In the years after the Second World War, in remote Māori primary schools in the East Cape, an experiment was taking place. ‘It’s not beauty to abruptly halt the growth of a young mind and to overlay it with the frame of an imposed culture’1, wrote the pioneering writer and editor Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Teacher (1963). She felt every child had a ‘key vocabulary’, that the first words a child should read and spell should not be nice, conventional words, but words of intensity like ‘ghost’ and ‘jet’. If Teacher was her declaration of independence as an educator, her autobiography, I passed this way (1979), was one of several non-fiction works of that decade to insist on independence as a watch-word for both women and Māori.
Trail-blazing activist Sonja Davies somehow found time to write a compelling autobiography, Bread and roses (1984), while an autobiographical trilogy (Hot October, 1989, Bonfires in the rain, 1991, and The quick world, 1992) by Lauris Edmond records an obstructed, but no less determined, search for a public voice. Her son, Martin Edmond, contributed to his family’s story with An autobiography of my father (1992), the first of several innovative non-fiction works by this author.
In 1987 Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle exposed a national scandal with the publication of ‘An “Unfortunate Experiment” at National Women’s’ in Metro magazine. The article criticised the abuse of women patients in cancer research. As with much non-fiction writing of the time, the authors sought out oral testimony and aimed to recover the overlooked experience of women. Metro continued to be an important outlet for non-fiction writers under the editorship of Warwick Roger, while Coney’s Out of the frying pan: inflammatory writings 1972–89 (1990) is a highly readable collection of her work.
Writing about and by Māori
Michael King began his career with several books about Māori, including biographies of Te Puea Hērangi (Te Puea, 1977) and Whina Cooper (Whina, 1983). In the mid-1980s, mindful of a call to let Māori speak for themselves, he turned to other subject matter with Being Pakeha (1985), biographies of Frank Sargeson (1995) and Janet Frame (Wrestling with the angel, 2000) and his popular Penguin History of New Zealand (2003).
An updated edition of Ranginui Walker’s 1990 history of Māori, Ka whawhai tonu matou, appeared from the same publisher in 2004. Walker has also produced biographies of carver Paki Harrison (Tohunga whakairo, 2008) and the politician Āpirana Ngata, (He tipua, 2002).
The film-maker Barry Barclay was a particularly gifted non-fiction writer also. Our own image (1990) offers an engaging and practical philosophy for makers of indigenous television and cinema, while Mana tuturu (2005) moves from that base to consider wider issues of intellectual property rights.
A natural inclination
A large proportion of New Zealand non-fiction deals with natural history. One of New Zealand’s most respected writers in this field is Philip Simpson, whose books focus on the significance – both cultural and environmental – of particular native trees. In 2013 he had written books about tī kōuka (cabbage trees), pōhutukawa, rātā and tōtara.
It is striking – but unsurprising – that much of our most respected non-fiction in the post-Waitangi Tribunal era continues to be historical in character. Major revisionist general histories of New Zealand by James Belich, Making peoples (1996) and Paradise reforged (2001), alongside Judith Binney’s innovative biography of Te Kooti, Redemption songs (1995), and her prize-winning history of Tūhoe, Encircled lands (2009), are just a few of many works about a country coming to terms not only with the past, but also with the different kinds of pasts in which memories are embedded.
These issues have concerned poets Wystan Curnow and Ian Wedde in their art writing and general essays, and register too in works as diverse as the environmental writings of Geoff Park (Nga uruora, 1995, Theatre country, 2006) and Chris Bourke’s Blue smoke (2010), an account of the ‘lost dawn’ of New Zealand popular music, which won the Book of the Year award in 2011.
A Book of the Year prize-winner from 2010, Al Brown’s Go fish (2009), reminds us that those perennial themes of childhood and identity, of feelings for land and sea, appear, as they should, even in New Zealand’s best cookbooks.
Non-fiction about non-fiction
Any commentator on New Zealand non-fiction owes a debt of gratitude to Peter Gibbons for his comprehensive treatment of the topic in the Oxford history of New Zealand literature (1991, revised 1998). He and other contributors looked back at colonial and nationalist writings from a culture that could no longer be defined by these terms.