New Zealand Literature Essay - Critical Essays

New Zealand Literature


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.

Representative Works

Arthur H. Adams
Maoriland, and Other Verses (poetry) 1899
A Man's Life (sketch) 1929

James K. Baxter
Beyond the Palisade (poetry) 1944
Runes (poetry) 1973
The Tree House, and Other Poems for Children (poetry) 1974

Ursula Bethell
From a Garden in the Antipodes (poetry) 1929
Time and Place (poetry) 1936

Jenny Bornholdt
Waiting Shelter (poetry) 1991

Alistair Campbell
Mine Eyes Dazzle: Poems, 1947-49 (poetry) 1950
The Dark Lord of Savaiki (poetry) 1980
The Frigate Bird (novel) 1989

James Courage
The Fifth Child (novel) 1948
The Young Have Secrets (novel) 1954

D'Arcy Cresswell
The Forest (play) 1952

Allen Curnow
Valley of Decision: Poems (poetry) 1933
The Narrow Seas (poetry) 1939
A Present for Hitler and Other Verses [as Whim-Wham] (poetry) 1940
Island and Time (play) 1941
The Axe (play) 1949
An Incorrigible Music: A Sequence of Poems (poetry) 1979

Alan Duff
Once Were Warriors (novel) 1990

Dorothy Eden
Bride by Candlelight (novel) 1954
Sleep in the Woods (novel) 1960
The Shadow Wife (novel) 1968
Waiting for Willa (novel) 1970
An Important...

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Terry Sturm (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Sturm, Terry. “Popular Fiction.” In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, edited by Terry Sturm, pp. 493-541. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Sturm provides a detailed overview of the publishing history and circumstances as well as significant literary characteristics of popular and romantic fiction published by New Zealand authors.]


In 1908 the influential New York publishing firm of Doubleday Page offered some friendly advice to G. B. Lancaster (the pen-name of Edith Lyttleton, 1873-1945), whose fourth book they had recently published. The...

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Bridget Orr (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Orr, Bridget. “The Maori House of Fiction.” In Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, pp. 73-95. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Orr discusses Maori writing in the context of New Zealand's writing history, remarking on the lack of critical analysis of indigent Maori texts by mainstream critics.]


In 1973, Witi Ihimaera published Tangi, the first novel by a Maori writer. In the twenty years since that first text emerged, many other novels by Maori, including Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, Heretaunga Pat Baker, and Alan Duff have appeared, achieving...

(The entire section is 9360 words.)

Criticism: Maori Literature

Jane McRae (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: McRae, Jane. “Māori Literature: A Survey.” In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, edited by Terry Sturm, pp. 1-24. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, McRae documents Maori oral and written literature as it developed in New Zealand, including brief discussions of poetry, publishing history, and cultural and political context.]


Before there was a literature of New Zealand, there was a Māori oral tradition of Aotearoa with an ancient history which began in the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. A Māori literary tradition has a recent...

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Trevor James (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: James, Trevor. “‘Telling Our Own Stories’: Reclaiming Difference, a Maori Resistance to Postculturalism.” In Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, edited by John C. Hawley, pp. 51-65. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, James contends that Maori writers have infused a distinctive sense of spirituality into their writing, using this as a means of differentiating themselves from New Zealand writers of European descent.]

The thrust of this [essay] may be simply stated. In New Zealand literature one of the ways by which Maori writers have defined an indigenous identity has been to claim a...

(The entire section is 5740 words.)

Criticism: New Zealand Drama

Howard McNaughton (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: McNaughton, Howard. “The Emergent Drama, 1840-1914.” In New Zealand Drama, pp. 15-27. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, McNaughton presents a survey of New Zealand drama from the late 1800s to the mid-twentieth century.]

When the systematic colonization of New Zealand began in 1840, the English and Scottish settlers faced a rugged, largely unexplored country. The six early townships were widely separated through the two major islands, and each settlement quickly established cultural idiosyncrasies which were to be fostered by isolation and parochialism. The indigenous Maori population had no theater form of its own, and the European...

(The entire section is 5363 words.)

Howard McNaughton (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: McNaughton, Howard. “The Development of Poetic and Realistic Drama.” In New Zealand Drama, pp. 38-45. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, McNaughton surveys the work of several New Zealand playwrights who wrote during the time of World War II, including Allen Curnow, D'Arcy Cresswell, Ian Hamilton, Howard Wadman, and Claude Evans.]

World War II altered the character of most New Zealand theaters, changing the nature of the active membership but generally not reducing it. Unbalanced resources led to a period of conservatism in the larger civic theaters and a consequent resistance to local scripts, but the war years also saw a substantial...

(The entire section is 3245 words.)

Criticism: New Zealand Fiction

Heather Roberts (essay date September 1975)

SOURCE: Roberts, Heather. “Mother, Wife and Mistress: Women Characters in the New Zealand Novel from 1920 to 1940.” Landfall: A New Zealand Quarterly 29, no. 3 (September 1975): 233-47.

[In the following essay, Roberts suggests that the female characters populating New Zealand fiction between 1920 and 1940 can be divided into three major categories: those who fulfill traditional female roles of wife and mother; those who intrude into traditionally male domains; and those who reject traditional roles in favor of a new place in society.]

Joan Stevens has called the novelists of the period from 1920 to 1940 ‘The Forerunners’1 and the women characters...

(The entire section is 5703 words.)

Joseph Jones and Johanna Jones (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Jones, Joseph, and Johanna Jones. “Expatriates.” In New Zealand Fiction, pp. 22-32. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, the Joneses offer an account of expatriate New Zealand writing, focusing on such authors as Katherine Mansfield, Jane Manders, Shirley Maddock, Robin Hyde, and James Courage.]

It was not that either Katherine Mansfield or Frances Hodgkins totally lacked leisure, paper, pens and paint in New Zealand; on the contrary, each added to her impediments and poverty by going away. They did lack, however, an environment in which they could hope to work themselves to the full. They were conscious of great...

(The entire section is 4486 words.)

Leonard Wilcox (essay date fall 1985)

SOURCE: Wilcox, Leonard. “More Versions of the Pastoral: Postmodernism in the New Zealand Context.” Journal of Popular Culture 19, no. 2 (fall 1985): 107-20.

[In the following essay, Wilcox discusses postmodernism as it is expressed in New Zealand's literature, contending that it is closely related to the country's concern regarding ideas of national and cultural identity.]

Foreskin's Lament, a play by New Zealander Greg McGee, was greeted enthusiastically by critics and audiences when it first appeared here in 1981. One reason for its great appeal was its provocative exploration of Rugby and Rugby culture. But beyond this the play spoke to New Zealanders...

(The entire section is 6088 words.)

Criticism: New Zealand Poetry

Alistair Paterson (essay date March 1976)

SOURCE: Paterson, Alistair. “Poetry in Transition: Notes on Trends and Influences in New Zealand Verse.” Landfall: A New Zealand Quarterly 30, no. 1 (March 1976): 76-85.

[In the following essay, Paterson provides a brief overview of early twentieth-century New Zealand poetry, suggesting that it was deeply influenced by the cultural and historical forces that shaped the country at that time.]

How does one write down anything about poetry; it is something almost impossible to define and not much easier to evaluate; but we keep attempting (in spite of the difficulties) to trace out the patterns of its development, to determine the influences which have shaped it and...

(The entire section is 3466 words.)

Andrew Johnston (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Johnston, Andrew. “Entertaining Possibilities: Six Contemporary New Zealand Poets.” Meanjin 51, no. 3 (spring 1992): 641-52.

[In the following essay, Johnston surveys the work of several New Zealand poets, including Allen Curnow, Bill Manhire, Gregory O'Brien, and Michele Leggott.]

There is no mainstream in New Zealand poetry. Under scrutiny, the critical categories proposed from time to time break down into ever smaller categories, whose number almost corresponds with the number of poets. Rather than offer a guided tour of a hastily erected artificial structure called ‘New Zealand poetry’, I have found it more useful to respond to the writing itself by...

(The entire section is 4030 words.)

Terry Sturm (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Sturm, Terry. “New Zealand Poetry.” In A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, edited by Neil Roberts, pp. 293-303. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

[In the following essay, Sturm offers an account of New Zealand poetry, stressing that although other forms of writing have existed alongside it, it is the poetry of New Zealand that most consistently reflects the ongoing cultural debate in that country.]

A generation ago there would have been widespread agreement about the general shape an account of New Zealand poetry would take. It would have confined itself to poetry in English, and identified a development in two phases: a colonial period of...

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Further Reading


Anderson, Atholl. “The Beast Without: The Moa as a Colonial Frontier Myth in New Zealand.” Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World, edited by Roy Willis, pp. 236-45. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Brief discussion of the significance of Moa sightings in colonial travel literature from New Zealand.

Arvidson, Ken. “Aspects of Contemporary Māori Writing in English.” In Dirty Silence: Aspects of Language and Literature in New Zealand, edited by Graham McGregor and Mark Williams, pp. 117-28. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Describes the major differences between Maori...

(The entire section is 303 words.)