The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories
edited by Paula Morris
Penguin Group (NZ) 2009
Awards: Julian Novitz won the 2008 Katherine Mansfield Short Fiction Award for his story, Three Couples.
Editor: Paula Morris, of English and Ngati Wai descent, is the author of three novels: Queen of Beauty (2002), Hibiscus Coast (2005), and Trendy But Casual (2007), all published by Penguin. Her first short-story collection, Forbidden Cities (2008), was a regional finalist in the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
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needed her love to be hard, something to batter himself against, to
bear cuts which would sting poisonously; how else could he tell it was
alive, when it grew so imperceptibly that whole genealogies could swim
among its brightly coloured branches without once seeing it move?"
(From The Sea as Past by Bernard Steeds)
Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
In editing this anthology, Paula Morris had a mission: Examine whether
or not short fiction flourished in New Zealand over the past decade.
Morris had some misgivings. As she writes in her intro, the writing
courses and literary contests that abound tend to limit artistic
innovation. Publishers seem to give more weight to novels, and reader
support for journals that do publish short stories is underwhelming.
Nevertheless, looking at the display of talent Morris has put together,
one can see that despite the challenges, short fiction in New Zealand
All 31 stories, written by a mix of established and emerging authors,
speak of New Zealand, directly or indirectly. But barring specific
cultural references, they could easily be talking about the U.S., or
England, or Canada—really, any country that has sheltered migrants,
that has struggled with issues of social class and hierarchy, that has
known the loneliness and longing of its people. And what country can
claim that it hasn’t?
Like most of us, the book’s characters hunger for change—be it the
housewife tired of the idyllic life in Barbara Anderson’s Real Beach Weather, the daughter
who travels the world in search of "home" in Fiona Farrell’s Overseas Trip, or even the alien
family searching for a better life on earth, in The New Neighbors by Tim Jones.
But like most of us find out, the grass isn’t always greener next door.
In Fellow Citizens by Owen
Marshall, a Croatian refugee forced to seek asylum in New Zealand just
didn’t have the heart to rebuild his life again, and has settled for a
"more immediate, ad hoc and temporary existence." As the narrator says:
"Maybe that’s what it’s like to be dispossessed of your country and
your career, to lose your position in your own community and find
yourself undervalued in a new one."
One doesn’t have to migrate to feel undervalued or out of place,
however. We experience it enough at work, as in Jo Randerson’s Our New
Boss, or Elizabeth Smither’s Bonding. We experience it in our own
communities, as in David Geary’s Gary Manawatu [1964-2008]: Death of a
Fence Post-Modernist. We even experience it among family and friends,
as in Three Couples by Julian Novitz, or Coming Down Off the Hill by
But really, the stories in the book are a lot more complex and hearty
than what can be summed up in a few words. And as with any collection,
some pieces stand out more than others—a matter of personal taste. My
favorites include the unconventionally-written Three Couples, William
Brandt’s Rat (a short piece that speaks volumes), and the 45-pager Ask
the Posts of the House by Witi Ihimaera (a commentary on family,
hierarchy and love).
Of course, no matter how good the book is, it
would be foolish to think that the literary or cultural portrait that
we see here is complete. Anthologies are at the mercy of an editor’s
choices, and as Morris acknowledged, she didn’t strive for political
correctness or diversity. Her sole criteria was quality—the ability of
each story to move, provoke, excite, entertain, challenge and basically
insinuate itself into the reader’s memory.
As such, we don’t see any
work from writers of Indian or Chinese descent (an essential part of
New Zealand’s cultural melting pot), and the dominant Pacific presence
is Samoan. Which leaves this reader wondering: What does that say about
the climate or state of short story writing for the communities
excluded or underrepresented in the anthology?
Still, if quality and staying power is the goal, then Morris has done
well. At 447 pages (including bios and acknowledgements), The Penguin
Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories has kept me absorbed
and entertained throughout. I don’t only recommend it; I look forward
to returning to it again and again.