It has been a rite of passage for young New Zealanders, living in a small island nation at the bottom of the world, to travel overseas. It is my experience that wherever you travel overseas, you will find a Kiwi. This is quite remarkable as, like our feathered emblem, we are a rare breed with numbers insufficient to fill a third-tier city in China or an LA suburb.
For some, the time abroad will be short and they will return and put down roots in their country of birth. If they have a family, their children will be influenced by the same physical environment and culture. However, for those who don’t return, their lives and those of their children will be shaped by other forces. With today’s modern air travel Europe is just 24 hours away, but in the past, when travelling to the ‘Old World’ involved a six-week boat trip, many young Kiwis left their country never to return. A case in point is Katherine Mansfield, who left Wellington at the age of 19. She spent the last years of her life in the south of France writing about her girlhood in Thorndon: “Now — now I want to write recollections of my own country. Yes, I want to write about my own country till I simply exhaust my store.”
Last month, Kirsty Gunn, another Kiwi writer living abroad, visited Wellington to promote her latest book. Five years earlier she had lived for six months as a writing fellow in the historic Randell Cottage located in St Mary Street in Thorndon, close to Katherine Mansfield’s childhood house in Tinakori Road. This inner-city suburb is where Gunn was born and grew up, and so, surrounded by the familiar landscape of her girlhood, she wrote her memoir Thorndon — Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project. It is a powerful reflection on the strong influence our early experiences and places have in the forming of identity. We all need to feel we belong somewhere, and for Gunn, Thorndon is her tūrangawaewae, the place to which she feels especially connected.
Kirsty’s relationship to Thorndon and that of 11 other prominent artists who lived there as well — Jane Campion, Douglas Lilburn and Frances Hodgkins, among others, and, of course, Katherine Mansfield — are recognised in a recently opened tribute in Thorndon village. Spaced along the footpath are paving stones inscribed with a quote from each artist. Kirsty Gunn’s is in front of the General Store facing the zigzagging footpaths that climb up to the Botanical Gardens and says, “Here, amongst these streets and hills is my own playing out of the cycle of leave-taking and return… a place half-remembered, half-real, half-fantasy, half-fact, remembered and a dream.”
There are around a million Kiwis outside this country. To quote Dr Seuss again, “You have brains in your head, You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself, Any direction you choose.” However, that being said, no matter where Kiwis roam there is a part of them, that, imparted by the uniqueness of the education we all receive, our culture and our dispositions, binds us to our antipodean corner of the world.