Academic journal article Hecate

Where to from Here? Contemporary New Zealand Women's Fiction

Academic journal article Hecate

Where to from Here? Contemporary New Zealand Women's Fiction

Article excerpt

The eighties has been the decade of women's fiction in New Zealand. It is true that this period has also seen an "explosion" of local literary activity in general, and especially of local publishing, whose impact has only been approached by the "germinal period" of the institutionalisation of New Zealand literature during the forties. During the eighties, however, women writers were for the first time able to compete on equal terms in this new flurry of literary activity. Women took advantage of the empowering force of the "second wave" feminist movement, with renewed confidence in the standpoints from which they wrote, and in their collective ability to take on the entrenched institutions that had orchestrated their exclusion.

Novels like Sue McAuley's Other Halves (1982) established that there was a local market for women's writing. The greatest impetus, however, came from the phenomenon of Keri Hulme's the bone people. After initial difficulties finding a publisher, this novel was taken up by a local, "amateur" collective (Spiral), and became an overnight success in New Zealand. With the award of the Booker prize the following year, this success extended to the international scene, and the bone people was launched as a legend. The significance of this legend was threefold: it established that small local publishing could take on the "big league"; that women, and more specifically, Maori women, could write novels that even the mainstream considered superb; and that they could be commodified as "hot property," as much because as in spite of their politically challenging material.

The establishment of the New Women's Press in 1982 was an important part of the process of legitimation of women fiction writers. Though it did not take long for known women writers to be taken up by the newly-established local branches of multinationals (especially by Penguin), New Women's Press remained vital in providing opportunities to new writers, most particularly through a series of anthologies(1) that included writing by unknowns along with that of established authors. It was also instrumental in opening the field of women's work to other audiences and genres. Women writing for children and young adults soon came to dominate the field locally, and to establish an international readership. Another important area of access for women's writing was the development of university presses, Victoria University Press dominating the field.

Essential to this development was government patronage through the literature board of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. With a history similar to that of its counterpart in Australia, the literature board received enhanced finance during the eighties, and was able to fund both more writers and more publishing. While it does not seem to have had a policy of "equal access" written into its constitution, in practice it was more even-handed than other cultural institutions - especially in the earlier period, when many of these were all but closed to women. Particularly vital was its assistance to small, independent publishers, including the New Women's Press, which depended to a very great degree on publishing grants. It is difficult to find a woman's text published in this period that does not bear the inscription: "Published with the assistance of the Literature Programme of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand."

It has taken somewhat longer for women's writing to gain a place in the New Zealand academy, where New Zealand writing has not gained the secure foothold that Australian literature has in Australian English departments. Similarly, and as a corollary, little cognisance was taken of the new writing in literary journals;(2) and women writers have not been equally represented in the receipt of literary awards until more recently. This experience has been echoed in Australia, though change began to manifest itself here a little earlier.

Two essential links in the distribution of women's writing have been the Women's Book Festival, under the auspices (until recently) of Penny Hanson, and Carol Beu's Women's Book Shop. …

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