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Elizabeth Knox, Dreamquake

I've had too little time to look at the many fascinating entries and links IBARW has generated (maybe in another fortnight), but this has been sitting on my computer for over a month, and it seemed like an appropriate time to post it.

The second book in what is, for me, an intensely problematic duology. When I read the first book I wondered if I’d missed something, especially when I went hunting for reviews and none of them mentioned what I’d found – a massive, unbelievable hole at the heart of the book. Baffled, I put it aside, and hoped that the sequel – when it came out – would explain everything.

It doesn’t.

So. Both Dreamhunter books are set in an alternate version of New Zealand/Aotearoa, in the early 1900s; a version that is missing its North Island, but keeps all the rest of its geography, with a map on the frontispiece that is quite clearly the top of the South Island, where Nelson (the original capital) becomes Founderston, where the settlers arrived a few generations back, and Farewell Spit is So Long Spit, and Westport hasn’t even been renamed. Each corner of the map has a cameo inset with a different native creature: a tuatara, a kaka, a kiwi, and a fish (my species identification skills are not that good). But only the fish could be named in this book – because the other names are all Maori, the language (and the name) of the first settlers of Aotearoa – later called New Zealand. And, in Knox’s series, there are no Maori.

In my version of New Zealand/Aotearoa, Maori arrived somewhere around a thousand years ago. In my 1900, the Maori population had dropped dramatically as a result of European settlement and the land wars (from 100 000 in 1840 – when Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – to about 35 000), with most of their land also gone, and there was a tendency on behalf of the settlers to assume, or hope, that Maori were on their way out – a dying race. But at the same time a group of Maori were making their way into politics – Sir Apirana Ngata, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), James Carroll (who made it to Acting Prime Minister) – and encouraging the preservation and revival of Maori culture and tradition, a process that - with varying difficulties - has continued to this day. In the 2006 Census 565 329 people identified as Maori (for the purposes of the Census, as with the electoral roll, cultural identification rather than blood is used to determine ethnicity, and people can identify with more than one group), or about 15% of the population.

There is no doubt that colonialism in New Zealand could be just as appalling, at times, as the colonial experience anywhere else. What the European settlers did not, however, ever manage to do was what Knox has done, which is to erase Maori existence completely. And what it does is change her whole world, so that her New Zealand – which is not also Aotearoa – is also not mine.

Names are important in these books – the sand-creature Laura creates is given his identity (and his freedom) by the name she inscribes on him. Laura’s family have an exotic past, descended from Lazarus, protecting his bones, they have strange knowledge and a sense of privilege. And the world in Knox’s series distorts itself around them, the landscape bending to their whim, and reading it makes me sea-sick. So much of what I love about my own country has been erased. In her landscapes there is fennel and dock, but no piripiri or kawakawa; plane trees and black firs, but no rimu or ngaio; riflemen and gannets, but no pukeko or kereru; cabbage trees, but no nikau, potatoes but no kumara; parson birds rather than tui; black-furred fern roots instead of punga; cicadas, but no weta; gorse on the hillsides but no pohutukawa along the coastline. You can’t take a whole people out of a land without changing that land, without changing the language. A series so concerned with names cannot have failed to notice this.

I find it really hard to assess the book separate from this issue. The characters are a little too special, and a little too distanced; on the other hand, the imagery is vivid and sensual, leaving the reader with a collection of brilliant impressions; waking up in the heart of a camera obscura, being cradled by arms made of sand, wasp-hollowed apricots hanging, ripe and hollow, on a tree; the shudder of the land under your feet in an earthquake. An incomplete land.

I don’t know why Knox did this. Maori landed in the South Island/Te Wai Pounamu in my world (possibly even before they did in the North/Te Ika a Maui) – why not in hers? I did find a reviewer prepared to mention it this time around – Jolisa Gracewood in The Listener notes that “there is no category for indigeneity in Knox’s “Southland”. But perhaps this allows for a subversive piece of Pakeha [nonMaori New Zealander] myth-making, one that invites us to think anew about the claims that our hearts make on the land and vice versa.” I find this irritatingly weaselish – why not say “Maori” rather than “indigeneity”, for a start – and unhelpful. How are Maori supposed to read this book? A number of other reviews have mistakenly put the book in Australia (and I note that “the Place” is apparently based on a chunk of the Australian outback, which really makes me more uneasy about appropriation rather than less). I am also waiting for the opinion of a friend of mine who is not only Maori but madly fond of alternate history – and no, before anyone asks, I do think this sort of alternate history decision is much worse than an alternate history in which the European settlers did not come to Aotearoa. But if you've read one, I'd appreciate the recommendation

In addition, she’s put Dr Michael King in her book, as a historian who wrote A History of Southland. In my world, Dr Michael King wrote the Penguin History of New Zealand – and a number of other excellent books about Maori and Pakeha history, and identity. He died in a car crash in 2004, and is sadly missed.

I know that some of my reaction to this book is coloured by my current homesickness (and being stuck in the wrong country), in that the only thing in that situation worse than not being home is being given a home that should be familiar but is instead wrong, in so many terrifyingly unsettling ways. My home has many flaws, but this should not be one of them.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 12th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
Here from your ibarw link. That's...deeply unsettling. I'm not sure why she chose such a familiar setting if she wanted to erase an entire culture, unless she was attempting to make a statement about the difference that culture's absence would make. Could that be it?
Aug. 13th, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)
I'd like to think so, but there's really nothing to support that in the text - it's not a dystopia, and although the inhabitants are clearly recent settlers there's not a lot of discussion about where they're from or the implications of them bringing over their own culture into this new place.

It's possible she was just using familiar geography as a setting and didn't think through the implications of changing the past in that way - I've seen other fantasy authors use some very familiar maps that way, but it's usually been European and hasn't bothered me as much.
Aug. 12th, 2007 08:39 pm (UTC)

If you wanted more people to see this post and possibly comment then you could try posting a link in whileaway or, if you don't want to join that community but you would like to be linked, I could post a link there. Or maybe you'd rather not. :-)
Aug. 13th, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC)
Links are fine (I'm flattered!) but I'm not sure I'm on topic for whileaway (a community I like, but I'm time-limited at the moment). However, if they've been discussing Knox's series there, then yes, link away.
Aug. 12th, 2007 11:42 pm (UTC)
I didn't realize it was so close to New Zealand geographically, but I did notice the Outback flavor. Did I then consider that there should've been people there before the white settlers? Nope. Score one for unconscious racism. Thank you very much for pointing this out.
Aug. 13th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
If I were a more organised person I would have added pictures, but yeah, the map at the front is the South Island, right down to rivers and town locations. Actually, I'm curious - if you don't mind answering, did you think the books were set somewhere specific, or in a completely imaginary country?

(and I do think your icon is just fabulous. Until now, I thought camels had the best disapproval:body weight ratio, but I stand corrected :) )
Aug. 14th, 2007 12:49 am (UTC)
Thanks. :)

I figured the setting was Fantasyland, just with different elements than the usual European stew.
Aug. 13th, 2007 01:31 am (UTC)
That's very bothersome. It brings up so many questions about the author. I'm sorry you had to feel that.
Aug. 13th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Fortunately, I have Margaret Mahy's books as an antidote - another NZ YA author I can wholeheartedly recommend.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 14th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
Re: the 'poltergeist' problem
First, this isn't my journal, but hey, I like to talk, and I'd like to thank you for posting here. It takes a certain amount of courage, after all. And I haven't read the book, so some of these questions may seem a bit odd, but since you started the discussion, I'm all curious now.

Did you consider making your protagonist Tangata Whenua, or setting the story somewhere less New-Zealand-y?
Aug. 15th, 2007 06:10 am (UTC)
Southland is not New Zealand (1)
Actually, Southland is not New Zealand. Coal Bay is very like Golden Bay, geographically and botanically. But Golden Bay does not have a railway line into it, or two major rivers letting out through it, or commercially viable coal deposits. The Spit and lighthouse are pretty much a match, right down to the world's only the sand-based Gannet colony. These similarities are striking, and it is Coal Bay that’s pictured on the map (not because Coal Bay comprises a large part of Southland, but because the Rifleman Mountains are where the Place is and the books are about the Place). Coal Bay is like Golden Bay, but Founderston isn’t Nelson, for a start it’s not on the coast!
As for the creatures at the corners of the map, they are entirely the work of the mapmaker at Faber, Philip Hood, who first decorated the map with a fish, deer, snake, and bear. I didn’t object that these weren’t New Zealand animals. I did say that my heroine Laura wouldn’t wander around forests quite so confidently if there was some chance she might meet a bear! Philip slapped his forehead and drew Kiwi creatures instead.
As for Dr King, I gave my historian Michael’s name as a homage. I did tell my Australian editor that I thought I should change the name to avoid any over-determined reading by kiwis. But she wanted to keep it, as she liked the homage. I was glad to have kept Dr King since—despite the over-determined readings—it gave me a chance to make my affectionate portrait in Dreamquake.

So much for the similarities. Differences:
Founderston, the book’s main setting, is absolutely nothing like Nelson. For one, it is an inland city. It has a large railway system leading to and from it, and a commuter train and tram lines. It is larger than even Auckland was in 1906. It is a stone-built city on a broad, navigable river. When I was writing I had continually to think, "Don't think of Paris." And, as much as I tried, the Isle of the Temple sits in the stream of the Sva much as the Ile de la Cite sits in the Seine. (The temple itself looks more like the Salute at the end of the Grande Canal in Venice). Founderston is much younger than Paris, but it is an older city than any in Australia and New Zealand.
Southland is an industrial as well as agrarian nation in 1906.
Two other cities mentioned in the book are Castlereagh and
Canning – named for english politicians of the Napoleonic age.
And what about the Sva River? Sounds Slavonic to me. I never had to explain using it. I did have to insist on putting “River” after the name, not before it, in the English way.
The main church in Southland is the “Southern Orthodox Church”, a totally made-up denomination whose priests are robed and bearded.
Southland is a mineral rich country—rather like Australia, but without copper. And, actually, until one of my editors removed it, there was a scene set in the Nitrate Mines on the Howe Peninsula. I was thinking of the Chilean Nitrate trade—which my family has a tenuous but colourful connection. Lazarus Hame still mentions “digging bird shit”.
Laura’s ancestors are one of five families, refugees from a Mediterranean island destroyed by a volcano. The story of how they chose to come to the south Pacific is never told (since I plan to use Southland again, and another of the “five families”, I can work it out later).
The dreams in the Place, dreams that turn out to be memories, have crows, burned-off grain fields, blackwood forests, a stone bridge made by a convicts, a sandstone church and mansion, and eucalyptus. All this comes from my time in Tasmania. The first faint vibration of my story came to me because of it the various convict-past haunted bits of Tasmania struck me so strongly when I was there.
Southland is a Republic with a President and Congress!
Furthermore, just as Southland is a made-up country, there are clues that it exists in a made-up world. There is a Gospel of St Thomas, and Gospel of St Lazarus in this world's Bible. And, although Lazarus Hame mentions an "epidemic" of the influenza, and if you do your maths you can work out that it is 1918, he never mentions "the War".
Aug. 15th, 2007 11:53 am (UTC)
Re: Southland is not New Zealand (1)
Thanks so much for responding, and taking the time to explain your thoughts behind the book, which have made me think about and modify my response. I wish I had more time to reply – hopefully this isn’t too inarticulate!

Firstly, you are completely right in that it’s unfair and unreasonable for me to criticise something – in this case, your Southland – for being what it isn’t (New Zealand/Aotearoa). And I did read the books as alternate history (in fact, I initially assumed the absence of Maori to be the branch point – without them there, Maui was unable to fish up the North Island (or metaphorical equivalent) and all else followed) and, in response to your specific points, I have also carelessly misplaced Nelson. I actually thought the railway line was a clue rather than a difference, as the railway line to Nelson was a political hot potato in the past. Many of the other things I glided past (I thought “Isle” was a poetical term, although I didn’t re-read the first book) or didn’t notice (additional books of the Bible) and, yes, I did over-imprint on the map. I apologise for that.

And you’re right in saying that I wanted the books to be set in New Zealand, and not just because I’m homesick. Too many fantasy novels are set in default mock-Europes; in, as you’ve mentioned, the northern hemisphere, where going north takes you to ice-dwelling barbarians and south takes you to desert-dwelling decadent types. Names, in particular, are a trap – everytime a fantasy writer mentions a tree, or an animal, or a fruit, it pins them down to either a specific place (usually Europe, with rabbits and oak trees) or a non-specific compromise (the endless “redfruit” and “greenfruit” L.E. Modesitt’s Recluce characters consume, for example, which I liked at the beginning but not so much after six books!). Some of them are still very good, but it’s a relief to encounter something specifically different – Justine Larbalestier’s Magic series, or Geoff Ryman’s Air.

But I do still have problems. Partly, this is my preference for specificity over vagueness in setting – I’ve read too many novels which lack almost any sense of place, with weatherless cities and unlikely stock landscapes. I do think your books have a strong sense of place, but it’s the broader context of where this place is in the world (the book’s world? my world? it seems partially tethered and partially free, not quite alternate history and not quite separate world) that is confusing me. And yet, I loved Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav, which shoves a nonexistent country into Europe – so why am I having trouble with your Duet? If Southland isn’t New Zealand/Aotearoa, why can’t I relax and read it for what it is?

And that takes me to your question – “why must New Zealand be quoted in full?” (and I'm going to have to split this reply, so I'll cut here)
Aug. 15th, 2007 11:56 am (UTC)
Re: Southland is not New Zealand (1)
I don’t think the answer is that it has to be. However, there are two things that I think make your answer to this – your books – more problematic than that. One is a particular specific that is left out, and the other is what is told.

For what is left out – an indigenous population – to go back to your earlier comment, I do see what you mean by the poltergeist problem, and, for story reasons, yes, it makes sense to have a previously uninhabited land. As a reader, living in a country with a background of things like Terra Nullius – it’s hard to accept such a conveniently empty, sunny, southern hemisphere country, without seeing shadows behind it. Would I have the same problem if your settlers weren’t white (and I’m reading Laura – who’s described as “tan” as Mediterreanean – the other skin colours I can find all seem to be white, and I’m sorry if I’ve gotten this wrong) and didn’t feel British in origin (again, I’ve gone looking for specifics, and didn’t find them, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a Polynesian society, for example)? Maybe not. Nor would I have the same problem if there were an indigenous population – but, I agree, the story would have to change to fit that, and again I shouldn’t critique your book for what it isn’t.

For what is told. If I think of Southland as not New Zealand, as a country in its own right, then the central story – Laura’s story – is about writing your name on the land, in a newly settled country. Making the earth “obedient”, to borrow Lazarus’ word. Now, I did really like the heart of this story, and the unravelling of the mystery. But it’s difficult for me, again, not to look at what this is saying, and not see a story that is, on one level, about colonialism. An unproblematised colonialism, where no one else has a claim on the land, and again it’s hard to read that without seeing shadows.

It’s the combination of the two things, I think, that mean the story still jolts me, even if I try and see Southland as a country entire in itself. I do agree that it’s likely my reading of Southland has clouded the rest of the story, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. And I’m not saying you intended this as your story, at all, but it is what I found.

I do want to thank you again for taking the time to comment, and giving me the chance to think more about what I’d said.
Aug. 15th, 2007 06:16 am (UTC)
Southland is not New Zealand (2)
Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are not counterfactual fictions, they are fantasies, with magic spells derived from a song Lazarus heard in the tomb, a Golem (and so far no one has objected to my borrowing a Jewish myth), and people able to broadcast dreams.
When I began creating my fantasy I made the decision to use what I knew and loved—Golden Bay—as well as what struck me: Tasmanian convict history, and the dry rolling hills south of Adelaide (for the Place), and the Ile de la Cite. I made the decision to set a dark fantasy in a sunny southern hemisphere country because, much as I love them, I felt that Philip Reeve, and Philip Pullman, and even Australian Garth Nix, had used up the cold north, for me at least. No one reading about hawthorn hedges, oaks, elms, elders, spruce, firs, in any fantasy written in North America or Britain would expect their invented village, county, or country, to have to follow the rules of a real history. By using bits of New Zealand (plus Tasmania and South Australia, as well as shades of Paris, Lyon in Burgundy, and St Petersburg) have I committed myself to absolute faithfulness to the whole of New Zealand? Why? Why must New Zealand be quoted only in full? Middle earth has its home counties-like shire, and volcanoes. Can fantasies only quote bits of the Northern hemisphere? Again, why? The New Zealand-like bits in Dreamhunter and Dreamquake may be special to me, and to my New Zealand readers, but they are equivalent with everything else in the book, all the other likenesses, borrowings and inventions. (And the fact that Laura’s golem is like and unlike Rabbi Loew’s might very well have bothered someone).

What I think has happened is that reading The Duet you have been forcefully reminded of things you miss. (The compliment implied in the rest of what you say!) You’ve then missed even more acutely things that the book doesn't have. But these are these books. These books do what these books do. For other things you miss you’re going to have to find another book. Either one that has a whole, real, historic or contemporary New Zealand setting, or a book that, if it is only New Zealandy in parts, doesn't commit the offense of reminding you!

I recommend Damien Wilkins’s The Fainter
Aug. 17th, 2007 12:25 am (UTC)
This was my first answer
I should put this back so that the other ones make sense, eh.

"I have been asked about the absence of the Tangata Whenua in my NZ/Tasmania-like Southland. And there were indigenous people in my early plans for Dreamhunter (though Southland was very much Tasmania at that stage, and so there was to have been a drive-them-off-the-island type genocide). But once it came clear to me that I was writing a haunted land story I also realised that if an indigenous people were present and the reason that the land was haunted wasn't about them, then that would be worse than deciding not to have them at all. If the haunting was a result of the family spell/sandman's promise, as it is, then any people in the story with an earlier relationship to the land would end up as a kind of a red herring. Was I prepared to make the Tangata Whenua a red herring? No, I was not! Readers would be looking for that relationship -- asking themselves, 'what has happened here to THESE people to cause this dream stuff.' I think of this as 'the poltergeist problem'. In the film Poltergeist the house is haunted because it has been built on an 'old indian burial ground'. There are so many stories like this that is is almost impossible to write a 'haunted land' story without setting up a whole lot of expectations that can only be fulfilled (in which case I'd have had to write a very different book and one that would, coming from me, be sadly lacking in authority) or disappointed.

Imagine there are Tangata Whenua in Southland, people with an old relationship with the land. Then Imagine the Place--the land containing dreams-- turns out to have been created by some upstart, late-coming european refugees from an ecological disaster, and only so that the heroine's sand servant could save her son. THAT would have been an odd, uncomfortable, unmotivated story. You can't have big stuff floating around the edges of smaller stories, and I wanted to tell a small story, a family story, where the big stuff (how people should treat one another, and how society should treat its citizens) is felt though only a few relationships.

I hope this makes sense, and helps you see a little less sin or solipsism and a little more one writer's tricky, and considered, decision. "
May. 14th, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)
Wow, superold post. But you brought up some things that had been bothering me lately, too - I couldn't remember whether there had been any Maori in (what I tool to be an) Alternate New Zealand, and it was worrying me.

And, whoo, Knox actually turning up and replying on your blog. It's nice to have confirmation that Southland ISN'T NZ, unlike what every review I can remember reading said, but - I can so, so see why you thought it was. And why I thought it was, too. I read something a while back, someone talking about how Kiwis skim through stuff occasionally and hook their eyes on capital Ns and Zs, and I think that's got something to do with it. I don't know of a lot of NZ-based fantasy, and I feel the lack a bit, so when Knox's books came along and there were all those "clues" ... my brain said OH LOOK IT'S US, and that was the end of it.
May. 17th, 2009 12:00 am (UTC)
Comments on old posts welcome! (and responded to just as, um, efficiently, as comments on new posts) Yes, Knox turning up was a bit unexpected. I'm not entirely convinced by the "it's not NZ" argument because Southland is so NZ-like, and I think having Michael King as a character is still problematic if we're somewhere else. However, as I said above (the comments are a bit out of order), even if I accept it as a different country with its own history, I still have a problem with the book; namely that it is a colonial fantasy, and an unquestioned one.

To expand on that - Southland having no North Island does not affect Knox's story in any meaningful fashion. Southland having no indigenous population does - what Knox calls "the poltergeist problem" (I'm not sure if she's referring to the movie here, which I think involved an Indian burial ground). So, this is a story that relies on having an empty country waiting for settlers - and, internal to the story, it's a story where the whole fantasy in it results from writing your name on the land, and making it serve you. This does get resolved during the book, but having it be the main driver of the action still makes me really twitchy.

What I got from Knox's duology was that if you were a special person (I have a lot of problems with Laura) the world would arrange itself around you. I have trouble with this idea in many other books by many other authors, but the overlay with the history of NZ/Aotearoa and ideas of colonialism in these books made it particularly disturbing.
May. 17th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC)
I agree with all that, yes. I've only recently opened my brain towards the problems of colonial fiction, but your points all make sense to me.

I haven't actually finished the Dreamhunter duology; it lost me a bit halfway through the second volume, and when my mum stole it, I didn't bother to steal it back. It has made me want to read more NZ fantasy, though! (in light of which I have been scouring bookshops for old Gaelyn Gordons, and not actually, yaknow, lookig up new stuff ... oh well)
May. 18th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
Finding specific NZ fantasy is *hard* - everyone seems to be doing vaguely European secondary world stuff. I spent an unhelpful amount of time trying to map the city in Maurice Gee's Salt/Gool duology (I liked the second one much better than the first) to somewhere in NZ, but I don't think it works. The last recent NZ fantasy I hit was Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia, I think, but Mahy's always been good with local references.

I can't remember how much Gordon's stuff referred to NZ - I liked Tripswitch, but it's been a long time since I read it. I should have a look again. Oh, and I loved Duckat :)
May. 19th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
I think Jack Lasenby did some Children's/YA series based in a postapocalyptic North Island - I remember some place-names being bastardised versions of rivers, etc. I haven't read Gordon since I was ... let's see ... ten? So a bit fuzzy there, but I do remember that she wrote something with a taniwha in it, so that better be NZ!
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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