Cross-Cultural Relations: Abjection as a defining condition of post-colonial New Zealand

With reference to articles by Inge Sorensen , 'Abjection in The Bone People and The Queen of the Tambourine' and Samantha Pentony, 'How Kristeva's theory of Abjection works in relation to the fairy tale and post colonial: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Keri Hulme's The Bone People'

Janet Wilson
Department of English
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand

Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Janet Wilson, all rights reserved.

It can come as a surprise to see your own country reflected through the apparently distorting lens of a major European power like the UK, whose inhabitants may know of New Zealand only as a spot on the map, whose thinking is not defined by the oppositional identities of imperial hegemony and post-coloniality that a Pacific location induces, and who may depend on different ideologies and discourses for interpreting literary representations of society. This perceptual shake-up occurred when I taught at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford earlier this year a course called 'Living Women Writing', using a mixture of textual analysis and literary theory. Among the texts were Keri Hulme's the bone people and Janet Frame's An Autobiography, and it was these New Zealand works which seemed most to arrest the attention of students. A more revealing response to these recent texts came from their essays, composed using one theory to analyse two texts. Inge Sorrensen, studying at Brookes on an exchange from Aarhus University, Denmark, and Sam Pentony both elected to use Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection to read the bone people, and in relation to Angela Carter'sThe Bloody Chamber and Jane Gardam's The Queen of the Tambourine .

What is striking is the consistency of their readings of the bone people in which they see Simon as archetypal in embodying Kristeva's definitions of the abject, and the climactic scene of the novel, in which he is nearly battered to death by his step-father Joe, as an attempt to expunge the abject, anticipating the necessary redemptive movement of the fourth section. In the more accepted post-colonial reading of the novel, Simon's paradoxical victim/provocateur status is identified with a desire for change and renewal. In conjunction with Joe's and Kerewin's symbolic roles in relation to the land as broken man and digger, Simon's subjection additionally symbolises the land's subjugation, and disatisfaction with its treatment by generations of colonisers, a theme voiced by the kaumatua, the old man who guards the mauriora. This view takes account of the novel's utopian bi-cultural perspectives in the crucial period of its publication and reception in the mid-80s.

However to read the novel as fulfilling in crucial ways the paradigm of the subject as abject, and abjection as a conditioning factor for social change, is to emphasise a different preoccupation. A psychoanalytical theory such as Krisetva's, linked to the grotesque and horrific (as Barbara Creed has been done), shows that violence has its own logic, and that the radical nature of the change it brings about is an inevitable feature of the search for renewed identity, both on the social and literary levels, and for recognition of that which exists on the borders of the acceptable and unacceptable, the conscious and unconscious.

Sorensen's and Pentony's interpretations of Hulme's novel, moreover, contrast starkly with their readings of texts by British authors, because in Carter's stories in The Bloody Chamber and Gardam's novel The Queen of the Tambourine, the representation of the abject is mediated through manipulation and radical revision of an already existing literary genre: in Carter's case the fairy tale and in Gardam's the epistolary form. Sorensen and Pentony both point out the purposes of rewriting these genres: Carter critiques the patriarchal structures of fairy stories from a feminist perspective; Gardam appropriates epistolary writing and by extension diary writing, to the ends of self therapy and -cure. But in Hulme's case the story line is not interfused with a pronounced literary, revisionist agenda; and both students illustrate how engagement with the abject functions as a structural principle in the novel especially in their analyses of the climactic scene in Chapter 8.

Hulme's rhetorical handling of images of violence and her formative patterning using the indigenous image of the double spiral to produce a redemptive cyclic structure, betray affinities with European models, and indeed the novel has been criticised for its unreconstructed high European modernism. But Pentony and Sorenson show that her distinctive treatment of issues to do with marginality and victimisation widens the gap between our expectations of modernism and those of post-colonial writing. If the abject is represented in New Zealand novels in terms of a clash with what is considered normative then we should expect disorted, unfamiliar structures and unpredictable thematic outcomes. This indeed is at the heart of Janet Frame's writing who like Hulme avoids conventional plots in order to structure her representations around the essence of marginality, muteness and madness; it is also encoded into the violence of Alan Duff's two major novels Once Were Warriors and What becomes of the Broken Hearted? which he associates with outcaset Maori families and communities.

There is no doubt that the abject (which in this sense can be equated with what a society finds repellent as well as fascinating: detritus, waste, not-belonging) has been held boiling under the surface in New Zealand's Puritan past, emerging in fragmented form in the realist novel and in the stories of Frank Sargeson. But the sharper social critique of intolerance to social and ethnic difference which emerged during the 1980s means that what was considered previously as taboo has been liberated, finding new modes of expression. In a society increasingly conscious of the ramifications of the Treaty of Waitangi, writers have lifted up the lid, cut into the raw underbelly of New Zealand and re-encountered racial inequality and social dysfunction. Not surprisingly this engagement and its diverse literary products coincide with the emergence of the voices of the previously marginal and inarticulate, especially women and Maori. As well as producing hybrid, multi-dimensional novels of the originality of the bone people and of Frame's, it may well urge reconstruction of the realist and modernist novel into a more indigeneous form. Truly, as Kristeva says, the abject and abjection are 'the primers of our culture' by which we come to know ourselves better.

Write a letter to The Editor.