My spies tell me that Andrew Dean, who has been studying literature in Oxford since winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 2012, recently returned to his native South Canterbury, where he is once again wondering at the wide skies and contemplating the work of great southern scribblers like Charles Brasch and Kames K Baxter.
Dean has returned to New Zealand to launch his first book, Roger, Ruth and Me
, which promises to examine the impact of the neo-liberal 'reforms' of the 1980s and '90s on a generation of young Kiwis.
I thought it was about time that I excavated and digitised an interview I did with Andrew in 2012, when I was guest editing an issue of the literary journal brief
. I'd given my issue of brief the theme of Oceania
, and I wanted to see how Andrew, as a son of the south, would respond to a word so often associated with lagoons and palm trees. The interview appeared in brief
alongside Andrew's essay 'The Seeing Men: Paul Theroux and William Pember Reeves'.]
: You’re probably best known as the main contributor to keaandcattle, a Canterbury-based blog that features original literary work as well as some interesting analyses of New Zealand culture, but recently you’ve also distinguished yourself academically, by winning a Rhodes Scholarship and a major American scholarship on the strength of your researches into Kiwi literary history. How easy is it to reconcile academic work with blogging?
: At the moment, unfortunately, the scales are tipped in one direction – I last updated keaandcattle a month ago. Recently I’ve been holed up editing papers and working as a Business Analyst for the Digital Humanities project, UC CEISMIC (www.ceismic.org.nz), which is the digital earthquake archive at the University of Canterbury.
I find it hard to write well on literary and political topics when I’m not involved in direct research. It’s out of close reading that I find the material for blogging. Yet blogging does have a special place for me: it’s engaged with a community, in a way that sitting in my office carefully unmixing my metaphors just isn’t. If research is at home in the office, blogging is at home in the pub: research and blogging, for me anyway, are part of the same academic and literary ecosystem.
It’s more than that, though. Academics in the humanities have a duty to be public intellectuals. We’ve been asleep at the wheel, I think, for a long time, while the society we thought we were responsible to has been dismantled around us. Publicly discussing history, literature and history – speaking back to Mark Sainsbury, in other words - admits at least one dark, fusty corner where considered analysis is still possible, where the possibility of change is still considered.
SH: You’ve written often from a distinctly South Island perspective, expressing an affinity for southern landscapes and for the work of southern writers like Charles Brasch. In one particularly interesting blog post you described holing up in a high country hut and reading through a pile of early issues of
Landfall. Do you identify as a regionalist writer, and for that matter reader? Kendrick Smithyman once said that, for him, the South Island was a “foreign country”. Do you feel that way about the north?
You’re using your (north-of-the-bombays) imagination – I couldn’t carry all those Landfalls
up to a country hut! I’d break my (already fragile) shoulders!
To answer your question, I definitely identify as a southern reader. How can I not? When I was a child I never read New Zealand literature, and I was worse off for it: I didn’t have the literature bowling into a nor’wester at the close of play; I didn’t have the language to describe the oncoming front in July. What I was lacking was a literature of loneliness and isolation – the South Island Myth, in other words, however problematic its ideological operations.
As a writer – well that’s very much a work-in-progress. Inevitably, I am influenced by what I’ve been reading – everything from Pynchon to Curnow, Carver to Frame. Now all I’ve got to do is learn to write. And as for the North Island? It has a lot to answer for. People up that way eat in cafes rather than tearooms. I find it hard to orientate myself up there. Where are the mountains, which normally stare down at you from the end of the main road? Where are the soggy out-of-season asparagus rolls? It’s a different place alright, and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable up there.
SH: How does the notion of the Pacific, or Oceania, look from the south of New Zealand? Can an alternative version of the notion perhaps found in a place like Christchurch, which has historic connections, through sea and air ports, with Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands? Do southern writers like Graham Billing advance a different understanding of the Pacific, when they describe the sub-Antarctic seas, and visits to Antarctica?
How does it look? We don’t look north from here. That’s why our cities are built facing south. I mean how else can you explain Invercargill? Our understanding of the Pacific is very different. I remember reading a truly bizarre narrative by John Caselberg, which won the Landfall
prose prize, in which he followed a water molecule from creation into eternity. The water headed south, into the wind and cold; it was swallowed by a skua; it turned into ice. It’s this constant troping of the environment as inimical to human habitation that marks southern literature, and, inevitably, that marks southern representations of the Pacific.
Of course, this aesthetic is deeply political. Heading south entails heading away from human habitation. Moving away from the Pacific, in which Pakeha are implicated in the history of colonialism, allows us to fantasize about a great southern terra nullius where these problems seemingly evaporate. If the South Island won’t do (those pesky Ngai Tahu keep getting in the way), then look at Antarctica instead, where the only indigenes are penguins.
The anxieties of settlement are pervasive in the south, and our literary energies are displaced upon the landscape – Allen Curnow, no less, commented upon the ‘Awareness of what great gloom / Stands in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home.’ The northern Pacific, in the end, doesn’t get much of a look in as we busily produce our myths about the south.
SH: You’re off to Oxford later this year, to take up your Rhodes scholarship. What lines of research do you hope to pursue there? Do you feel an affinity with some of the Rhodes scholars of the past, like the group of young men whose fateful lives were described in James McNeish’s
Dance of the Peacocks?
At Oxford I have applied to undertake an M. St. in English (1900-present), which is a one year taught masters. This is a preparation course for the D. Phil., which I intend to undertake immediately upon completing the M. St. I plan to focus upon the life-writing of women writers, such as Janet Frame, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. My interest is in the way that writers with such a high autobiographical quotient to their fiction work through experience; I’m not an essentialist seeking to locate the ‘skeleton in the oedipal closet’, rather I want to find sensitive ways to read and write about writing subjectivities.
I actually read Dance of the Peacocks
when I was preparing to fly to Wellington for the Rhodes interview. Jim Bertram, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin and Ian Milner went over Rhodes Scholars, while Charles Brasch and John Mulgan went over separately. They were all very influential in New Zealand letters. They are an inspiration. In getting such an incredible opportunity I feel that I have a responsibility, not only to New Zealand but those who have gone before and who, with the exception of Milner, achieved so much of value, and who, again with the exception of Milner, showed such integrity.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]