Lawrence Patchett Q&A

Tina Makereti: I’m going to start with the VUP blurb for the book, because it’s not an easy story to put into a few words: ‘In a radically changed Aotearoa New Zealand, Van’s life in the swamp is hazardous. Sheltered by Rau and Matewai, he mines plastic and trades to survive. When a young visitor summons him to the fenced settlement on the hill, he is offered a new and frightening responsibility—a perilous inland journey that leads to a tense confrontation and the prospect of a rebuilt world.’

It’s been interesting, already, to try to explain what the book is, and to watch others try to explain it. I think it defies easy genre categorisation, just as it defies attempts to explain the world you’ve built in the story. And for me, that works, because the future should be strange and unfamiliar, and it should make us think about the present.

I agree with Dougal McNeill, who has said of the novel: ‘Patchett’s is an extraordinary imaginative achievement: an unsettlingly strange, and fully realised, narrative situation and world.’ I’ve watched you, for years and years, write your way into this strange and unsettling world, and I know that craft is paramount to you, but also some other kaupapa that are the pulsing blood of the novel. Can you talk about the whys and hows of writing this book?

Lawrence Patchett: When I started this story, there was just a scene with two characters—Van and Rau—and a dead relative on a raft, burning. A grief scene. It seemed to connect to my own family history and background—via burning—and to the swampscapes I’ve always lived in, and I knew it was taking place in some sort of future world, but that was really all I knew. But I followed those characters, and the novel grew from there.

My fiction tends to go into whatever borderland of anxiety I’m negotiating at the time. Writing in a garage next to a roundabout that was loud with traffic, and 200-odd metres from where a vast new motorway was being hammered through, I was really worried about climate breakdown and its impact on our daughters. At the same time, I was learning te reo Māori in a dedicated way for the first time, and that learning was making me think more about my own identity as a Pākehā person, and about the legacy of history and colonisation that I’m part of. So, I found the fiction began to find ways to explore both those things: climate crisis, and my own place as a Pākehā in the system of colonisation.

Most of all, though, my goal was the same as always: to write a story that would grip the reader.

So those were the ‘whys’ of the book. The ‘how’ was just lots and lots of perseverance—writing and rewriting—and encouragement from you when I wanted to give up. And, later, collaborating with Aaron Randall on te reo and related content played an important part in the novel too.

Tina: In this future vision of Aotearoa, te reo Māori is spoken widely, particularly by the Whaea people on the hill. You started writing seven years ago, after you began learning te reo Māori. It’s been interesting over that time to witness the rise of the popularity of te reo Māori amongst a wider mainstream population, with long waiting lists to get into te reo classes now the norm.

But in one of your drafts a few years ago, you took te reo out of the novel entirely. I read the draft and gave you a massive telling off about it, because I know you love the reo, and you wanted to create this future world that was not entirely white, and I couldn’t bear seeing you give in to whakamā or lack of confidence or anxiety about your identity as a Pākehā in Aotearoa using the first language of this land. This morning you said that that draft, and the conversations we had about it, was a kind of turning point. Can you talk about the role of te reo in the book, why you took it out, and where you’re at with it now?

Lawrence: In some ways the role of te reo in the book feels like the outcome of a really natural process, and in other ways it’s been influenced by lots of conscious decision-making.

Starting to learn te reo changed me profoundly—I felt like it woke me up in lots of ways. This was reflected in parts of my first book, where the characters were becoming aware of a world and outlook beyond their own Pākehā one. In those stories I stayed within the perspective of a Pākehā learner, because that’s the experience I had access to and was interested in exploring—the limits of Pākehā understandingand contact with other perspectives.

So, in some ways this book is a natural extension of that project. Again, Van’s a learner, and he’s acutely aware of the language and culture that are all around him, but which aren’t his own. And when you’re learning another language hard-out, your mind tends to slip in and out of both languages, so that is reflected in the writing too. And when I was thinking about the future, it seemed to me inevitable that heaps more people would be speaking te reo tuatahi o te whenua. This was probably because at the time I was surrounded by lots of people who were working hard to learn the language, and/or to claim it back (and, of course, many of them were overcoming much bigger barriers than I was, to do so).

On a more conscious level, whereas I had been dimly aware of my Pākehātanga, I wanted to make sure that Van was acutely aware of his identity as a Pākehā person, so there was some world-building mahi to do around that. On the other hand, as a Pākehā person I was wary of appropriating aspects of another language and culture, especially when the world of the novel was so different from today’s. So, I wrote a draft where I took all of the te reo Māori out, and tried to draw attention to Van’s Pākehātanga via other means.

And you hated it. You said it was no longer a book that raised questions about Pākehā things; instead, it just seemed a supremely ‘white’ book, invisibilising lots of important realities about Aotearoa, now and in the imagined future. You also pointed out the difference between an empty form of appropriation, and a different sort of engagement, like the one you refer to in your sentence about ‘your identity as a Pākehā in Aotearoa using the first language of this land’.

So, then I just tried to write the book that was in front of me. That’s what The Burning River is.

As I said earlier, working with Aaron was very important. Aaron saw deeply into the many differences of the invented environment the characters lived in and called it a ‘patchwork’ world. Through his creative input, his feedback and whakaaro on various drafts and sentences, and by just yarning, Aaron helped make the book richer and deeper.

Tina: Due to the work it does, I think The Burning River represents a new movement in Pākehā New Zealand fiction, something that has never been done before. I want this movement to gain traction because I think it’s going to be hard for Māori to gain back everything that’s been taken, and I guess I mean the cultural, spiritual and emotional losses as much as the physical ones, if Pākehā don’t figure out who they are and their place in the world, in this world, Aotearoa. That work is important. Pākehā don’t usually get those representative pressures placed on them, but Māori writers obviously get it all the time.

And I know you don’t want to think in these terms about your own work, but what do you think Pākehā writing is doing, not doing, or should be doing? What is exciting for you in what is being produced and breaking ground now?

Lawrence: Wow, you said some really interesting things there. I kinda feel I should just let this question stand on its own! I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the value of Pākehā people like me making an effort to know and own our Pākehātanga.

But I think the best way I can answer this question is by talking about some books I found really moving recently. They take different approaches, but really spoke to me.

In There Is No Harbour, Dinah Hawken confronts the legacy of Pākehā history head on, diving into her own family history in Taranaki, and the legacy of dispossession this connects her to. The ‘I’ of that book gets to grips with the difficult types of knowing that emerge. She expresses both love and gratitude for her ancestors, but also deep discomfort about the injustice she, as a descendant, has benefited from. And she develops this very powerful metaphor: ‘there is no harbour’. For me, one of the things this suggests is, once you know this stuff, there’s no hiding from it. But, as a friend pointed out yesterday, there’s no harbour in not knowing either. Dinah’s phrase is one that has extraordinary resonance and power for me.

In a different way, similarly destabilising questions emerge out of all kinds of books. In Kate Duignan’s The New Ships I thought these kinds of issues were managed really cleverly, snaking away in the subtext and emerging at unexpected but just-right moments.

But I’m also just really into Pākehā writing that engages really energetically with Pakeha culture’s conversations with itself about how it will exist on this whenua—like in Lynn Jenner’s extraordinary book Peat, which I’m reading right now.

Tina: People often ask us what it’s like to live with another writer, in a way that is suggestive that it might be a bit shit, especially where egos get involved. All I can say is that it’s one of the delights of our relationship that we can show each other anything we write and receive completely direct and uncensored feedback, and that neither of us get defensive about that. We met studying writing together, so I think that’s probably partly the training, and partly the desire to do good work above all else, including feeling like we’re brilliant.

But for me this nexus between Māori writing and Pākehā writing and everything that means has also really fed what we do. I feel extremely lucky on a regular basis, and yet I’ve also spent a fair bit of time pointing out what’s missing in NZ literature, and feeling exhausted. Can you discuss the influence that living with a writer—this particular hōhā, impatient writer—and the cultural and family backgrounds we both come from, has had on your work?

Lawrence: Of course, there are times when it gets ‘a bit shit’, but it rarely has anything to do with the writing! Meeting you changed everything about my work, because it led to all those changes I’ve already talked about—learning a new language, learning to see different things, and all that. It was amazing when we collaborated on a project earlier this year, and saw how the impacts of colonisation played out differently in our whānau, right down the generations, leading to land-ownership, education, and relative privilege in my family, and land alienation, cultural loss, and generational trauma in yours. I’d say that living with a Māori writer made me want to be a more consciously Pākehā writer … or something approaching it anyway!

And, of course, it’s so great having a trusted reader who challenges me. And it’s brilliant being able to talk about writing and book stuff without boring the other person too much.

But I reckon one of the biggest things I learnt from you during the writing—and rewriting—of The Burning River was what you wrote about in that essay called ‘The Story That Matters’: ‘Be brave. Make yourself uncomfortable. Do the work required.’ This book and my next project are both scary, and they make me uncomfortable, but mostly in a good and creative way.