Literary Kiwis

Five New Zealand Writers to Remember

Literary Kiwis

If you’re planning on relocating to and working in New Zealand, chances are that you’re up to your ears in practical preparations, buried in piles of paperwork. Figuring out visas and work permits, shipping costs and housing options, etc. are part and parcel of a successful start into expat life. There’s no getting around it for anyone who considers moving to New Zealand.

As busy as you are, you probably think you barely have the time to crack open the latest Lonely Planet and read up on your future home. But why not opt for another, more creative route to explore New Zealand? Obviously, literature won’t help you complete any application forms or find a reliable real estate agent. But it will be a welcome distraction from your everyday concerns and relocation-related stresses!

With that in mind, here are five Kiwi writers you might want to look into:

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield was one of the first authors to put New Zealand on the international literary map. However, this clever young girl from an upper-class family in colonial Wellington considered her home country to be rather provincial. She spent most of her short life in the UK and continental Europe, where she crossed paths with England’s leading artists and intellectuals, such as fellow writer Virginia Woolf and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Today, her short stories are considered minor masterpieces of modernist fiction and she represents a key step in the development of literature in New Zealand.

Janet Frame

Probably the most distinguished kiwi writer of 20th century fiction is Janet Frame. Novelist, poet, and memoirist; she died in 2004 at the age of 79. She was born into a working-class family; coincidentally her mother worked as a housemaid for Katherine Mansfield’s parents.

Her dense, lyrical, and visionary oeuvre is probably best known for blurring the boundaries between life and art. Although she repeatedly criticized her reviewers and readers for it, much public interest in her writing focused on her periods of mental illness and her stays in psychiatric wards.

Her three-volume autobiography won several awards. Both haunting and heart-felt, it remains her most popular work, also launching film director Jane Campion’s career with the TV adaptation.

Witi Ihimarea

Witi Ihimaera is the most celebrated representative of the Maori people in contemporary literature. His varied career also includes work as a journalist, an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a diplomat, and a literary scholar. He has written numerous short stories, a couple of libretti (!), and various novels.

On the one hand, the emotional, spiritual, political, and social concerns of the Maori are a constant in his output; on the other hand, Ihimaera’s diverse books include a magical realist New Zealand western, a gay novel (published after his own coming out), a post-colonial rewriting of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and the ecological fable The Whale Rider.

Whale Rider was adapted to the big screen to international acclaim. If you have no time for reading, you should definitely rent the DVD and enjoy the heart-warming movie.

Keri Hulme

Unlike Witi Ihimaera’s relatives, the majority of author Keri Hulme’s ancestors are of European descent. However, she doesn’t identify as a pakeha (a white settler of British or Irish stock), but as Maori via her mother’s side.

The mythology of the Maori, as well as Norse and Celtic folklore, and her personal dreamscape play a huge role in her creative process, especially in the genesis of her most famous novel The Bone People. The tale of reclusive artist Kerewin, the mute orphan boy Simon, and his alcoholic foster father Joe is a highly symbolic narrative about spiritual rebirth and the odd love in a chosen family. Less pessimistic and more reconciliatory than many of her other works, it is a perennial favorite.

Ngaio Marsh

If the previous suggestions seem too high-brow for you, give Ngaio Marsh a try. Together with the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, she’s often hailed as one of the “Queens of Crime” from the golden age of British detective fiction.

Though her fictional sleuth is the quintessentially English detective Roderick Alleyn, Marsh was actually born and raised in Christchurch. She divided her adult life between the UK and her home, where she was an influential force in the establishment of the New Zealand theater scene.

Despite being a very prolific writer, only four of Marsh’s 32 detective novels are set in New Zealand. Nonetheless, the best-selling novelist has been an inspiration to Kiwi crime writers, such as contemporary suspense authors Paul Cleave or Vanda Symon.

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