and Fiona Kidman, also told the stories of a New Zealand I saw every day. Biographies of painter Rita Angus, and writer Janet Frame showed it was possible to be female, an artist and live in New Zealand.

Then Narnia and the Classics came back. In 2016, I was on the New Zealand version of the British quiz show Mastermind: my topics The Chronicles of Narnia and Classical Greek Mythology. Re-reading took me back to my earlier literary fixations, but now they were only part of a much larger picture: the original lamppost, from an Edwardian London street, from which the world of Narnia was born.

Ironically, the first book I had published was set in Japan and the one I am touting now, the basis for this excerpt, is set in London. But I am working my way back home in my current draft novel, set in a not too future New Zealand.