Where to from here? Contemporary New Zealand women's fiction.
Abstract: Women fiction writers established their dominance in New Zealand literature in the 1980s. Their inclusion into mainstream literature has been partially attributed to the feminist movement's campaign to have them equally represented with male authors. The establishment of the New Women's Press in 1982 has also legitimized women fiction writers in the field. In addition, women writers were given space in mainstream publications such as the Metro magazine.
Subject: Women authors (Evaluation)
Fiction (Authorship)
Author: Bergmann, Laurel
Pub Date: 10/01/1994
Publication: Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1994 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198
Issue: Date: Oct, 1994 Source Volume: v20 Source Issue: n2
Accession Number: 16490495
Full Text: The eighties has been the decade of women's fiction in New Zealand. It is true that this period has also seen an "explosion" of local literary activity in general, and especially of local publishing, whose impact has only been approached by the "germinal period" of the institutionalisation of New Zealand literature during the forties. During the eighties, however, women writers were for the first time able to compete on equal terms in this new flurry of literary activity. Women took advantage of the empowering force of the "second wave" feminist movement, with renewed confidence in the standpoints from which they wrote, and in their collective ability to take on the entrenched institutions that had orchestrated their exclusion.

Novels like Sue McAuley's Other Halves (1982) established that there was a local market for women's writing. The greatest impetus, however, came from the phenomenon of Keri Hulme's the bone people. After initial difficulties finding a publisher, this novel was taken up by a local, "amateur" collective (Spiral), and became an overnight success in New Zealand. With the award of the Booker prize the following year, this success extended to the international scene, and the bone people was launched as a legend. The significance of this legend was threefold: it established that small local publishing could take on the "big league"; that women, and more specifically, Maori women, could write novels that even the mainstream considered superb; and that they could be commodified as "hot property," as much because as in spite of their politically challenging material.

The establishment of the New Women's Press in 1982 was an important part of the process of legitimation of women fiction writers. Though it did not take long for known women writers to be taken up by the newly-established local branches of multinationals (especially by Penguin), New Women's Press remained vital in providing opportunities to new writers, most particularly through a series of anthologies(1) that included writing by unknowns along with that of established authors. It was also instrumental in opening the field of women's work to other audiences and genres. Women writing for children and young adults soon came to dominate the field locally, and to establish an international readership. Another important area of access for women's writing was the development of university presses, Victoria University Press dominating the field.

Essential to this development was government patronage through the literature board of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. With a history similar to that of its counterpart in Australia, the literature board received enhanced finance during the eighties, and was able to fund both more writers and more publishing. While it does not seem to have had a policy of "equal access" written into its constitution, in practice it was more even-handed than other cultural institutions - especially in the earlier period, when many of these were all but closed to women. Particularly vital was its assistance to small, independent publishers, including the New Women's Press, which depended to a very great degree on publishing grants. It is difficult to find a woman's text published in this period that does not bear the inscription: "Published with the assistance of the Literature Programme of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand."

It has taken somewhat longer for women's writing to gain a place in the New Zealand academy, where New Zealand writing has not gained the secure foothold that Australian literature has in Australian English departments. Similarly, and as a corollary, little cognisance was taken of the new writing in literary journals;(2) and women writers have not been equally represented in the receipt of literary awards until more recently. This experience has been echoed in Australia, though change began to manifest itself here a little earlier.

Two essential links in the distribution of women's writing have been the Women's Book Festival, under the auspices (until recently) of Penny Hanson, and Carol Beu's Women's Book Shop. The festival's programme, and especially its list of the Top Twenty women's books of the year (with a solid core of local work), has done much to promote women's writing. Various bookshops over the period have issued mailing lists to all parts of New Zealand, both promoting and making available women's works.

If the eighties could be characterised as the decade of women writers, as in Australia, it was not until the end of the eighties, even the beginning of the nineties, that a pattern began to emerge and individual writers might be said to have developed a solid reputation. A "definitive" overview such as Gillian Whitlock's account of Australian women writers, Eight Voices of the Eighties,(3) would not have been possible until very recently. Most of the writers Whitlock looks at had begun writing in the seventies or even earlier, and had built up a substantial body of work by the mid-eighties. In New Zealand, this would only have been true of Janet Frame, whose reputation was international, but whose work was still met with a degree of bemusement at home. Keri Hulme's prestige rested on a single novel (as it still does, to a large extent).(4) Margaret Sutherland more truly belongs to an earlier period. Marilyn Duckworth began writing in the sixties, published nothing in the seventies, followed by a considerable body of fiction in the eighties. Yet even in her case, the bulk of the work has been published since the mid-eighties. (Duckworth has had a mixed reception, but it is interesting that her earlier works, but not those of any other New Zealand women novelists, are being republished under Oxford University Press's New Zealand Classics series.) Patricia Grace began writing in the seventies; but again her reputation was not fully established until the late eighties. Fiona Kidman had written her (controversial)(5) A Breed of Women in the seventies and two further novels in the early eighties. Her reputation, however, was not established until The Book of Secrets (1987) and the work which followed it. Most of the writers widely known today did not publish until the eighties, even the late eighties. McCauley, one of the earliest of this new generation, published her first novel in 1982. Rachel McAlpine did not turn to fiction until 1986, and even now is better known as a poet, as is Elizabeth Smither. Lauris Edmond, one of New Zealand's foremost poets, has become widely-known as a prose writer through her autobiographies, the first of which was not published until 1989. Yvonne Du Fresne has had four works published in the eighties, and has hardly received the attention she deserves, possibly because of her "multicultural" perspective. (She has, however, been given more acknowledgment than her predecessor, Amelia Batistich, who was widely ignored until recently.)(6) Du Fresne's niece, Rosie Scott, published her first novel, Glory Days, in 1988; Shonagh Koea's first book of short stories was published in 1987. Barbara Anderson is largely a writer of the nineties. Other writers have come and gone before they established a reputation. Lisa Greenwood, for instance, published two substantial novels (1986 and 1990), but nothing since. Similarly with Stephanie Dowrick, who produced Running Backward Over Sand in 1985, but has subsequently come to Australia (where she is engaged in publishing) and turned to non-fiction. Other than those mentioned, the most promising writers have emerged in the nineties, among them Beryl Fletcher, Sheridan Keith, Anne Kennedy, Fiona Farrell, Christine Johnson, Stephanie Johnson, Judith White, Elizabeth Knox, and Colleen Reilly. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is an important new Maori writer. Her work is unusual in that her theoretical concerns embrace Maori, feminist, and lesbian politics. In Mann Wahine Maori, she has drawn together a series of essays and speeches that trace her central involvement in these movements since the early 1970s,'and collectively define her current position. Renee, the notable Maori playwright, has also produced volumes of fiction in the nineties. Cathie Dunsford, whose first novel, Cowrie, came out recently, should be mentioned as a writer of Polynesian descent. She is also a literary agent and editor of several anthologies.(7)

Can a pattern be discerned in this flush growth of writing? Its greatest hallmark is diversity - of Style, subject matter, approach, and form. Many more speaking positions are now available. Sexuality has become a permissible (perhaps even obligatory) subject, and has been addressed with sensitivity but deep sensuality, particularly by Scott, Keith and, from a lesbian perspective, by Te Awekotuku, Dunsford, (and earlier) by Frances Cherry and others. Te Awekotuku's short story collection, Tahurio is a verbally rich and vibrant study of what it means to be Maori and lesbian.

Some individual names stand out, of course. Frame has achieved an assured international reputation over a number of decades. Hulme, too, on the enormous impact of her one novel. Kidman has slowly but steadily established herself as one of the foremost New Zealand writers, and is becoming known abroad. Grace is beginning to be highly esteemed, both at home and internationally. Fletcher won the Commonwealth New Writers Award with The Word Burners. Scott has probably had more critical attention in Australia (where she now lives) than in her own country, though her sales have been consistent. Anderson's work, like Koea's, has an assured market at home (she is one of the few writers who can be published without assistance).

While it is true that most New Zealand writers - male and female - still retain some form of psychological (or social) realism, there is much more experimentation in form and style. Frame, of course, had been using a version of metafiction for some time; elements of this creep into Christine Johnson' s work; anti Ann Kennedy's Musica Ficta is a full-blown example of the genre. Anne Marie Jagose's recent In Translation has some similarities, and might he seen as a significant new development. A number of writers - Hulme, Fletcher, Farrell, and McAlpine - have turned to magic realism with varying degrees of success? for Farrell and McAlpine (and for Fletcher in her forthcoming novel), magic realism combines with the science-fiction genre (a form Sandi Hall utilised in her 1982 The Godmothers). Yet even without the supernatural elements, Hulme's the bone people could hardly be described as conventional realism. With its insertion of poetry and song, impressionistic (even pointillistic) interior monologue, mythological framework, verbal play, and shifting point of view, it stretches the bounds of realism to breaking point. Grace, too, uses (Maori) mythical elements together with a limited narrator anti impressionistic style; and in her more recent novels, a dramatically shifting point of view. This latter strategy is employed by a nittuber of writers: Kidman, for instance, makes frequent use of it, and uses it to structure The Book of Secrets, which becomes almost metafictional in its self-reflexive use of the framing device of "the book of secrets," the grandmother's journal that links the past with the present and with the world outside the novel. A version of the journal form has also been used by Smither, Fletcher, and Koea. Sometimes generic boundaries are transgressed. Scott, for instance, uses elements of burlesque, melodrama, and romance. Nor is Kidman afraid to make use of melodrama, though she uses it sparingly. Koea's forte is her ironically hyperbolic mode. Irony is almost universal, employed in idiosyncratic ways. Frame uses both verbal and dramatic irony, ranging from the teasing to the tragic. It is the source of both her humour and her social critique, becoming almost the structuring element in The Carpathians. Grace's use of irony is both subtle and, usually, gentle. It is frequently her mode of introducing characters. Sometimes they condemn themselves out of their own mouths; at other times the irony comes through the innocent perceptions of the narrators of limited consciousness. Koea's irony is anything but subtle: she employs it in the service of her black humour. Keen, even wicked irony is the most appealing feature of Anderson's narration (the end of the love affair in All the Nice Girls is splendid).

Above all, the fiction of the late eighties and nineties represents a break with the past. Earlier women's fiction of the sixties and seventies was frequently marked by what I can only describe as an unhealthy claustrophobia, a response to the lack of options in women's lives of the time.(9) Duckworth's The Matchbox House (1960) is a typical example; Joy Cowley's Nest in a Falling Tree (1967) is another. The epigraph to Cowley's Man of Straw illuminates it best:

For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?

Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead water.

(Kahil Gibran, The Prophet)

Many works of the period are marked by this sense of "tortured good" seeking after tainted food. Frequently in semi-gothic mode, these novels feature an atmosphere of contamination threatening the naive protagonist. The latter is sometimes a child whose innocence is destroyed (usually involving some form of sexual initiation), sometimes a woman whose own thwarted desires become perverse. While not all fiction of the time can be characterised in this way, it appears to be a significant feature of the period,(10) extending its influence even on much of Frame's writing of the sixties anti seventies. Sylvia Ashton Warner escapes through black humour (foetuses in wine glasses, shattered brains messing up ceilings). Jean Watson seeks a way out for her protagonist (in Standing in the Rain) by sending her "on the road" with her lover. To some extent, this gothic mode has remained a feature of Duckworth's work; though in a much milder form. Only one of her novels breaks free with complete success: the wildly funny Disorderly Conduct. Even Kidman's early work is touched by it, especially Mandarin Summer. The women of The Book of Secrets are more physically constrained than the protagonists of her earlier novels, but psychically they refuse this confinement and retain their sense of worth.

By contrast, fiction of the late eighties and nineties is marked by freedom - even sprawl, at times - of form and content. The female protagonists may still be under threat - they may be "on the edge," as Scott(11) puts it - but they are feisty women who were not born yesterday. They fight back, or they run away. At worst, they may be killed, or choose death (though this is rare); but inside themselves they are not defeated.

We need to note that not all the aspects are favourable for New Zealand women's writing as the nineties roll on. The recession has hit even harder in New Zealand than in Australia, partly because of intransigent government policies. This has affected the production of writing at all levels, particularly women's. For instance, in her foreword to Spiral 7: A Collection of Lesbian Artists and Writers from Aotearoa/New Zealand, the chief editor, Heather McPherson, who had been centrally engaged in literary activity throughout the eighties, announced that she would not be taking on any more major work because of financial constraints. Feminist journals such as Broadsheet, which run reviews of women's writing and discuss the sort of issues women writers might take up, have found the going increasingly tough and their circulation has fallen as some women can no longer afford to subscribe. Literary journals in general have faced hard times, and few have survived. Those few are mainly conventional, and not particularly sympathetic to women's writing, especially if it is conceived as challenging. The Listener has been taken over by a conservative newspaper, and its interest in literature has waned. The most financially rewarding outlets for women's writing are now the "glossies," such as Metro which is only prepared to give space to a certain kind of (mainstream) women's writing. It is possible to speculate upon whether this has in any way influenced the turn to style, as opposed to content, that may be discerned among many of the newer (particularly short-story) writers of the nineties. Small presses have survived only by the intense dedication of their principals, and are now facing a new threat. Whitcoull's news chain has recently attained a virtual monopoly of the retail book trade (it has recently moved in on the Australian trade as well with its takeover of the Bookworld chain). It is now in a position to dictate to publishers in terms of what gets published, and expects huge discounts from publishers to the point where their viability is strained. Already New Women's Press appears to be defunct, Daphne Brasell has given up publishing fiction for the time being, and Bridget Williams says the future does not look hopeful. Whitcoull's aggressive discount selling is also a serious threat to independent bookstores. If the latter should close, it seems unlikely that Whitcoull's would be interested in promoting serious literature of any kind, particularly that which is challenging and is likely to have a smalls select market.

Given the population (not much more than that of Queensland), the achievement of women writers in New Zealand during the eighties and nineties has been nothing less than remarkable. It would be very much to be regretted if mechanisms of non-circulation and silencing were once again to be permitted to come into operation.

Laurel Bergmann


Anderson, Barbara. I Think We Should Go Into the Jungle. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1989.

-----. All the Nice Girls. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1993.

Batistich, A.E. An Olive Tree in Dalmatia. Auckland: Paul's Book Arcade, 1963. Cowley, Joy. Nest in a Falling Tree. London: Seeker, 1967.

-----. Man of Straw. Melbourne: Sun, 1973.

Du Fresne, Yvonne. The Book of Esther. Auekland: Longman Paul, 1982.

-----. Frederique. Auckland: Penguin, 1987.

Duckworth, Marilyn. The Matchbox House. London: Hutchinson, 1960.

-----. Disorderly Conduct. Auckland: Sceptre-Hodder, 1984.

-----. Married Alive. Auckland: Hodder, 1986.

-----. A Message from Harpo. Auckland: Sceptre-Hodder, 1989.

-----. Unlawful Entry. Auckland: Vintage-Random, 1992.

Dunsford, Cathie, ed. New Women's Fiction (1). Auckland: New Women's P, 1986.

-----. Cowrie. Melboume: Spinifex, 1994.

Edmond, Lauds. High Country Weather. Wellington: Port Nicholson-Allen, 1984.

-----. Red October. Wellington: Bridget Williams, 1989.

-----. Bonfires in the Rain. Wellington: Bridget Williams, 1991.

-----. The Quick World. Wellington: Bridget Williams, 1992.

Farrell, Fiona. The Skinny Louie Book. Wellington: Brasell, 1992.

Fletcher, Beryl. The Word Burners. Wellington: Brasell, 1991.

-----. The Iron Mouth. North Melbourne: Spinifex; Wellington: Brasell, 1993. Frame, Janet. To the Island. London: Women's Press, 1983.

-----. An Angel at My Table. London: Women's Press, 1984.

-----. The Envoy from Mirror City. London: Women's Press, 1985.

-----. The Carpathians. London: Bloomsbury, 1988.

Grace, Patricia. Mutuwhenua: the Moon Sleeps. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1978.

-----. The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1980.

-----. Potiki. Auckland: Penguin, 1986.

-----. Electric City and Other Stories. 1978. Auckland: Penguin, 1987.

-----. Selected Stories. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.

-----. Cousins. London: Women's P, 1992. Auckland: Penguin, 1992. Greenwood, Lisa. The Roundness of Eggs. Auckland: Random, 1986.

-----. Daylight Burning. Auckland: Random, 1990.

Hall, Sandi. The Godmothers. London: Women's P, 1982.

Hulme, Keri. the bone people. Spiral, 1983. London: Picador-Pan-Heinemann, 1984.

Johnson, Christine. Blessed Art Thou Among Women. Auckland: Heinemann-Reed, 1991.

Johnson, Stephanie. The Glass Whittler. Auckland: New Women's P, 1988.

Keith, Sheridan. Shallow Are tire Smiles at the Supermarket. Auckland: New Women's P, 1991.

-----. Animal Passions. Auckland: New Women's P, 1992.

Kennedy, Ann. Musica Ficta. St Lucia: U of Queensland P; Auckland: U of Auckland P, 1993.

Kidman, Fiona. A Breed of Women. Sydey: Harper, 1979.

-----. Mandarin Summer. Melbourne: Sun, 1982.

-----. Paddy's Puzzle. Auckland: Heinemann, 1983.

-----. The Book of Secrets. Auckland: Picador-Pan-Heinemann, 1987.

-----. Unsuitable Friends. Auckland: Picador-Pan-Heinemann, 1988.

-----. True Stars. Auckland: Vintage-Random, 1992.

-----. The Foreign Woman. Auckland: Vintage-Random, 1993.

Knox, Elizabeth. After Z-Hour. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1987.

-----. Paremata. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1989.

Koea, Shonagh. The Woman Who Never Went Home and Other Stories. Auckland: Penguin, 1987.

-----. The Grandiflora Tree. Ringwood, Vie.: Penguin, 1989.

-----. Staying Home and Being Rotten. Auckland: Vintage-Random, 1992.

McAlpine, Rachel. The Limits of Green. Auckland: Penguin, 1986.

-----. Farewell Speech. Auckland: Penguin, 1990.

McCauley, Sue. Other Halves. Auckland: Coronet-Hodder, 1982.

-----. Then Again. London: Hodder, 1986.

-----. Bad Music. Auckland: Hodder, 1990.

McLeod, Aorewa, ed. New Women's Fiction (2). Auckland: New Women's P, 1988.

McPherson, Heather, et al., eds. Spiral 7: A Collection of Lesbian Artists and Writers from Aotearoa/New Zealand. Dunedin, NZ: Spiral, 1992.

Reilly, Colleen. Jim's Elvis. Dunedin: McIndoe, 1992.

Renee. Willy Nilly. Auckland: Penguin, 1990.

-----. Daisy & Lily. Auckland: Penguin, 1993.

Scott, Rosie. Glory Days. Auckland: Penguin, 1988.

-----. Nights with Grace. Melbourne: Heinemann, 1990.

-----. Feral City. Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 1992.

-----. Lives on Fire. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1993.

-----. Queen of Love and Other Stories. Auckland: Penguin, 1989; St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1993.

Smither, Elizabeth. Brother Love, Sister Love. Auckland: Hodder, 1986.

Sutherland, Margaret. The Fledgling. London: Heinemann, 1974.

-----. The Love Contract. Auckland: Heinemann, 1976.

-----. The Fringe of Heaven. Wellington: Mallinson, 1984.

-----. Getting Through. Auckland: Heinemann, nd.

Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia. Mana Wahine Maori: Selected Writings on Maori Women's Art, Culture and Politics. Auckland: New Women's Press, 1991.

-----. Tahuri. Auckland: New Women's Press, 1989.

White, Judith. Visiting Ghosts. Auckland: Sceptre-Hodder, 1991.


1. Especially the series, New Women's Fiction.

2. Though currently there is a dearth of New Zealand literary journals, the opposite was true of the early eighties. While many of these were prepared to publish women's poetry, and to a lesser extent fiction, there has been little sustained critical response to this new writing (with the exception of Hulme, and some continuing attention to Frame). For the most part, what notice it received was in the form of reviews. Some critiques were published in overseas "post-colonial" journals.

3. Gillian Whitlock, Eight Voices of the Eighties: Stories, Journalism and Criticism by Australian Women Writers (St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1989).

4. The St James Press recently decided not to include Hulme in their Reference Guide to Short Fiction (1993). (Personal communication, Carole Ferrier).

5. A Breed of Women met with the same kind of reception accorded Helen Garner's Monkey Grip in Australia. It was read as autobiographical, and Kidman castigated for immorality. In this sense it was a flag-bearer for the women's movement.

6. See Nina Nola's title in this issue.

7. See interview with Beryl Fletcher this issue.

8. Fiona Farrell has been announced as the recipient of the prestigious Katherine Mansfield Fellowship for 1995, and will take up a year's residence in Menton, France, to continue her work on new fiction.

9. It should be noted, however, that this claustrophobia appears to have been a feature only of Pakeha culture. It has never been applicable to Grace's writing (though the central protagonist of Mutuwhenua the Moon Sleeps is in some such danger when she moves into Pakeha society, and has to be saved by purification rites).

10. This was not a common feature of women's writing in Australia, though certainly it applies to Barbara Hanrahan, and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Jolley. Perhaps the more casual, though more overt, patriarchy of Australia carried some advantages for women over the more polite, even puritan, New Zealand version?

11. Interview. Hecate XVIII,ii (1992): 37.
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