Long White Cloud

Telling the Long White Cloud

Arriving as an immigrant in a new country can be a tricky manoeuvre. There is the question of learning languages, both spoken and unspoken; there is the question of understanding, slowly and surely, where one is actually living, what story the country and its people tell, over and above any fact-finding in a guidebook. For while everyday customs and mores are certainly one unspoken language a newcomer must learn, there are other, deeper tales to listen to that have to do with the past, ancestors, history. And underneath it all, deepest of all, there is the voice of the land itself, its trees, beaches and rivers, its birds and stones, its weather systems and the way the soil smells, crumbles between your fingers.

Misinterpret a human conversation and you will make an embarrassing mistake, hopefully remedied by a cup of tea and an attempt at humour, or at least an abject apology. Misinterpret a river and you will be swept away, which is something I almost did on my first, somewhat starry-eyed hike in the glacier valleys of the South Island, a year or so after arriving in New Zealand. (I was reminded of the incident recently while reading Lucy Sussex’s excellent story, ‘Slow Dreams’, in the Baggage anthology edited by Gillian Polack. Never underestimate a glacier.)

A newcomer in this country, therefore, finding her own skills at interpreting foreign terrain somewhat lacking, would do well to employ a tour guide to help her cross a glacier. She would also do well to employ a storyteller to take her through the inner landscapes of New Zealand, for artists and tellers of tales are the shamans who interpret a culture, read its signs and articulate its soul. Most importantly, our fresh arrival would be wise to pay attention to the very oldest tales of all, the first told by human beings in Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. For it is through them that she will learn how people originally heard the land and what ghosts still haunt it.

I have had, during the course of my stay in New Zealand, the honour of being received on two occasions with a traditional Maori welcome. That experience is intensely satisfying for a visitor, for it ritualizes all a stranger’s preoccupations in one succinct ceremony: Who are my hosts? What do they expect of me? Who were they in times gone by, and what ghosts watch over their shoulders? The Maori were veteran travelers by the time they reached these shores; they knew very well what stories newcomers need to hear, in order to feel they have arrived.

Likewise, I have found a chorus of welcome in my fellow New Zealand fantasy authors, and been thrilled to discover part of the reality of this country by listening to their unique voices. I thoroughly enjoyed Helen Lowe’s new book, Heir of Night, the first instalment in the ‘Wall of Night’ series, finding it both a satisfying adventure story and a subtly skewed take on the usual ‘good vs. evil’ fantasy trope. I actually met Helen for the first time at Aussiecon4, where I had the great pleasure of sharing a panel with her, Karen Healey (a New Zealander herself and author of the wonderful YA fantasy Guardian of the Dead,) and Gillian Polack, who introduced me to the joys of Baggage.

I have also been sampling the work of such interesting new talents as Tim Jones, a fellow Wellingtonian, whose latest collection of short stories, Transported, deftly explores a mix of fantasy and other genres. And another Wellington resident, the most excellent Elizabeth Knox, is on my list of Authors-I-Desperately-Want-to-Read-Before-I-Die-So-Help-Me-God; I suspect I’ll plunge into her books very soon with or without divine assistance, for I have simply heard too many good things about them to put off the encounter. There are a fleet of others to discover, of course, puzzle pieces in this great mosaic of what it is to be a New Zealander.

If, like the characters in Ursula Le Guin’s story ‘The Telling’, we speak ourselves into existence, defining reality with our stories, then I am honoured to count myself as one among the many world-weavers of New Zealand. Slowly, surely, as my first decade in this country comes to a close, I am learning to listen to the story of Aotearoa, and to contribute my small part to it. I do not yet know the language of glaciers. But I did surprise myself at Auckland airport recently, fresh off an international flight and walking between the terminals, as one does, at 5:30 am, when I suddenly found I could understand the scent of the soil beneath the pohutukawa trees, and the song of the birds in their dawn chorus.

Both were crying, ‘home, home, home’: I knew I had arrived.

This post originally appeared on Gillian Polack’s journal and is reproduced here with permission.