Paula Morris: What it means to be a New Zealand writer

Paula Morris felt trepidation about the "strange and momentous event" of returning to her own homeland.
Mike Brooke

Paula Morris felt trepidation about the "strange and momentous event" of returning to her own homeland.

"It is dangerous to abandon one's own country," James Joyce once wrote, "but it is more dangerous still to return to it, for then your fellow country-men, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart." Serious stuff.

But New Zealand novelist Paula Morris is not as melodramatic as Joyce, whom she quotes in her new book On Coming Home, out now through Bridget Williams Books.

"He had a terrible persecution complex about Ireland," she says. "I wonder if he needed to feel that creative tension between the place he was writing about and his relationship with it, that he needed to feel some kind of rejection. People need all sorts of dynamics in their life in order to write."

Morris hasn't had anyone drive a knife into her heart yet – she would advise Joyce to avoid online reviews and the comments sections. But she certainly felt trepidation about the "strange and momentous event" of returning to her own homeland.

She landed in February for a part-time creative-writing teaching post at the University of Auckland – and, as she says in her book, so she could feel the ghosts of her old city.

Drawing on snippets of her own well-travelled life as well as the works and experiences of writers such as Katherine Mansfield, John Mulgan, Janet Frame, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Edward Said and Joyce, she chronicles her complicated feelings in being a writer, expatriate and New Zealander with three passports.

If a trip away is fundamental in making people writers, she asks, what does it mean to return home – and where do you belong when you do? For one thing, if you ever returned with a hint of an ego, you can trust New Zealanders to slap you straight back to earth.

"You always know that when you come back here – to the Auckland Writers Festival for example – for every person that comes up to you and says "Hello, are you Paula Morris? I love your work," which is always really gratifying and nice, there are people who think you're an usher or a publicist or there to point out the toilets," she says.

Her new book, a slim volume she describes as a personal essay, took months of work that turned "crazed" towards the end. "It overtook my life", Morris says. She wrote it in every spare moment, sometimes while hiding in the university library, sometimes until 3am. "It was something I became obsessed with."

It's time, she says, to think differently about New Zealand literature, and that it's  "essential" for New Zealand literature to lose its borders and parochialism.

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Writers need to be able to roam, physically and imaginatively, "without thinking they have to pass some kind of census test to be New Zealand writers".

"I hope my essay is a piece of that discussion that will maybe make people think a little more about what it means to be a New Zealand writer; help us to have that discussion more openly."

She's gratified that her publisher, Bridget Williams Books, is releasing many of these shorter, cheaper and very up-to-date works of non-fiction under its BWB Texts arm, which she believes encourage readers to graze amongst the work of lots of different writers, exploring new and provocative ideas.

"I think what they're doing is really great and in step with the mood of things right now, this period of flux we're in culturally."

Financially supporting those discussions and the development of writers is also crucial, and she's been disturbed at sponsorship drying up in New Zealand lately.

New Zealand Book Month has been postponed indefinitely, the Literary Awards are on hold after BNZ pulled its 55-year funding, the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship to Menton has been reduced but is still looking for a long-term sponsor, Te Papa Press is suspending publishing, and NZ Post withdrew its funding for the country's book awards last year.

But Morris says there are more, and more excited, readers than ever, and the losses serve only to illustrate the disconnect between corporate decision-makers higher up and what people want and enjoy. "People in positions of authority in various companies who could make a difference don't get the level of engagement and excitement around books and reading at all ages and among many different groups in society. "I think that's unfortunate and it's to their detriment."

But she says it could also prove a beneficial shake-up. "I am quite positive that new sponsors will step into the breach – it may be a difficult time but I do think there are enough intelligent and engaged people in this country to make new things happen, and maybe it's a good opportunity to make new things," she says.

"This is not a time for just moaning and thinking 'This is terrible', but actually, sorry, these sponsors are kind of short-sighted right now; let's identify new partners and new opportunities and go bigger."

On Coming Home, out now through Bridget Williams Books.

 - Stuff

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