Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Less is more

Mistakes were made, and apologies have been tendered. So what now? In the NZ Herald article rather impertinently headlined “How Witi Was Found Out,” Geoff Walker of Penguin Books says, of The Trowenna Sea, "It deserves to be read and it's a terrible shame that this has happened."

Yes, it is a terrible shame.

A quick clarification: the Herald article missed one crucial point, probably because its author used quotes from my blog rather than contacting me directly. I didn’t find the borrowed material “by Googling phrases from the novel.” Rather, I found it by Googling the subject of the novel.

I had never heard of Hohepa Te Umuroa, the young man from up the Whanganui River who was convicted of rebellion and transported to Tasmania with four of his countrymen in 1846, died there barely half a year after his arrival, and was eventually brought home again in 1988. So I looked him up. The first hit is the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and the second is the Google Books extract from Karen Sinclair’s book Maori Times, Maori Places: Prophetic Histories.

Lines from the latter sounded awfully familiar. Sure enough, there were uncanny similarities between Ihimaera’s text and the words of both Karen Sinclair and the diary by Joan (Hoana) Akapita that Sinclair quoted. Only then was I moved to re-examine some of the passages that had set my antennae quivering while reading the book. And that’s when I started “Googling phrases from the novel.”

It’s a persnickety point, but one with the clang of irony: to use unattributed material on an obscure subject from one of the only books on the subject is to seriously booby-trap your work.

So yes, it is a terrible shame that this happened, but it was always going to happen. I just happened to happen on it first.

(And what priceless irony that the predatory Google Books was the instrument of detection, although they do say that retired poachers make the best gamekeepers).

In any case, the Listener article is now widely available (although not yet online), and readers can draw their own conclusions from Guy Somerset’s factual reporting and my book review.

In the meantime, we are meant to be consoled by the fact that “only 0.4%” of the book was questionable; surely such a tiny proportion should not cast a pall over the rest of the book. It is true that roughly 1000 words out of 528 pages is a very small number, mathematically speaking. But my search was limited - by deadline, by my willingness to neglect children and housework, and, crucially, by what was readily available via Google. I found further examples after the Listener article went to press. Other readers might too. Or they might not. Who can say, without a closer look at the author’s notes and drafts and a good bit of time in the library (after all, not everything is known to Google).

Even if the figure is only 0.4% and therefore (somehow) not a biggie, how much is too much? Obviously, 100% is the upper limit (check out a dramatic example from elsewhere that comes alarmingly close!). But what is the lower limit? Does Auckland University or Penguin have a number in mind? Any number of essay-procrastinators and aspiring authors would love to know!

Some would argue that literature is - or should be - held to a different standard. Is it? Should it? In recent literary memory, Kaavya Viswanathan echoed dozens of sentences from several different sources in her debut teen/chick-lit novel. She was wide-eyed with disbelief that her “internalization” of her favourite books had gotten her into such trouble, but her book was eventually pulped.

Closer to home, Murray Bail dealt graciously with the discovery that he had failed to credit several encyclopedia descriptions of gum trees in his fine short novel Eucalyptus. His publisher came up with the excellent phrase “the novelist as bowerbird,” and it turned out that the infringed-upon author wasn’t terribly bothered about it anyway.

More recently, Ian McEwan came out fighting when he was taken to task for insufficiently rewording passages from a wartime memoir by Lucilla Andrews in his prize-winning novel Atonement. His response was swift and assertive. He noted that he had explicitly cited the book as a source and had credited the author at every public opportunity. Furthermore, he argued, “as one crosses and re-crosses the lines between fantasy and the historical record, one feels a weighty obligation to strict accuracy.”

McEwan was defended by a whole posse of other big name writers who took the position that “taking for their own use extracts of contemporary accounts is completely acceptable as long as the source is acknowledged.”

Emphasis on “as long as the source is acknowledged.”

Of course Shakespeare would be laughing up his sleeve at that one (as is at least one Shakespearean scholar of my acquaintance). The bard plundered like a pirate, delivering to deadline without anything in the way of acknowledgements or footnotes. But for better or for worse, we live in slightly different times. The Trowenna Sea’s copyright page includes the assertion that “Witi Ihimaera is the author of this work in terms of section 96 of the Copyright Act 1994.”


Even when sources are acknowledged, there’s still the question of how, or whether, including secondary material enhances the work. The descriptions of eucalypts are integral to Bail’s novel; had he simply used them as epigraphs he’d never have drawn comment at all. Perhaps McEwan should have done a better job of processing his borrowed material through his own aesthetic filter, but the novel is brilliant, and the ghastly details of wartime nursing are a crucial part of Briony’s personal purgatory. Some people weren’t entirely convinced but on the whole, he got a compassionate pass.

If you aren’t one of the people whose words were borrowed, you might feel the same kindly urge to absolve Ihimaera absolutely. And if you haven’t read the novel, you might also assume that the borrowings must be there for a good literary reason.

The, shall-we-say, intertextuality in The Trowenna Sea falls into several categories. Some quotations, especially those from historical figures, are clearly marked as such. Other snippets are taken from credited works, but are not marked as quotes. The most troublesome are not credited or marked at all. All have been used to apply a patina of McEwanesque “strict accuracy,” with varying degrees of success.

I think a case can be made for using occasional phrases from the record. Ihimaera’s account of the attack on Boulcott’s farm, for example, strikes me as nicely re-imagined from the Maori point of view. He has clearly read the history, but then sat down and thought his way through events as Hohepa and friends would have seen them. His descriptions chime with the record, and are also a persuasive and enjoyable read.

Conversely, using Colenso’s words verbatim to help Hohepa describe the scene at Waitangi is problematic. It’s fanciful enough to send Hohepa to Waitangi on Treaty Day; in order to make the trip worthwhile, I want to see events through that character’s eyes, not via a well-worn missionary account. Would Hohepa have noticed the dogskin cloaks and the blankets worn by his countrymen? Or would he only have had eyes for the freaky uniforms sported by the British delegation? Would he have bothered to sneer at Pompallier in his Frenchy Catholic purple pomp and circumstances?

The problem here is one of register, with the voice of the young man from the Whanganui River slipping and sliding all over the place. (It’s also a lost opportunity for a spot of ostranenie, something I’d have thought a writer would leap at.)

The Tasmanian parts of the novel were heavily researched, as indicated by the long list of books in the author’s afterword (at least one of which was borrowed from, several times). Readers familiar with that history are better placed than me to judge how well it’s integrated.

And New Zealand historians may have bells rung by some sections that hew closely to the historical record and borrow dialogue from the history books, e.g. the account of the Wairau Massacre, which echoes the way it’s told by Thomas Lindsay Buick. But readers might not mind that degree of faithfulness in what is, after all, a historical novel.

The uncredited material from Karen Sinclair’s book that first caught my eye (including her citations from Hoana Akapita’s diary) appears in the final section of the novel, which describes the mission to Tasmania to bring home Te Umuroa’s remains. With the scrupulousness befitting a professional anthropologist, Prof. Sinclair has referred all enquiries to the iwi, who have apparently pronounced themselves satisfied with the use of the material. So I'll desist from further comment there, too.

Sometimes, however, the borrowings could be argued to detract from the novel. For example, a few details have been cherry-picked from Mukiwa, a memoir by Peter Godwin of growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s, and revisiting it in the 1980s. These details are used to enhance the chapters in which Ihimaera’s character Gower McKissock looks back on his experiences in Tasmania, from Rhodesia in the early 20th C. (NB this is the character who pens the immortal line “…it is 1917 now, and World War I still alarms us.”)

The first part of Godwin’s book describes his childhood in Silverstream, which is at the foot of the Chimanimani range. In The Trowenna Sea, Gower McKissock sits on his farm, which is also in Silverstream, and gazes up at the mountains:

It is another night in Rhodesia.
The stars are dancing over the Mountains of the Moon.

The Mountains of the Moon are mentioned in passing in Godwin's book, when he treks over the Chimanimanis into Mozambique: a windswept rocky plain on the far side of the range is described as “the Mountains of the Moon, a barren landscape dotted with craggy rock formations.” This, the close reader infers, is a local nickname for the scenic spot.

But the actual mountain range known as the Mountains of the Moon is in Uganda. Over a thousand miles to the north.

Godwin doesn't spell out that the vista he describes is no relation to the more famous Mountains of the Moon, so it’s an easy mistake to make, especially if you're working from a single source. How handy that such a redolent and ancient place-name apparently overshadows the place you've decided to settle your character.

If you're not particular about geography, it's a trivial detail that looks marvellous on the page. But it's also a little bit like writing about a farm in Pukekohe that has a view of the stars dancing over the bustling city of Bombay.

Then there's the extended section, also from Godwin, about African death vigils, which you can find by googling "maggot larvae" and "makonye" (Godwin's book is a googlewhack, at least until this post went up). Ihimaera uses this passage as a climactic chapter-ending for Gower McKissop, and it works rather beautifully on the page as a blunt meditation on the realities of death.

But in Godwin's book, the description is part of a larger story about how as a boy, he would occasionally be brought along to watch his mother, a doctor, perform postmortems on people who had died violently. It’s gruesome and subtly political stuff: later in the book, when young Peter sees the body of his Aunt Diana, he's astonished that there are no maggots. (Coincidentally, it's a visit to the same Aunt Diana's grave that prompts the “china teacup” meditation that also made it into The Trowenna Sea).

If we read these passages not knowing their source, they are very striking and atmospheric pieces of writing. But knowing their origin changes things. What’s at stake when you put words describing a traumatic childhood in Rhodesia in the 1960s into the mouth of an elderly man at the end of his life in 1917? And what's up when a writer who is presumably well-versed in the vagaries of representations of the Other casually borrows a scene of such tempting exoticism, without seeking to contextualise it further?

Perhaps when it comes to the more general historical material, we can count on a greater yield of McEwan-style accuracy? Might we forgive the occasional “gorgeous equipage” in pursuit of a Victorian reality effect? Well, yes and no. Ihimaera has apparently gone to superhuman lengths to make sure he’s right about the details of time and place. But the effect is uneven. Often the detail has the feel of a backdrop, and plot points feel as though they are borrowed not from the world of the time, but from novels about the time.

As Nicholas Reid points out in his review, too often the characters think and speak like “early 21st-century characters dressed in 19th-century drag,” and not just because they make anachronistic references to World War I, or Aotearoa, or worry about how they should have read the English version of the Treaty as well as the Maori one.

Reid's review also pretty much answers the pertinent question David Haywood asked, in the discussion thread for my last post: "Is Ihimaera's new novel -- plagiarism questions aside -- a good book?"

But it's interesting that Reid used the same word I groped for: “ambitious.” The Trowenna Sea is a very ambitious novel in its length, its scope and its designs on the reader. Plagiarism questions aside, each reader will find different things to enjoy about the novel, and will have different quibbles. It is prodigiously researched, and informative on many subjects. Above all, the story at its heart is a fascinating one that deserves to be brought into the light: the fact that the Maori prisoners became a cause célèbre and rallying cause in mid 19th C Tasmania should absolutely be more than a footnote to history.

Trying to fathom the extent of the undigested material, I found myself reading several contemporary accounts of the events Ihimaera describes. They are so very strange. It reminded me how much of the pleasure of history is discovering, all over again, how little we know about the past. And how hard -- and rewarding -- it is to try to capture “the pastness of the past” (cheers, T.S. Eliot) or to pin down what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling” – by which he meant “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” in a given time and place.

I think capturing that spirit of pastness requires not just research but an act of translation. In the case of this novel, that possibility of translation into an imagined world has been inadvertently squelched by the sheer tonnage of research.

Fortunately, Ihimaera has taken to revisiting his older works. In an interview with the Listener five years ago, he said of his early fiction, “I wanted to write like Frank Sargeson or Janet Frame. I thought if I could slip into their skin, people would admire my work. The terror was writing the other strong, dark stuff that was there.”

I want to read that strong, dark stuff, and I doubt I’m alone. That’s what art is for. Ihimaera, again: “Art should be wielded like a taiaha; the further in you push the spear, the better.”

The short, tragic story of Hohepa Te Umuroa has strong, dark stuff to spare. (Or spear).

Plagiarism questions aside, Ihimaera wants to use this story as the basis for an impassioned argument about how all sorts of people suffered and prospered and travelled and conversed, alone and together, in moments of solidarity and mutual incomprehension, in those early days of encounter and settlement. And that’s a story that deserves to be read.

So when the author sits down to rewrite this book - and I trust he will - I hope for something less like a history textbook and more like… a novel. In his own words, a journey into the mind and life of Te Umuroa, or a fictional equivalent thereof. It wouldn't need to take a Cook's Tour of empire. It could still travel through the minds and lives of the British characters. It might, in the end, only be a few hundred pages long.

I would definitely read that book. I might even love that book.

Because, plagiarism questions aside, those were the bits in The Trowenna Sea that worked for me: the scenes that opened a window into a long-gone world, and showed me unfamiliar events seen through unfamiliar eyes. Some were mawkish, others funny, several bawdy, and a few heart-breaking. But those were the moments when, as a reader, I felt - forgive me - transported.

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