A conversation about NZ

28 January 2015

One of the golden rules about being a New Zealander is that you’re not allowed to criticise New Zealand. Even if you’re famous. Especially if you're famous.

Being outspoken about anything in New Zealand is often seen as quirky. Being outspoken about NZ itself always merits comment. Even after decades of the world wide web, international jet travel and the shrinking of the globe, we seem incapable of having a conversation about our nation without bristling at the first stanza. 

Which is why it’s been so weird reading Eleanor Catton’s comments about our homeland, and then so depressingly familiar reading other people’s reactions to them.

Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker prize last year for The Luminaries – a tome set in 19th Century New Zealand goldfields. I haven’t read it, because, well, I don’t read much fiction. But people I respect quite admire it. By all accounts, it’s a substantial contribution to New Zealand and global literature. I couldn't comment on that but I will say that in every media piece I've read about her, I've been impressed with her intellect and independent spirit.

And I kind of agree with her when she says New Zealand is dominated by “these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture” or that the National government is “about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

Catton made her comments at a literary festival in India. It seems they were made off the cuff and not with the direct intention of creating controversy. They’re something she has obviously thought about in some depth before, and for whatever reason decided to articulate at that moment.

She also had some thoughts about New Zealand as a whole – that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything and that we have a cultural embarrassment about our place in the world.

All of this seems rather innocuous – certainly amongst the grander debates on nationality occurring in France or the US following the violence in their urban areas over the last few months – but it makes New Zealanders stand up and take notice.

I've written about NZ’s brand of nationalism quite a bit before. We’re an odd country, and a sensitive one. I think being so isolated and comparatively small compared to almost every other place in the world makes us hyper aware what is said about us. When our stars – like Catton, Lorde or Flight of the Conchords – do well overseas we treat it as a personal achievement. And when others say something remotely negative about NZ we get really defensive.

The response to Catton’s comments – of a New Zealander being seen to discredit her own country –  are so depressing. She’s been labelled a traitor and ungrateful by radio hosts. Our Prime Minister was a little more tactful but just as patronising. He was “disappointed she doesn't have respect for the work that we do”.

That Catton’s remarks made news at all is indicative of the level of sensitivity around our national psyche. We rightly take pride in our stunning geography and international cultural achievements, our sporting successes and our egalitarian principles. But we’re reluctant to expose areas where we are not as successful and drawing attention to them has in this case seen Catton essentially accused of treason.

Calling New Zealand a small-minded country is a rather minor insult, but in many ways the reaction to it has affirmed her views. Nation-building, like writing, requires a self-criticism, intellectual honesty and curiosity that can often make others uncomfortable and you cannot have meaningful conversations about society without addressing areas where you think we are falling short. The alternative is ignorance – of endlessly repeating the same motifs over and over again as if international recognition and internal silence alone made us the greatest country on earth.

New Zealand has no tradition of mainstream radicalism. We shy away from grand proclamations or symbolism in favour of the status quo. A politician like 1996-era Tony Blair or 2008-era Barack Obama could never exist where I’m from. It is seen as uncouth to step too far way from the gentle middle ground and present any kind of passionate challenge to the establishment. I can’t think of a single speech from a mainstream New Zealand politician which tackles the fundamental issue of our existence: what it means to be a New Zealander.

Prime Minister John Key’s response to Catton perfectly represents the lack of inspiration our country is comfortable with: "I don't think that reflects what most New Zealanders perceive of the Government. If it was, they probably wouldn't have voted for us in such large numbers. …In the end, it's a free world and people will judge New Zealand on its merits.“ You can almost imagine him shrugging his shoulders and ending his statement with an unemphatic “Hmmmmm”.

I love NZ. I daydream about it a lot. I miss beaches and bush and my people a lot. But I can’t go back there yet and Catton sums up a lot of the reasons why. Living in London exposes me to so much that I would never have the chance to experience at home.

In Europe the concept of Nationalism and nationhood is far more evolved. History has forced populations to consider their place in the world and articulate what is important to them. I’ve been fascinated by the UK’s response to the Scottish Referendum, France’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and most recently Greece’s election of Syriza following years of financial abuse from the EU. These are loud, open conversations about what it means to be British or French or Greek. One of the recent stories that captured my attention has been the case of Tugce Albayrak in Germany -  a second-generation Turkish immigrant who lost her life protecting someone else from abuse. All of these narratives have taken on a greater symbolism and are critical to the evolving narrative of these societies. It’s something that New Zealand has never experienced. At least not recently.

In the 1980s When I was very young, and even before I was born, New Zealand had a series of nation-building debates surrounding Nuclear Weapons and the Springbok tour. Like the events currently percolating in Europe, they were thrust upon us and forced our country into conversations it hasn't had since. Symbolically, John Key refuses to comment on which side he was on during the Springbok Tour – sadly it’s probably because he sees the merit in causing as little fuss as possible.

The irony is that we celebrate someone like Catton for being one of our brightest minds when she wins the Man Booker prize, yet brand her a traitor when she says something that we disagree with. There is a logical disconnect here - one that can be solved by acknowledging that NZ is a pretty great country by global standards, but a country that could be even greater if we allow each other to be honest about what being a New Zealander means to us.