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Essay

 Half A World Away from Home

By Mike Smith

Auckland downtown. Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

I recently visited New Zealand, where I met up with writer Jenny Purchase, whose collection of short stories Transit Lounge  has just been published. I was fortunate enough to read an earlier version of this in manuscript form, and it was good to meet up face to face with her at last; and to get my own proof copy of the then not yet published volume!

Reading a book written in and about a foreign country (where, it has been famously asserted, ‘they do things differently’) is a bit like travel itself. We are hit simultaneously by not only what is dissimilar from our own patch and experience, but also what is, unexpectedly perhaps, amazingly similar. It’s not just Maori culture that Jenny’s stories jolt the outsider into, but the wider society of this modern democracy, which is said, at least here in my country, to be like stepping back in time into a version of our own past.

That’s true to a very shallow extent. Buildings are reminiscent of British structures: but who could tell skyscraper London, from skyscraper Hong Kong, or Dallas, or tower packed City Centre Auckland if they’d never been in any of them before? I used to think a good TV game might be to fly contestants into night clubs around the world and ask them to guess which country they were in. It crossed my mind more than once that you could do something similar with shopping centres, or malls if you prefer it. There would be clues, but often not in the appearance of the shoppers, nor in the brands they were carrying. But what we in the UK call charity shops are in NZ called opportunity stores, which implies differences that cut much deeper than mere labelling.

Yet those low-rise suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city, the wood-framed clapper boarded houses that I think of as ‘chalet chic’, and especially the oldest of them, and which look so alien to my eyes, were once common in the UK, and I could take you to a few still rotting gently in Lake District lanes under pine trees, oak and ash. One house we stayed in, at the resort town of Akoroa, settled by the French in 1840, is said to have been imported in kit form from Britain in the 1850s, and to be same kit as the more famous ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi, except of course with an additional second storey.

The traffic, too, has that blend of the familiar and unfamiliar to European eyes, with the same private cars I would see on UK roads. But the lorries! Huge Mack trucks, often with trailers, that I’ve seen before only in the movies. There was the odd Chevy knocking about too. But they all drive on the left, just like in the UK.

When people get off the bus in Auckland, they thank the driver. Yet, I was told, the drive to get more people out of their cars and into public transport in the city was struggling against a deeply ingrained reluctance to take the bus. Snobbery was given as the explanation. And from the sound of engine noises in the night, and during the day, there are more drivers than I hear where I live who still think it’s clever to be audible three streets away. And don’t get me started on those who play their music louder than all the traffic noise within a hundred yards!

And what about the forests? Walking on the Queen Charlotte trail near Picton in South Island, it was the difference that struck me: the canopy of ferns and palms; leaf shapes that I couldn’t identify; the scars of recent landslips, which looked as if some giant had taken a massive ice-cream scoop to the hillside and peeled off a good helping, only to drop it a few hundred feet down the valley side, often into the sea where the path ran close above the shore. I got the feeling all along the coast that I was walking on sandcastles not yet reached by the rising tide. 

Yet, turn a corner and momentarily you could imagine yourself in an English glade or a Scottish glen, and in so many places the name given to it might well be of an English or Scottish general or politician, or any surname that you’re very familiar with. And, let’s be honest, in an English woodland I’m as likely to struggle with identifying those leaves except for a really obvious few! But the palm fronds and ferns exploding like huge green fireworks from an otherwise normal — to my eyes — New Zealand forest canopies always excite me!

Plants that at home are house plants on the windowsill, and never big enough to block the view are here growing outside, and above head height. Fruit that costs a fortune in English supermarkets falls here in back gardens like English apples and is left to rot.

The Fish and Chips are good, and celebrated both here and there, though it throws me for a second each time what we call crisps are referred to as ‘chips’. The coffee, ‘a long black a day keeps the senses in play’ is my take on the old saw, is the best I’ve ever had, though I’m doing my best to replicate it here in Cumbria!

Similarities and differences abound both in stories, and in the places they come from and reveal. They told me when I was young that travel broadens the mind, but I wonder if also, and perhaps more so, it sharpens our perception of where we’ve come from as well as that of where we’ve arrived, whether we travel by plane or on the page! 

Raising A Trowel

Seen from the Auckland waterfront, where the pedestrian swing bridge salutes the boats as they enter and exit the inner harbour, city centre offers an intense, almost intimidating backdrop of close-packed tower blocks of concrete and glass, overtopped by the sharp needle of the skytower a few blocks further up the hillside beyond the historical shoreline.

But turn around and follow the embedded railway tracks left over from the days of steam trains and sailing ships, all the way to where the old industrial silos have been decorated with lights and festooned with climbing plants and find the single track spur that slips away to the right, splitting almost immediately into two again before entering the double-track tram shed, and you will have arrived at what we were told is the last of the Auckland Community Gardens.

Lying alongside the long building are some forty raised beds, tended by volunteers, each bed that I saw, carrying the name of its gardener. Hard up to the tram shed wall (here decorated with images of old tickets), sits a row of composters for food waste and wormeries in plastic barrels. There’s a greenhouse and a traditional pallet-built compost heap. Water runs from the tap.

There were many such gardens in Auckland at one time. I recall encountering one unexpectedly on a small site on one of the steeper city centre streets during a previous visit. But I’m told that all save this one have gone now, the land taken for the far more valuable purpose, in monetary terms and for other reasons, of squeezing in another tower block. This last of them is fighting to keep its plot, and I hope it does. Buildings, from what I’ve seen, sit tight in their boundaries in Auckland. It’s a city that doesn’t seem to see the need for growing space. And perhaps, with a country more or less the size of the United Kingdom but with only about one fourteenth of its population, that shouldn’t surprise us.

Two tomato plants were pressed on us, for our daughter’s nascent garden out in the suburbs. My guess is that I will never eat tomatoes grown in such valuable land, on a dollar per acre basis. But the clue is in the name. This is a Community Garden, and the community, which it not only serves but also creates, is an inclusive one.

Community Gardens offer more than a source of ‘home grown’ food, paid for in care rather than cash. I would guess that even a city like this, which to the outsider’s eyes can seem remarkably relaxed and laid back at first glance, could use those benefits.

The names on those raised beds confirmed the story told by the volunteer who we chatted with on our stroll past. The garden brings together people whose languages and skin colour vary enormously, but they are united by their green fingers and that remarkable thing, the human smile, and much more.

Back on my own plot now, bound fast in winter frost, harsher and earlier this year than we have become used to over the last decade, I raise a trowel from the iron hard soil, in salute to fellow gardeners everywhere.

A Cacophony of Voices

The variations we hear around us, in accent and in language itself, I suspect, offer different perspectives of reality rather than merely alternative words for it. Perhaps that’s why I came home from my recent trip to New Zealand with a beginner’s guide to Maori!

‘Yis’ and ‘yes’ are both similar and different at the same time, and so are ‘iggs’, though the latter perhaps weighs more heavily on the difference side of the scale. But in the North of England, yes and aye carry a much older distinction, despite both being used without forethought locally. Though my skin is more or less the same colour as that of almost all my neighbours, and though I’ve lived in this part of the world for over half a century now, any school kid, and any old codger of my own age would know as soon as I opened my mouth that I’m ‘nut frum rahnd ‘ere’. Old codgers, fifty years ago, in a Cumbrian pub told me that during their childhood, people from villages only two miles apart could be distinguished by the way they spoke.

Only the outsider is fooled into thinking that rural England has a homogenous population, and perhaps that’s true elsewhere. But in the cities, it is cosmopolitan around the world, and visibly so. More interesting to me is the cacophony of voices, none of which I believe, have been genetically inherited. We speak as we have heard. We speak as we have listened, and in the accents of those we have listened to and consciously or unconsciously, copied.  Until a couple of generations ago that would have been limited almost completely to geographically close family and neighbours.

Several years after my visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, it suddenly struck me what I had overlooked, though it was obvious from the beginning. The Treaty was signed by many Maori leaders in 1840, but on behalf of a single Monarch-Emperor. Our perceptions of others, and of ourselves, evolve over time. As part of that process we forget, deny, re-interpret and re-invent both our own narratives and those of people we have encountered. We redefine who ‘we’ are, and who ‘they’ are. ‘Us’ and ‘them’, are perhaps the two most unstable words in the English language.

Language itself is unstable. New languages are formed by the coalescence of older languages – English is a prime example of this, and not yet a thousand years old as a national, let alone an international tongue. They are formed too from the disintegration of an earlier single language – Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh among others, all derive from a single widespread early European language. Which process the language of any people is undergoing at any moment, that of coming together or that off moving apart, must be an indicator of wider social, political and religious evolutions.

The biblical story of Babel’s Tower, and its cataclysmic dividing of us, of being struck down as it were by the curse of having different languages rather than one, is a story that raises ideas we might do well to ponder and examine more than it seems to me that we have.  Harari’s book Sapiens makes the simple assertion that once upon a time a monkey had two offspring, with the astonishing addition that one was a human being. My question is did their offspring develop a single language from which all our languages grew? Or did they disperse into separate communities each of which developed their own languages?

A history of the North American Indian that I came across asserted that those first people had dispersed across the continent before the development of language, which implies that by the time we had spread that widely across the world we were still, apart from, perhaps, something like birdcalls, mute. Yet we all carried the genes that would predispose us to develop language, and that when the American Indians did so it was in quite as many unrelated languages. The Maori came to New Zealand less than a millennium ago and brought with them languages with shared roots despite their many tribes.

Of course, I have no answers, though it seems likely to me that communities and individuals who are open to strangers are more likely to see the amalgamation of languages, and that those who are not will encourage their disintegration. And I do have the suspicion that language, to use a modern analogy, is like a TV channel. Each one carries its own agenda and its own programmes. Each presents the world from its own perspective and its own focus. There may be overlap. There will be difference. But as language using beings we can, with varying degrees of competence and effort no doubt, tune in to any, and who knows, perhaps to all of them, if we wish to do so.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Essay

Farewell Keri Hulme

Author Keri Hulme (1947-2021) was the first New Zealander to win the prestigious Booker prize for the bone people*. Keith Lyons recalls times he spent in a remote coastal settlement with the humble writer, who remains a divisive enigma.

Okarito, home of Keri Hulme. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“You want to know about anybody? See what books they read, and how they’ve been read…” Keri Hulme

I was in high school when I heard the news that Keri Hulme’s the bone people had won the 1985 Booker Prize, literature’s most prestigious award for a novel in English. At 38 years old, she was the first New Zealander to receive the prize. Hulme became the first author to win with their debut novel. Later, in 2013, Eleanor Catton became the second Kiwi, the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize, and also holds the record for the longest novel, 832 pages.

The following summer while hitchhiking around the South Island, I visited the small settlement of Okarito on the West Coast, where Keri had built her own house and lived since the 1970s. A converted schoolhouse in the former 1860s gold mining town was the main accommodation available: a youth hostel with bunk beds. I’d been attracted to the area because of the rugged coastline, placid tidal lagoon, mountain views and the elegant white herons which nested in the nearby forest.

Even though I’d struggled through an early edition of the bone people, I wasn’t as enthralled about the book as some of my fellow travellers who occupied bunk beds in the spartan hostel. Several European visitors carried copies of the book, which had been translated into many languages, several with different covers. It seemed that every day I went out walking along the main street of the settlement (population: 13 permanent residents), there would be an earnest woman from Cologne clutching Unter dem Tagmond or a young couple from Aarhus plodding along the road in the hope of finding Keri’s octagonal tower two-story house. Visitors wandered over the sand dunes desiring to encounter the acclaimed pipe-smoking author, beach combing for driftwood or gemstones washed up on the high tide.

There for the scenery and sanctuary of the coast, lagoon and native forest, rather than to spot the world-famous author, I did locate her house further along the settlement’s main road. A sign on the gate read “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight”. The hostel warden Bill Minehan, who lived next door to Keri, told me she didn’t really like the attention or surprise visitors. Some of the other residents, protective of the community’s drawcard, would give wrong directions, so visitors after sightings of the elusive author could be seen pacing up and down the rutted grass airstrip — signposted Okarito International Airport and flying the Okarito Free Republic flag — or sidestepping around sheep grazing on the settlement’s rough golf course.

Often, after rains, Keri’s front yard flooded, creating a moat to protect her from rubberneckers. The Okarito Free Republic flag sometimes fluttered from a flagpole at Keri’s house, along with an alternative New Zealand flag, with a stylised spiral fern frond, made by Austrian painter and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. She moved to Okarito after winning a ballot for a section of land in 1973, building the house herself, lining bookcases with some 6,000 books, and setting up her writing desk with views out to the sea.

Keri was increasingly portrayed as reclusive. Rumours were that she’d spent all her Booker Prize thousands on alcohol from the Whataroa Hotel, some 25 km away. She didn’t like meeting strangers. She was reluctant to give interviews, and very rarely did she allow anyone into her house. She preferred solitude. “A large part of my life is the surge of the sea, listen to the sea, the pulse of the sea,” she once said.

I did catch a glimpse of Keri on my last day when returning a key to Bill — she was wielding a hammer, fixing the side of her house. The sweet aromatic scent of pipe tobacco floated in the humid air. Then I realised it was probably her I’d seen surf-cast fishing while on a long coastal walk towards the lagoon’s outlet into the Tasman Sea.

Bill let slip that Keri was formidable, but not unbeatable, at Scrabble. Having told him I had been at a Catholic boys’ school in Christchurch, and that I was also a writer, he asked if I knew any good high-scoring Scrabble words. I gave him ‘exorcise’ and ‘queazy’.

One of Keri’s favourite Scrabble words, I later found out, was ‘syzygy’, meaning the alignment of three celestial bodies. Three main characters make up ‘the bone people’. Keri said the characters for her book first came into her imagination when she was eighteen years old. After dreaming about a mute child with strange green eyes, she mused over the vision, eventually developing it into the character of the shipwrecked boy Simon Peter, whose life is intertwined with what one critic described as ‘his child-battering stepfather and a virgin feminist’.

The eldest daughter of a carpenter, whose parents came from Lancashire, and a mother who came from Orkney Scots and Māoris, she grew up in my hometown Christchurch. Her father died when she was aged eleven. After leaving school she dropped out of university part way through a law degree. She worked as a tobacco picker, in a woollen mill, delivering mail, cooking fish and chips at a takeaway shop, as a pharmacist’s assistant, a proofreader at a local newspaper, and in television production.

It took her almost two decades to finish the novel. She spent a dozen years trying to find a publisher. All New Zealand’s main publishing houses rejected the manuscript outright or insisted on extensive heavy re-writing before they would consider taking on the book.

In the end, it was published by a small obscure three-woman feminist collective (it was only the second book they produced), and typeset by students at a university newspaper, with an initial print run of just 2,000 copies. The book, which contained numerous typographical errors, was launched at an event at a teacher’s training college.

The year after its humble beginnings, the bone people won the Oscars of world literature, against the odds and against such literary heavyweights as Peter Carey, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. The somewhat controversial win showcased writing from New Zealand to an international audience, who would perhaps only be aware of the likes of modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame, who explored madness and language.

Hulme’s contribution, blending indigenous myth and Celtic symbology, and set in a distinctly wild coastal New Zealand setting, is described as “an unusual story of love”’  or in the Amazon blurb “a true evocation of loneliness and attempts by deeply flawed people to connect to each other”. The main character of three, part-Māori artist Kerewin is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. How autobiographical is it, you ask? The more you delve into it, the more you find similarities with the unusual literary star, who increasingly got dubbed “reclusive” by the media because she wished to remain out of the limelight.

Part of the legend around Hulme is about the surprising success of her debut novel. She didn’t fancy her chances of winning the Booker Prize, so was in the US when the awards ceremony was held in London (plumes of cigarette smoke swirled up in the film footage) — she was the only contender not in the audience at London’s Guildhall. When she was called in her Salt Lake City hotel room during the event, she didn’t believe the news down the phone line. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” she said, “Oh, bloody hell.”

She was full of self-doubt. The literary world had a mixed response to her breakout novel. “Set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, bound in Māori myth and entwined with Christian symbols, Miss Hulme’s provocative novel summons power with words, as a conjurer’s spell,” wrote one New York Times review. “She casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are ‘nothing more than people’, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection’.

Another review in the same publication was more critical. “It’s not so much that the novel offers ‘a taste passing strange’ as the author notes in the preface — interior monologues, disjointed narratives and vulgar language, after all, are hardly news these days. It’s more that the novel is unevenly written, often portentous, and considerably overlong.” The Guardian described the bone people as “a morass of bad, barely comprehensible prose.”

Even one of the Booker Prize judges, Joanna Lumley, was against it being picked as the winner, saying its subject matter was ‘indefensible’. A recent article described the bone people as one of the most divisive novels in Booker Prize history. The four words to sum up the book were violent, disturbing, poetic and striking.

While dismissed by some as unreadable and pretentious, in New Zealand the novel combining reality with dreams was seen as a masterpiece by others with its vision of a society regenerated by the adoption of Māori values and spirituality. For some, it challenged their worldview and sense of place at home in the world. Author Joy Cowley wrote, “Keri Hulme sat in our skulls while she wrote this work . . . she has given us — us.”

Keri said she wanted the novel to harmonise New Zealand’s two major cultural influences, indigenous Māori and European-descendent settlers (she herself shared both heritages). If you were to discover other authors who have explored in new ways what it means to be Māori, look up works by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, or for a raw look at the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors.

By the time I returned to Okarito the following August holidays to write a story for the Youth Hostel Association, the secluded hamlet had grown in population with the addition of a few more hardy souls and holiday houses, I only saw Keri a few times. One time, after gutting some snapper, she was off to clear the mailbox and collect the newspaper at the highway junction (there was no shop in the township). Another time she was cleaning a gun, bespectacled, and wearing her trademark red bush shirt. Like Hemingway, Keri liked hunting, (she favoured a .22 Ruger rifle among her collection of guns, swords and knives), and often took to the forest in search of deer.

Another time she was assembling poles, screens, nets, waders and buckets for the official start of the white baiting season. My father had worked in marine administration for decades, which included the monitoring of whitebait jetties and official seasons, so I knew a few things about the obsession. “Are the whitebait running yet?” I asked as she made the finishing touches to repairing nets. “Any day now,” she replied, looking expectedly towards the clouds billowing in the west. The season officially started the following day, and she had already checked her favoured locations for a 5am start. Normally a night owl and late riser, even her writing routine was swept aside for the ten weeks of the season when she was out trying to catch the coveted tiny fish. While throughout the year she might be catching rig or kahawai in the surf, netting for flounders in the lagoon, or trying to land salmon or trout in the rivers, her main springtime preoccupation was catching whitebait, the prized juveniles of migratory Southern Hemisphere fish.

I helped Bill load up driftwood onto the back of his vehicle before the rains set in, for use as firewood at the hostel (with a load for Keri too) and found some fool’s gold in quartz rock. Bill confirmed my folly. I gave him some more Scrabble words: Quartzy and Quickly.

That next summer I returned again to ‘The Big O’, hitching on the dusty corrugated gravel road to the coast with its pounding surf, driftwood sculptures and star-filled nights. Just before Christmas, with Bill away, Keri asked me if I could look after things at the hostel and check her place while she visited relatives on the other side of the South Island. The only other person staying medium-term was a German dwarf actor, who joked with me that he was a big man in European television and movies. Before she left, she dropped off a carton of a dozen beer, and some frozen whitebait, silvery eyes glistening through the plastic bag, with advice on how to make a batter for fritters with beer, flour, salt, and fresh parsley growing outside the hostel. “You could spice it up with some chilli pepper,” she said, pointing to a half-full jar of pepper left behind in the communal pantry by a Chilean backpacker.

Later, as we drank beer and watched the sunset from the old wharf, I mentioned to Manfred that even though Keri showed typical West Coast conviviality, we never once talked about writing. We’d talked about the moods of the weather, birdcalls from creatures seldom seen, what remedies protected vegetable gardens from slugs, and strange things which washed up on remote beaches. Having lived in that place for so long, she had plenty of stories about incidents, characters, or her own eccentric foibles. And I think that seeing her as a three-dimensional person (almost ignoring that she was a Booker Prize winner) rather than a 2-D writer made a difference, because it took away the pretensions and the expectations. She was direct, and also had a dry sense of humour. Manfred liked her rugged independent spirit, and kindly nature, not just because she had given us a box of beer. “She is like a good Kiwi bloke, yah?”

However, in the literary world, there was an expectation that a second novel was due. Her debut novel was on track to sell over a million copies. She’d retained the film rights, as its form couldn’t be easily adapted to the big screen. She believed that some stories work best ‘behind human eyes, not in front of them’. Surely she wasn’t going to be a ‘one-hit wonder’ like the band who sang the Macarena, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger?

She finally announced her second novel, about fishing and death, she finally announced. And it would be called BAIT. She published a second collection of poems in 1992, and two collections of short stories appeared in 1986 and 2005. As for BAIT, it later would be published along with its twinned novel, On the Shadow Side.

She once declared she didn’t believe in writer’s block. “I know about distractions, laziness, daydreaming, stressful events that push writing to the background, and the sheer enjoyment of doing other things for a change … I am a slow, but very, very persistent writer.”

I can’t exactly recall when the last time it was I saw Keri. I just remember seeing her heading out on a fishing trip, along the windswept beach towards the lagoon and its ever-shifting outlet to the sea. She gave me a nod, and gradually faded into the misty greyness of the day and the distance. That night, after sunset at the beach, I witnessed the rare phenomena sometimes seen when the surf glows neon-blue from a bioluminescent algal bloom or plankton. Above it and beyond, the stars twinkled.

A decade ago, after almost forty years at Okarito, Keri left to move to the other coast, where she felt more at home. She had been dismayed by the development with ‘very ugly McMansions’ holiday homes visited by outsiders who would fly in by helicopter or plane. Her council rates were becoming unaffordable. She was also suffering from arthritis in her hips, back and elbows.

A few years ago, I went back to Okarito with a friend, but it felt different without her being there. We both hold the wish to buy her house, mainly in memory and tribute to Keri’s life and work, and also, to inspire our own writing. Though we both admit that Keri has fished all the best words, and woven the most compelling tales.

The much-anticipated second novel was never published, nor was the promised third. She died in late December last year. A family representative said she wasn’t after fame or fortune. “There were stories of her being this literary giant. It wasn’t really something that she discussed. It was never about fame for her, she’s always been a storyteller. It was never about the glitz and glam, she just had stories to share.”

*Please note ‘the bone people’ all lower case is the correct version of her title

 A view over Okarito and its lagoon and beach. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
The Observant Immigrant

The Changing Face of Family

By Candice Louisa Daquin



A Maori family in European dress (nineteenth century). Courtesy: Creative Commons

The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, like many other first nation people including the Aboriginal tribes of Australia and Native Americans of North America, have a differing view of family to dominant mainstream Western culture. Maori culture prizes the family over the individual, a person gains the most respect through their commitment to their community, not through their individual accomplishments.

The Maori word: “Kaumatuatanga,” is concerned with keeping families and the Maori community together, and “Whakawhanaungatanga” relates to the Maori belief that family bonds should always precede other matters in life, and benefit the whole, again rather than the individual. A good friend, adopted by Anglo-New Zealanders but biologically Maori, and taught in the Maori ways, explained that; “Maori’s respect the White man’s ways, but have their own, especially where family is concerned. To Maori, family is history and future, the individual must work to strengthen their future collectively and respect their history, or their individuality has no value. In other words, family guides the individual and each individual Maori is made aware, irrespective of adoption or other circumstance of his/her history.”

My Maori friend, Esther explained that while she was adopted, given up by her birth mother who at sixteen did not feel she could care for her child, she was embraced by the Maori when she sought them out years later, and was taught of her ancestors, whose record of arriving in New Zealand, in minute detail, was recorded in the Maori tradition and passed on from generation to generation. Esther was able to find out the name of her specific tribe, the head of that tribe and the name of the boat her tribe took when they embarked for New Zealand from Polynesia, years prior to any Anglo settlers. Esther explained that; “Having such a rich history, knowing not only where I came from as an individual but as a people, gives me more security than any Anglo child I know, irrespective of my adoption. Even if my birth mother had not embraced me, my people, my extended family, did, and I have always felt accepted and welcomed by my culture. This leaves me feeling less dislocated and unaware of my history than most people and I find it impossible to be insecure with such a rich extended family.”

Contrast this with the story of Susanna from Toronto, a Canadian 33-year-old single-mother. Susanna’s family is of English/French descent. Her mother lives in Vancouver, she has never met her father who left her mother soon after Susanna was born. At 25, Susanna, in a relatively stable relationship at the time, became pregnant and had Emily. Soon after Emily was born, Susanna’s partner got a job offer in the US and chose to leave with another woman whom he had been seeing. Devastated by the loss of her partner both financially and emotionally, Susanna was unable to support herself and sank into depression. She continued to struggle financially and received little assistance from her mother who has remarried and her half-sister from that marriage.

“At times, it feels as if I have no family,” Susanna says, smiling at her daughter who she reports, has lots of friends at school and is doing well. “I fear for Emily’s future because she has no support network, she doesn’t see any of her grandparents, she has no brothers and sisters and if something were to happen to me, I really don’t know who would take care of Emily. I didn’t think in 2007 anyone would be as isolated as I feel, but then I talk to other single moms, and they tell me they’re struggling too. Sometimes I don’t think anyone really considers us, or the impact of our isolation and what effect that has on our kids. I know Emily is getting old enough to notice when I get depressed and be adversely affected by the state our finances. I want to give her so much more, but I never feel I have anyone to turn to for help. My social life died as soon as I had Emily because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. I’m only 33 but I don’t remember the last time I had a night out, sometimes my frustration gets really bad, and I lose my patience with Emily. It’s not her fault but it’s not mine either, I didn’t know I was going to be dumped, I didn’t think my lack of own family would impact me as negatively as it has, I used to have a lot of friends and now I only know other single parents who like me, struggle to make ends meet, we’re a lonely bunch.”

Susanna is only one of the roughly 1 million (Statistics Canada, 2001) single-mothers in Canada today, juggling a full-time job and full-time childcare with radically different support networks. No longer able to rely upon an extended family for baby-sitting; Susanna has had to adapt to the changing face of Canada’s traditional ‘family’.

It may be ironic that developed countries have significantly higher rates of single-parent family households, with the US leading the way at 34%[1] and Canada close behind at 22%. Historical reasons for single-parent families have been replaced with modern-world explanations linked to the evolving social and cultural demographic changes especially in the last 30 years. Despite cultural shifts, many negative connotations remain associated with single-parent families, and “non-traditional” families, despite this “non-traditional” model eclipsing the old normative two-parent, two-gender nuclear family. Today it seems, anyone can be a family, and the word “family” is associated more with an experience of (family) than a tightly fitting model. The question then becomes multifaceted; Have we identified what needs these new family structures have? Are those needs of the individual being met by the new family dynamic? And are the needs of these differing faces of family being met by social institutions?

Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) founded in the US is the largest advocate and networker for single mothers in North America. Statistics compiled by SMC show that many single-mothers are electively having babies by themselves, for a variety of reasons including a wish to have children outside of a marriage, by oneself, or in a same-sex coupling. Motherhood is, likewise, no longer restricted to marriage, nor do women have to abide to the old-fashioned concept of having their children in their twenties ‘just to be safe’. Career women in particular, are finding, motherhood later in life, fulfills their maternal instinct and equips them with greater financial resources to meet the needs of single motherhood. Many women are eclipsing their male partner’s earnings and as such, some men are opting to share if not take over the rearing of children, whilst other women find job-sharing roles with their counterparts a more practical way of meeting motherhood responsibilities while remaining in the work force. The 1980 comedy film, Nine-To-Five, exemplified the struggle that began in the 80’s with women entering the work place in increasing numbers due to emancipation, a wish for a career and financial necessity often the result of divorce. In the film, a character is fired because she misses work due to her child’s illness. Later on, she is reinstated by a female boss, and permitted to job-share so that she might work and have time for her children. This trend extended to childcare facilities being available onsite and special incentives for mothers.

Despite progress, women continue to earn less than men, typically being responsible for the children and often receiving little or sporadic financial support. While the French Government, concerned with falling birth rates, recently instituted a programme to incentivise women to have more children, paying them more per child and “rewarding” them for having children, as well as making it easier for them to work, this program and others like it do not cover the issue of a spartan or non-existent family network. Can we really hope to replace the extended family with social institutions?

Out-dated theories of the ‘ideal family’ continue to be quashed by the ever-evolving modern reality of today’s family structures. Kids born in the 1960’s and 70’s may have directly experienced divorce and thus, have different perspectives of what a family structure entails, and how best to form it. Laws in Canada allow same-sex couples to adopt, and prior to that, same-sex couples who had children from previous unions, did so anyway. The law cannot dictate a family, it can only work to support those families that emerge from its society and hope to be effective in meeting those changing needs. Stacy, growing up in the 70’s was reared by her father, at the time a very unusual move. Her mother, a die-hard careerist, had little interest in children and left Stacy in the care of her father. At the age of six, Stacy was questioned by school social workers who were concerned that Stacy might become the victim of sexual abuse, simply on the basis of her living with her father.

Stacy’s father never abused Stacy and she grew up to campaign for the rights of single fathers, who Stacy says, often receive unequal treatment at the hands of biased social institutions who favor a mother’s rights over her children. Adults like Stacy are the parents of 2007, bringing with them a different perspective of what is permissible and acceptable child-rearing. “I never felt like a boy just because I didn’t’ grow up with my mother. My father can still sew better than I can, and he wanted to parent me, my mother wasn’t interested. To me, an interested parent is far more valuable than a disinterested one, irrespective of gender,” says Stacy, now actively involved in the Canadian Equal Parenting Group, with her own family, Stacy decided not to marry because she prefers the; “Goldie and Kurt” model.

When Susanna found herself abandoned by her partner, pregnant and unable to hold down a well-paying job, she turned to online message boards and found that she was not alone. “I felt like such a failure but began to see that we condemn ourselves the worst and if we can believe we’re capable of doing a good job, maybe society will catch up and not condemn us. I wasn’t a 16-year-old ‘welfare mom’ as many young moms are called, but even if I had been, I’d like to think I’d have been given a chance, people are quick to judge but who is judging the fathers who leave? Or the social institutions that fail to provide?” In online communities, Susanna found groups of single mothers who networked to provide childcare and support, as well as a healthy dose of information about how to get through the sometimes-confusing system of healthcare and welfare available for single parents.

Recently Susanna has connected with single-parent camp organisers for Emily. Although most are private and can be expensive, there are reductions based on income and plenty of notice available for planning and saving. Likewise, the organisation Canadian Parents Without Partners (CPWP)[2] offers friendship and support for those parents like Susanna and also those parents who actively chose to become single parents. This said, in an article entitled: Navigating Family Transitions: Evidence from the General Social Survey (Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth)[3] points at both positive and negative consequences for changing families in Canada, including resources available to young families with less familial support than ever before and the economic consequences of divorce. In The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (1985) by Lenore J. Weitzman[4], studies confirmed societies worst fears, despite the liberising effect of divorce, women were suffering, with 14% of female divorcees seeking Welfare during the first year of divorce and divorced men seeing a 42% increase in their standard of living versus a 73% drop in living standards for the average divorced woman. Over ten years later, the same author wrote in the American Sociological Review an article named ‘The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal’ (1996)[5] and today they remain gender biased. What can Canada’s services do to support those families still falling through the cracks?

In the article, ‘Social Support and Education Groups for Single Mothers’[6], authors Lipman and Boyle report that one in eight Canadian children live in a family headed by a single mother, “vastly overrepresented by families living below the poverty line.” The studies exiting research showed an increased need for societal support and social assistance to improve the educational and mental-health outcomes of single-parent households. Further, it pointed to the vast improvement in status for those individuals who did receive adequate social support and education. This link between education, social support and family success for those headed by single women, only reiterates a pressing need for more resources and greater attention given to the needs of these family units. Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) claims responsibility for Canadian citizens from the cradle to the grave and aims to improve the quality of life and skill set of every Canadian. This aim must continue to adapt with the changing face of family today, to ensure no Canadian is left behind, neglected by the slow turning wheels of a bureaucracy.

Few Canadian women today will believe their future will be that of housewife, not in the work force, unskilled for that work force, with children, while her husband supports them through a job. Many families today require a dual income, women want to work, husband’s might not, husband’s may not exist, couples may not marry, marriage does not guarantee safety! These and other considerations have factored into the evolution of the face of Canadian families today, we may have temporarily lost ourselves in this metamorphosis, as often happens when change is not matched with response to change, but as with any evolution, we will recreate the face of family in Canada and find new and continually evolving ways to meet the needs those new families present through programmes like JumpStart, a Canadian community-based charitable programme that helps kids in financial need participate in organized sport and recreation. The Government and its social bodies must be swift to anticipate the trends and directions Canadian families take, and in lea of such agency support, women make their own connections, online, in groups and through networks of like-minded women, doing what they do best, surviving and building.

Look around you. Women are doing it for themselves. Fathers are rearing children and joining together to have an informed parental voice, same-sex and transgender couples flourish as the rainbow families of diversity, mixed-race families continue to educate their children about discrimination and the pride of being multicultural. Studies indicate no harm to children brought up with the absence of one gender, or in mixed-race households. Much of what has historically held us back and limited acceptance is our own unwillingness to embrace change or try to understand it. Scores of children have lost parents for a variety of reasons, and will continue to, with the ravages of war, divorce, abandonment. Change is ever-increasing. We can never impede change. It is part of our biological destiny.

Children will continue to bear witness to ever-new forming families, with step-siblings, step-parents, different cultures, traditions and genders, complex extended families that cannot be measured in neat categories but are perhaps the building blocks of any social structure, the purpose being, for people to come together and support one another. The key is to find extension if not in our immediate family but those we make, and to avoid isolation, the real cause of depression and loss. Children can grow as long as they are loved and cared for. If we find ourselves lost it is our role to build a ship and invite others aboard. As Esther, my Maori friend, said: “My family is all around me, and my adopted family remains in my heart also. I can share my family with everyone because they share my pride in my heritage and where I came from. Everyone should have some pride about where they came from so that they may dream and have somewhere to place that dream so that it continues safe.”


[1] Reported in 1998, source: http://family.jrank.org/pages/1574/Single-Parent-Families-Demographic-Trends.html

[2] Parents Without Partners www.pwpcanada.com

[3]Evidence from the General Social Survey, Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth, http://cansim2.statcan.ca/cgi-win/cnsmcgi.pgm?Lang=E&SP_Action=Result&SP_ID=40004&SP_TYP=62&SP_Sort=-0

[4] Free Press (1985) New York.

[5] The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal, Lenore J. Weitzman, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jun., 1996), pp. 537-538

[6] A Randomized and Controlled Trial of a Community-Based Program, Ellen L. Lipman, Michael H. Boyle, published at www.cmaj.ca November 17, 2005

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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