We’ve cast her as a cultural saviour, but our love is conditional on her conforming to the role we’ve given her

Je suis hua.

I know I'm a bit slow.

I've never published a book and I'm a masters of creative writing dropout.

Maybe that's why I've thrashed about a bit with the controversy over Luminaries author Eleanor Catton's comments to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Who could argue with this bit: "We really need to actively resist [cultural embarrassment] and be brave." Or this: "In New Zealand we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything." I'm with Catton here, so I guess I'm a hua too.


Because when Catton was brave in saying what she believed, what happened? She was blasted with personal criticism.

Ironically, weren't we all just gargling on about free speech, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, only about a week or so ago?

That campaign sure sunk in. Free speech, yeah? As long as you have an Overdeveloped Fawn Response.

But even with my tigerish desire to protect Catton's right to say any old thing she darn well likes, I did find some of it a bit muddle-headed. She said after she won the Man Booker prize, there was a feeling in New Zealand that "we're not going to celebrate it here ...

"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 proprietorial."

So we did not celebrate her success enough (we are "hard" on her) while simultaneously being too thrilled ("taking ownership" of her success). Can you be both? Maybe so.

As a friend pointed out we can be hardest on those we consider our own; if your children are misbehaving with their friends you are likely to be tougher on your own kids than the others. We see Catton as "ours", part of our mythical New Zealand family.

I keep going to call her "Ellie", although I have never met her, which is not just presumptuous but rather supports the theory we have inappropriate boundaries and ego-identification.


Then there is Catton's characterisation of our Government. It is worth noting that if you read the transcript, she is talking collectively about the governments of Australia and Canada as well as New Zealand, which she says are dominated by "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture".

I always thought neo-liberals were idealistic and adhered to purist market principles. Whereas, "I think most New Zealanders would agree" to borrow an over-used Key phrase, this Government is more opportunistic, poll-driven and populist rather than guided by any burning doctrine.

Case in point, bailing out Rio Tinto and coughing up more than a billion dollars to compensate the investors in South Canterbury Finance; neither of which could be called examples of hands-off government.

But maybe I'm wrong. Neo-liberal is defined by Wikipedia merely as an advocate of extensive economic liberalisation, free trade and reductions in public spending to enhance the role of the private sector.

By this measure, Catton is accurate. Exhibit A: The transformation of state housing to "social housing". And she is surely on stronger ground with her poke about the Government's dismissive attitude to the arts. It would be hard for this Government to argue it is a passionate arts supporter in the same week it announced it was closing the National Library's book service to schools.

The arts do not get anything like the kind of funding sport does. This is not necessarily a matter of political hue. As Winston Churchill said when asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort: "Then what are we fighting for?" But what I wonder is, whether Catton as a writer feels trapped and burdened by our construct of her as our cultural saviour. Like any good writer, she longs to be free. Being the "national hero" carries a cost she does not want to pay.

We love her, but only conditionally, as long as she will be a "pleaser" and conform to the role we have assigned.

As long as she is our sock puppet; as long as she does a Baldrick, backing out of the room bowing.

We like our heroes to be deeply grateful for the gift of adoration we bestow upon them.

But Ellie Catton has finally put New Zealand literature on the map, and we are the ones who should be so very, very grateful to her. We should let her be free.

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