Paula Morris on coming home to New Zealand
On Coming Home
BWB Texts, $15
Leaving home and returning is central to the New Zealand experience. Writers are equipped to explore this phenomenon in new and interesting ways, and Paula Morris is more equipped than most to make a deep exploration, like a diver putting on her scuba tank and swimming far below the surface.
Not that this is a sociological exploration. It's fabulously literary and deeply personal, and its charm is to be found in the interplay between Morris' own experiences and her evocation of the lives and writings of so many others. In this slim book (96 pages) tread a legion of writers who have also pondered the meaning of home, and of living as a creative person amid the trials of the brutal world. Here be Oscar Wilde, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Anton Chekhov, Pablo Neruda … there's almost a fresh voice on every page.
Of course, the very idea of home is a tricky and fractured question, especially for New Zealanders, whose histories are often like a patchwork quilt. Morris is both Maori (Ngati Wai) and Pakeha, and her mother arrived in New Zealand in 1964 from England. Morris grew up in Auckland, in Te Atatu, and got her first degree at the University of Auckland. She left New Zealand in 1985, aged 20, and – apart from brief visits and nine months in Wellington when she did Bill Manhire's MA course and wrote her first published novel, Queen of Beauty – has been away ever since. Up till now, when she has "returned" to teach in the Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University.
She does a nice line in Kiwi self deprecation. "Coming home in triumph", someone said to her after she was profiled in the New Zealand Herald's "12-Questions" column the day after she arrived home, having been shortlisted for a UK writing prize. "Let's not get carried away," she writes. "Ibsen returned to Norway 'in triumph' after thirty years away, but he was Ibsen and world-famous. I'm Paula Morris, and not even world-famous in New Zealand."
On this question of fame, she puts us all in our place, thanks to another literary allusion: "Joseph Brodsky was right: 'On any street of any city in the world at any time of night or day there are more people who haven't heard of you than those who have.'"
Like visiting the stations of the cross, she traverses this territory chapter by chapter, from the fear of coming home, to what it means to belong (and what say you come home to find you don't belong?), to exile. And, of course, those prickly old chestnuts: what does it mean to be a "true" New Zealand writer, and does nationality even matter?
Thought-provoking and satisfying, this is part of BWB Books' series of "short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers" – to be applauded as a contribution to the intellectual life of us, whoever we turn out to be.