In New Zealand, the only borders are where land stops and water begins. There we speak of going overseas. For that is the only possibility to travel, one must literally go overseas to get to another country, be it on boat or aeroplane. But what do Europeans mean by ‘going abroad?’ Is it to go where the language is different, where they live under different rules and regulations, where they have something else for breakfast, where they behave differently? All while sharing the same piece of land?
The first time I came to Europe I was excited. The thought I’d be breathing the same air that Kafka had, walking the same dog-shit Parisian streets Celine did, seeing the same night sky that Hamsun saw… but then I realised it wasn’t the same as I’d imagined; it was actually similar to what I already knew. I’d dreamed of Dostoevsky’s adventures across the continent. Instead, when I got off the train, having arrived in yet another European city, the kids were listening to Eminem and wearing T-shirts with cheap English phrases on them. My dream of Europe was a myth, a romantic notion, a ridiculous expectation, an idealisation. The reality was different: I certainly wasn’t drinking whiskey with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
Now, after a decade, I’m back in Europe but in a completely different manner—in Obra, a small village in the Polish countryside. I find myself in a constant state of disorientation: It’s as if the sun is travelling from west to east. It’s as though south is north. My bearings and perception are literally flipped upside down. As an island dweller, it’s too much to handle. The thought that, if I wanted to, I could go by land and reach Moscow, Kolkata, or Shanghai is incomprehensible. Instead, I stay put in the little village. Is it simply because I’m staying put that all these more basic, natural, fundamental (maybe more obvious) observations arise? I didn’t experience this 10 years ago when I was looking at and distracted by all the famous cities. Trying to find something that wasn’t there.
And then I ask myself: How come Polish writers haven’t established themselves in the West like their German and Russian counterparts? They have four Nobel Prize winners (two of which were poets) and a hellishly interesting history. Is it simply their geographical positioning amongst the heavyweights of world literature that such high expectations exist, and comparisons are made? New Zealand, on the other hand, in its isolation is just happy to be recognized, seen from time to time punching above their weight. Think of Edmund Hillary and Everest; Kate Sheppard and the women’s vote. Is Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield the literary equivalent?
Perhaps the biggest difference between NZ thinking and Polish thinking is the mentality of being oppressed versus the mentality of the oppressor. As a heterosexual middle-class, white or Pakeha male, I live the conscious, ethical part of my life in guilt. Guilty that we invaded Aotearoa. Guilty that I have an advantage over others in life because of my gender, sexuality, colour of my skin, and even my native tongue. Guilty for being one of the “blessed” (which is the same as saying lucky). Like most things in this jumble and confusion of a world, the result is the exact opposite: I don’t feel grateful, blessed or lucky. I feel guilty.
Patricia Grace’s ‘Butterflies’ is the simple, yet beautiful and moving piece of flash fiction that is a good illustration of NZ society. In a few hundred words, it shows NZ’s artless language and culture, complicated by fundamental issues such as race, inequality, but, most importantly, perspectives and assumptions. I’m not sure how this piece translates, but I know straight away from the speech that the family is Samoan. I assume the little girl, living with her proud, uneducated grandparents, is with them probably due to neglect or abuse from her parents, and she is on some form of social welfare. Why do I think this? From whose eyes am I reading it? The story the girl wrote in her school book, about killing butterflies, is shocking; one I didn’t see coming, more frightening, however, is the teacher’s response (simply dismissing the girl’s actual experience). This is how it is, or must be, for the minority (especially Maori and Pacific Islanders) living in NZ under a predominant Pakehamindset for which the teacher in the story is a symbol. I feel sad, guilty, and sorry for these minorities. I think their stories have been heard but dismissed.
NZ doesn’t have the history for which Poland is internationally renowned. It doesn’t have the grandiose literature of Kings and wars of tremendous scale. Poland has a strong, proud identity. The opening line of its national anthem: “Poland has not yet perished” sums up a country that was, at numerous times in its history, extinguished from the map. The fact that Poland exists and the Polish language survived is in itself a testament of endurance. However, contemporary Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, most famous in her homeland for her 900-page epic The Book Of Jacob (I can’t personally comment on the work as it is not yet translated into English) about a Jewish-born religious leader who forces the conversion to Catholicism upon fellow Jews. After winning the Nike award (the highest national honour for literature) for the book, she was interviewed on Polish television on which she controversially stated that: Contrary to its self-image as a stout, courageous survivor of oppression, Poland had committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation at times in its history. Outraging loyal nationalists, she was labelled a traitor, among other things, and her publisher even hired bodyguards to keep her safe until the dust settled. Is recent Polish history subjective, half told, or cherry-picked? Is any nation’s story unquestionable? Togarczuk offers an alternate version of recent Polish history for both old and young to consider if they are willing.
Polish literature spans centuries. NZ, in comparison, is an infant. It hasn’t had time to develop. NZ artists are inspired by its nature and remoteness, the landscape, flora and fauna, its uniqueness and isolation. But the colossal cultural influence thrown upon these small islands in the South Pacific must be noted—from the homeland, England, but also from all the European nations, as well as the Pacific, Asia, Africa, North and South America. From the indigenous to the newcomer, from Americana to Islam, from Catholicism to tribal faith. It’s all in NZ, at eye level, in the countryside and city, like the four corners of the world are meeting on this remote island. It can be compared to Australia, Canada, America, and the UK insomuch as there is a predominant culture icing a multi-cultural cake. In comparison, the Polish village in which I find myself is culturally isolated as though it’s an island.
Recently, Tokarczuk bagged the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights. It’s an international, universal story that will connect with many modern, worldly people that are constantly escaping, hopping around the world on aeroplanes as if the world’s made up of scattered islands—the exact opposite of how the world actually is. Part of the novel shows how people leave one place only to arrive at the same destination—an airport. Modern cities are becoming alike, and like airports in Tokarczuk’s book, there’s little to distinguish one from the other. The Polish title for Flights is Bieguni, which is difficult to accurately translate into English as it has a dual meaning: wanderers or runners/joggers (hence the reason for choosing a different title for the English version). In the book, it is a direct reference to a Slavic sect who avoid the devil by being constantly on the move. More generally, it represents all people who travel around, avoiding being stuck, and run away… But what are they escaping? Reality? Oppression? Sameness? Themselves? It’s these travellers who find themselves in places that are more or less the same and which, in turn, become their reality. Then it poses the question: Are they really freeing themselves?
In the end, the truth is, we can’t leave our bodies. We can’t leave ourselves no matter where in the world we are. Whether we like it or not, we’re all islands in a great sea of influence.
Nick Fairclough is a New Zealander currently living in Obra, Poland with his wife and two boys. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Otago University majoring in Human Geography and Political Studies. Fairclough’s short works have appeared in print and online publications in NZ, Ireland, England, and America. His first collection of short fiction The Tidal Island and other stories is due out in September 2018. Find out more at https://nickfairclough.wordpress.com/