Booker prize winner Keri Hulme defends successor Eleanor Catton

Keri Hulme (left) has come to Eleanor Catton's defence, calling Sean Plunket's comments "silly".
Keri Hulme (left) has come to Eleanor Catton's defence, calling Sean Plunket's comments "silly".

New Zealand's original Booker Prize winner has defended her successor after Eleanor Catton was criticised for speaking out against the current government.

Catton, who won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries, was speaking at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India last week where she reportedly said that after winning the prize she became uncomfortable with the way people treated her in New Zealand.

"We have this strange cultural phenomenon called 'tall poppy syndrome'," she said.

"If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you.

"Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal."

Catton said she has struggled with her identity as a New Zealand writer and felt uncomfortable being an ambassador for the country when it was not doing as much as it could, "especially for the intellectual world".

She criticised the Government as being dominated by "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians" who didn't care about culture.

Her comments were ridiculed by RadioLive broadcaster Sean Plunket, who this morning labelled Catton an "ungrateful hua".

"I don't see you as an ambassador for our country, I see you as a traitor," he said.

Plunket's comments were swiftly condemned on social media, and confusion arose about what he had said.

"Halfway through his disgusting rant Plunket calls Eleanor Catton and "ungrateful whore" or am I mishearing that?" Arts commentator Hamish Keith wrote.

MediaWorks spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer said Plunket defined a hua as "just a woman who annoys you".

Winner of the 1985 Man Booker Prize, Keri Hulme described Plunket's comments as "silly".

"Quite seriously, aren't writers allowed their opinions. Do we have to - whether we've been helped via literary prizes etcetera or government grants - always agree with what some of the policies are."

However, she disagreed New Zealand had a 'tall poppy' issue when it came to successful writers.

"I've had an enormous amount of support over the years. Not least to when [The Bone People] was declared the first classic New Zealand novel, which still makes me laugh."

Hulme added that she suspected whatever country a writer was from they would be disillusioned with government support of the arts.

"I felt very comfortable when I was an ambassador for New Zealand in a literary sense."

Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman said Plunket's comments were "completely absurd".

"In terms of being a traitor, we show our love and gratitude to our country as much by holding it up to high standards as we do by celebrating it," he said.

"I just think it's amazing how something so innocuous can blow up so nastily so quickly. We have a real problem with public conversation in this country."

Prime Minister John Key said he was disappointed Catton "doesn't have respect for the work we do because I have tremendous respect for what she does as a writer".

He said Catton has been aligned with the Green Party and her comments "probably summarise the Green Party's view of this government".

Novelist Jenny Pattrick said she agreed with some of Catton's comments about the present government's policies, but not with her assertion that they didn't value cultural matters.

"I've dealt with numerous Ministers of Culture over the past decades, from both political sides. Uniformly they've been great supporters. And long may that continue."

Labour leader Andrew Little said Catton was simply "calling it how she sees it".

"I understand what she's saying ... We do need to support the creative and expressive arts, it's a very important part of New Zealand, we have a very strong creative and arts community.

"If she feels it's not being supported, then let's look at that, let's hear more about it, and see what we can do."

Mr Little said he did not take her criticisms about New Zealand politicians personally, saying she was "entitled to express her opinion".

"For Heaven's sake, two weeks on from one of the grossest tragedy's in the world, which is all about freedom of speech, let's celebrate freedom of speech and let's celebrate and welcome what our writers have to contribute and to offer," he said, referencing the shooting against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this month.

"Let's actually listen to them, let's not try and shout them down."

Catton was a "high performing, very reputable writer", he said, who New Zealanders "should be very proud of".

New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell, who was a judge at last year's New Zealand Post Book awards, told Radio New Zealand he felt as though Catton obviously still held on to some resentment for not taking home the top accolade.

"There were some other very very good books... this is not the Booker this is a New Zealand prize,"

He said Jill Trevelyan's book, Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, celebrated New Zealand writing, and he called it a "New Zealand icon".

"We gave it the best book. Eleanor got the best fiction. We thought that was a nice symmetry there."


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