Best Books I Never Wrote: Scott Hamilton
Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki
Prophet, politician, poet, architect, general, war criminal – Te Kooti contained multitudes, and Binney's biography is inexhaustible. Every time I open its pages I can hear the melancholy rustling of 19th-century diaries, the cries of bloodied soldiers, and the tales of old men and women sitting on doorsteps in small towns that once saw great events.
Kendrick Smithyman, Selected Poems
Like his friend Binney, Kendrick Smithyman was a collector of strange facts and plausible fictions. His poems are spells designed to re-enchant the places they visit. In Tomarata Smithyman reimagines a gumland pond as a cathedral; in the marvellously titled An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia he drives to an assignation with a goddess of the underworld. Together Binney and Smithyman introduced me to the bizarre and fascinating country behind the facade known as New Zealand.
Epeli Hau'ofa, Kisses in the Nedderends
In 2013 I lived in the Kingdom of Tonga, and found myself looking for guidance to the texts of Epeli Hau'ofa, a Tongan-Papuan-Fijian anthropologist who wrote Rabelaisian fiction as well as brilliant academic monographs. The hero of Hau'ofa's only novel is a man named Oilei, who wakes early one morning with a very bad pain in a very intimate place. As he seeks relief Oilei visits doctors and dodgy holy men, tries ointments and prayers, and offers a series of hilarious commentaries on life in the tropical Pacific.
Wendy Pond and Garth Rogers, The Fire Has Jumped: Eyewitness Accounts of the Eruption and Evacuation of Niuafo'ou, Tonga
Niuafo'ou is a beautiful island that regularly explodes. In 1946 its volcano buried several villages in lava, and the Tongan Government decided to evacuate the Niuafo'ouans, who have their own language and culture, to a safer, less remote island. But the Niuafo'ouans resisted, and many eventually returned to their devastated homeland. Bringing together interviews, diary entries, and song lyrics, Pond and Rogers created a thrilling narrative of the eruption of 1946 and the long struggle of the Niuafo'ouans against assimilation into Tongan society. The Fire Has Jumped taught me that tiny islands can have big histories.
Martin Edmond, The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont
In the 1990s Martin Edmond almost singlehandedly revitalised the genre of creative non-fiction in New Zealand. In his finest book he retraces the life and violent death of painter, psychedelic explorer, and political revolutionary Philip Clairmont. Edmond's quest takes him through trendy art galleries and historic drug dens to the hilltop home of a retired policeman who may well have blood on his hands.
The Stolen Island: Searching for 'Ata by Scott Hamilton (BWB Texts, $15) is out now.