So I’m a New Zealander living in Australia and I wrote this book set in New Zealand that I might have mentioned once or twice or twenty million times and it was picked up Little, Brown, which is an American publisher, and by Allen and Unwin, which is Australian.
Guardian of the Dead is a very New Zealand book, and that is the part of which I am probably proudest. I had first readers from all over the place, and one of them said, “this is the kind of book I wanted growing up because it feels like home” and one of them said, “I was in the Haast Pass looking at the mist rolling over the bush and I thought of your book, and what could be waiting there” and those were some of my favourite comments.
I have talked before about the imaginative displacement of New Zealand writers, with particular reference to Margaret Mahy and Patricia Grace. It was very important to me that I write New Zealand, and write it well, that the setting be more than just a place for the action to happen. This is a book that couldn’t take place anywhere else; it is informed and defined by the stories and geography of my land. On some levels it is a story about how (white) New Zealanders can construct their identities in relation to the land and the stories that existed before their ancestors arrived.
So when people mention my use of Australian mythology in my book about Australia, I sometimes feel like I’m going to throw up.
New Zealand and Australia are relatively close to each other (although I believe that Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia, New Caledonia, the Philippines and Brunei are all closer to Australia than New Zealand). We nominally share the same head of state in Elizabeth II, though she has absolutely no real say in the governance of either nation. The ANZACs have fought together, in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. We have close personal ties, and close economic relations, and English is the main language spoken in both countries.
New Zealand was settled (most say) around AD 1000.
Australia was settled (most say) about 40 000 years before that.
That is clearly already a substantial difference in the history of both nations, but it is just one of very, very many. Our flora and fauna are different. Our modes of government are different. The achievements of our nations are different. Our Creme Egg flavours are different, and don’t think I’m not sad about that.
Australian author Justine Larbalestier wondered about this misidentification, and solicited comments on her blog. A lot of people replied; the comments make for some fascinating reading, and there are some very good theories about why this mistake happens.
And, you know, I get it, I really do.
I understand that it might be confusing that I live in Australia, and that the publisher is Australian, that it’s easy to mistake New Zealanders for Australians* when we’re abroad because of our similar accents, that people have this picture of New Zealand as being just off the coast of Australia. Or, that they apparently think of it as part of the *continent* of Australia (which it is not. New Zealand is on the largely submerged continent Zealandia).
But the fact that there are justifiable reasons for outsider ignorance does not actually help a lot. I lived two years in Japan, and I’ve travelled a lot in the US and when people mistake me for an Australian, I politely explain that I’m a New Zealander. When people ask me where I’m from, I always say, “I’m a New Zealander living in Australia,” or, “I live in Melbourne, but I’m actually from New Zealand.”
Most people then smile and nod and maybe they knew before that these are two different countries or maybe they didn’t. Either way, they accept what I say about myself and move on, and everyone is happy.
The people I get annoyed with are the ones who say, joking or not, “Oh, right. Well, almost the same thing, isn’t it?” Like they expect me to shrug and say, “Well, yeah, it doesn’t really matter.”
Screw that! It totally matters.
My national identity is not a joke. It is vital to who I am as a person. When people dismiss my national identity, or imply that I shouldn’t be upset that people mistake it for that of another nation, or think that correcting them is somehow making a big fuss out of nothing, they are dismissing me. They are dismissing all the myriad ways that my experience of being a New Zealander informs my experience of being me. They are dismissing what I say about myself, as if they know better, as if I am not the authority on being me!
It makes me angry, and when it comes from friends or people I respect, it makes me hurt.
I don’t care if people are ignorant – ignorance can be corrected. I care if they’re stupid; I care if they don’t see or care that they’re hurting me by dismissing such a big part of myself. It’s okay to make a mistake about where I come from; there are lots of reasons why that could happen. But don’t try to tell me that it’s not really a mistake, or that it doesn’t really matter.
I am a New Zealander. It matters a lot.
* I wonder if it happens mostly to visibly PÄkehÄ (white European) New Zealanders? Are New Zealanders of visibly Asian or African descent considered “Asian” or “African”**? Are New Zealanders of visibly Polynesian descent identified as MÄori, regardless of whether they are or not? I do not know!
** Do not even get me started on “Africa is a country, right?”