Journal of Postcolonial Writing

The Spectacular VisionariesThe Secular Visionaries: Aestheticism and New Zealand Short Fiction in the Twentieth Century
Joel Gwynne

Rodopi. Amsterdam and New York 2010. 
ISBN 978-90-420-3184-5; Paola Della Valle . 

These studies address two major fields of New Zealand writing: the short fiction and Maori writing which rose to prominence in the 1970s, although in both there is inevitably  some mixing of genres, traditions and writers. Joel Gwynne’s monograph provocatively sets out to challenge a dominant critical perception that short fiction in New Zealand polarises into two schools, of realism and modernist-impressionism, a polarisation that also reflects a gender division; and he deconstructs these binary aesthetic categories with reference to the pioneers, Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson.

Pointing to stylistic variability and experimentation , he argues that Sargeson’s use of epiphany and impressionism makes his so-called realism stylistically closer to Mansfield than has been recognised.  The stories oflater practitioners are also analysed for their aesthetic pluralism: Maurice Duggan, who conjoins ‘the secular and the visionary, the realist and the impressionist, the local and the universal’ (106); Janet Frame whose fluidity and capacity for dissolving  boundaries make her work elude  such categorisations; Patricia Grace whose metafictional self referential strategies complicate  binaries associated with the social realism of Maori politics,  such as individual/community and nature/civilisation; and Owen Marshall who diversifies and disrupts the masculinist subjectivity associated with Sargeson.

This is the first full length study devoted to the New Zealand short story tradition, and it is refreshing to read an extended intervention on standard critical conceptualisations. How far can Gwynne’s thesis be sustained? After all, the fact that the writers have been perceived as polarised into two schools reflects the genre’s evolution from the time that Sargeson and other cultural nationalists of the 1930s  set themselves up against Mansfield, the international heavyweight with her ‘miniaturist’  modernism. But it is worth reflecting on this deliberate cultural construction— for example, there is evidence that Sargeson wascovertly borrowing from Mansfield even while distancing his work from her. Yet, on the other hand most short fiction, in particular, shows generic instability and aesthetic complexity when examined closely enough, and some of Gwynne’s close readings and his rebuttal of commonplace views such as that Marshall directly inherits Sargeson’s realism,do not  add markedly to the standard critical perceptions of these writers.

It would seem that ‘deconstructing the binaries’ might also be a way of arguing for closer and more perceptive readings, that show the complexity inherent in literary aesthetics. Nevertheless, now that the field itself has diversified in recent decades with younger, innovative writers, outside the scope of Gwynne’s study, like Craig Cliff, Emily Perkins, Fiona Farrell, andSue Orr, his book serves as a timely reminder that entrenched critical judgements also require revision in the wake of new developments. It may be that the force field of male/female polarisation, for example, will deconstruct of it own volition as much as with Gwynne’s prompting.


From Silence To VoiceFrom Silence to Voice: The Rise of Maori Literature
Paola Della Valle

Auckland Oratio Media, 2010. 
ISBN 978-1-877514-11-1.

In From Silence to Voice: The Rise of Maori Literature, Paola Della Valle, in an ‘indigenised’ reading from an ‘outsider perspective’ (vii, 106), provides a postcolonial analysis of  Maori literature, beginning with representations of the Maori by Pakeha novelists such as Roderick Findlayson and Noel Hilliard. Her real  subject, however, is ‘themaori voice’ that exploded on the national scene in the 1970s, and the tradition of Maori writing as it diversifies generically and becomes politically radical.

Focusing on the works of Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, Della Valle examines historical and cultural links between Maori and Italian, especially in terms of music, food, family and language,identifying postcolonial perspectives: Ihimaera’s extensive use of Italian opera and melodrama (parallels between Maori resistance to land appropriation and the national risorgimento in Italy in the 19th century) and Grace’s exploration in her novel Tu, of Italian culture as perceived by the Maori Battalion that fought at Cassino in the Second World War(anticipating greater Maori agency in the post-war era). She also draws attention to the indigenous roots of Maori writing, and along with her close readings includes a welcome discussion of Maori English and the writers’ political strategies like code-switching.

The Rise of Maori Literature complements two recent studies, Eva Rask Knudsen’s The Circle and the Spiral: A Study of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori Literature, and Melissa Kennedy’s, Striding Both Worlds: Witi Ihimaera and Zealand’s Literary Tradition, in its emphasis on the cross-cultural and intertextual character of Maori writingas intrinsic to its literary modernity. By contrast to the more selective critical reassessment provided in Gwynne’s Secular Visionaries, this is an overview focusing on two major indigenous writers and their European and Polynesian contexts: as such it will appeal to allthose seeking an introduction to Maori writing.


Janet Wilson
University of Northampton


To appear in Journal of Postcolonial Writing 49.1 (2013). Reprinted with permission of Routledge