Review: Extraordinary Anywhere

Extraordinary Anywhere, edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey
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Extraordinary Anywhere, edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey

Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey
Victoria University Press, $40

Extraordinary Anywhere, a book of essays on place from some of New Zealand's sharpest writers, feels like the archetypal Victoria University Press title: stylish, cultivated – in the best sense of the word — and more than a little self-regarding.

Before you get ideas, I mean this with love. Writing about place is, at its heart, an act of inward thinking. Discovering place is the first thing we do as children, and our experience within it shapes how we think and feel about the world.

But this is too vague without defining what place actually is (or what it might be). The trouble, at least in this country, is 'place' is so overdetermined: we think of 'the land' and our psychic connection to it; sometimes we think of our national habits, like backing the All Blacks or talking about the weather; but place isn't really here or there, not even a thing we do – it's individual experience and imagination.

The writers in Extraordinary Anywhere do a tremendous job inscribing the idea of place with meanings, from Tony Ballantyne's compelling essay on how global connections are part of local history to Tina Makareti's magnificent and probing essay on the paradox of living as tangata whenua – a person of the land – without strongly identifying with a single turangawaewae (a place to stand).

But how are you meant to feel in this place, as in this country and society? Who knows. As Lydia Wevers puts it, each place speaks its own 'language,' in her case the language of landscapes, buildings, paper and dirt on a Wairarapa Station.

There isn't an Approved way to think or feel here, or anywhere for that matter. Harry Rickett's essay on the many places of his international childhood is compelling reading, as is Giovanni Tiso's essay on how Google+ followed — and narrated — his trip (or return, perhaps) to Italy.

It's at this point — migrant perspectives on place — that the book begins to stumble. I recognise the New Zealand described, but would a new Filipino family in Christchurch recognise it? Would an elderly Samoan migrant in Auckland identify with it?

Maybe we can find out in the next book.

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