Editorial: Kiwis accent-uate the positive

Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014

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OPINION: There is a certain Kiwi way of accepting an award. Lorde got the giggles at the Grammys. She thanked the world for letting her song "explode, because it's been mental". This was charming and very New Zealand. It was also the best acceptance speech since a gasping Anna Paquin, 11, got her Oscar in 1994.

So Lorde joins the other brilliant New Zealanders who have brought their flattened vowels to prizegiving ceremonies on both sides of the Atlantic. Victoria University is taking the obvious step and giving an honorary doctorate to Man Booker laureate Eleanor Catton, whose accent was described as "thick" by a snotty New Yorker.

New Zealand likes to think it punches above its weight in culture as well as sport, and perhaps it does. It also wonders whether there is something unique about this culture that allows us to win these big-city prizes.

Genius is always a mystery and talent is everywhere individual: it lies with the person, not the culture. Still, perhaps there are a few things that encourage our gifted individuals to surpass themselves. One is the fact that they do not come from the usual pool of prizewinners – that is, either the United States or Britain. A New Zealander who wants to succeed in the world has a long road ahead. She will have to be extraordinarily determined.

She will also need a core of confidence. A recent American study found that immigrants to the United States succeeded best where they were aware of their own talent but also believed that the surrounding community did not think highly of them. That might be a fair description of the Kiwi condition.

New Zealanders know, after all, that they are minnows in the ocean and that if they disappeared tomorrow most of the world would not notice. At the same time they have a certain self-belief. Sometimes this takes the raw form of bluster and jingoism, the flip side of the cultural cringe. More often it is a slightly unsophisticated faith in their own experience.

Peter Jackson once said that as a young film-maker he looked forward to the day when someone would bring out a film of Lord of the Rings. Then he got the idea of doing it himself. The main hurdle for an artist in a small country seems to be just this: realising you can do it yourself.

New Zealanders also have the advantage of being born into the dominant world popular culture, which is English-speaking (this dominance cannot last forever, but it is a fact right now). English is the lively mongrel language that swallows vocabulary from every language it meets. The English-speaking culture is also an energetic hybrid or amoeba, sucking life from other cultures.

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New Zealand is part of the bigger culture but also distinct from it. It is unique and yet has much in common. It is a natural growth point, a place where songs and books can be written from a different angle. A young Kiwi singer, for instance, might write a pop song with an ambiguous take on pop royalty and self-indulgence.

And that's where Lorde comes in.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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