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Family history at heart of winning essay

Wednesday 24 November 2021 12:00pm

Andrew Dean websiteAndrew Dean has been named the winner of the Landfall Essay Competition 2021 for his essay ‘The New Man’.

Andrew, pictured right, is a lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. His first academic book, Metafiction and the Postwar Novel, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

Competition judge Emma Neale says: ‘ “The New Man” is a reminder of the complexity of political, social and religious pressures that many immigrants and refugees have carried with them to Aotearoa throughout modern history. As he traces his grandparents’ background, Dean looks into the shamefully long record of anti-Semitism that has driven families into nomadic exile across the globe.’

Other results

Second Place: Claire Mabey, ‘Holy Smokes’
Third Place: Susan Wardell, ‘Mary, Me, and the Bees: In search of the good settler’
Highly Commended: Norman Franke, ‘“Dream of Birds …”: Research poetics, Messiaen and posthistoire behind a Hamilton garage’; and Susanna Elliffe, ‘No More Elephants’
Commended: Ethan Te Ora, ‘White-knuckled Guilt’; Alexis O’Connell, ‘Through the Mist and into the Sunlight’; Jayne Costelloe, ‘Alchemy of the Airwaves’; and Bonnie Etherington, ‘A Fried Egg in Space’

The full judge's report and Andrew's winning essay can be found in Landfall 242. Below, Andrew discusses why he wrote his essay and what it means to tell his version of his family's history.

What is your essay about?

The essay is about my father’s family, who emigrated from London after World War II. When I moved to London in 2018, I found myself living in the same area they had left decades earlier. Yet instead of finding that world familiar, I found it strange. In the essay, I wanted to explore that strangeness, and to situate it in the wider history of the 20th century.

For whatever reason, I think it took me a long time in my life to understand how we all live through our pasts. We may not always acknowledge those pasts but they are there in our lives nonetheless. Perhaps you could say that the essay is an attempt to ask how we are subjects of history. It offers several perspectives on this question from a moment in my life.

Why did you feel compelled to write about this?

I started writing what became the essay just after I had moved to London in 2018. It actually began as emails to a friend. I was living in a flat that was half-made, which only compounded my sense that the certainties of life were slipping out of hand. None of that was helped by the random arrival of builders and plasterers at all times of day and night.

East London wasn’t whatever I had expected it to be. I knew all the place names but not what they meant: Spitalfields, Stepney, Limehouse, Whitechapel. In Hoxton I went to an expensive Swedish bakery; near Bethnal Green I listened to the changing sound of an air conditioner at a contemporary art gallery. I discovered that Haggerston Park has pigs.

All of these experiences led me to reflect on how myths attach themselves to places, and how these places become akin to stories of origin. In that autumn of 2018, I found that none of those places or stories seemed to fit with the life that I was actually living. That is, until I unexpectedly started to see figures coming out of the mists of the past.

How personal was this for you? Did that make it more difficult?

The essay feels to me both personal and impersonal. By writing about my family, I am recounting histories that others know better than I do, or may remember differently. The story that I tell belongs to me but also to others – my parents, aunts, siblings, cousins. I am telling this story this way; they may tell it in other ways. But of course they are my first readers and I remain conscious of that.

Yet, looking back now, I can also feel the personal becoming impersonal. A writer I know has described his sense that his work is complete when it no longer sounds as if he wrote it. I understand what he means: I hope that the piece has gone from my idiosyncratic interests (and voice) to something more like a completed piece of writing. But whether I have been successful in that endeavour I’ll leave up to readers to decide.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I have been working mainly on academic projects recently, on issues such as nationalism and comedy. Occasionally I’ve been able to write other pieces for magazines. I am still in my first year as a full-time lecturer, and it can be hard to find time. I hope that in future I’ll be able to write more about the issues that come up in the essay.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Since I heard the news about the prize, I have been thinking more about what it means for me to tell a story about Jewish life in New Zealand and Britain. Charles Brasch, the first editor of Landfall, refused to Anglicize his name by dropping the ‘c’ – even if his father did. For whatever reason, it feels right at the moment to recall a Jewish presence here in New Zealand, in Christchurch.