The Lesser Known Bird: A Journal From New Zealand
I have always felt that starting a review with a personal anecdote is corny and have a rule against it. My review of Takahē issue 2, 2011, however, needs context. I plead to you, kind reader, to forgive me and keep on reading.
Moving to this side of the world—Australasia—meant one thing: a whole new literary world to discover. After just a couple of months, I admitted my ignorance, stopped swearing by the writings of Patrick White and Katherine Mansfield, and took on a different approach. A couple of years later, I can assure you, kind reader, after reading the work of writers such as David Malouf, Gail Jones and Alison Wong, among others, that the literary scene from this side of the world is exciting, demanding, competitive and sometimes even playful. Now, let’s get back to business.
The takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is a colorful bird endemic to New Zealand. Just like the better-known kiwi, it is flightless. Once the Europeans settled in the region, its population decreased dramatically and by 1930 it was wrongfully thought extinct. In 1948 the bright-red-beaked creature with short, stocky, legs suddenly reappeared. The takahē is not as charming or popular as the famous kiwi, but it is as enthralling as the latter. Takahē is, indeed, an interesting title for this magazine, part of The Takahē Collective Trust, a non-profit organization that supports published and emerging authors and cultural commentators. Short stories, poetry, essays and book reviews grace the pages of each edition of Takahē.
My reading experience was influenced by Fiona Kidman’s “The Honey Frame”. The story, which is set in colonial New Zealand, sets the bar high in terms of narrative style and voice, and, as a reader, you expect the same quality in every page. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Kidman has 25 published books, is a Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit and Takehē’s guest fiction author. It is hard not to compare the quality of her writing with, for example, the poems of page 67.
Some of the finest writing in this issue belongs to James W. Barnes, an American author moved to New Zealand in 1998. “No Nails,” the grim reunion of two siblings ostracized by years of indifference and reunited at their father’s funeral, is a poignant narration that combines kinship, guilt and fate in such a way that it might make you cry. Barnes’ story also shows us how interconnected we are, regardless of our sense of belonging or present circumstances.
For those interested in contemporary New Zealand issues, “A Van Full Of Gandalfs,” written by Edinburgh based writer Greg Michaelson, is of interest, as it is a critique on the country’s newly gained fame as a tourist destination—it is an interesting story that weaves references to The Lord of the Rings with tours gone mad, financial crises and a splash of Maori culture.
Michaelson and Barnes are not the only international authors who grace Takahē 73. The 72 pages hold a lively mix of established and emerging writers, foreign and local. Each author is profiled next to their story or poem, and each provides a brief explanation of why or how they write. Some of those explanations are a bit clichéd but others are honest and, if not inspiring, at least touching, such as Samuel C. Mae’s: “If I don’t write, my shoulders clench, my neck aches. When I do write I’m invincible.”
Mae’s story, “The Race,” also deserves some recognition, as it takes you to Long Bay Beach, a national park 30 kilometers outside Auckland. The plot is straightforward and references one of the region’s cultural rivalries. A New Zealander and a man with a strong Australian accent race each other to determine who is faster (can you guess who the winner is?) The vivid descriptions take you to the site and provide a glimpse of the day-to-day life of the people that live near the area.
In early 2011 Takahē launched a short story and a poetry competition, and this issue includes the winning entry of the short story contest: “The Girl from Nanjing Road,” written by young New Zealander Deborah Rogers. The story set in Shanghai and New Zealand captures the paranoia and the buzzing activity of one of the world’s busiest shopping streets.
This edition also includes the winning entry of the 2010 Takahē Cultural Studies competition. Although Hayden Williams’ “Panning Cambrian” feels more like a travel piece than a proper cultural studies essay—if there is such thing, of course—it is interesting to read because it provides a glimpse of Cambrian, a village founded in the 19th century. “New Zealand history can be difficult,” writes Williams, “So much is lost, and it is only relatively recently that our young nation has awoken to the idea of its own past.”
Unfortunately, some of the poems and the interview with Christchurch artist Jane Schollum aren’t as captivating as most of the short stories and essays. Some poems are clichéd exercises of contributors that have recently finished a degree in creative writing or have just taken up writing—there are exceptions, of course, such as Michael Harlow’s, who is this edition’s guest poet.
Sponsored by the Arts Council of New Zealand, Takahē is published three times a year and it can be found throughout New Zealand (overseas one-year subscriptions cost $40). The editors accept local and international fiction (between 1500 and 3000 words, up to two stories at a time) and poetry (up to six poems at a time). The work submitted has to be original and must have a strong narrative style, an interesting use of language or a new perspective. The editors indicate on their website that “above all, we like some depth, an extra layer of meaning, an insight—something more than just an anecdote or a straightforward narration of events”.
All in all, Takahē is somehow similar to the bird it borrows its name from: colorful and endearing, but flightless. Although some of their local contributors give wings to these pages and carry us to marvelous places, the selection—particularly of poetry—is not up to the standards set mainly by their guest contributors. Yet perhaps this will change, as the magazine grows in popularity and the variety of submissions increases.
Takahē is a reading material that will provide you with at least a fortnight of short stories, essays, book reviews and poetry. This is not a literary magazine that can be read over lunchtime or in just one go.