NZ Writers’ Friend

Tradition, Post-Colonialism and Diaspora in NZ Literature

— Janet Wilson Talks to NZ Graduates in London
By UK correspondent Tom Aitken

The guest speaker at a supper at NZ House recently was Professor Janet Wilson, a former Victoria university student who is now a leading academic in the UK.

The meeting was organised by the New Zealand University Graduates’ Association in the Penthouse in New Zealand House, high above Jubilee London.

Professor  Wilson  teaches Linguistics and English Language, Research Methods at the University of Northampton.

Her subject for the NZ House talk was Postcolonial Studies.

Life shapes work

In a very marked way, her life has shaped her work and vice versa.

She was a student at VUW, Sydney and Oxford, then taught at Otago for a time before moving to England. Her published critical works reflect her interest in New Zealanders whose lives have a similar pattern, bringing to the notice of readers in the northern hemisphere Fleur Adcock’s poems written and published in New Zealand before she moved abroad, and Dan Davin’s stories set in the Southland of his boyhood.

This interest in the ‘diaspora’ of New Zealanders abroad
 has turned out to be a mainstay of her academic life but also a stepping stone towards its other pillar: post-colonial literature from all over the world. She is editor of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and the current Chair of the European Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies.

Studies NZ and Aust. cinema

She is currently working on aspects of New Zealand and Australian cinema and editing collections of essays on Katherine Mansfield for the publishers Palgrave and Continuum. Her introduction to Frank Sargeson’s Stories will be published in Auckland in September.

Her interest in these matters shaped and gave drive and passion to her talk to the Graduates Association, showing how her intellectual interests have been stimulated and moulded by her movements back and forth.

Thus, she began by recalling with obvious affection and enthusiasm her student years at Victoria in the 1960s, studying Old English and linguistics. Significantly, one of her happiest memories was of her teacher Harry Orsman and the Old English poem The Wanderer, about ‘…the solitary one [who] must for a long time tread the paths of exile.’

This was the period of the Vietnam War, and a consequential rise in the degree to which American literature influenced writers in New Zealand.She spent time debating such matters on the beach at Oriental Bay , and also in pubs where the same inspirational Harry Orsman was also to be found, ‘ostensibly collecting slang’.

She moved on to Sydney, where she learnt about gender bending, and to Oxford, before returning to New Zealand at the end of the eighties. She went to Otago to teach ancient and Tudor literature, but New Zealand happened to be passing through one of its most rapid periods of change. Rogernomics, increasing and more varied overseas literary influences, and the teaching of Maori within the English syllabus in schools were amongst the driving forces at work.

Daughter of novelist Phillip Wilson

As a daughter of the novelist Phillip Wilson, Janet had become personally acquainted with the leading New Zealand writers of the preceding decades. She recalled a visit to Frank Sargeson’s North Shore Bach. Sargeson gave her and her siblings half a crown each––a sum of money the existence of which seems to have caused the children both shock and delight. Her younger sister lost hers and wept inconsolably until Sargeson gave her another. Janet admired Sargeson’s Chaucerian, unsentimental treatment of the realities of New Zealand life.

Maurice Shadbolt was another friend, with whom she enjoyed eating backsteaks of venison on shooting expeditions. She met Janet Frame (who was at the stage of delighting to show people letters which ‘proved she was not mental). And, as a student in Oxford, she had met and stayed with Dan and Winnie Davin (sleeping in a bed previously occupied by Dylan Thomas).

But the tradition of New Zealand writing represented by Sargeson, Shadbolt, Frame and Davin was being nudged aside in ways that proved career-changing for Janet herself. New Zealand was entering a ‘post-colonial’ phase, and part of that was the ‘diaspora’ writing exemplified by Davin, Fleur Adcock and, earlier, Katherine Mansfield.

NZ Studies conference

All these matters will come very much into focus in July, at Birkbeck, University of London, where she has convened the Inaugural Conference of the New Zealand Studies Network (UK & Ireland), on New Zealand’s Cultures: Histories Sources, Futures. (I, sadly, will be out of town when it happens.)

Once again, then, the New Zealand University Graduate’s Association has arranged an excellent, entertaining and instructive evening for the New Zealand graduate ‘diaspora’ in and within reach of the metropolis. Long may they continue their good work. (But––cue grinding teeth!––I shall be out of town for the next of those as well.)