By HANNAH MARSHALL
New Zealanders are proud of a lot of things. We’re forever loyal to the All Blacks, fiercely protective of Marmite, and we’ll fight anyone who says the flat white wasn’t invented here. But there’s one area we New Zealanders fail to appreciate: our literature.
New Zealand has a world-class book scene, particularly for young adults. Yet it is shockingly undervalued.
Last year, Creative New Zealand, our country’s national arts development agency, decided to de-fund the New Zealand Review of Books. As New Zealand’s only literary journal dedicated to book reviews, its pull from publication was a major blow to an already struggling scene. But this is more than just the harsh reality of being funding-dependent in a cash-strapped world – it represents how much we undermine our own literature.
Our country is home to some of the best books and best writers in the world. And that’s not me being biased. Any country can stake their claim on Marmite for all I care; that thing is an abomination. The problem here lies deeper than a simple lack of funding: it’s rooted in the fact that we don’t recognise our own literary faces. Most Kiwi teens will know John Green, J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins, but mention the names Kate de Goldi or Bernard Beckett and you’ll likely be met with blank faces. Our stories produced here are as worthy of celebration as international bestsellers, but a culture with a careless attitude to homegrown literature means they’re not being read.
There are plenty of organisations dedicated to keeping our literature scene thriving. The Academy of New Zealand Literature, the New Zealand Society of Authors and Read NZ are just a handful of the various groups that promote and support New Zealand writers and readers. But the simple truth is this is not enough. A few organisations are not changing the fact that most of my peers have never heard of any Kiwi-written YA novels, let alone read one. Getting our literature the acknowledgement it deserves can’t be done without support, but no one’s willing to back the cause.
Cutting the funding from the NZ Review of Books has ripple effects for everyone, and especially for literature’s next generation. I was published in the NZ Review of Books twice through my involvement with Hooked on NZ Books, another asset culled by Creative New Zealand. Devoted to YA reviews by YA readers, Hooked on NZ Books was a springboard for a critical conversation. A chance visit to my school from the organisation opened my eyes to a world of opportunities. I had barely read a Kiwi-written YA in my life; today, most of my favourite books are by NZ authors. I gained valuable skills from the reviewing process and improved myself as a writer. I even found my name in print. As someone wanting to break into the literary scene one day, these experiences were invaluable to my development as a reader and a writer. And then they were taken away.
Seeing how effortlessly these voices were silenced is both discouraging and disheartening to young writers. There is an abundance of talent waiting to be heard, but we cannot grow our literary scene when our own arts development agency won’t give us the chance. Our country’s next generation of writers and readers are living in the dark. Until Creative NZ helps to lift the fog, we will remain shrouded from all New Zealand literature has to offer.
NZ-written books matter because they represent us. They are our stories, our cities, our voices. Kiwi books offer us what international bestsellers can’t: a sense of identity, a celebration of where we come from. New Zealanders have a lot to be proud of. And what we deserve to be especially proud of are the stories we have to share.
Hannah is an aspiring author, rock music enthusiast, and professional chocolate eater.