Eleanor Catton’s Illuminating Take on New Zealand, and It’s Culture of Anti-Intellectualism

Eleanor Catton faces a backlash from small town NZ.

Eleanor Catton faces a backlash from small town NZ.

Eleanor Catton is a New Zealand author, she won the Man Booker 2013 award for The Luminaires. The book was described as

an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.

The NZ MSM is at the moment abuzz with comments she made about her country in an interview during the  Jaipur Literary Festival.

Prime Minister John Key was too quick for comment in rebutting Catton’s remarks, even though they weren’t aimed at him specifically. That he chose to criticize Catton, while subtly promoting his position as Prime Minister, simply enforces what she said in other parts of her interview. But other Kiwis were much, much worse… Ungrateful Whore, Traitor Listen to what mainstream media journalist,  RadioLive host, Sean Plunkett, had to say about Catton’s remarks. Apologies for his faltering speech and heavy accent, he’s not the brightest of people AUDIO FILE.

Plunkett criticised her on his morning radio show, saying: “You are bagging all of us. “I don’t see you as an ambassador for our country, I see you as a traitor.” He said she was an “ungrateful hua” – a Maori slang word. The comments were swiftly condemned on social media, amid confusion about what Plunket had said. “Did Sean Plunket just call Eleanor Catton an “ungrateful whore”? TV3 reporter David Farrier wrote in a series of tweets…” source

Definition of “hua” from “The Godzone Dictionary: Of Favourite New Zealand Words and Phrases”  By Max Cryer

Ungrateful hua

Ungrateful hua

Another definition of hua: https://twitter.com/Te_Taipo/status/560226367946506240   Catton was born in Canada and has also lived in Britain, she now lives in Auckland.

Here’s some of what Eleanor Catton said, from the Indian site LiveMint.com.

New Zealand has the misfortune in not having a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens. There is a lot of embarassment, a lot of discrediting that goes on in terms of the local writers. I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example. Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren’t discovered, which I’m hoping will change. The matter of having this kind of cultural embarrassment about your place in the world, we really need to actively resist that and be brave. I don’t think good literature can come about without bravery. The last thing you want is a whole country of embarrassed writers slinking around.The good side of New Zealand is that there isn’t all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone’s backstabbing each other. You kind of need a snobbery for those kinds of things to happen. But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestoes from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we have more people being brave in that way. We have this strange cultural phenomenon called “tall poppy syndrome”; if you stand out, you will be cut down. One example is that the New Zealand Book Award that follows the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, in the year The Luminaries won it, there was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate it here, we’re going to give the award to somebody else. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you. Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal. So many people have talked in the media and me directly in ways of 2013 being the year that New Zealand won the Man Booker Prize. It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it. I know I shouldn’t complain too much—I’m in such an extraordinary position—but at the same time I feel that in the last year I’ve really struggled with my identity as a New Zealand writer. I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world. It’s sort of a complicated position to be in. At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (I dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care 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.

This is one of the comments that was left on LiveMint.com

Adrian Ciungan and of course the ultimate “shallow man” Prime Minister John Key immediately puffs his chest and demands the “respect” that he feels should be accorded himself for destroying most of the traditional ethics and ideals of New Zealand. It must hurt Mr Key to be struck with the realisation that historians will remember him as a hollow philistine, but such is the reality

Culture of Anti-Intellectualism in New Zealand – Wikipedia This has recently been removed from Wikipedia’s Culture of New Zealand page (which is currently in dispute). It was there for many years before it was censored.

Unlike many European countries, New Zealanders do not have a particularly high regard for intellectual activity, particularly if it is more theoretical than practical.
This is linked with the idea of ‘kiwi ingenuity’ (see above), which supposes that all problems are better solved by seeing what works than by applying a theory. Ian Taylor, head of Auckland’s Sheffield executive recruitment company, said “We’re a very anti-intellectual society, and we still have that No.8 wire thing.”
This distrust of theory manifested itself in social policy of the early and mid twentieth century, which historian Michael Bassett described as ‘socialism without doctrines’: although the policies of the First Labour Government of New Zealand|first Labour and other governments pursued traditionally socialist goals, they were not based on any coherent theory. (Bassett, Michael (1998), ”The state in New Zealand, 1840–1984: Socialism without Doctrines?”).
A major break with this tradition came in the 1980s when the Fourth Labour Government of New Zealand and Fourth National Government of New Zealand governments enacted a series of reforms based on free market ideology. This reinforced many New Zealanders’ distrust of intellectual theory, as many consider that the reforms increased poverty and inequality in New Zealand.
Despite the prevailing mood of anti-intellectualism, New Zealand has reasonably high rates of participation in tertiary education and has produced a number of internationally renowned scholars and scientists, including Ernest Rutherford, J.G.A. Pocock and Alan MacDiarmid. It should be noted that both Rutherford and Pocock spent most of their professional lives in Britain. For many years this was a common occurrence, and a consequence both of New Zealanders’ attitudes and the low population which made it hard to support major research.