Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Problem with Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy was one of New Zealand's most beloved authors for children and young adults. When she died in July there was an outpouring of grief from the New Zealand literary community, and from the thousands of New Zealanders who had grown up reading such classics as The Witch in the Cherry Tree and The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. The internet was awash with heartfelt eulogies from people whose childhoods had been shaped by Mahy's words. As I read more and more of these sad facebook status updates lamenting her passing, these twitter RIPs, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the canonisation of someone who is, to me, a troublesome figure.

The Children's Bookshop had a particularly unsettling Facebook status on July 25th with ~
We have a growing, and perhaps irrational frustration at the comparisons of Margaret Mahy as "up there" with our finest authors, Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame. Hell, she wasn't up there, she was streets ahead. We like some of Mansfield's stories, but her's was a slight cannon of work over a short time span, most of it written in the many years she spent overseas whinging about how restrictive New Zealand was. Janet Frame lead a reclusive life, and wrote for a small literary audience. She wrote brilliantly, and has had some international recognition, but could walk down the street without being recognised. Margaret Mahy is the greatest writer we have ever produced, in any way you measure greatness. International recognition, generosity of spirit, quality of output, length of career, range of genre, awards won, languages translated into, critical acclaim, markets conquered. Is it because she was a "children's" author that they need to qualify her greatness, or a we just being unreasonably insensitive. (and feel free to tell us if you think we are.)
I definitely think The Children's Bookshop were being irrational & unreasonably sensitive, but I may get a little irrational & unreasonably sensitive myself.  I didn't grow up reading much Mahy. I have vague memories of some of her picture books, but none of them have stuck in my mind as old favourites. I know I enjoyed The Door In The Air, but I have no memory of what it was actually about. I came to read Mahy as a postgraduate student taking a paper on New Zealand Children's Literature. Among the prescribed texts were Mahy's The Haunting, The Tricksters, The Catalogue of the Universe, & Memory. I never got around to reading The Haunting so I can't comment on that. The Tricksters & The Catalogue of the Universe contained some of the most dysfunctional families & narcissistic characters I have ever come across in literature. But that's not where my problem with Mahy lies. Allow me to go off on a tangent here.

For some years now I've had an interest in the Tarot. I have no idea where this interest came from, but it probably has something to do with the former art history student in me being drawn to the imagery and the complex symbolism. I'd also noticed the Tarot being used as a theme in some of the novels I'd read; Chocolat, Vanishing Acts, & White Oleander all use Tarot. I'd even discussed the use of The Tower card in The Bone People in an undergrad essay. I had thoughts of including this interest somehow in a more detailed thesis as a postgraduate student, though I wasn't quite sure how I was going to go about this. And then I read Memory. 

Not only is Tarot used in Memory, but The Tower card in particular is central to the story. This was perfect! I could use The Bone People & Memory in my thesis, two books by New Zealand women authors, focusing on their use of the Tower card. This shit was writing itself! I was stoked. Until I got to page 181 & came across this line : "All those lessons in ballet and reading Winnie-the-Pooh and she's gone back to the marae. All that culture for nothing." Um, what the fuck, Margaret Mahy?! Seriously, what the entire fuck?!?!

Is she seriously saying that ballet & the marae are mutually exclusive? Is she seriously holding the marae & culture as opposing ideas? I just don't even know where to begin ranting about this, that is how infuriating I find this one sentence. Can you even imagine how a Maori kid reading Memory might react to this sentence? I just...I can't even...Okay, taking a deep breath now. You see, I have a Maori kid. And I sure as hell hope she is going to be a reader one day like her Mama. And yes, she'll also most likely take ballet lessons as well. But god forbid she ever think her ballet lessons make her any different, any better, than her cousins growing up on a pa.

In case you haven't read Memory, here's a bit of context for that sentence. Two of the characters in Memory are the adopted daughters of middle class Pakeha intellectuals. The older daughter, Hinerangi, is Maori. While she is a minor character in the story we do know that she is an activist who is on the run from the police, & who eventually is arrested towards the end of the book. The younger sister, Bonny is the owner of the Tarot cards. It is during a conversation with Bonny that Jonny, the story's protagonist, utters the loathesome line. So not only is Hinerangi throwing away "culture" by embracing her Maori heritage, she is also a criminal. Way to reinforce negative stereotypes Margaret Mahy.

This post was originally going to be about Margaret Mahy & that one sentence that ruined her for me, but now that I've had a little time to think about this I realise that the problem is more far reaching. The problem is with New Zealand Young Adult fiction in general. Here are some of the other books we read for ENGL420 Modern Fiction: New Zealand Fiction for Children. Maurice Gee's The Champion ~ A book about race relations, featuring a girl whose own grandmother hates her because she is Maori. Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox ~ a fantasy set on an island that is an alternate reality to New Zealand's South Island, but with "no native population". How convenient. The Conjurer by Jack Lasenby, a futuristic apocalyptic NZ where the Maori population have become evil overlords, taking the Pakeha as slaves & murdering any child born with blue eyes. And finally, tacked on to the end of the course, Patricia Grace's Mutuwhenua (about which we debated whether or not this is actually a children's book). 

So when NZ children read fiction, are these the only representations of Maori people and culture that they are getting? Stuff blogger & Christchurch librarian, Moata Tamaira, posted about her childhood experiences with Mahy's work. She talks about identifying with the protagonist of The Changeover, a part Maori part Pakeha girl from Christchurch. Tamaira says "what Margaret Mahy was good enough to want to teach me, was that a part-Māori girl living in the Christchurch 'burbs could still be the heroine of her own story. She could be brave and scared but achieve extraordinary things. It's a sad fact that some kids, particularly Māori kids, don't have that self-belief. That you can be things. You can do things. Most important, that you can save yourself." Again, I haven't read The Changeover so I can't comment, but if it is indeed teaching Maori kids that they can be the heroines & heroes of their own stories, it would seem to be a rarity in New Zealand children's fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure you can take one line of dialogue from Jonny- who is a character with his own problems! - as any indication of the attitude of the author, or indeed the book- towards Mäori culture. I'm going to have to re-read Memory (my own is not so good!) to see if Hinerangi really is villainised- and in what context.
    I do agree the Children's Bookshop statements are ahm- hyperbolic silliness :)