This is a transcription of Episode 16 — New Zealand: Kiwis, Majestic Scenery, and Māori Mythology.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 16 of Strong Sense of Place. Hello, how are you? Hope you’re doing well. Today, we are going to get curious about New Zealand.
[polynesian music and singing]
Melissa: We have not been to New Zealand.
David: No, but I would like to go.
Melissa: I would like to go to because the hiking looks amazing.
David: It does! New Zealand seems like the kind of place you go because you want to go outside.
Melissa: Agree. I have one very tenuous connection to New Zealand. The story is a little bit of a journey. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a town called Orwigsburg.
Melissa: And a couple towns over is another very small town called Deer Lake. And in the 1970s, the boxer Muhammad Ali had his training camp in Deer Lake.
[audio clip of Muhammad Ali talking: I say, I have wrestled with the alligator. I done tussle with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throw thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean. I make medicine sick.]
Melissa: And somehow his manager and my dad became friends. So Muhammad Ali was kind of this figure on the edges of my life when I was between the ages of, say, 10 and 13.
David: You have met Muhammad Ali.
Melissa: I have. We have been to his training camp. When I broke my ankle, he signed my cast. And when I went back to school that year, I was still wearing my cast and had Muhammad Ali’s autograph on my ankle.
David: That’s really cool.
Melissa: It felt really cool. Yeah. But the reason I bring him up is because when I was about 10, a bunch of Kiwis stayed at my dad’s motel.
David: These small, flightless birds, we’re talking about.
Melissa: No! The people known as Kiwis. I’m 52 now, and my memory of that is there are a bunch of rowdy people who stayed in my dad’s motel, and in my imagination, they stayed for a really long time. That was all I knew about them.
Melissa: So I asked him recently what was going on with the New Zealanders being in this small town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. It turns out they were amateur boxers who came to Pennsylvania to train and do exhibition bouts at Muhammad Ali’s training camp. And they stayed at my dad’s little motel for about two weeks. And they were, in fact, rowdy, fun-loving people.
David: I’m immediately drawn to the idea of how much trouble you could get into with a dozen amateur boxers far, far from home.
Melissa: The thing that I find most endearing about them is — now, you have to remember, this is like 1974 or 1976. People weren’t really traveling around — regular people — were not traveling around the world as much as they do now. And they brought with them to Pennsylvania a bunch of Kiwi stuff to give to people as gifts that they met along the way. And I just thought that was so sweet. So my dad still has a tie printed with Kiwis and a little Kiwi — we’re talking about the bird now, not the people — and a little Kiwi tie tack that has opalescent stone in it. And it’s just this weird, sweet memory that I have.
David: That’s really nice.
Melissa: And it’s very dreamlike because when you grow up in rural Pennsylvania, you don’t really think you’re going to meet people from New Zealand —
David: Or Muhammad Ali.
Melissa: That is my New Zealand story.
David: That’s really good. Are you ready to give us the 101 on New Zealand?
Melissa: Everyone visualize your mental globe.
David: It’s round, it’s floating in space.
Melissa: We’re going to mentally go to Russia and China and then head south. There’s Australia, HI, Australia! and now go east in your imagination, across the Tasman Sea, Boom! You are in New Zealand, in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. New Zealand is made up of two landmasses. Hang on, because this is a little confusing. The North Island and the South Island. The North Island is in the… north. [laughter]
Melissa: As we talk about our books, you will hear me mention these because this is how people differentiate which part of New Zealand, a city or a mountain or a lake is located: North Island, South Island. And there are about 600 other smaller islands that make up New Zealand. There are three official languages: English, Māori and New Zealand sign language.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: I love that they have made New Zealand Sign Language one of their official languages that is very respectful.
David: One of the ongoing themes of my research for this episode was discovering just how kind and thoughtful the New Zealand people are.
Melissa: Agree. There is a lot of progressive thinking going on. For example, it was the first self-governing country to give women the right to vote. In the UK and the United States, it took until after World War One for women to get the right to vote. In New Zealand, it happened in September of 1883. New Zealand is also one of the few countries that has two national anthems: God Save the Queen, of course, because of their relationship with the UK.
Melissa: And this is even better. God Defend New Zealand, which is sung in both Māori and English. Yes.
[audio clip of girl singing New Zealand national anthem in Māori]
David: So I was doing research on that and I saw the beginning of a rugby competition, they get ready, everybody gets ready for the national anthem and the camera goes to this very European blonde girl. The music starts and then she starts singing Māori.
Melissa: That’s awesome.
David: And that was amazing for me. That was so beautiful. She does a verse in Māori and then she does a verse in English. And there was just something so powerful about that, to see that, to see the cultures coming together.
Melissa: And the Māori first.
[audio clip of girl singing New Zealand national anthem in English]
Melissa: To clear up something we alluded to and we are chitchatting before: Kiwi is the nickname used internationally for people from New Zealand and by New Zealanders themselves. Unlike other labels, it is not considered offensive. It’s a symbol of pride. And the name comes from the Kiwi bird, which is a flightless that’s native to New Zealand and is the national symbol of the country.
Melissa: New Zealand is the place to go if you want to go tromping about like a hobbit and beautiful landscapes.
David: For sure.
Melissa: I think most people know that the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed there all 12 hours except for one scene were filmed in New Zealand.
David: Yes, somebody described it as a huge infomercial for New Zealand.
Melissa: Yes. And there are stunning forests and sparkly beaches and craggy mountains and fjords and meadows. This is the place to go if you want to have an outdoor adventure.
Melissa: Let’s talk about the history a little bit because we’re going to need some background for some of the books I’m talking about today.
David: There’s not a lot of history.
Melissa: You are correct, Dave. Yeah. So according to New Zealand Now, New Zealand was the last large, liveable place in the world to be discovered. The first people to arrive in New Zealand were ancestors of the Māori, and they did not arrive until between 1200 and 1300.
David: So 700 years.New Zealand has only had humans on it for 700 years.
Melissa: Those are our Polynesian settlers. European explorers didn’t even get there until three hundred years later. The Dutch were first and they gave New Zealand its name. The British arrived in the form of Captain Cook in 1769. So 18th century. By the 1830s, the British government was being pressured to ‘reduce lawlessness in the country.’ And probably more honestly, they were trying to beat the French to settling and creating a colony there. So in 1840, New Zealand’s first governor assembled a bunch of Māori chiefs and asked them to sign a treaty with the British crown. And that treaty was taken all around the country and was signed by more than 500 local chiefs. It’s now known as the Treaty of Waitangi. But just 20 years later, I bet you can guess what happened.
David: Something bad for the local indigenous people.
Melissa: You are correct. The Māori were being pressured to sell their land to European settlers and war broke out on the North Island. Over the next two decades, a lot of the Māori land was either taken or purchased by the government. Things went slightly better on the South Island. Settlers there set up sheep farms. Gold was discovered on the West Coast, which set up a series of gold rushes. And by the 1870s, thousands of British citizens were going to New Zealand to start new lives.
Melissa: I’m going to be talking about that quite a bit. And one of the books I’m talking about today. By the late 1890s, New Zealand turned down an invitation to join the Australian Federation, and it became an independent country in 1987. Now it’s pretty multicultural and diverse. Twenty-five percent of the people who live there were born abroad.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Yeah, 15 percent are Māori, 12 percent are Asian, and seven percent are from other Pacific island nations. Hindi is the fourth most common language after English, Māori and Samoan. I know you’re going to be talking about some Māori stuff when we discuss our books, but I wanted to go over two quick points.
Melissa: One: the term Māori did not exist until the Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Māori did not call themselves Māori prior to that, but it means ‘ordinary,’ and the Māori use that term to distinguish themselves from their fair-skinned European neighbours.
David: We’re the ordinary people. You’re the not-ordinary people.
Melissa: I like that! And I’m going to talk about one of my favorite things which did not come up in any of my books, but I want to talk about it anyway. The Haka. The Māori dance known as the Haka. Yeah.
[audio clip of haka chanting]
Melissa: The Haka is often described as a war dance, and that is how it started. The men would they have their tattoos on their faces and they would put on their tribal outfits and they would dance to psych themselves up before going into war. There are lots of different forms of haka, and it’s basically a celebration of life, and the dancers use their hands and arms and legs and feet and eyes and tongues, which is my favorite part, to express a bunch of different emotions: joy, annoyance, courage, might. And although it was traditionally only done by men, modern haka now incorporates women and children, too.
Melissa: Ok, I have just a few New Zealand fun facts to wrap up. The city with the longest name in the world is in New Zealand. It has 85 letters and 40 syllables.
David: You will now pronounce it for us.
Melissa: I will not now pronounce, but I will add an expert pronounce it for us.
[man pronouncing the name of the town]
Melissa: The town is on the North Island of New Zealand, and it’s named after Tamatea, who is a legendary Māori explorer. And to honor him, the Māori people named a hill after him, but to show their true adoration, they used an entire sentence to name it instead of just one word. So it means: ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed, and swallowed mountains, known as landeater, played his flute to his loved one.’
David: That’s nice. That’s really nice.
Melissa: Yeah, locals simply call it Taumata Hill. Finally, New Zealand has a lot of sheep, like a lot of sheep. It’s estimated that there are nine sheep for every one person in New Zealand, which puts the sheep population at about 40 million.
David: That is a lot of sheep.
Melissa: And they’re very cute.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is untrue. Now, as we’ve already discussed, New Zealand is a very magical place. These statements are all magic related. One: There’s a sheep ball in Masterson every spring. It’s a costume ball, and there’s a competition for the best dressed sheep. In 2019, the winner was dressed as a dragon.
Melissa: I desperately want that to be true.
David: Two: New Zealand has a government appointed national wizard. And three: There’s a river in New Zealand that has the legal rights of a person.
Melissa: You’ve done it again. They all sound true. I feel like the sheep ball is true.
David: Masterson is the home to the self-proclaimed world premiere sheep and woolhandling championship. It’s been there since 1961. The site is fantastic and you should check it out. It says it’s three days of non-stop action and entertainment. They pit six men against each other with over 20 sheep each for speed and finesse. The site goes on to say, ‘Our coverage of the event via our own Golden Shears TV is unsurpassed by any shearing competition in the world. But you can’t beat the excitement of being there to witness history being made and to soak up the lanolin-infused atmosphere as the sweat drips off competitors’ brows. Don’t miss out. Reserve your tickets today.’
David: You just don’t see that everywhere.
Melissa: Let’s make hashtag-lanolin-infused trend. That’s amazing.
David: Yeah, isn’t it. But I made the ball up.
Melissa: No way! That totally sounded real.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I would like that to be true.
Melissa: Oh, you got me.
David: Later, I’m going to be talking about Te Kuiti, which is home to the New Zealand National Shearing Championships. Don’t be confused. The internationals are in Masterson and they’re these are only two of the 40 different events in the New Zealand shearing sports official calendar.
Melissa: That’s really awesome. I love learning about unusual subcultures.
David: The season starts in October at the Merino Championships in Alexandra and ends in April at the Lamb Shearing Championships in Fairly.
Melissa: I want to go back to a sheep dressed as a dragon.
David: I actually searched on sheep costumes —
Melissa: Our search histories are really strange.
David: And I was disappointed by the by the lack of people outfitting their sheep.
Melissa: If anyone in our audience lives in New Zealand or anywhere really, that you can get your hands on a sheep, I think you know what you need to do. Dragon costume.
David: At least a hat.
Melissa: Yeah. You know, make it happen, someone.
David: So, New Zealand does have — and I love this. I love both of these. New Zealand has a government-appointed national wizard. Right on his name is Ian Brackenbury Channell. He’s been New Zealand’s wizard since 1999. He has a contract with the government. It outlines his responsibilities.
Melissa: Do we know what some of these responsibilities are?
David: We do. His contract says he must wear the appropriate regalia and be required to carry out the duties of national wizard, namely, to protect the government, to bless new enterprises, cast out evil spirits, upset fanatics, cheer up the population, attract tourists and in particular to design and promote a new and improved universe, which puts New Zealand on top of the world, both physically and metaphysically.
Melissa: I am 100 percent behind this.
David: Yeah, me too. There is, of course, a lengthy Wikipedia entry on Ian Brackenbury Channell. It’s a good read. And then finally, there’s the River. This shook me up a little bit. So here’s the setup. In March of 2017, the Whanganui River became the first in the world to be given human rights status. The Māori had been fighting for more than 160 years to get recognition for its river. They wanted something that would recognise its spiritual importance. One of the Māori said, ‘We see the river as a living entity that carries our ancestors, that carries our memories as a metaphor for our history.’ And they were having trouble because people started dumping sewage in the river. A former attorney general was sent to sort of work out the problem between the indigenous people and the local population. They decided the best solution was to give the river the legal rights of a human. The river now has two jointly-appointed human representatives, one from the Crown and the other from the Māori.
Melissa: That’s so awesome.
David: It’s not nice.
Melissa: We should do that with more natural landmarks.
David: Yes, we should.
Melissa: Instead of giving status to corporations, you should give them to nature.
David: That was kind of where the emotion came up for me, too. Instead of being in a culture that gives human rights to corporations, what if you were in a culture that gave human rights to natural wonders?
Melissa: I’m making my mental list of which ones I would give human status to right now. That’s a really nice idea.
David: And then, you know, and then further legal representation. It’s not enough to be like, ‘Yes, that river is a human.’ You have to go to further extend, be like who speaks for the river. And I think that was the part that really got me is I remembered I remembered the Dr. Seuss The Lorax — Who speaks for the trees? And it’s like, well, they figured that out in New Zealand. They know who speaks for the trees.
Melissa: Well done, New Zealand.
David: Are you ready to talk about books?
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: My first pick is The Colour by Rose Tremain. This is a historical novel set during the 1860 New Zealand Gold Rush. I knew absolutely nothing about the gold rush in New Zealand. So, before I get into the book, I want to give a little context about what was happening, because this is the background for everything that happens in the story. Basically, every plot point is motivated by men’s lust for gold. And lust is the word. These guys are greedy and kind of debauched and their pursuit for gold. In real life, New Zealand’s West Coast gold rush happened on the West Coast of the South Island from around 1864 to 1867. In 1864, two Māori found gold near the Taramakau River. By the end of that year, so by the end of 1864, there were 1800 prospectors on the West Coast. But two years later, the town of Hokitika was the most populous settlement in New Zealand, and there were 25,000 people there.
Melissa: So in two years, they went from 1800 to 25,000. It’s worth noting there were more than one hundred pubs at that point too.
David: That’s the same story everywhere there’s been a gold rush.
Melissa: Yes, yeah. It’s the wild, wild west. Yeah. There’s greed and lots of men and loose women and booze and a competition.
David: And a very few people make money. And one of the guys who’s making money selling shovels.
Melissa: Yes. So that’s the backdrop for everything that happens in the story. On to the story; We start out with two newlyweds, Joseph and Harriet Blackstone. They emigrate from England to New Zealand along with Joseph’s mother, and they settle near Christchurch, which is on the east coast of the South Island. Now, in some books, this would be very optimistic and exciting. They’re emigrating to a new land, new opportunity. But it becomes clear that all three characters who are now basically stuck with just each other — and have not really moved towards something new and good. They’re all fleeing from things in their past. And this is slowly revealed.
Melissa: Joseph builds their house in really the wrong place. He doesn’t listen to the people who are trying to help him, and he builds their house on top of a brutal, windy hill that will have a view instead of in the valley where it will be protected from nature. They set up a farm, and they’re trying to make a life in this really beautiful but very bleak, isolated, challenging landscape. They’re out in the middle of nowhere outside of Christchurch. And then one day, Joseph finds gold in a creek bed, and he keeps it a secret. He immediately becomes obsessed with the riches he thinks are waiting for him.
David: From his fiance he keeps it a secret?
Melissa: He keeps it a secret from everyone. It reminded me a little bit of Golem with the ring in The Lord of the Rings. He just instantly becomes covetous and secretive and duplicitous. And he doesn’t trust anyone. He’s a little paranoid. So he just decides to ditch, and he goes off and joins the gold rush. Meanwhile, Harriet is back at the homestead, trying to make a farm happen. And the story moves back and forth between their two experiences. And they both have enormous adventures, which I will not spoil here. But it is very dramatic and really emotionally challenging.
Melissa: And some of it for them is life threatening. This is a serious landscape that they find themselves in.
David: Yeah, it’s a wilderness adventure.
Melissa: Yes. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that Joseph is really not a good man. You do not come out of this story liking Joseph in any way. It’s a really interesting reading experience because even though, ultimately, this is his wife Harriet’s story, the way the story is told is much more like an ensemble cast. So we do spend equal amounts of time with the two of them. And the time spent with Joseph is not entirely pleasant.
Melissa: It’s hard to feel compassion towards Joseph, even though I think Rose Tramaine, the author, does as good a job as she can to make him a somewhat sympathetic character.
Melissa: You understand why he’s behaving the way he does, but you really don’t like it. In contrast, Harriet is really a tough cookie. She’s smart, she’s very patient. She’s very determined to make a go of the farm, and she has a really kind of a ‘get it done’ kind of personality. But is interesting for me, because I don’t know that you actually like her all that much either. I admired her. I admired her grit and her determination. But she’s not like a spunky heroine with moxie. Yeah, it was a very interesting reading experience for me.
David: Yeah. You’d normally like a book with a character that you can like. And yet both of these characters are unlikable.
Melissa: It’s not so much that Harriet is unlikable. It’s just she’s, I guess, to Rose Tremain’s credit, she feels like a real person. She’s complex. She’s not just this figure who’s going to succeed. There is a lot of plot in this book, but is not overly long. It’s only 369 pages. But these characters go through some stuff. A lot happens. And even though the focus is on the action, I feel like the story is really about resilience and the quest for freedom. And for Joseph, that freedom is represented by the gold and for Harriet, that freedom is represented by her independence. And those two things are in really interesting conflict with each other throughout the story. If you enjoy this novel, Rose Tremain has written a bunch of other historical novels. She is much beloved. In 2002, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
David: Wow. I didn’t know that was a title you could have.
Melissa: That is an amazing title that you can have. It’s a British order of chivalry that rewards accomplishments in the arts and sciences.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: That is The Colour by Rose Tremain.
David: My first book is Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Melissa: I’m in. That’s all I need to know.
David: By Christina Thompson. It is a non-fiction book. There are two stories; they’re told simultaneously. The first story is the collision between two cultures, Western Europe and the Māori. The title are the words that were spoken to Captain Cook when he attempted in the 1700s to land his ship Endeavour on New Zealand. The Māori told him, ‘Come onshore, and we will kill and eat you all.’
David: The second story, the story that kept me coming back to the book is the author’s story. So in 1990-something, Christina Thomson left the US and went to work in Australia to work on her doctorate. She’s from outside Boston from a family that sort of seems to routinely get doctorates. She’s interested in studying Australian literature. Her brother teases her and says, ‘Well, that shouldn’t take too long.’
Melissa: So rude!
David: For a holiday, she takes a week, and she goes to New Zealand because she’s in that part of the world. She ends up at a locals’ bar at pretty much the middle of nowhere. And she starts up a conversation with a young Māori man. His name is Seven, is the seventh born in a family of 10. A fight, breaks out between one of the Māori and a man of European descent at the bar. She thinks it’s a fight about one thing, but it’s not as simple as she thinks, and he explains it to her. And then they go on to have an evening that changes both of their lives forever. There’s a picture of these two that we’ll post at the time they met, and it’s adorable. She is small and pale and has very blond, very straight hair and sort of this hip ’90s sensibility. And he is none of those things. He is big and dark and he has this mane of dark curls and he’s dressed in leather and blue jeans.
Melissa: She goes back to Australia and eventually convinces him to come visit and he stays and they elope a year later. There’s a really nice story about how they keep their marriage a secret for a while except from his grandmother.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really cute.
David: Christina and Seven grow up together and they have a family and she writes this book. So, the book is telling these two stories together: the story of the author’s relationship to her husband Seven, and the story of the Europeans meeting the Māori people.
David: We’re brought along as she meets Seven’s family, and she talks about how awkward that all is. We get a good look at the inside of a Māori home and Seven’s big, loud family and how Thompson tries to find her rhythm there and we’re brought along as the Europeans encountered the Māori and buy their land rights and bring rats and pestilence and poverty and do all the things the Europeans did in the 18th and 19th centuries. To her credit, Thompson tries to balance the story. She writes, ‘It’s easy to be critical of pioneers as easy as it was 100 years ago to worship them. Where once we saw their bravery, their self-sacrifice, their intrepid spirit, we now see only their greed, their brutality, their cunning manipulation of the truth. But a frontier is not that simple. It is less like a line than a zone of shadow, an area of give and take. It evolves and changes, and the people who are in it change how they think and what they say and what they mean when they say it.’
David: She explains a lot about the Māori culture: the tattoos and the cannibalism and the collection of heads, as well as their generosity and joviality and their strong sense of community and family. And, as you might expect from a woman who is now the editor of The Harvard Review, the writing is solid.
Melissa: I was going to say when you finished reading that quote, ‘I would like to be friends with her.’ She sounds compassionate and smart. And I’ve seen her photo and she looks fun. That is a winning combination.
David: She seems awesome. The book is a good read, particularly if you’re interested in the history of New Zealand and the world of the Māori. Then, then and now. It’s particularly interesting because as she’s describing the Māori and the Europeans and the Europeans sort of destroying them Māori culture to the best of their ability, you’re also finding out about their relationship. It presents this picture of, ‘Well, it wasn’t all bad.’ You know, there is there is room for us to get along.
Melissa: I feel like New Zealand has has at least tried to do a good job in the recent past of reconciling that, right? And making sure that the modern New Zealand culture represents both. Both the kind of colonial side and the indigenous Māori side. It’s not an easy thing to do at all.
David: She’s since written another book. It’s called Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. If you’re interested in who first inhabited the islands of the remote Pacific and where they came from and how they got there, because that is a crazy story.
Melissa: The Pacific is a vast expanse of nothingness.
David: And the idea that people could use the technology of 700 years ago, get in a canoe with 19 of their friends, and then find an island across the Pacific is insane. And she tells that story in her second book.
But this book: also awesome. It’s Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All by Christina Thompson. She explains that line really well in the book of, basically, being the Māori, introducing a point where arbitration can begin.
David: We’re not saying we will —
Melissa: My next recommendation is The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. This is a very enchanting novella of magical realism, and it takes place in the Māori village of Whangara, which is on the North Island. This story is based on the Māori Whale Rider mythology. So it unfolds kind of like a fairy tale. And there are two alternating points of view. One is our heroine’s uncle who is telling us the story. So he’s narrating in the first person. And the other is scenes from the life of an ancient whale.
Melissa: And we get to go inside the mind of these peaceful, powerful, ancient creatures. It is very magical. And the narration of the whale parts is, as you might expect, not totally linear and tethered to a rational world. So it feels very magical and otherworldly.
David: I mean, just based on that, I’m in.
Melissa: It’s a really, really special book and it’s only about 150 pages so you can devour it in a setting. So, we meet a tribe that’s descended from Kahutian Te Rangi, who is the legendary Whale Rider with a capital W, a capital R. In every generation, a male heir inherits the title of chief, but there’s no male heir right now. And the elderly chief is getting desperate about finding his successor. The only descendent in the line of succession is a girl. Tradition has no use for a girl. This is where our heroine comes in, of course. Her name is Kahu. She’s eight years old, and she is a firecracker. Everyone keeps telling her that she’s a girl and she can’t do this and she can’t do that because she’s a girl, and she’s like, ‘La la la la la. I can’t hear you.’ She doesn’t care.
Melissa: She goes swimming and diving with older boys. She talks to whales. She reveres all the Māori traditions. And at the same time, she’s just naturally rebuffing them by living her life the way she wants to live it. And she’s eight years old. She’s awesome.
David: Yeah, she sounds great.
Melissa: I really like this for Strong Sense of Place because it takes such a deep look inside the Māori mythology and the reverence for the Earth and the sea. It is very beautiful. And at the same time, it’s also this kickass story of girl power because Kahu is really inspiring. There is no question in her mind that even though she’s just a little girl, she’s just as worthy as any man in the village.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: It’s very powerful to have an eight year old girl have that much self-possession. Another thing to love about this book, there is a glossary of Māori words at the back. I’m a sucker for any book that gives me a glossary. Add a map, too, totally into it. The author Witi Ihimaera is Māori, and he was the first Māori author to publish both a novel and a book of short stories. Since 1972, he has written 16 novels and dozens of stories. He kind of started his career as a diplomat in the 1970s, he was an employee of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he held positions all over the world. And then in the 1990s, he became a professor at the University of Auckland. The book really has two parts, and the two of them go together really well. There’s the fictional story at the beginning, and then there’s also his author notes, which are kind of the non-fiction story of how he came to write the novel. And those two things taken together are really, really powerful.
Melissa: I feel like this is a case where the author notes are almost as important as the story itself because it gives it so much context. He was inspired to write about the Whale Rider by a real sculpture that sits on top of a Māori meetinghouse whangara. When he was 12, he was fascinated by the mythology of the Whale Rider and this sculpture, and he would actually ride his bike 27 kilometres from his house to Whangara as often as he could to eat his lunch and look at the sculpture and think about the whale rider. He said, ‘Do you kick a whale like a horse to make it go? How do you stay on a whale when it dives? Don’t whales dive miles deep? How do you keep your breath for so long? How did you speak to your whale? Did you know whale talk maybe will speak Māori?’
Melissa: So these thoughts are going through this little boy’s mind and then as an adult, he did research into all of the different strands of the Whale Rider myth and he added his own interpretation to the mix. And this book is the result of his kind of perspective on what the Whale Rider myth could be. This novel was a huge success. People have probably heard of the movie. It was made into a film in 2002, and it won a bunch of awards. And the actress who played Kahu was only 13. Her name is Keisha Castle Hughes, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress that made her the youngest actress ever nominated for the award at the time.
David: Kind of echoes the movie.
Melissa: It does indeed. That is the Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera.
David: My next book is Can You Tolerate This? by Ashley Young. This is a collection of essays by a woman who grew up in a small town in New Zealand. They’re mostly personal, but her writing is so strong that even when they’re not personal, you still hear her voice. She’s still with you. Her character is drawn through this entire book. She is funny and self-effacing and insecure at the same time that her writing is just beautiful and insightful. So much so that you’re kind of, like, ‘Get a grip, lady. You’re doing great. Keep going.’ She’s really observant and she seems to be outwardly focused, or at least she’s telling you the outside detail to indicate the inside detail, which is a nice writing trick. Ashley Young was born and brought up in Te Kuiti. Five thousand people live in Te Kuiti . As you ride into town, there’s the sign that says, ‘Welcome to Te Kuiti, sheep shearing capital of the world.’
Melissa: Right on. That’s very New Zealand-y.
David: I suspect that it’s contested. Te Kuiti hosts the annual New Zealand National Sheep Shearing Championships we mentioned earlier and has for the last 35 years. The title Can You Tolerate This?’ is from an essay about Young’s chiropractor. He asks her that as he’s poking around and prodding and straightening her spine. But it fits really well over the whole collection as a whole. The book almost feels like a coming-of-age story where we’re not really talking about the girl who’s coming of age, but really that’s also all we’re talking about. _Can You Tolerate This? seems to be her search for things that make life worth living?
Melissa: It sounds a little melancholy. Would you say that that is accurate?
David: I would say it has a rich emotional palette, is what I would say. She writes about her friends and her family and her work and art and the lives of heroes and her villains. She imagines walking down the street, holding hands with Paul McCartney, that kind of thing. The book can serve as a sort of a meditation of what makes life on Earth tolerable for a woman in New Zealand. Her writing is just lovely. I’m going to read you a paragraph, but there’s a little set up. She used to be the Acting Director of a museum. It’s a really small museum. The museum was the home of a famous New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield.
Melissa: Oh, I read a short story by Katherine Mansfield. Her short stories tend to address everyday life and a look at society. I considered talking about her book for the show, and it didn’t have enough New Zealand in it to really have a strong sense of New Zealand. But the writing was very beautiful.
David: Yes, exactly that. Katherine Mansfield grew up in New Zealand and particularly the home where Ashley Young was the director for a bit. But she left as soon as she could and she went to London and she had the rest of her life in London. Young describes the museum as, ‘a house in which you could step inside and imagine yourself to be a child in another century,’ which sounds about right.
David: In the essay, she has quit and she’s leaving the museum for the last time. And she writes, ‘I walked all the way back down the driveway, which was darkening. Now I felt enormously relieved to be free. I berated myself, as I had so many times over the past months at the birth place. I should have treasured this experience. I should have let it soak in to me freely and without complaint. I should have risen above even Mansfield herself, ‘horrid little piggy house’, she had said about the place, remembering it much later from London. Well, I would miss having a place to go each day instead of working in the little study at my suburban flat, but that was all I would miss: a place to go. And that, it seemed to me, was disrespectful, even shameful. ‘What a fantastic job for a writer people had said to me,’ to sit in Katherine Mansfield’s house all day and I agreed it was. I didn’t say that I was the wrong writer to be sitting in it.’
David: In some of these essays, the existence of the essay itself becomes important to the story. For instance, she starts out one of her essays describing a conversation with her brother, where she tells him that she’s going to write about the punk music scene in her hometown. But then the essay itself goes on to be a loving portrait of her brother. The subtext for me there was that I went looking for the coolest thing I could find in my teen years, and I found my brother.
Melissa: Aw, that’s really nice.
David: In another essay, she writes about what would happen if she were writing the essay is fiction and then what really happened. And the delta is both illuminating and heartbreaking. I really enjoyed this book. If you like essays or you just want to meet a New Zealander who you’d like to be friends with. I highly recommend Can You Tolerate This? by Ashley Young.
Melissa: My final recommendation is The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry. This is a really fun fantasy novel and this is the exact kind of fantasy I love. It’s set in our world, but it has a magical underbelly. There are two important things to know about this novel. It’s set in modern-day Wellington, and it’s all about books and book love and fictional characters who find their way into our world.
David: I love everything about this.
Melissa: First, Wellington. Wellington is a really fun setting because it’s different than anything else we’ve talked about so far today. It is the capital of New Zealand and it is on the North Island, but the southernmost point of the North Island. It has beaches and a working harbour. There are hills that surround the harbour where there are colorful houses and strong winds blow through the town off of the Cook Strait. So its nickname is Windy Wellington. That’s all real. That’s not made up from the book. Yeah. So, the set-up: We meet Charley and his older brother Rob. And Charley has magical powers. He can bring characters from books into the real world.
Melissa: This is a skill he’s had since he was a baby. Meanwhile, his brother Rob is totally normal.
David: Do you know many versions of Spider-Man there would be walking around if I could do that?
Melissa: I’d be having tea with Jane Eyre this afternoon.
David: So many Jane Eyres would show up!
Melissa: Ok, so his brother Rob, meanwhile, could not be more normal. He’s a lawyer. He has a little house, he has a fiancee and the two of them have always been really close. And their relationship is super fraught because Charley’s magical powers have always made him really special. And that made Rob, his normal brother, feel both very protective of Charley and also a little bit envious and resentful. Charley’s gift is also a little bit of a problem sometimes, and that means he sucks up all of the energy of the family.
Melissa: Charley’s kind of overt specialness makes Rob feel like he is boring and average. At the same time, Charley is, like, ‘I don’t need you to take care of me all the time.’ And Rob resents having to take care of Charley, but also seems unable to stop doing it.
David: So it sounds like a pretty standard family dynamic.
Melissa: Yes, there is definitely sibling rivalry set up here. So as an adult, Charley has been trying to avoid conjuring characters into the real world. He understands it’s potentially very problematic, and he’s been trying not to do it.
David: How conscious is he of the process of bringing a fictional character into the world?
Melissa: It’s an overt act. He knows what he needs to do to make it happen. But one day a character slips out of his control, which has not happened before, and he learns that there’s a Victorian-era street in Wellington that’s hidden from normal people. And this is where the big adventure kind of takes off. I don’t want to say too much more about it because this book is both very plot-driven and very character-drive., so I can’t say too much more about what happens in the plot without taking away some of the fun, but there’s a set up.
David: OK, so are there other magical people in this world or is he the only one who can do this trick?
Melissa: I cannot divulge that information.
David: Taking the fifth.
Melissa: So this novel is really a love letter to literature and what the reader brings to a story. And I thought that point was really, really interesting. When Charley reads a character into the world, it’s based on the character the author has created, but it also incorporates his interpretation, his experience of that character. And that makes them a little bit unpredictable because on the page, what they do is completely controlled by the person who created them. But when he brings them into the world, they’re the author’s version plus what he thinks of them, and they become much more like real people and real people cannot be controlled.
Melissa: The author H.G. Parry does a really good job of giving you context for the literary characters that Charley is interacting with. So even if you haven’t read the books, you understand who these characters are and what their stories are. So if you haven’t read a lot of Victorian literature, you could still 100-percent enjoy this novel. And we get to meet Dorian Gray, Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, characters from David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights makes an appearance is as surly as you would expect. And all that sounds very whimsical and quirky, right? It’s a little bit like the novels of Jasper Fforde, like The Eyre Affair where literary characters are real people in the world, but this is much darker and much more suspenseful.
Melissa: The stakes feel really high for Charley and Rob and the other people in Wellington, and that really stood out to me when I was reading it because it is very fun. But there is a shadow side to everything that’s happening because the battle that’s going on between the real people and the fictional characters is asking big, big questions like ‘What do we owe to each other?’ And ‘Is protecting someone else an act of love or condescension?’ And ‘What rights do fictional characters have in the world?’ If the world doesn’t acknowledge their existence, do they exist? So it felt like it kind of stretched over into being relevant to any marginalized person in the world and how we protect them and how we respect their rights. So there’s a lot going on. It works on multiple levels. So you can read it as a big, brash adventure story that fulfills that fantasy of spending time with fictional characters that you love. But it’s also quite an emotional look at family and responsibility and self identity.
David: It sounds really good.
Melissa: It was really good.
David: So it’s a weighty, dense fantasy.
Melissa: Yes. And I love it for a Strong Sense of Placebecause it has two very vivid settings. The descriptions of Wellington are very detailed. You can Google the places that are mentioned in the book. That was really fun because there are action scenes that take place on the waterfront and in buildings on a particular street. So I could look at a photo of the street and visualize where that action was taking place. Then there’s The Street, which is like a time machine to the Victorian era, as described by Charles Dickens. And that’s a very vivid setting, too. And that is where the fictional characters are living in the underbelly of Wellington. So if you want to explore Wellington and get lost in the world of books, this is the novel to do that. That is The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry.
David: Those are five books we love set in magical New Zealand. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Working on the show notes is one of my favorite things that I do for every episode of our podcast because I go crazy and just dump the fun stuff I found in our research in there. So there are lots of videos, links to articles, photographs. If you have that open while you’re listening to the show, you can see the things we’re talking about while we’re talking about them,
David: Or if you’re, say, at work and you need a 15 minute trip to New Zealand, hit the show notes and take a look. They are uniformly enchanting. One of the best things we do. Can you tell us about the blog post you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: Over the next two weeks, we will be rolling out two recipes in Food+Fiction. One has some nutritional value and is very delicious, and the other one is just straight up fun junk food. I’m click baiting you. I’m not telling you what they are. You’re going to have to look at the website.
Melissa: I’ve also compiled a list of really awesome Instagram accounts that will instantly transport you to New Zealand, including really fun Māori content, cityscapes, and animal sanctuaries. Beautiful eye candy. And I’m really excited about this post. There’s an author named Ngaio Marsh, who is the New Zealand Agatha Christie. I’ve written just a brief bio of her and a recommendation for one of her books that is set in New Zealand. So Golden Age mystery set in the spa country of New Zealand. That’s all coming up over the next two weeks on the website.
David: Awesome. Thanks for listening to Strong Sense of Place. We are coming up on the end of 2020. Good riddance. But we will be retiring our 2020 Reading Atlas. If you want the twenty twenty reading Atlas, which is a lovely piece of work that includes —
Melissa: Around the world in 14 books, audio books with a strong sense of place and our favorite book series with a strong sense of place, plus really, really gorgeous travel photos on every page.
David: Yeah, it’s just solid reading advice. That’s what you get there. You get a PDF with some solid reading advice. If you haven’t got it already, you will want to come to our site and sign up for our newsletter, and you will get a link that will allow you to download that. I feel like that undersells our newsletter because the newsletter itself is awesome. It’s really great. I look forward to seeing it every Friday. Mel writes it —
Melissa: He never knows what I’m going to write about, so it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to everyone else.
David: It’s true. I’m just sitting there —
Melissa: Sometimes it’s a surprise to me, too, if I’m being totally honest.
David: I’m sitting there on Friday morning and I get a nice email from my sweetie being, like, ‘Hey, look at these things.’
Melissa: If there’s a topic you would like me to write about in the newsletter related to travel or reading, feel free to send me your idea.
David: Yeah, drop a line. So, Mel, what are we covering in our next episode?
Melissa: Our next episode is a giant celebration of candy, costumes and creepy things because we’re taking a little break from geographical destinations to celebrate Halloween.
David: Oh, I love Halloween.
Melissa: I do too.
David: We will talk to you then. Thanks for listening.
Top image courtesy of Aaron Sebastian.
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