West Island by Stephanie Johnson
This book is something of a departure for Stephanie Johnson, given her plays, poems and a host of impressive fiction such as ‘The Writing Class’ and ‘The Writers’ Festival’. If you have followed Johnson’s writing you will know that recently she has struggled to get novels published and has written some under the pseudonym Lily Woodhouse, an Australian author who lives on the Gold Coast. Johnson recently published ‘Playing for Both Sides: Love Across the Tasman’ which explores a life which includes long spells living in Australia.
This cross-Tasman split makes her the perfect person to narrate this collection of five lives of New Zealanders who did the same, left home for the bigger country to the west. The main point about the five characters in this biography is that they are almost all unknown in New Zealand. They left and became a success in Australia, thereby being forgotten among New Zealand alumni. Some of them chose to forget their New Zealand roots altogether, while others chose to hold onto fond memories.
I must confess that I didn’t know any of the five subjects. I have seen some of the paintings of Roland Wakelin, even though I couldn’t remember the name. Of the writers Dulcie Deamer, Jean Devanny and Douglas Stewart I knew nothing and nor had I heard of the writer and broadcaster Eric Baume. The point of the book is that now I know a little bit about all of them and have a sense of how some came to lose their identities and affiliations with their homeland. It is a fascinating echo of these earlier lives that Johnson herself has found it hard to gain a publisher for this book on either side of the Tasman. Australians didn’t want to read about New Zealanders said the Aussie publishers, while those in New Zealand had no wish to read about Australians.
This rivalry and disregard for each other is apparent in many places. Johnson recalls her own first visit to Australia: “When I think back to my impressions of Australia in 1985, when I first crossed the ditch, they were to do with animals and men. Both were very different to what I was used to. Louder, brighter and more exciting…You didn’t have to go far out of town to see wallaby, kangaroo or emu. Australian men were just as loud and exotic. They flirted, made off-colour jokes and let you know if they thought you were gorgeous.”
That for me was one of the joys of this book, a liberal scattering of Johnson’s own experiences and commentary. The timescale is also interesting, since it spans much of the twentieth century. Johnson begins the book with a bit of artistic licence, creating the setting of a 1940s war time party in Sydney, when all five of the subjects are attending an exhibition of Roland Wakelin’s paintings. It allows for a quick cameo of each, as we observe them from our vantage point in the future. We see a Bohemian socialite in her leopard print outfit, a tall communist expelled from the party due to her sexual behaviour and a man dressed in a fake military uniform, who is not beyond making up the news he prints and broadcasts.
The structure of the book is interesting, having begun with some sketches of our five subjects’ early days in New Zealand, in the Wairarapa, Taranaki, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland, we then head to Australia and pick five years; 1913, 1925, 1939, 1951 and 1972. From here we drop into the lives of our subjects and enjoy brief snapshots. I like the way this works, because it feels very different to a conventional biography. It also provides some interesting social commentary on the way that Māori have been represented in literature, and in particular the literature written by settlers to the country. Given some of these works are close to a century old, we see a very different way of thinking.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Otago University Press RRP $39.95