Categories: Recent | Trans-Tasman | NZ Lit

The Tasman writing world


It's rare to find an Australian who has heard of more than one or two New Zealand writers. On a good day, you might extract a Janet Frame or a Katherine Mansfield. What might surprise Australian readers, however, is that it is equally unusual to find New Zealanders with a passable knowledge of Australian writing and writers, beyond Booker Prize winners and perhaps Patrick White.

There really isn't an Australasian reading or writing community, save for the efforts of a few expats here and there. Lydia Wevers, though responsible for some trans-Tasman literary collaborations herself, noted in 2000 that 'New Zealanders and Australians have a resistant relationship over books and readers'.[1] The disconnect is so entrenched that hardly anyone even notices or mentions it, barring the occasional comment (Kate Grenville, interviewed on Radio New Zealand in 2017, described the literary relationship as a 'strange sibling disaffection'[2]).

On the rare occasion that someone does comment on the odd situation, there are a few standard explanations. New Zealand and Australia are seen as having emerged from common origins to develop quite distinctive national psyches. A big brother/little brother situation has developed where Australians ignore or absorb New Zealand, and New Zealanders defiantly ignore Australia, preferring to defer to more established founts of culture such as Britain and Europe. The two national literary traditions have striking similarities, which may, conversely, cause the blind spot - to each set of inhabitants the other country's topics and settings are too similar to be interesting but not 'local' enough to reflect their own lives and experiences.

But, this literary disconnect is really quite a recent phenomenon. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Australian and New Zealand literary practitioners operated within a single 'Tasman world' community created by an interlinked publishing industry and key literary figures such as A. G. Stephens and Pat Lawlor who had interests on both sides of the Tasman.[3] Despite mid-century nationalist New Zealand writers' attempts to ignore Australian connections, they continued beyond Federation, beyond the forging of national identities on the battlefields of World War I (the ANZAC legend, ironically, is itself the product of a trans-Tasman collaboration) and well into the second half of the twentieth century.

The 'Tasman writing world' is an understudied part of an international book trade system that has been obscured by a focus on national canons. Currently, the broader trans-Tasman relationship suffers from a lack of understanding caused by the assumption of closeness without sustained effort to appreciate the other country's history and culture. Literature and cultural exchange (including popular culture and educational material) is a key way that communities develop informed empathy for one another. Is the breakdown of the Tasman writing world a symptom (or cause?!) of the current ill-informed relationship? This project aims to explore the nature of literary connectedness in the twentieth century and its change over time, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches to digitised literary archives and correspondence.

[1] Wevers, Lydia, 'Books: Are New Zealand and Australia Part of the Same Literary Community?' in New Zealand and Australia: Where Are We Going?, edited by Bruce Brown (Wellington, 2001).
[2] Grenville, Kate, 'The Gap between New Zealand and Australian Writers', Standing Room Only, Radio New Zealand interview (15 Oct 2017).
[3] Bones, Helen, 'New Zealand and the Tasman Writing World', History Australia, 2013).

Categories: trans-Tasman