New Zealand Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

New Zealand Literature

The following entry considers literature indigenous to New Zealand, including Maori literature.

New Zealand has produced a number of writers, poets, and dramatists. However, because the domestic market in the country was considered too small to sustain a publishing industry of its own, most major writers in the country were, for many years, dependent on overseas publishers for their livelihood. This situation put tremendous pressure on native New Zealanders to write according to the literary requirements and tastes of their overseas audience. The most widely read New Zealand writers in the early twentieth century included a large group of romance and popular fiction writers, including Edith Lyttleton, Essie Summers, Dorothy Eden, and Mary Scott. Other famous authors from the country include Ngaio Marsh, who established herself as one of the preeminent crime writers of her time, and Katherine Mansfield, whose work in the short fiction genre has been much acclaimed. In addition to these New Zealand writers of European descent, the country is home to a wide variety of Maori literature, in the works of such authors as Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, and Keri Hulme. Believed to have migrated to New Zealand from East Polynesia around 800 A.D., the Maori are now considered the indigenous population of New Zealand. Their writing has a strong tradition in oral and anecdotal literature, and in the later twentieth century, Maori writing has come to gain a central place in the literature of the country. In general, all New Zealand literature is characterized as a colonial literature, reflecting concerns that are significant to other colonial literatures. As such, themes of national identity, cultural integrity, and racial issues are central to many New Zealand texts, including Maori writing.

For many years, writing in and about New Zealand society was dominated by writers of European descent. From their perspective, New Zealand's colonization had resulted in a harmonious society, with little or no discrimination. This view of society, however, was challenged in the writings of indigenous writers, who present a radically different perspective in their own works. Beginning in the 1970s, when Maori inhabitants of New Zealand initiated a series of political and cultural initiatives in order to challenge the dominant political order in New Zealand, the gap in perception between Maori writers on the one hand, and Pakeha, or European critics, writers, and scholars on the other, has led to intense debates in New Zealand about the nature of writing and its resulting critical analysis. Writers such as Ihimaera have remarked on the existence of a rich body of Maori oral and written literature that was largely ignored by European-centered critics, a trend that began changing only in the latter half of the twentieth century. In this body of work, mostly written before the 1970s, Maori writing is concerned mainly with preserving and documenting a culture and way of life that was being eroded by the civilization around it. Authors such as Ihimaera and Grace have openly acknowledged that educating their Pakeha counterparts about the intimate details of Maori culture was a central function of their writing before the mid-1970s. After the 1970s, Maori writing shifted focus, becoming more political in nature, and often calling into question European attitudes and established practices.

This discourse on culture has also carried over to the genres of poetry and drama in New Zealand writing. Poetry in particular, parallels the growth of fiction, with a distinctly colonial phase of writing characterized by its tendencies to mime European tastes and writing styles. This was followed, in the early 1900s, by a surge of nationalist sentiment in New Zealand poetry, although development of poetic style was still defined by tendencies overseas. The subject matter of the poetry written during this period, however, was shifting, reflecting the more domestic and cultural concerns of New Zealand's writers. In the 1960s, poetic style and subject matter underwent another major shift, this time resulting in not only the creation of a large body of poetry, but, according to Terry Sturm, “unusually rich discourse of poetics” as well. In addition to mainstream poetry, New Zealand has a rich tradition of Maori verse as well. Largely an oral tradition, many of the Maori myths and legends have not been translated into print, but they continue to be part of on ongoing oral tradition in the Maori tribal culture. Modern New Zealand poetry is, in general, a reflection of the diverse society it represents, continuing to grapple with issues of language, identity, and culture, as do other genres of literature in the country.