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Remembering New Zealand: Four Kiwi Writers Who Learned Their Craft in Exile

If you can't find New Zealand on the map, it's the island country below Australia. Known mainly as the home of the All Blacks and, more recently, tech billionaires preparing for WTSHTF — a survivalist acronym for When The S*** Hits The Fan — New Zealand is such a long flight from Europe that many Pākehās (New Zealanders of European descent) never set foot on the land of their ancestors. Island Fever — FOMO for millennials — is a common condition for young New Zealanders. Many leave for extended periods of self-imposed exile known as 'The O.E' (overseas experience) and return years later with well, more experience. It's a truth universally acknowledged that exile makes good fiction writers — nothing fires up the imagination like a little homesickness — and these four are no exception. All left New Zealand as emerging writers and honed distinctive literary voices overseas. Except for Katherine Mansfield, who died in England, all returned to put down literary roots at home in Aotearoa.  

The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield was a modernist short story writer who challenged the form by challenging herself: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others ... Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth." Born in 1888, Katherine Mansfield grew up in New Zealand and spent most of her tragically short adult life and career in England. Though written far from home, her short stories, poetry and journals betray a constant struggle for belonging in her native New Zealand. When her brother died in the First World War she coped with her grief by imaginatively re-inhabiting the land of their childhood. Some of her most famous works – At the Bay, The Garden Party, and Prelude – come from this time. She felt a profound alienation from the constricting society in which she moved, and though she was intimately associated with famous modernists of the Bloomsbury group, her work remained aesthetically at a distance. Inspired by the life and writing of Oscar Wilde, she led a rebellious existence, seeing herself as a writer first and a woman second. If you’re new to Katherine Mansfield, her Collected Short Stories are a good place to start. But why stop there? Mansfield’s journals and letters are almost as well-thumbed and beloved as her short stories, and her life and writing have fascinated many a biographer. 

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Dad Art

If you like subtle stories in which likeable characters diligently observe the world but misperceive themselves, look no further than the fiction of Damien Wilkins. Described as ‘potentially the finest NZ fiction writer of his generation’ by The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Wilkins has been a fixture of NZ letters since the late 80s when his distinctive short stories first appeared in the journal Sport. After a stint in the USA, studying creative writing at Washington University, his first novel The Miserables won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction in 1994. Since then he has published nine novels in New Zealand, the US and the UK. Settings and subjects vary, but the novels have in common sharp observation, deft prose, and emotionally satisfying plots that take characters out of their comfort zones. Wilkins’ books are also very funny. In his latest novel, Dad Art, divorced empty-nester Michael Stirling is learning te reo Maori and dating online for the first time. Middle-age Take Two is awkward but he’s muddling through. When his daughter returns from Auckland, Michael Stirling is literally roped into a piece of performance art that makes him rethink his place in society.  

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Novel About My Wife

Novelist and ex-actor Emily Perkins says she loves nothing more than to surround herself in her own fictional universe. Like Damien Wilkins a generation before her, Perkins’ career began with a short story publication in the literary journal, Sport before moving overseas to hone her craft. It was in London in that her career took off. She credits the pre-Netflix nineties for her early break. With ‘no Netflix to binge on’ she spent her evenings writing the short stories that would come together as Not Her Real Name, published by Picador in 1996 to wide acclaim. She is most famous for Novel About My Wife, a deeply imagined psychological portrait of a marriage under pressure. Told in eerie retrospect, the novel depicts Anne Stone’s unravelling as remembered by her husband, Tom. On the surface the Stones are a typical young couple starting a financially precarious but loving marriage. Expecting their first child, they buy a fixer-upper in pre-gentrification Hackney. To remind themselves of what they feel is their correct social status, they stock their kitchen cupboards with exotic foods and take trips to nicer parts of town. Written with unrelenting psychological accuracy, Novel About My Wife examines the fine line between harmless self-delusion and self-destruction.  

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The Luminaries

Canadian born New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, has been a bright star in New Zealand fiction since she published her debut novel The Rehearsal at the age of 23. She took up a position at the famous Iowa Writers Workshop, where she began work on The Luminaries, the intricately structured novel that made her the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker Prize. Set during the 1866 gold rush on the West Coast of New Zealand, the novel follows the travails of Walter Moody, a prospector who sets out to make his fortune. A prolific reader—Catton will read for months at a time without writing a word—she draws inspiration from fiction, philosophy, box-set TV shows and the internet. Her novels are cerebral—Catton uses fiction as an attempt to work out philosophical problems—while being firmly rooted in New Zealand history, landscape and culture. Despite her demonstrated concern for her home country, she suffered a harsh media backlash when, in the wake of her Booker Prize success, she publically lamented that New Zealand was run by ‘profit-obsessed politicians who don’t care about culture’. Happily, the resulting media storm failed to put Catton back in her box. Her forthcoming third novel, described as a psychological thriller in which a group of rural New Zealanders face off with invading billionaires on the eve of global disaster, promises to deepen her critique of the increasingly neo-liberal New Zealand government.  

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