Michael responds to questions from Hannah Fleming of the Taranaki Daily News:
First of all, I am interested to hear about your upbringing in Taranaki and New Zealand, are you able to tell me a bit about that? How long have you been away?
I was born in Nelson in 1940, but my father was transferred to Inglewood – which happened to be my mother’s hometown – when I was two. He was a clerk in the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac). In the fifties, Inglewood was a rural hamlet of 1500 people, and my sisters and I would look forward to trips to the ‘metropolis’ of New Plymouth, where my mother went shopping for fabric and books, and bought us treats in the Queen Anne chocolate shop and the Centreway café on Devon Street. If my father accompanied us, we would visit his father in Bulteel Street, and explore the area around the observatory on Marsland Hill. From early childhood I was enchanted by the prospect of places beyond the horizon: the mountain, the prison below the hill, the sea that lay within earshot of my uncle’s house in Roy Terrace. From this house you could cross the railway line, scamper down the iron sand, marram covered dunes and onto the rocky foreshore where, at low tide, you could gather paua. This area is now a sea of concrete, transected by Ocean View Parade. If not scavenging in rock pools I would walk to the wharves and try to catch grouper, or fantasize sailing away on one of the Shaw Savill boats that regularly docked there. In Inglewood, I would lie awake at night listening to a forlorn train whistle in the hills, wondering what worlds awaited me elsewhere. Or I would ask my grandparents endless questions about the Maori women with lip moko who came from Waitara to sell whitebait, and sat on a bench near the Post Office, shawled and smoking pipes like figures out of a Goldie painting. Despite being happy at home, I longed to go abroad. The first move came when my father was transferred to a bank in Auckland. I finished my high schooling, and enrolled at Auckland University. Still restive, I completed my degree at Victoria University of Wellington. After graduating, I took a variety of jobs – as a research librarian, ship’s steward, wharfie, builder’s labourer, printer, floor polish salesman – before heading off to Australia where I put my anthropology degree to good use, working in welfare among Aboriginals.
What did you move on to following this? I am interested to hear about your experiences in Sierra Leone and Australia? What sorts of observations and discoveries did you make during this time?
I spent several years away from New Zealand, working in welfare and community development – in London among the homeless and in the Congo with the United Nations – before succumbing to homesickness. Back in New Zealand, I resumed my studies (in anthropology), and won a Taranaki Scholarship for doctoral studies at Cambridge University. I did my fieldwork in Sierra Leone, where I have sojourned and done fieldwork intermittently for forty years now. I also did fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia during the decade that Sierra Leone was plunged into civil war, and during my frequent visits to New Zealand I have done research on topics as diverse as the life and times of Joe Pawelka, and Maori responses to genetic modification.
What inspired you to write your latest book Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes? Are you able to give me a brief overview of what the book is about?
Unlike many expatriates, I have remained faithful to my natal country. Much as I have needed radically different places to enlarge my horizons, to challenge me as a person and as a writer, I have needed to sustain a relationship with the place that first nurtured me, and whose history still shapes my sense of turangawaewae. In At Home in the World (1995), I wrote of the paradoxical experience of returning to my natal New Zealand every year, like a migratory bird, and finding the place both changed and unchanged, strange and familiar. Every expatriate knows the dilemma that is born of this experience – attempting to keep the home fires burning, yet watching them gutter and gradually go out. There is a Maori saying that for as long as you live on the land, a fire burns there (ahi ka), signaling that you have the right to be there. But if you abandon the land, the fires die (ahi mataotao) and you forfeit that right. As we say, occupation is nine tenths of the law. In 2008 I decided that the time had come for me to explore this quandary more systematically, so I hired a car, and hit the road, determined to engage these issues through conversations with old friends and visits to old haunts. Road Markings emerged as a series of meditations on the power of first experiences in shaping our lives – first love, first landfall, first home, first loss. It touches on the ways that personal stories are interwoven with social and historical events, and explores Maori invocations of toi whenua in making claims for recognition and social justice, the search of adopted children for their birth parents, the notion of childhood as ‘the formative years’, our current preoccupation with genealogical, geographical or genetic backgrounds, and the allure of myths and models of cause and effect.
It must have been quite a journey to make; how would you describe New Zealand and the way it has evolved from when you first lived here? Are you able to share some of the significant experiences you endured throughout your journey? Taranaki-related in particular if possible.
The journey was a breeze, compared to journeys I have made in the Congo, Sierra Leone and Central Australia. As for comparing New Zealand now with the New Zealand I knew as a child, it is difficult to rely on childhood memories and difficult, in any event, to generalize. Certainly, New Zealanders are more travelled, more worldly wise, and less bothered by their geographical remoteness from Europe, Asia and the US – than fifty years ago. Maori-Pakeha relations have improved immensely, though without ridding us of entrenched inequalities in health, education and well-being, or transcending the terrible wrongs committed, especially in Taranaki, during the colonial wars. When I was a child, Taranaki towns like Inglewood were dominated by the dairy industry. Not only has dairying become industrialised, but natural gas, oil and petrochemicals have transformed the landscape. Inglewood has become a dormitory suburb of New Plymouth. What used to be a half hour journey by bus on winding roads, is now a ten-minute car ride.
What do you consider to be the most interesting aspect of your book for a reader?
I think my book will appeal to any New Zealander who has lived abroad and faced the dilemma of keeping the home fires burning while profiting from what used to be called, rather mysteriously, ‘overseas experience.’ For those less travelled, it may offer a perspective on the country from outside, but without the distortions you often find in books written by foreign visitors who lack the long-term immersion of an ethnographer or the deep familiarity of a native son.
As a writer, an academic and a person, what inspires you, drives you, and interests you the most?
What drives me now is what drove me, as a child, to seek places and people remote from the world in which I started out; to see to what extent I am able to cross the linguistic and cultural barriers between me and them, and become a different and, hopefully, a wiser and more sympathetic human being.