Novelist Paula Morris has lived overseas for most of the past three decades. In a new book, she explores the differences between expats and exiles, and what it means to be a New Zealand writer.
The exile’s new world is unnatural and its unreality resembles fiction, said Edward Said. All writers are exiles wherever they live, said Janet Frame. Do you feel those things?
I’ve only been a true exile once, after [Hurricane] Katrina, when I couldn’t go home to New Orleans for several months. But feeling out of place, another of Said’s ways of describing exile, has been my experience for much of the past 30 years. Exile is a loaded term for writers and other artists, as romantic as the notion of writing in a garret.
Many New Zealand writers have lived – and died – far from home. New Zealanders seem more comfortable living elsewhere than many, don’t you think?
This is something I’m exploring, in part, in the novel I’m writing at the moment, but I’m not sure if we’re more comfortable than the next nationality about living somewhere else: perhaps it’s just that we’re more dedicated travellers. So while we venture off and can be found everywhere, there are millions of other people who make their homes in other countries, seeking better lives. I don’t know if New Zealanders who live elsewhere are after a “better” life – maybe just a different one.
Artists often feel nostalgia for a country that no longer exists. What has changed since you first left?
Auckland changes all the time. The old department stores of my childhood are luxury flats. Orchards and vineyards are car parks and supermarkets. When you drive up the road behind the zoo at night, you no longer get a glimpse of the elephants. I miss the vestiges of my childhood, rather than the old city. The new city has much better places to eat.
You returned from time to time, but was it easy to summon up the country and its people in your fiction, particularly pre-internet?
The great joy of fiction-writing is making things up; the great distraction is research. (The greatest distraction of all is the internet.) I wrote Hibiscus Coast in Iowa City and New Orleans, and Rangatira in Glasgow. Fiction writers have to be able to evoke other places and times, the lives of other people. I visit locations when I can, and use photographs when I’m writing. And I annoy friends and family with obscure requests. But imagination is the thing. You have to be able to imagine the unknown.
How much did you, like Joyce, long for your homeland, and perhaps its approval?
I love this quote from Joseph Brodsky: “On any street of any city in the world at any time of night or day there are more people who haven’t heard of you than those who have.” It’s a good thing for writers to remember. At the Auckland Writers Festival a few years ago, someone came up to me after a session I chaired and said, “I know who you are – you write for the Listener!” So my book reviews clearly have more impact than my novels.
I don’t have Joyce’s love-hate relationship with the city of my birth, or feel the same need for creative exile. It would be nice to be world famous in New Zealand, but I’m not sporty enough.
Why do we need roots, turangawaewae?
We all have roots somewhere, whether we acknowledge them or not; we’re all shaped by the past, even if we’re ignorant of it.
What’s the most foreign you’ve felt, the most New Zealand?
Of places I’ve visited, I felt the most foreign, and the most childlike, in Shanghai, where I was trying to make sense of what I saw around me. When I lived in the US, my accent was a giant “foreign” flag. (If you want to feel foreign, try asking for a bottle of water in an American airport.) I dreaded introducing myself: so many people heard my name as “Paw Moss”.
In Wellington, you decided you were an Aucklander, rather than a New Zealander. What does that mean?
Auckland’s very dear to me, because of its beauty and scruffy charm; because so many of my memories and my family’s stories are centred around the Hauraki Gulf; because it’s a Pacific city, and a Maori city and an Asian city. I felt perched in Wellington, unsettled, as though I was still in a foreign place. And maybe the smallness of New Zealand, which can feel oppressive, was more evident there than in the sprawl of Auckland.
Your publisher thought so, but given you don’t always write about New Zealand, do you consider yourself a New Zealand writer?
Well, I’m a writer from New Zealand, which may or may not be the same thing. Writers don’t have to confine their work to one location; we don’t play in state-of-origin teams. Imaginations roam, even if we stay put – or sometimes a writer roams, as Joyce did, but can only write about the place they’re from. Sometimes we switch locations and languages, as Nabokov did, and Conrad.
Ford Madox Ford, who fought in the First World War, called “nationality” the thing he hated most: New York appealed to him in the same way it did to the historian Tony Judt, almost a century later, because it was a place of so many languages and communities, all co-existing.
I’m like Jason Bourne with my multiple passports, so my nationality changes depending on which border I’m crossing. But I’m a New Zealander still, of course, who grew up on a cluster of islands deep in the Pacific, looking outwards, restless.
On Coming Home, by Paula Morris (BWB, $14.99).
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