In the middle of the movie I’ve Loved You So Long an annoyingly persistent man lectures his friends about a writer he loves. The annoyingly persistent man (it’s late, he’s drunk too much, it’s a large dinner party) can’t believe that another person at the table doesn’t rate a certain writer. As he gets a bit stroppy others at the table offer the sensible notion that it’s just a difference of opinion, a matter of taste, but he won’t have it. For him it’s a matter that transcends taste: “He’s a genius and you’re just too dumb to see it,” he says hotly.
It is strangely annoying when someone doesn’t like something you like, and really quite exciting when you find someone who loves what you love. I have often wondered why I get so tetchy when someone slights or criticises a book or a film I like. I think that it might be something to do with feeling that a representation of the world that strongly resonates with me is being discounted or even mocked, and even though what is being devalued is at a distance from me it still makes me feel like my own view of the world is being minimised.
Perhaps that’s it. I’m not sure, but that’s a good enough definition for now, and it explains why people can wind up saying offensive things to each other at dinner parties about movies, and books and albums.
Different stories are important (“this writer is a genius!”), and having your story, your version of the world, accepted as the most true gives you a lot of power. Everyone knows this. It is true at an individual level when you are in a dispute over who did what when you pranged your car, and it is true at a community level when different groups compete to shape their environment. For me the easiest example to reach for is from the classroom.
The last time a student launched a stream of abuse at me, gave me the finger and stormed out of the classroom I was really angry about it (unsurprisingly). After the lesson I wrote an email to that student’s dean and to the principal expressing my disgust and WHAT I WANTED DONE. The dean and the principal approached me, apologised for the student’s behaviour and had that student stood down for a couple of days. Fine.
On reflection though two things bothered me about this. Firstly, if I am brutally honest with myself, I think I was 20% responsible for the boy’s actions towards me. I had been unwelcoming to him when he came into class late, I had given him grief about his laughable attempt at uniform (which I can never be bothered doing because I generally don’t give a toss), and when he kept butting in with smart comments while I was trying to help a student sitting next to him I turned around and snapped, “Are you trying to be smart?” It was this remark that inspired his long and colourful description of what he thought I should go and do with myself. Now if you’re reading this and you’re not a teacher you might be thinking that I am being a bit hard on myself (or you might be writing to the Teachers’ Council to have me struck off), but as a teacher I think you should really rise above this kind of day-to-day needle from some random knucklehead. So I’m going to take 20% of the blame.
The second thing that has come to bother me is how pleasurable it felt to have my version of events instantly priveleged as true, and validated with swift justice because I was the teacher. It was a nice feeling at the time, but since it has worried me. Of course there are mitigating factors. The boy in question has a long track record at the school, and I am a teacher who doesn’t tend to get sworn at or kick up stinks about things. Still, it made me think.
Which is bad, because it leads to long posts like this and other thoughts. Other thoughts like this:
Do you accept that some Maori have a different view of things from the majority of Pakeha or don’t you? Do you think that for many Maori it is still possible to see the world from a more communal viewpoint than an individualistic one, or do you think that this is nice in a Patricia Grace short story but after that we should just be sensible and get on with the business of running the country and building roads? Or, in other words, do you accept a Maori story alongside a Pakeha one or do you reject the need for this either wholly or in part? Naturally your answer to these questions matters, and matters even more when it combines with others and turns into a majority view, because a majority view in a democracy leads to actions, and actions can harm those whose stories are minimised.
Last year I went to the Waiwhetu Marae to hear Moana Jackson talk about the Maori perspective of the Treaty of Waitangi. It was incredibly illuminating and significantly changed my understanding. He told a lot of stories in his talk and one of them was about a rock in a river in his koru’s hometown. This story was about the things his koru told him about the meaning of that large rock to the iwi. Unfortunately it was also a story about the council dynamiting that rock as part of a flood management progamme. Nobody told the iwi about this programme before it was carried out or thought to ask them for their story. It was a devastating and humiliating act.
Which leads us to a current example where the battle over who is telling the truest story is still fresh and the result undecided. The result in this case is important because it calls into question a person’s integrity, and will probably be a factor, ironically, in their legacy.
Before you read the next section you should know that it is about the C.K. Stead’s story Last Season’s Man which recently won a British short story competition. If you are the type of person who reads short stories you should probably read it first before you carry on. The story can be found here.
I liked Last Season’s Man. It had a nice shift in the second third, a satisfying resolution, and it reread well. Taking the story by itself I would reccommend it.
Then comes all the context that comes with reading any story, and shapes our view of it. Firstly, there is my feeling for the author’s past work. I have read two of Stead’s books in the past, Mansfield and My Name was Judas, and because I enjoyed both books I am already favourably disposed towards this short story. I am also aware of Stead’s age and antagonising reputation and found that this added an interesting layer to the story which is somewhat about how an artist’s legacy is judged by his or her society.
Secondly there is the context of reading a story by a New Zealander and being a New Zealander. A foreigner reading this story would not particularly notice this sentence:
We are a small country with a tight intellectual community. If things go against you… you can be left, like the chicken in the enclosed yard all the other chickens turn against, your skin bleeding and your feathers plucked.
But if you are from New Zealand I think you do and feel that it is about us, as Kim Hill said in her brief chat with Stead about the story on National Radio.
Finally, I discovered, via the DimPost, that there is quite a back story to this short story which adds a great deal to re-readings of Last Season’s Man because Stead seems to have been in a very similar situation to the protaganist in his short story; namely finding himself the subject of a critical essay from a younger writer (Nigel Cox) who then later died. From reading the original article by Nigel Cox, and some of the reaction to Stead’s story from people close to Cox in the Sunday Star Times it would appear to be disingenuous of Stead to say he has no idea what anyone is talking about. Equally, though, I would say that it’s not exactly a straight line between biography and fiction. Each reader, in the end, will make their determination whether the short story and the back story sit together unhappily or intriguingly. I suspect it will be the former in New Zealand, and the later everywhere else.
So here we see people’s competing stories about a story. Whose do we accept? Or perhaps we don’t care. It’s all very well to privilege the teacher’s version over the student’s version, or the non-fiction account over the poem’s, or the Pakeha tale over the Maori one, but I prefer to do so cautiously. It might be that the student was a bit right, and that people are reading the poem a hundred years latter and laughing at the history book, or winning their case with the Waitangi Tribunal. In the case of Stead v Cox, for me, the jury is still out.